To make life easier, some people follow the once-a-month meal planning and cooking approach, where you basically buy, prepare, and cook a month’s worth of meals in one day and then freeze them until you need them.
I am not one of those people.
I like the idea of stockpiling 30 days of ready-to-heat dinners in my freezer like it’s an end-of-the-world underground bunker. But that would require way more planning than I’m capable of—and a Costco-sized freezer. Besides, even my best-laid plans usually fall apart with my family’s hectic schedule. Top that off with the typical craziness of the meal-prep witching hour and you can understand why I shy away from once-a-month cooking.
But I figured I could handle seven days of meal planning. So I buckled down one Sunday afternoon to tackle the weekly chow plan. I knew that weeknights would run smoother when I planned what to make for dinner and stocked my kitchen with all the necessary ingredients. It sounded simple enough.
But the reality of meal planning took a turn for the worse mid-week, as my carefully crafted meal plan morphed into a meal ban, one dreadful dinner at a time.
Here’s how it all went down:
I make a no-fail Vegetable Soup for Veggie-Haters, falsely believing that my take-no-prisoners recipe will convert my meat-loving men to healthier eating at least once a week. My carnivore clan (less than thrilled with the lack of a dead animal in their entrée) immediately starts dissecting their soup. My husband stealthily pushes all the carrots to one side hoping no one notices. In between looks of disgust, the boys pick out the onions while asking, “Ew! What’s that green stuff floating next to the potato?” I lie and call it parsley, knowing I will burn in hell for trying to conceal chopped kale. After much cajoling and a few spoonfuls later, my finicky teens push their half-empty bowls away and claim they’re both “full” as they grab a couple more slices of bread and bolt upstairs. Day One: Fail.
Tonight, I tempt taste buds with gourmet cuisine, taking my cue straight from the Barefoot Contessa herself. I channel my inner Ina Garten as I whip together an elegant meal of chicken with Asiago cheese and basil, oven-roasted dill carrots, and penne pasta with roasted red peppers, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes. It’s piping hot and ready to serve—until family plans go awry. My husband needs to work late, my older teen has to help with a group project at school, and my younger teen has his soccer practice rescheduled. After an extra two hours of keeping dinner warm, my epicurean entrée and sumptuous side dishes meld into charred chow. I’m 0-2.
I attempt to appease everyone’s picky palate with a family favorite: a crockpot full of chili simmering all day. I toss a couple pounds of beef in the slow-cooker, add some chopped onions, herbs and diced tomatoes and we’re good to go—perfect for our super busy day ahead. Eight harried hours later, we walk through the door, anticipating the spicy aroma of chili to welcome us home. Strangely, we smell nothing. I head to the kitchen and see the cord dangling next to the crockpot like a lifeless snake. Crap! I forgot to plug it in before we all left today. The opposite of last night’s overcooked dinner, tonight’s meal sits raw and bloody in my cold crockpot, practically mooing when I crack open the lid. I grab a bag of tortilla chips, dump salsa in a bowl, and dub it a Tex-Mex appetizer. I suck at meal planning.
After three failed attempts, I’m cursing the meal plan and popping open cans of condensed soup, wondering if anyone will even notice it’s not homemade. Trying to make me feel better, my sons both remark how delicious the soup is and encourage me to “make this more often.” Yeah, I’ll hold on tight to that Campbell family recipe. Dear God, why do I even try?
With everyone on a different schedule tonight, I ditch the idea of a home-cooked meal together. My older son eats at the mall food court with his friend before they see a movie. My younger son eats a PB&J in the car on the way to his soccer game, while I chug some water, grab a cheese stick, and pop a few pretzels in my mouth as I drive him there. My husband (if he remembers to bring cash) hopes to eat a concession stand hot dog at halftime. My meal plan is dying a slow and painful death.
By the weekend, the boys are fighting, my husband is cursing his way through a plumbing project, and I’m crying into my cookbook as I throw frozen fish sticks at the kids and run for the front door, pretending not to hear their pleas for “just one more chance.”
Tonight I’m dining alone with a glass of wine and my head buried in a copy of Erma Bombeck’s Aunt Erma’s Cope Book, reminding myself that I cannot divorce my family or just opt-out of dinner for the rest of my life. I eye-up the stack of menus on the counter and realize it’s time we start supporting the small businesses in our community. I pick up the phone, dial, and hear the words that bring joy to my ban-the-meal-plan heart: “China Wok, may I help you?”
I applaud all the organized meal planners who’ve got their act together. But for the rest of us? We’re forever grateful for takeout.