I’m back after two weeks in America! Mike and I visited my family and then took a little trip ourselves to the Rocky Mountains. While we were there, I devoted some time to troubleshooting a couple of problems I’ve discovered in my meal planning. So this post is a bit more practical than some have been. It’s about ‘reducing misery’ by tackling some of the routines and ‘things that always happen’ that aren’t major enough to warrant notice most of the time, but which add up to wasted energy and frustration that seems unnecessary.
I used the term misery reduction one day to describe a list of little chores and errands I was trying to get out of the way in order to clear up some ‘miseries’ in my life. I continued using it mainly because some of my friends adopted it! However, it’s a good term for a kind of practice that can be really useful in all areas of life. If you think about it, there are often plenty of occasions that cause annoyance in all our lives; in particular, some recur week after week. It’s those recurring ‘miseries’ that often signal the need for a new routine, a new kind of organisation, or a new decision-making method. I even remember reading in the book Boundaries about how looking for ‘the misery’ in our lives can be a way of finding the places that need healthy boundaries, both in routines and in relationships.
I’m almost solely in charge of meal planning in our household, per our agreement: I like to cook and I do enjoy meal planning, so it’s an area of housekeeping where I do about 90% of the planning and execution. (To be clear, Mike does about 90% of the washing up, which I consider a very fair exchange!)
Lately, though, two problems have emerged in our new routine.
The first is to do with packed lunches. Mike used to buy his at work, and I used to rely mostly on microwaved leftovers. However, since we got married, the budget won’t allow him to buy a sandwich every day, and he (and sometimes I) doesn’t have access to a microwave to heat up leftovers. Our original plan was to make sandwiches each day. But it went wrong! Often, if the sandwiches didn’t get made the day before, I’d be making them in the morning while Mike was getting ready for work. Or they just wouldn’t get made. Or we’d do them the night before and hate it, hate hate hate it (I did anyway).
This wasn’t a surprise to me; I’ve been making lunches for myself for years and have never had a sandwich routine that worked, simply because I hate making sandwiches, hate making them in the morning, and hate going back into the kitchen to make them in the evening! No matter how regular a part of my routine it became, it was never sustainable because it never felt easy or invisible the way some routines do. Mike and I are running into the same problem now: we can force ourselves to do it, day after day, but it never feels like a routine that works for us.
The second problem is with meal planning. On weeks when I’m inspired, it isn’t a problem to think of many meals to make, be creative about using what’s in the cupboard, etc. However, some weeks my creative juices run dry and I don’t want to sit and daydream about what I’d like to eat, or even flip listlessly through a cookbook for ideas. Also, I wanted to plan well enough that I didn’t have to cook every night, but arranging for leftovers takes advance planning that I didn’t always take time to do. The problem was that a task which I often enjoyed took enough energy that on tired weeks when I wasn’t in the mood it felt like more than I could handle.
I know that neither of these problems is huge in the grand scheme. In fact, they’re the sort of thing we all have to live with sometimes; we can’t love everything we have to do each day. However, I’ve started looking for these rough patches in my weekly routine and asking whether there’s any way to smooth them out, or at least make an unpleasant task more streamlined.
This week I’m planning to trial a new way of dealing with both meal planning and lunch.
First of all, I called a meeting with Mike to talk about the lunch-making routine, since it involves both of us. We agreed that he’d buy his lunch at work every Friday, and that we’d each take two days of the week to be responsible for packing the lunches for both of us. That meant that each of us only had two occasions to make lunch each week.
The second step, for me, was to avoid making sandwiches altogether, at least most of the time. So I tried figure out what I could make in a four-serving quantity that would cover two lunches for each of us for two days, and wouldn’t need heating up. I decided to stick with substantial salads that wouldn’t go soggy after a couple of days – things like pasta and bean salads (ones that aren’t too leafy so they won’t wilt).
The other problem was with meal planning. I was inspired by this post at andreadekker.com about meal planning using ‘themes’ for each day. You create what is effectively a template for the week which assigns a food theme to each day, e.g. pasta on Monday, Casserole on Tuesday, leftovers on Wednesday. Each theme is broad enough to include plenty of options, so you aren’t confined to eating the same things over and over, but you have your choices narrowed down instead of having to pull a meal idea ‘out of the blue’ for each day you plan to cook.
When making my outline of themes for each day of the week, I worked in some ‘leftovers’ and ‘meal from the freezer’ days, as well as stipulating the number of servings to make and to put into the freezer on the days I do plan to cook. Ideally, that means we’ll always have leftovers available when needed, and enough freezer meals for the days we need them. The other thing that emerged when I made my plan was that I rarely plan for Saturdays or Sundays, because I get tired of cooking by the weekend and want the option to do easy things. That only works, however, if you’ve planned to have easy meals on hand! I realised that I needed to assign meals for those days, too, even if it was just needing to buy a tin of soup or a frozen pizza, so we wouldn’t get to Sunday night and be stuck with cheese and crackers!
Whenever I start working out a problem, I always find myself asking, ‘Why didn’t I fix this earlier?’ You may have noticed this on some of my previous posts!
When I asked this question about my kitchen woes, I realised that for both my new plans I had a valuable tool missing. The main reason I haven’t relied on salads for lunch in the past is that I simply didn’t have enough recipes for interesting salads of the non-lettuce variety. I could dump a bottle of dressing onto pasta and vegetables, but that was the limit of my creativity. I needed to do some work finding more recipes.
Part of the reason my meal planning tended to get into ruts was that I relied too much on my own mental catalogue of meal options; when I was tired and uncreative, I simply couldn’t think of anything to make. I simply needed a good system for giving myself prompts of possible meal options.
For both of these gaps in my kitchen organisation, I decided to revive my recipe box. It was at my family’s house in Texas and never had much in it, but I brought it back to London with me this time. Not only was it a good place to flesh out the ‘salads’ category, but it already had categories (and I added a few) suited to my themed meal plan: casseroles, pasta, meat, etc. All I needed to do was look under a certain tab to be reminded of what my options were. One further project was to catalogue, on an index card at the beginning of each category, recipe ideas from other sources, e.g. magazines and books. That way I didn’t have to copy them all down, but had a reference in one location to all of the meals I regularly cook from my various recipe books. That really did mean that a glance through one category of my recipe box would appraise me of all the options for a given day’s meal, even the recipes that are buried somewhere in Good Housekeeping.
The happier side of misery reduction
It remains to see how these plans go in practice. Past experience does suggest, however, that some of these regular frustrations can at least be lessened by intelligently altering the routines that permit them.
As I was undertaking my recipe box project, even while I was planning my themes for the week, I experienced something else with my ‘misery reduction’. I found myself getting excited and having lots of ideas, discovering recipes I’d forgotten, making lists of recipes I wanted to find or things I wanted to learn how to cook, or types of food I wanted to eat more often. What was originally a very practical, grumpy, problem-solving project actually became the context for aspiring to do things better, and feeling excited about an otherwise practical task.