I’m a Recipe Columnist, and I’m Terrible at Planning Dinner

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 2 2013 10:00 AM

Why Is Planning Dinner So Hard?

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Grilled Peanut Tofu: one possible answer to the question of what to make for dinner tonight.

Photo by James Ransom

Dinner vs. Child is a biweekly column about cooking for children, and with children, and despite children, originally published in Food52 and now appearing on Brow Beat.

Today: Nicholas wants to know how you plan dinner, and offers a solution of his own. 

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I have no faith in New Year's resolutions. (I've written about this before.) I have little faith in resolutions of any kind. I change my life at the speed of a highly distracted tortoise. But I am still a child at heart: I still believe that when I move, everything will be different.

We have just moved from Chicago to Buffalo. (We are only a century late.) I have modest expectations. That the day will be thirty hours long. That the children will take up silent meditation. That the snow will taste like freshly shaved ice, with hints of maple syrup that wafted over from Canada. 

And that dinner will materialize on the table every night with zero forethought, like manna from heaven, like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, except without the apocalyptic ending in which we all barely escape death by pancake and are forced to flee on stale-bread sailboats. 

Every time I sit down to plan dinner for our compact car-sized family—a no-goodnik father, a carnivorous mother, a translucently thin four-year-old, and a toddler who eats like a goat—I think, Surely this could be easier. Surely there’s another way to do this. Surely I don’t have to sit here and think, I know we’ve eaten things in the past. But what were those things?

I have meager strengths: I’m OK at shopping. I’m OK at improvising. I’m OK at getting something vaguely dinner-like on the table. But I’m horrible at planning: car-crash, naked-dream, end-of-the-semester-and-you-forgot-you-were-even-registered horrible.

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Tofu

Photo by James Ransom

I should emulate Dinner: A Love Story’s Jenny Rosenstrach, who’s famously kept a dinner diary for a decade and some. But that’s a muscle you have to stretch. We write things down for a week—and then five weeks later we find the diary again and discover that we apparently haven’t eaten for the last month. But to predict the future, I need to at least remember the past. (August 3: cereal.) So I’ve resolved to try the diary again—because in Buffalo, after all, everything will be different. 

That’s part of the problem, but not the entirety of it. And the other part is why I bring this up, because I suspect I’m not alone here: We live in an embarrassment of recipes. Whether from Food52, or elsewhere on the groaningly overstuffed interwebs, or the renaissance of cookbook publishing, there’s a surfeit of dinner ideas. It’s too much of a good thing—and yes, I’ve mentioned this before. I’m sort of obsessed with it. Making non-problems into problems is my thing. It’s charming.

Think of it this way: If you’ve ever cooked through a single book—and not, like, Alinea—you know how liberating it feels. Weirdly, the confinement is what’s liberating. But most of us, me included, and especially our resident small humans, don’t want to always cook like this. So the question is how to take the current embarrassment of recipes and confine it, rope it off, make it more manageable.

This is where I’m turning to you for help. How do you do it? When you sit down to plan out the week, what does that process look like? What’s your system? Is it online or on paper? Do you have paper files for recipes in cookbooks and virtual files for recipes online? Or do you just scribble favorites or to-dos in the back of books? Any apps to recommend?

Alternately, if I should just bury my ambitions and spend the rest of my days cooking in quiet, predictable contentment from Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, tell me that too.  

The recipe below is for Food52er enbe’s grilled peanut tofu because: 1) I don’t want to forget it again; and 2) even if you failed to plan anything for dinner, even if you have no milk for cereal, you can still make it. It is shopping-proof. (You already bought the tofu three weeks ago. Go check.) I swapped half the peanut butter for roasted tahini and grilled the tofu in long slabs, rather than on sticks. We scavenged for the assorted vegetables. Then we ate it all on the porch, and not just with our hands, and watched the sun fall down and let the baby play spin-the-bottle with the empties and tried to remember the particular feeling we were feeling. The day, it turns out, is 30 hours long here. 

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Photo by James Ransom

Grilled Peanut Tofu 
Serves 4 as a main dish

Two 12-ounce packages of extra firm tofu
2 cloves garlic
1 handful cilantro
¼ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut butter (smooth works best if making by hand, otherwise chunky is fine)
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 tablespoon peanut oil
Chili garlic sauce
Sugar snap peas, onions, asparagus, peppers, or any other vegetable you have on hand

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.