Finding balance in the second half of life

Let Them Eat… Something

In Survival on March 20, 2010 at 8:22 pm

My good friend posted this as her Facebook status last night: “doing a menu plan and grocery list for the week. Just another exciting Friday night….” What she meant to do, I’m sure, was to comment on the ordinariness of a weekend night, a sad thing, by some lights. But what she did was to remind me of the disarray in my culinary habits.

I was once as organized as she is now. In fact, I was that organized repeatedly, as I adopted new systems. I needed to be, when I was working full time away from the home where three children waited for dinner. I was an early adopter of Mangia, recipe software for my Mac SE30 that made grocery lists from what you chose. I had binders and categories and cross-references, and a plan for every week. I still have a theoretical pattern: Monday, pasta/polenta; Tuesday, salad; Wednesday, soup….

But now the kids are living on their own, eating heaven knows what (funny how they all turn out differently). I work from my home office most days, and at the end of the day, more likely than not, my husband, C, and I turn to each other and say, “What’s for dinner?”

What’s odd about this is that some of my kitchen habits have required more planning. I’ve developed a taste for homemade granola and yogurt, both of which take some scheming. I’ve gotten pretty good at whipping up a batch of granola (because C has gotten pretty good at scarfing it by the handful as he walks through the kitchen), but you’ve got to keep oats in the house. The yogurt takes a planned eight hours—or planning for an eight-hour stretch when I’m around at the beginning and the end.

This noon, while wondering what to eat for lunch, I did manage to put some beans and rice and pork in the slow cooker with some Cajun spices, so we’ll eat dinner tonight without a problem. Except, of course, that noon is a little late to start a slow-cooker dish. I meant to say that we’ll eat dinner eventually tonight.

But most days, in spite of my noted talent for frittering, I don’t manage to fritter in the kitchen. I fritter excellently at my computer, and feel oddly virtuous doing so. I can knit for hours in any room in the house. I can distract myself—I mean, think through a problem—while doing laundry, walking out to check the mailbox, or reading just one chapter in a book. I’d be better off with a reflex to go start a pot of soup.

I’m also handicapped by my desire to make things from scratch, preferably from fresh and local ingredients. It’s way less fun to cook when you’re not chopping something fresh from the farmer’s market—and I say that even knowing that I’m only seven weeks away from losing this excuse. And since we’re, shall I say, deepening our relationship with frugality, I’m drawn to improvising with what’s on hand, whether for sewing projects or a meal. This is, of course, less fun when what you have on hand is olives, egg noodles, and garbanzo beans, but the satisfaction of making something out of nothing is undeniable.

I got fresh inspiration for menu management from an unexpected source this week. A high school friend was in touch, asking questions for clients who’d published a cookbook called The Stocked Kitchen. The premise of the book is that if you keep your pantry stocked with a specific set of ingredients, you can make any of their 300 or so recipes whenever you feel like it.

This is attractive to me. To C, less so. I should note that, left to his own devices, C would eat spaghetti five days a week and fried-egg sandwiches the other two. But it’s also true that we have quite a collection of favorite foods that we’ve developed over our years together. We don’t manage, though, to get the right ingredients in the house—in the proper combinations—very often. If we want to do better at that, it’s going to take more time, from me or from him.

The first step in the “stocked kitchen” approach is to compare the actual current contents of your kitchen to the items on the standard grocery list. This is the sixth day that’s seemed like a really worthy thing to do, and the sixth day I haven’t done it. The next step, of course, is to go to the grocery store to buy the missing ingredients. After that: menu bliss.

Except that eating fresh seasonal stuff from the farmer’s market or the garden is a kind of bliss, too. As is the aforementioned making-something-from-nothing satisfaction. As is the comfort of eating those familiar Thai chicken wraps or baked macaroni and cheese.

Maybe I can migrate toward that “stocked kitchen” list. Maybe I should review all my past systems, remind myself why I gave them up. Maybe I’ll work on that soup-pot reflex. Or maybe we’ll muddle along in disarray a while longer. At least I won’t be spending my Friday nights planning menus!

–Lois Maassen

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