Observations and arguments.

Archive for Food

Getting Dinner Done

Piling upon a friend’s kind suggestions to help make meal planning easier in a comment to a previous post, I’d like to offer what was once for us (and can be again) a nearly leakproof meal planning system for which everyone should pay me* money it is so brilliant.

So JD and I were bemoaning the time- and energy-suck of the post-work decision re: what’s for dinner, given the available ingredients previously purchased at the farmer’s and/or super market. Which emotional toll only increased as JD’s pregnancy evolved.

Wouldn’t it be great, JD supposed, if someone could just tell you what to make for dinner?

A simple enough solution presented itself: actually planning each meal in advance, so that when one came home, the evening’s meal had already been decided upon, and all the ingredients were on hand.

As it turned out, this gambit merely moved the despair earlier in the timeline—to the moment of shopping. Standing in the store with a fresh bunch of e.g. asparagus one is now faced with the decision: roasted as accompaniment for chicken? pan fried asian-style? omelette? or–wait, there was a new asparagus recipe in Cook’s Illustrated that I wanted to try but I don’t remember what it was so I don’t know what ingredients to get.

Moving the point of decision backwards still to the preparation of the shopping list was the next logical step. Three hours of poring through cookbooks later JD realized we did not have the time to repeat this process each week. There had to be a better way.

(JD had done most–that is to say: all–of the legwork to reach this point where the Good Idea occurred. My role was merely to affirm that it was, in fact, a Good Idea.)

Which brings us at last to:

a stress-decreasing meal planning system
for busy people of sufficient means
to be able to choose the food they eat

1. Create a rotating list of food genres
2. For each day in which you intend to make dinner in the coming week, plan a meal within the next genre on the list. New day, new genre.
3. Shop and cook accordingly.

1. Creating your genres

Let’s begin with our initial genre list as an example (yours will vary based on taste and skill):

– meat –
– leftovers –
– mexican –
– eggs/breakfast –
– fish –
– foraging –
– soup/casserole –
– italian –
– sandwiches –
– asian –
– wild card –

In our language, leftovers meant a new dish based upon the meat cooked the night before. (Extra helpings were brought to work as lunch and/or frozen.) Foraging meant looking simply at what’s around. Often this meant yogurt, cereal, or Morningstar Farms corn dogs. Wild card was anything goes: a repeat of another genre, an otherwise absent genre, foraging or takeout.

It is important that the number of genres you create is not evenly divisible by the number of days per week you will make dinner. For most people that’s seven; for some with standing weekly commitments it could be five or six. (So long as “Meat” doesn’t always fall on a Tuesday, you’re good.) Extra wild card and foraging nights are good tools to help make the math come out right.

Do not fret about whether you have developed an exhaustive, properly ordered list right out of the gate. You will likely revisit the list after two or three rotations and make adjustments.

And, to make the rearranging process easier, you can keep your list as a small stack of index cards, with one genre per card (also not my idea).

2. Planning your meals

Prior to your shopping trip, sit down with your index cards and identify which genre will fall on which day of the coming week. Then brainstorm a meal for that night based within that genre.

The beauty of the system is its ability to adapt to the needs of a particular night and your ambition on any particular week.

So, for example, soup/casserole on a Tuesday might mean thawing a frozen soup from the market’s deli, but on a Sunday with an open afternoon soup/casserole might mean one of those crazy lasagnas you’ve always wanted to try out of the Moosewood Cookbook.

Similarly, meat on a Tuesday might mean a steak fried in a skillet with salt and pepper, but on a lazy weekend might mean a two-day cassoulet.

Some users of the system write meal ideas on the index cards for each genre, so that in future weeks when feeling uninspired they have a handy list of meal ideas at the ready.

3. Shopping and cooking accordingly

Now you can be one of those people who arrives at the market with an actual list of ingredients for a pre-planned menu for the week. And one of those people who remembers to get up ten minutes early to prep your slow-cooker meal before heading out the door, because each day you know what’s on for dinner.


Wait, why should I adopt this system?
Because the cards help narrow the choice of “What’s for dinner three days from now?” from a limitless** set of possibilities to a small set of possibilities, using at least two vectors: genre and day of week. Seasonally available ingredients can help create a third vector, making the decision even easier. As any management self-help book will tell you, the fewer options to choose from, the simpler (and therefore less stressful) the decision.

You will experience less decision-making stress at the market, because you will know what you are shopping for. That also means spending less money on impulse purchases, which means less food that you purchase will go to waste. You will also experience a decrease in stress on your commute home from work, because someone (you, in the past) has already decided what’s for dinner, and has already shopped for all the ingredients you need. You can focus simply on the action steps required to prepare it once you arrive.

Doesn’t this system kill the spontaneity of discovery at the farmer’s market?
Only if you let it. Bring your index cards or meal calendar with you to the farmer’s market, and make your meal decisions based on a confluence of produce and genre. Will you adapt that eggplant into a casserole or grill it with some fish? Also, if you don’t feel like making a Mexican dish out of spaghetti squash, skip Mexican and change the day to wild card.

So if the card says “Asian” and I don’t want to make Asian this week, can I skip it?
Um. Who’s in charge, the index card or you? If it happens a lot you could consider removing Asian from standard rotation and leaving the option of Asian for Wild Card nights.

Can I use repeating events in Outlook or iCal (etc.) to determine what genres fall on what days?
Knock yourself out. The index cards are hard to beat. Your digital-based calendar is quite useful for recording your meal decisions once you’ve made them, so that while you’re at work you can confirm that tonight you need to stop at the store on the way home to get lemons.

For Getting Things Done nerds there is also the option of keeping a tickler file box of recipes coded to your genres. This works similarly to the idea (mentioned above) of writing recipe ideas on each index card, but allows for future recipes you’ve never made before. Want to make that Marcella Hazan fricasseed chicken someday? Drop a copy of the recipe in your “Poultry” or “Italian” folder (or both) and you’ll be reminded next time you’re looking for inspiration.

*Even though, admittedly, it was not my idea to begin with.
**Fine, yes, mr. or ms. smarty pants, there are limits.


Best intentions: farmer’s market

The frequency with which I imagined I would take The Boy to the farmer’s market very nearly equals the frequency with which I instead spend my Saturday mornings lying sleepy-eyed and motionless on the floor as The Boy shakes a plush duck in my face.