Having 'no plans' used to feel luxurious—hedonistic, even—but 'things' have shifted, and the lack of structure in our days is starting (or continuing) to feel a little bit oppressive, or at least extremely dull. In short, it sort of feels like there is nothing to look forward to, and this can bleed into our relationship with food.
Having free time to perfect your culinary skills is one of the few pleasant aspects of social distancing, but that doesn’t mean that feeding oneself is easy. If you’re not working at all, or have shifted to working from home, your usual temporal bookends have been dismantled, leaving you adrift in a sea of dried pasta and beans. This is where meal planning can help.
Identify your quarantine pitfalls
Understand that this “planning” can be as strict or lax as you need it to be. It can be as simple as festive-themed nights—Lasagna Mondays or Chicken Sundays—or you can pack literal lunches for yourself and children every day. A plan is just an annoying to-do list if it doesn’t address any problems, so start by identifying where and how “the state of things” is messing with your cooking and eating.
The easiest way to do this is to make a list. My list, for example, looks like this:
After thinking and writing about food all day, I am sick of food and cooking
Constant low-key anxiety and flares of depression
Can’t go to the store for last-minute ingredients or impulse buys
Feel guilty about ordering food via apps
Your list is probably different, especially if you have kids, are not used to working from home, or are not used to cooking for yourself much at all. But once you identify these problems, you can solve them. I generally find issues fall into two categories—logistics or mood—and meal planning can help with both.
If it is a matter of logistics
I keep reading that people have “all this free time”—I even wrote it above, it is so engrained!—but this is not true for essential workers, people working full-time from home, or people who are having to facilitate their children’s education. If this is the case, a traditional approach to meal planning—devoting a block of time to cooking a large portion of the food you plan to eat—is probably the way to go. Again, try to identify potential pitfalls. If you don’t know where to start, try answering these questions from one of my other posts on this subject:
Do you even like eating a big breakfast? One of my favorite “hilarious misunderstandings” from Star Trek is when Dr. Crusher keeps trying to feed Picard new and interesting breakfasts and he’s like “eh, okay” and then they get kidnapped and mind-linked and it turns out they’d both rather have a coffee and a croissant (and Picard has loved Bev since she was married to his best friend). My point is some people can’t stomach a heavy breakfast first thing in the morning, and it’s okay to eat a piece of toast and an apple instead of overnight Instant Pot oats with yogurt and sous-vide-stewed-fruit compote.
Will you eat leftovers? And if you won’t, will your partner or roommate? Some people simply do not like leftovers and these people should not make big batches of one thing with the plan to eat from it all week, as it will lead to a particular kind of sadness. (I thought I was a leftover eater until I got divorced and realized it was my husband who was eating them, not me, and I have since adjusted my cooking appropriately.)
Do you like to cook during the week, or would you rather do it all at once? Some people would rather sit through a three-hour Power Point presentation about synergy than chop vegetables on a weeknight, but some people find the slicing and dicing rather zen. If cooking on a weeknight stresses you out, you’ll probably want to carve out some time on a Sunday to do either all or part of your prep work and cooking for the week.
If, for example, you know you hate cooking breakfast but love cooking dinner, carve out some time to hard boil some eggs or cook a big batch of freezer-friendly sandwiches, and pick a couple of new, enjoyable recipes to try for supper before doing your weekly (or bi-monthly) shopping. If you hate leftovers, consider making a big batch of one protein, then stocking up on different carbs (rice, tortillas, pasta), and sauces so even though you are kind of eating the same thing every night, it doesn’t feel like you are.
And, even though the current culinary vibe being showcased on social media is very “urban homesteader,” do not forget to stock up on snacks (for snack suppers) and buy some frozen meals (like pizzas, burritos, or—uh—big bags of chips). And do not, under any circumstances, feel guilty about buying pre-chopped vegetables or otherwise prepared foods. Even if you have “all this free time,” you’d probably rather spend that time reading a book or doing a puzzle, rather than chopping onions, because chopping onions blows. You can also buy bread. Buying bread is still legal.
If it is a matter of mood
Even if things “aren’t that bad” for you personally, there is a lot of terrible stuff going on, and it is okay if this is making you sad, anxious, tired, or just generally grumpy. I, for one, cannot predict how I am going to feel day to day, and how it will affect my desire to eat and cook. One minute I’m crying and the next I’m making my own breakfast sausage from scratch—it’s a real roller coaster!
A.A. Newton wrote a complete guide on how to feed yourself when you’re depressed, and it may be helpful to you, especially if you’ve never experienced acute depression before. Meals are broken up into categories based on ease—from “easier than showering” to “harder than showering”—and feature miso soup (my current fave), nourishing roasted vegetables, and dead-easy baked goods.
If you usually like cooking, but are having a hard time finding joy in the activity, buy yourself a new kitchen toy and plan your meals around that. I rarely use my stand mixer for baking, but I bought the meat grinder attachment and boy, am excited to make my own sausages and burger blends. If you haven’t used a particular appliance in a while, dust it off, and see if it sparks any inspiration.
It can also help to have an external influence, like a virtual recipe club, as a sort of meal plan, just make sure you aren’t over-extending yourself. Remember, now is not the time to “optimize” or “make the most” of anything. Feeding yourself and family is actually and totally enough.