All the Thoughts When It's Time to Plan Dinner

November 12, 2015

At 5:45 P.M., the thoughts start: a lengthy mental list of conditionals—often all at once, often in the span 30 seconds—to determine whether to eat leftovers, to ignore those leftovers and start something new, or to throw my hands in the air and buy a Shake Shack 'shroom burger.

My mental map is actualized below; I can add or subtract depending on the circumstances that apply. (I imagine yours might be similar, though probably is not on paper.)

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A score that's between -26 and -6, I eat out (or eat leftovers).
If it's between -4 and 21, I cook something.
And if it's equal to -5, I start thinking of another way to sway my decision...

No, I don't actually use this chart to calculate whether or not (or what) to cook—but sometimes I think it would be easier that way. Maybe there's an app for that?

What questions go through your mind as your planning what to do for dinner? And how do you decide whether to cook or eat out?

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marcia
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  • aargersi
  • AntoniaJames
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Marcia November 16, 2015
I live alone, food and I are in a love hate relationship. I love food, I love experimenting but I hate having to be the one to cook it every single damn night, so I play pantry/fridge lotto. I keepa well stocked pantry so I grab a few items from the fridge and see what staples I can add to create a meal. One night i was craving a creamy carbonara but had none of the ingredients, so i used coconut milk with a pinch of chicken stock powder, threw in some fresh basil and just because i wanted some textural crunch added fresh snow peas. Its become a favorite of mine and also a big hit with a workmate who cant eat dairy. I've also seen wooden foodie dice (that combine a protein, cooking method, grain/carbs, herb and seasonal veges) which i think are a great idea for literally shaking things up a bit.
Ali W. November 13, 2015
This article made my day. Also, death to all Times Square restaurants.
Sarah J. November 13, 2015
This comment made my day!!
Aliwaks November 13, 2015
Ok - first of all we may be separated by births because I almost always crave either matzoh brei or ramen.

My matrix works differently- mainly because I life in a small town-- I make a menu and shopping list on Saturday and go to farmers market then supermarket then all week i cook what I say I'm going to cook unless I can get away with either matzoh brei or ramen (last night planned on salmon w pureed cauliflower- but since salmon was frozen, so I had an excuse I made ramen with chicken breasts & broccoli instead). Also now I want need must have matzoh brei at some point in the next 24 hours or I will die.
aargersi November 13, 2015
Don't Die Eat Matzoh Brei!
(bumper sticker?)
aargersi November 13, 2015
My approach is a bit different:
Weekend - go to Farmers Market and buy all of the things
- go to grocery store and buy all of the other things
- shove everything into fridge and pantry (in an orderly "well I know where it is anyhow" kind of way)

WEEK - root through the things each day. Pull out a few that go together. Configure them into something dinner-ish. Contemplate - wine or no wine? (stupid question). Eat. Rinse. Repeat.
AntoniaJames November 12, 2015
i can't imagine approaching this on a day by day basis. I plan my meals at least a week at a time, do advance prep on the weekend and also where it's efficient during the week (e.g., when chopping/sweating onions for pot pie on Monday, I did 2 of them, reserving one for Sahni's excellent brown rice, cashew and broccoli pilaf I'm serving tonight), and I always have at least 4 or 5 nearly complete meals in my freezer in case something comes up.

You get pretty good at this when other people are depending on you to feed them night after night, year after year, and you also just happen to be responsible for making payroll. ;o)
ktr November 12, 2015
I'm in the same boat. I've also learned to include a few meals that can be made really quickly and be flexible about what meals get made on each night because it's inevitable that something will come up at least one night of the week to change my dinner plans (husband gets home late, kids have decided they are monkeys, etc).
Sarah J. November 12, 2015
I hope to be more like you both one day! Inspiring.
702551 November 13, 2015
Learn to accept leftovers and keep some stock/broth in your pantry as well as a cooked starch (rice, potatoes, stale bread, etc.). This will allow you to make the same sort of peasant food (fried rice, soups/stews) that people have been making for centuries.

If you want inspiration for daily cooking, don't look at the people in the subway and try to guess what they are going to have for dinner. Look at what people in third-world countries have been eating for the past century or so.