10.27.2013

My Little Black Book



In July of 2012, inspired by the premise of a book I read, I started keeping a dinner diary. 

Several people I know plan meals for their family for a week at a time. I had done that occasionally over the years. But the idea in Jenny Rosenstrach's Dinner: A Love Story: It all Begins at the Family Table that was new and intriguing was that of not just making a plan for the week, but actually writing down each of those dinners and keeping a record of them in one place. I immediately thought it would be cool to look back at something like that over time to notice patterns in what we ate, and to remember good dishes we'd had that would have been forgotten otherwise. The idea of having such a structure to make cooking good dinners more manageable and consistent, really appealed to me-- just like a good classroom schedule and lesson plans help me stay on track in teaching. So I bought a blank lined book last summer and have used it ever since.

Over the weekend I glance at the upcoming week and take note of anything going on. Then I start a list of penciled-in dinner plans for each night of the week, taking into account those givens (e.g., late meeting Tuesday=something really simple, eating out on Saturday=no need to plan a meal). The process I like best is to leave the "diary" open on a counter over the course of a day or so and jot dinners down as I think of them to fill in the coming week-- finding inspiration from something I read, a photo in a magazine, a glimpse of a coworker's lunch, a memory of a favorite something we haven't had in a while. 
I've also started shopping once a week only, usually Mondays, with list in hand based on the dinner plans. I used to shop whenever we were running out of stuff or when I realized I needed ingredients for something, meaning I would be in the store sometimes three or four times a week. For a person who doesn't like errands, this wasn't a happy fact. It's now blessedly rare that I need to stop at the store more than once a week. 

Each morning I glance at the dinner plans to remember what's up that night. I sometimes do a step or two of prep before leaving for work. It is simple to take meat out early in the morning, or quick pickle some onions, or make pizza dough, or wash veggies. When I walk in the door at the end of the day I have a game plan and know what tasks still need to happen. 

Obviously this dinner-diary approach isn't for everyone...
  • It might seem a bit anal retentive. You may not want to tell people you do this.   
  • It hinders spontaneity a bit, since there is already a plan written down for the day's meal. 
  • What we eat for the week is a direct result of how motivated and creative-- or not-- I'm feeling several days beforehand when I planned the meals. 
But I really like it...
  • I have a three-year-old I get just a couple hours of time with on weekdays. It is because I want to make that little chunk of time count that I value this way of approaching cooking. I don't have to piddle away time staring blankly into the fridge at 5:45 wondering what to cook. Instead, I usually know what we're having, and know when I can spend some time before dinner sitting and doing a floor puzzle with him. It also better prepares me to allow him to help me cook, which is also quality time. 
  • When I think of dinners in week-long chunks, I have better perspective on what we are eating overall (i.e. I'll consciously not plan more than one meal with chicken in a week). It causes me to vary the types of meals we have more in general. 
  • The diary has helped me to fall into some helpful routines. We somewhat regularly have pizza on Friday nights. So it's just a matter of thinking of a couple of yummy topping combinations and jotting those down. We sometimes like to save a sort of nicer dinner for Saturday nights if we're at home. I know I can let those meals be something that can take some rising or marinating time or prep time. With these general routines already in place, planning meals is more of filling in a framework rather than starting at square one for every day. 
  • When I randomly think of something yummy midweek ("Let's have fondue sometime soon!"), I jot it down on a sticky note and put it in the front of the book. When I open the book to plan for the next week a good handful of recent ideas are right there and just could be plugged into an appropriate day. (A "fondue" sticky note has been in there a while, I have to admit.)
  • When I am at a loss for what to cook, I can browse the book backwards and review what I have cooked in the last several months and just repeat things after it's been a while. Or, in August 2013 I could look back at August 2012 to see what we were eating when these same things were in season last summer.
  • If someone is coming to dinner I can glance back to what we had the last time they were over (I haven't actually done this much yet, but it seems like a good idea).
  • The book would be a logical place to note somewhere in the back any allergies, likes, or dislikes of friends or family in order to remember those when planning what to cook for them. 
  • In the summer the menu planning is even easier because I start with the items in our weekly CSA box and in the garden and plan meals around those, just adding whatever additional items I'll need to the grocery list. 
  • What we eat on Tuesday is not dependent on how stressed I am after a staff meeting because the thinking has already been done from a better state of mind. 
  • And because the thinking has already been done, all I have to do on those weeknight evenings is come home and follow the plan and try to enjoy the process of cooking. This is maybe the most amazing thing of all to me: when I'm driving home and thinking ahead to dinner, I find myself looking forward to it, almost as if someone else is going to make it for me. The work of conceiving dinner is apparently, to me, the bulk of the effort in cooking. 
  • When one or both of us has evening commitments, the meals I plan in the book are decidedly simple-- grilled cheese with pesto/tuna melts/simple pasta-- or they are made ahead and stored in the fridge or freezer-- soup/quiche/casserole-- or they are occasionally take-out. Because I deliberately choose certain meals for nights we'll be shorter on time, they end up still being decent and tasty meals that I am happy to eat.
When I look back through the diary of the past year, it serves as a barometer of what our life was like at any given time. There is stretch of time in August 2012 that is a mess in the diary of different colored pens, words crossed out, and arrows; my family was struck with tragedy in mid August and because my husband and I live near the hospital, we had a lot of family members staying at our house for a couple of weeks. While there was a lot of grieving, there was also a lot of special family time, including a lot of big meals together. Like everything else at that time, my week of dinner plans were forgotten completely. But after the fact, I went back and crossed out my original plans and wrote in the meals I had made instead that more easily fed a crowd, as well as my uncle's clam chowder he made one night, the goulash my aunt brought, the chili my cousin made, and the lasagne a friend dropped off, because I like to be able to remember all that. Even when the meal does change at the last minute from what I had planned, I sort of like keeping the record accurate.
With cooking dinner, as with many things, I think it's helpful to be proactive. The dinner diary feels like a boon to our cooking and eating and I expect to keep it up. I'm curious if others do anything like this-- or if you just think I'm crazy-- and/or what other routines you use to help you enjoy cooking and dinnertime more in your house.

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