I've never been a meal planner. My normal life of eating is too unpredictable, a consequence of my job. My cooking happens in fits and starts as I bounce back and forth between recipe testing and writing and editing, which means on some nights I come home from work with an abundance of test-kitchen leftovers to put on the dinner table, and on others I arrive late and empty-handed, left to desperately raid the tinned sardine stash to hold off my hunger until morning. The daily variables I contend with make it difficult to consistently plan meals well.
That was fine when things were "normal." In a vibrant city like New York, there's always food within reach, whether a coffeeshop pastry for a breakfast on the run, lunch from a restaurant near the office, or delivery just a finger-tap or phone call away.
But life isn't normal right now. I'm at home, quarantined like the rest of us as we wait out the coronavirus pandemic. So is my wife, as is our two-and-a-half-year-old son, who we're suddenly caring for full-time on top of our full-time jobs. I haven't walked out my front door in more than a week, and even that was just a quick dash for an essential errand.
These days are challenging, but they're also consistent in at least one respect: We need to get food on the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day, without fail. Only once before in my life, when I worked on farms, did we cook every meal ourselves, and that was a very different situation—living on a farm that grows a wide variety of crops is a lot like living in a market. There's almost always plenty at hand to whip up a quick meal.
The only way to make things work now is to plan effectively. And I know that's something many of you are dealing with, too, because it's a lot of what people are asking me about on social media. One frequent request is help with meal planning, more specifically a recipe schedule that folks at home can use to provide mealtime structure and efficiently use up ingredients.
It's a great idea, in theory, but my experience is that it doesn't pan out as well in practice. There are too many variables to make any kind of fixed meal plan that's universally useful to people. Family sizes vary, dietary needs and preferences vary, appetites vary, home storage spaces vary, and, frankly, in parts of the country right now, reliable availability of many ingredients is spotty. A recipe-driven approach is a one-size-fits-all solution to an every-situation-is-different set of circumstances. It's tough to plan meals out in detail when everything is so uncertain.
Imagine creating a recipe-specific shopping list, trekking to the supermarket with mask and gloves, and loading up your cart until nearly overflowing, only to realize that the whole plan has just gone to crap because the supermarket is out of all-purpose flour—a linchpin ingredient in your carefully crafted recipe map. Suddenly you have to think on your feet, come up with an alternate plan, find flexibility in the rigid structure you'd hoped to follow.
Which is why I ask, "Why not just start with that flexibility?" That's what I've been doing, and it's been working great. In a sense, instead of the more traditional meaning of "meal-planning," what I'm proposing is something more along the lines of "adaptive meal-planning." A way of cooking that allows you to make food no matter what unexpected complications arise.
The key to success is to be able to think outside any specific recipe by understanding why a recipe works. In case it wasn't clear before, this is precisely why we've stressed the underlying techniques of cooking so heavily at Serious Eats. With that knowledge, you can become the master of your own kitchen, whipping up meals no matter what you have on hand, using ingredients strategically with a minimum of waste, and feeding comforting and nutritious food to your family in the midst of all this madness.
My colleagues and I have been leaning on a variety of our own strategies to make this approach work in our homes. A lot of them are rooted in our experiences as former restaurant cooks, where large quantities of food have to be ordered, partially prepped and cooked in advance, then finished at the last minute when the customers come in. And as any restaurant cook knows, as rigid as a menu may be, there are countless moments every day when flexible and creative thinking kick in—when a customer has strict dietary restrictions, when a critical ingredient fails to be delivered, or when you just want to change the menu up or create a special dish to keep things interesting.
Before you dive in, it's good to get your head in the game. Here are some general guidelines for setting yourself up for meal-planning success.
Put Your Creativity On Hold...
When I asked Sasha what he wanted readers to consider, he stressed this basic point: You don't need to be creative right now. At least not in the today-is-the-day-I-attempt-to-climb-a-cooking-Mount-Everest sense. "This is the time to home in on the things you’re comfortable and confident with," he said. "Then you can expand off of them, whether that’s a certain kind of cuisine, ingredients you’re familiar with, or basic techniques you know inside and out, like cooking pasta or stir-fries. You can get variety off of those things."
