My Secret to Stress-Free Cooking Through a Pandemic

Claire Tansey shares how she turned dinner into a source of comfort, not stress, through Covid-19. Plus: The perfect slow cooker chili recipe from her new cookbook.

stress-free cooking | Claire TanseyPhoto Credit: Suech & Beck

“Life is complicated, cooking shouldn’t be.” This has been my motto as long as I can remember. For decades, I’ve worked in food—from restaurants to magazines to schools—teaching, preaching and writing about this philosophy. It’s served me well through all the major ups and downs of life, like major career shifts, and having a kid. It met its match, though, in March.

Overnight, life—and cooking—became infinitely more complicated than ever before. My local grocery store, eerily quiet with a maximum of 20 people inside at once, had nary a grain of rice, can of beans or square of TP to spare, and quick casual trips to pick up random ingredients became so stressful, I sometimes wouldn’t return for two weeks.

After years of teaching easy weeknight meals and pantry cooking, I suddenly felt acute stress about what I was going to make for dinner. I dug into my pantry and hauled out every bag of lentils and tin of fish. I meal planned in two-week chunks (luckily, for my most recent cookbook I had already reverse-engineered five different ways to meal plan for people like me, who hate meal planning). I wrote epic shopping lists, mapped out to match the store layout to avoid doubling-back. I had back-up meal ideas in case key ingredients were short.

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stress-free cooking | Dinner UncomplicatedPhoto Credit: Suech & Beck

At first, I felt heroic. I made bread every other day, simmered soups for lunches and used up everything I bought. Feeling invincible, I decided to teach my bored and lonely eight-year-old son to cook for himself.  The project lasted three days, after which he was no longer interested, and I didn’t have the energy to force the issue.

Slowly but surely, despair set in. Every lockdown day felt endless and aimless, and yet somehow new. I tried to deploy some of my same shopping/planning strategies on our home life: I made a daily schedule for homeschooling, screen and non-screen time and exercise, only to find it falling apart after two or three days, as if the world had reinvented itself and we were caught a step behind.

Thank goodness for dinner. Our family dinner has been the anchor of our day for many years, and that became even more true during the lockdown, as the concept of “time” fell away in almost every other sense. No matter what the day threw at us, from time-outs to screen time battles to rising case numbers, we sat together to share a meal. Even if the procuring of that meal was more stressful, the act of sitting and eating seemed to balance it out.

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Those lockdowns dinners were often almost comical at times. At one point in early May, when my partner had been spending all his free time designing and building a backyard shed and our son had been playing Minecraft for hours on end, I loudly decreed the dinner table a shed- and Minecraft-talk-free zone. We then ate in silence, since no one had anything else to talk about.

But it proved to me that even without any kind of conversation, sharing dinner with my family could still be the foundation of our day. It was a reliable, reassuring time and place where we would be together, rain or shine, virus or not, happy or sad. And although I lost my grip on meal planning during lockdown, it eventually became my salvation. Knowing what was for dinner—not just tonight but for the next week—was profoundly calming in a world that seemed to be spinning out of control. It made cooking uncomplicated again and brought a guaranteed moment of quiet, simple happiness into our lives every day.

Now that restrictions have eased a bit and the shelves have filled up again, I’m sticking with meal planning, although I’m accounting for some spontaneity too, since  the “new normal” requires flexibility. I pencil in a few meals every week and wing it on other nights. The world continues to be in turmoil, so I’ll take anything I can to reduce stress and increase happiness. Maybe I’ll even allow Minecraft talk at the table again.

Claire Tansey is the founder of Claire Tansey’s Kitchen and author of Dinner, Uncomplicated: Fixing a Delicious Meal Every Night of the Week (2020) and Uncomplicated: Taking the Stress Out of Home Cooking (2018). She is a regular guest expert on Cityline and CBC Radio.

stress-free cooking | chili recipePhoto Credit: Suech & Beck

From Dinner, Uncomplicated: Slow Cooker Chicken Taco Chili

Prep time 10 minutes | Ready in 5 hours | Serves 4 to 6

This recipe was a happy accident. I was slow-cooking chicken thighs for tacos one day but I added way too much liquid, so I got a thick soup instead of saucy pulled chicken. So, I added some corn and a can of black beans and we had a hearty chili with all of our favourite Tex-Mex flavours, and instead of serving it in tacos, I served it with tortilla chips. You can also offer sour cream, hot sauce and cilantro for topping.

Chicken thighs are richer than breasts so they’re much better for slow cooking. Breasts become unpleasantly dry.

  • 796-mL can whole tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 650 g)
  • 540-mL can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 cups frozen corn
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  1. Combine the tomatoes, brown sugar, paprika, onion and garlic powders, salt and chili flakes in a slow cooker. Crush with a potato masher or purée with an immersion blender. Add the chicken, turning it over to get every surface coated with the sauce.
  2. Cover and cook on high for 4 hours (it can switch to warm and rest for several hours after cooking if that suits your timing).
  3. Use two forks to loosely shred the chicken. Stir in the beans, corn and lime juice, and cook until piping hot.

Excerpted from Dinner, Uncomplicated: Fixing a Delicious Meal Every Night of the Week by Claire Tansey. Copyright © 2020 by Claire Tansey. Photography by Suech & Beck © 2020. Reprinted by permission.

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