On Compulsion and Meal Planning

Post by: Kim

With the risk of scaring off the early reader of this blog, I begin my first post with a confession.  My fixation with creating the perfect meal plan borders on obsessive.  My lists are meticulous and carefully assembled; a fine mix of recipes that take our schedule and motivation into account.  Even the paper on which my lists are written are compulsively hewn; nothing but a half-sheet of copy paper torn in half length wise will do.  It is a horrible habit I’ve gotten myself into.

There is also the issue of spontaneity to consider.  The impromptu meal is a celebrated thing and a frugal cook’s inability to create one is a real problem.  Of course there have been the make-shift lunches concocted from whatever happens to be in our crisper drawer but generally those items which are not catalogued somewhere on my half-sheet are never consumed.

It seems that the meal plan is questionable at best.  It’s the sort of thing that would gain your mother’s approval with alarming enthusiasm.  The list in your hand is reason for pause when you realize the only other people wielding pen and paper in the grocery store are at least twice your age.  It mocks you with unmade meals and rotten ingredients.  But I hold that there is something intangibly satisfying about knowing when and what you will be eating.  The list becomes an excuse to browse your favorite cookbook, to daydream and mull over food in a socially inappropriate way.  Your unused and untried recipes are given purpose.  You hesitate as you realize that it is perhaps not the best idea to consume an all-butter tart crust, béchamel sauce, and heavy cream in the course of three days.  Then you get back to work editing and reworking your little collection of meals until you’ve found the right balance for your budget and diet.  This is all summarily written down and toted to the market where it will make quick work of the shopping trip.  Then, as planned, your refrigerator will slowly thin out over the next few days.

The city dweller can, hypothetically, swing into his or her local market walking home from the train, pick up a few choice ingredients, and be home cooking in less than a few minutes.  But such a romantic notion of what shopping should be just doesn’t work for most.  Unless you are shopping at a farmer’s market or have access to a store with very high turnover, chances are the lettuce you purchased tonight will not be any fresher than the lettuce you bought four days ago.  Never mind that you will inevitably spend more per meal if you are not utilizing what you already have at home and paying attention to the comparative price of each meal.  But the real problem with this scenario arises when you realize, as every New Yorker does, that a quart of lo mein or a pizza slice have become far more accessible options.  While it’s safe to say that every inhabitant of this city has access to a food source, be it a bodega, take-out place, or farmer’s market, a meal prepared by someone else and delivered to your door is often a tempting alternative to daily trips to the store to search out mediocre food stuffs.

I do not suggest anyone should be planning as meticulously as me, unless of course your personality predisposes you for such an indulgent habit.  It does make things difficult when a key ingredient in one of your recipes is conspicuously missing.  But I’ve found that, with a little planning, the odds of partaking in the processed and unhealthy food options that have saturated the city are dramatically decreased.  So, until we find a better way to distribute our food, I will continue to champion the list.  In the meantime, I will do my best not to break out in a sweat upon discovering that the zucchini at our local green grocer has already been claimed by a swarm of fruit flies.  There will be no summer squash for dinner Wednesday night.  And it’s OK.

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