This is very sensible advice. The majority of your meals should be rooted in dishes, techniques, and ingredients that are familiar to you. Just as it's easier to wander a city you know well without having to stay glued to your map, it's the styles of cooking you know best that will allow you to see more possibilities for variation and adaptation without running into trouble, and introducing more stress and anxiety into your day during these already anxious times.
Since this was Sasha's tip, I'll use some recent home cooking I saw Sasha post to his Instagram account as an example. For anyone who doesn't know, Sasha is absolutely, positively pasta-obsessed, and he's stellar at cooking it. He started with the familiar: pasta. He had some shrimp and some spaghetti, and he had an assortment of very basic pantry staples.
He posed a question to his followers in an Instagram story: Should I cook this shrimp and spaghetti with a red sauce or al aglio e olio (with olive oil and garlic), two of the most basic of pasta sauces. People voted, then Sasha cooked it with olive oil and garlic.
It looked unbelievably delicious, and as simple as can be but with just enough of a twist (the shrimp) to make such an utterly basic sauce just a little more interesting and complete as a meal. That was easy for him because, well, aside from being a professional cook, he knows pasta inside and out, and so he knows how to navigate it with whatever he's got on hand.
...Except When You Don't
It makes sense to keep most of your meals grounded in the familiar—whatever that means for you—especially when you're trying to be a more improvisational cook. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have some fun. Part of surviving quarantine life with some modicum of sanity is to have some adventures. While it mostly makes sense to stick to the familiar, it's also the perfect time to try at least a couple bucket-list cooking projects. Your hunger shouldn't hinge on their success or proper timing, but you're home, you might as well do something ambitious.
What might that mean? This is a great time to dive into a cuisine or cooking technique you've been meaning to learn more about. Want to up your homemade pizza game? There's no better time to tend to a slowly proofing dough than right now.
Always wanted to become more at ease with cooking Sichuan food (or Korean, or South Asian, or Mexican, or barbecue, or, or...)? Go online, order the essential pantry ingredients (we have articles on this for many cuisines, and there are tons of great cookbooks out there to help you as well), then do a bit of cookbook and recipe reading.
You may not be able to make everything, depending on ingredient availability, but if you dog-ear a handful of basic recipes, you'll know when the stars have aligned to whip up that mapo tofu or japchae or real-deal pulled pork.
To build meals effectively, you first need to get your supplies in order. These key points will help you make good decisions at the market.
Strategize on Fridge Storage
I know some of you lucky rural folks have so much space you have fridges for your fridges and freezers so deep there are still some wooly mammoth steaks vacuum-packed at the bottom. But for many of us urbanites, we're really feeling the pressures and limitations of our shoebox apartments.
With shopping trips being made with less frequency than before and the chances of finding an open delivery slot about as probable as winning a hundred bucks in the scratch-off, this means being extra smart about what we buy before the next restocking occurs. The point isn't to hoard—no one should be doing that—but we do need to buy more than we normally would to reduce the number of shopping trips we make as much as is reasonable.
Lean on Shelf-Stable Produce
Crisper drawers only hold so much, so it's important to keep an eye on produce that can last several days outside of the fridge. That way you won't be short on vegetables just because you're short on space.
Onions, garlic, and even ginger are everyday staples that don't need the cold, and they're endlessly useful in all kinds of recipes. There are also lots of ways to work larger quantities of those pungent ingredients into your cooking, not just as basic aromatics, but as star components. Garlic heads can be roasted whole or gently cooked in oil and spread on bread or sandwiches; onions can be caramelized or cooked into a lovely sauce called soubise that is delicious with everything from fish to eggs to chicken to pork.
Beyond that, hard winter squash like butternut, kabocha, and acorn are a pro move right now, as are every kind of potato, yucca, and many other tuber-like vegetables. Basically, if they're not refrigerated in the produce section of your market, they can usually remain unrefrigerated at home. (Citrus is the one exception to this: At least in my experience, those fruits don't last more than a couple days at room temp before they start to fade.)
I also like to keep a good selection of frozen vegetables in the freezer to supplement the fresh stuff. A bag of frozen broccoli florets recently made their way into a frittata I whipped up for lunch (you can put almost any vegetable into a frittata, just FYI). I also dumped a bag of chopped frozen cauliflower into a recent batch of rigatoni with vodka sauce; it was easy, tasty (that vodka sauce does some heavy lifting, let me tell you), and it ensured there was a good deal of vegetable matter in an otherwise carb-and-cream-heavy dinner. Peas, corn, spinach, and kale, as well as frozen fruits like blueberries, raspberries, peach slices, and more are all good picks.
Learn From Your Ancestors
Age-old techniques for preserving foods are worth delving into now. As I type this, I have ten pounds of cabbage fermenting in a 5-liter crock; in another week or so, I'll have sauerkraut. It took me mere minutes to shred the green cabbage, sprinkle it with salt, and pack it down in its brine.
I don't particularly want to have to survive off of an obscene amount of kraut if I don't have to, but I like knowing that I've put some food up that won't require the fridge for at least a few weeks, and if we eat it every couple of days, we'll work our way through it soon enough.
It's more versatile than it may seem too—I love kraut with brats and other sausages. But it's great braised with other meats, like pork chops and pork shoulder and ribs, or even a big slab of bacon. It's also great with all of those things at once, in the style of a true choucroute garnie, thought there's no need to whip up such an elaborate feast. Instead, we can just take inspiration from a dish like that, serving more simplified renditions.
Kraut is also excellent tossed into salads, layered into sandwiches (think Reubens, but don't limit yourself to that specifically), and served a million other ways.
And kraut is just one of many fermented vegetable you can make. There's also a whole world of kimchi out there; the basic fermentation method is the same as kraut, just the ingredients are different.
If you're so inclined, this is also a smart time to read up on canning, too, and maybe try your hand at it.
Store Your Herbs Well
Even the most delicate produce can be made to last a long time if you handle it right. Kenji's herb storage tests showed that with the right approach, many herbs can last week and weeks before they start to fade. Some of them need to be in the fridge, but as long as they're taking up space, you might as well ensure they remain usable.
Stock Up on Shelf-Stable Building Blocks
I'm not going to list every single thing you might want to have in your pantry, but the basics include: canned tomatoes and tomato paste (and other canned vegetables and fruits, if you want); dried pastas; dried and canned beans; rice and other grains; oils and vinegars; spices, dried chilies, and dried herbs; store-bought chicken stock; flours and cornmeals and starches, etc.
A combination of dried and canned beans are particularly important since canned gives you instant food, while dried taste much better and deliver much more bang for your buck—in my tests, you get about three pounds of cooked beans for every pound of dried. That's a good conversion rate in terms of both space and money savings!
You're also going to want to make sure you have a hefty assortment of flavor enhancers and basic condiments. Things like anchovy fillets in oil; mustards; miso or doenjang; soy sauce; ketchups; mayo; fish sauce; Worcestershire; dashi ingredients like kombu and katsuobushi or instant dashi; shrimp paste; boullion; cheeses for grating; preserved horseradish; whatever floats your boat.
And while harder to find (though easy if you order online), it's worth also keeping an eye on more specialty ingredients like 'nduja (spicy Calabrian sausage spread). I know, this kind of suggestion can elicit eyerolls from the crowd, but there's wisdom in grabbing a less ordinary ingredient like this. Sasha has shown just what a powerhouse of flavor it can be, and how much mileage you can squeeze out of just a couple tablespoons, whether mixed into scrambled eggs, whipped into a mayo, melted into tomato sauce, or mixed with creamy white beans.
Ingredients like these do a lot of heavy lifting, and add interest to basic staple dishes and ingredients, warding off monotony and adding some excitement to mealtime.
Put Your Prep Into Action
Okay, we've spent a lot of time talking preparation, now it's time to talk about how to use it.
Use Fresh First
If you've shopped well, you have a well-stocked pantry, a well-stocked freezer, a well-stocked fridge, and a well-stocked counter full of shelf-stable produce. Now what?
Well, for starters, try to use whatever you have that's most perishable. Example: Right now I have two vacuum-sealed duck breasts in my fridge and a couple of cod fillets. I will be cooking the cod tomorrow because the duck can wait a few more days before it's at risk of going off. This should be pretty obvious.
Similarly, tender lettuces should be eaten before sturdy greens like kale, soft peaches should be eaten before apples and grapefruits. (Though would you really have those three different fruits from three different seasons at the same time? Maybe some people would, I don't know.)
This strategy extends to your freezer and dry storage. Sure, you should feel free to dip into a tin of sardines when you're peckish (lord knows I do), and there's nothing wrong with raiding your freezer for a quick and easy vegetable to pop on the table, but to the degree that you can, try to work through more of your fresh stuff first, and leave whatever can last longer for later.
Compress and Condense
A funny thing happens when you cook most foods: They shrink. That's because most living things are made out of a lot of water, and when you cook them they lose some of that water and become smaller in the process. Rigid vegetables also soften, which allows them to collapse and compress, reducing air that otherwise would fill the spaces between the firm pieces.
This is important for storage that also sometimes overlaps with creating components (as we'll see in the next section). Let's look at some examples.
The other day I bought two heads of Savoy cabbage. Cabbage is a densely-packed vegetable all on its own, the leaves forming layers in a tight ball. But instead of jamming them into my already full fridge, I left them out overnight (see the section above about shelf-stable produce). The next day, I sliced them thinly and braised them in butter, and while I didn't measure it, I'd estimate I got more than a 50% reduction in total volume once the cabbage was cooked. That's a real space savings!
On another day, I ordered a flat of oyster mushrooms from a wholesaler that's now doing home deliveries in NYC. A flat of mushrooms is a quantity I'd normally never purchase for home use, but, you know, pandemic times call for pandemic measures. There's no way I could have fit them all into the fridge raw, so I roasted them on two sheet trays with olive oil and salt. Afterwards, my bulky flat of mushrooms was reduced to a single quart of roasted ones.
Want to stock up on a lot of tomatoes? Roast them in the oven. You'll end up with a much more manageable volume that can get layered in an airtight container and stored in the fridge. They'll last longer that way too, compared to fresh.
With hearty greens like broccoli rabe, kale, and Swiss chard, I get a pot of salted water boiling and, working in batches, blanch them all at once. Shocked in an ice bath and then squeezed of any excess water, they will pack down much more compactly, and, since they've been par-cooked, will take much less time to incorporate into a meal, whether you stir some chopped up greens into a bowl of beans or sauté them in olive oil with garlic.
A lot of these tricks are how ingredients are processed in restaurant kitchens. Produce arrives in bulk and then gets prepped in one way or another by the line cooks, not as a finished dish but as an ingredient or component, so that it's ready to be held at each station for service. Speaking of components...
Okay, it's taken me a while to get here, but this is the real meat-and-potatoes of this post, the place where we're really going to cook smart. Except it's not meat and potatoes, it's...all sorts of other components. One of the easiest ways to cook flexibly is to not approach your cooking with the intention of making fully-fleshed out dishes from the start. That's recipe-driven cooking, and while valuable, it's not the best way to get food on the table multiple times per day.
Instead, you want varied and flexible building blocks that can be combined and recombined to make meals happen. Let's talk specifics.
Remember that flat of oyster mushrooms I was just telling you about? So the first strategy I employed was to roast them reducing their storage volume significantly. But I didn't just roast them: I packed most of them into a glass jar and poured red wine vinegar in to cover them, then topped the whole thing off with a half-inch of olive oil. Now I had marinated mushrooms that could keep for at least a week in the fridge. I also stashed a small portion aside without the vinegar to use sooner.
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Getting deeper into the pantry. Here we have savory oatmeal, cooked like a congee, with scallions, roasted oyster mushrooms, black garlic, soy sauce, and chili crisp. This makes a good breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, etc., and is infinitely variable. Change the grain, change the flavorings, change the add-ins, change the condiments based on what you have.
And use them I did. I made a congee-like oatmeal porridge one day, and stirred the vinegar-free ones in, to produce a soothing bowl that was incredibly hearty and flavorful. The pickled mushrooms, meanwhile, have thus far been finding their way into salads, though I also think they'd be great as part of a vegetable sauté, with the mushrooms tossed in right at the end to warm them through, or served alongside some poached or pan-roasted fish or a nice roast chicken, or who knows how many other ways. You can also just snack on them.
The point is the roasted mushrooms are a component that I made with no clear plan, except that I knew it was a smart way to hold and use the mushrooms over many days.
And remember that Savoy cabbage I braised? Well what couldn't I serve it with? We ate it for dinner with roast chicken thighs, and then with weisswurst and mustard the next day (my kraut wan't ready yet, but this cabbage did a great job standing in). It'd be good with fish, or even some poached or fried eggs (come to think of it, I think maybe we did eat some with eggs...). See what I mean? Endlessly versatile.
Earlier I suggested roasting tomatoes. What would you do with them? You could add them to chicken braised with white wine, or chop them up and toss them into a quick pan sauce for pasta, or add them to the poaching liquid for some simple fish à la nage.
That's the beauty of making components. As long as you have some protein options, some prepared vegetables in "component" form, and a few other staples, you have yourself an infinite set of mealtime possibilities.
Quick pickles are just as useful to keep on hand for adding a bright punch to anything, from salads to rice bowls, to tacos, and more.
Here's another good example. The other day I bought an obscene amount of watercress. Far too much for any small family to eat before it'd go bad. But I knew we'd eat it, because I took a page out of the "Compress and Condense" playbook and combined it with this "Construct Components" approach to make a green purée that could be eaten several ways.
I used as my technical foundation both Sasha's spring greens pasta and my lettuce soup, which are, at their heart, very similar creations. In Sasha's recipe, he leans hard on the onions and other members of the allium family, sautéing them with some baking soda to help speed up the softening of the tough vegetable fibers so that you can get them very tender while keeping their fresh green color and flavor intact. He eventually serves the purée as a vibrant sauce for orecchiette.
In my lettuce soup recipe, I also start with a base of onions and garlic, but then add water, bring it to a simmer, and wilt tender lettuces in it before puréeing everything into a light, bright soup. It's less oniony than Sasha's, and it's thinner thanks to a higher water content, but it's otherwise the same basic idea.
I split the difference between Sash's recipe and mine, using plenty of alliums and keeping the liquid level (cream in this case) lower for a thicker final purée. Taking a page from my lettuce soup, I added four bunches of watercress to the pot, using Sasha's baking soda trick to soften them faster than just using heat alone. I also added some fresh mint, chives, parsley, and scallions for more layers of flavor, but all of these were optional and I could've used whatever was available.
Finally, I puréed the whole thing into a thick and gloriously green mousse-like substance. On the first night I kept it thick, using it as a pasta sauce, just like Sasha did. The next day I thinned the purée with water and heated it up to make a rich springtime soup, dolloping a little sour cream that happened to be kicking around in the fridge in each bowl. It works just as well as a sauce, particularly for roasted or poached chicken or fish. It was a component that could just keep on giving, and it did until it was gone.
There's another benefit to a component approach to cooking: You get less bored of your meals. Instead of dreading the Nth serving of that massive pot of chili you made,* you can twist and tweak your components just enough that every meal feels just different enough.
* Not that there's anything wrong with chili! Making some big pots of stews and braises is absolutely in the cards right now. It's just not the only hand you're going to want to play, over and over.
Just as important as all of the above components I've mentioned are condiments and sauces that can enliven any dish. Whether store-bought or homemade, things like chili crisp, XO sauce, romesco, pesto, and more, and be spooned and drizzled on countless dishes. Some of them freeze well, too, which is a plus these days.
No matter how well you stock up, prep, and plan, there are going to be moments when you just can't pull a dinner together. That's okay! All you need are a healthy assortment of easy fallback options to spot you in a pinch. Those can be frozen microwavable meals, instant ramen, super easy "recipes" like tortilla skillet pizza and instant ramen fried rice, or even sardines out of the tin, as I like to do.
Also don't forget that many of your local restaurants are desperately trying to remain afloat and pay as many of their employees as they can. Picking up the phone and ordering delivery, while perhaps too pricey to do all the time, is an option we should all keep on the table, for the table.
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