Weeknight Cooking

The Goldilocks Solution: How to Eat Well at Home with Just Enough (Food, Variety, and Time Investment)

by:
October 20, 2016

We gave a lucky handful of community members a sneak peak of Amanda and Merrill’s new cookbook, A New Way to Dinner, and we’ll be featuring one of their reviews every day this week in celebration of the book's release—we'll see how their dinner game changed when they followed the plans for the book.

When testing this cookbook, I found three situations came to mind:

  • As children, my brothers, sister, and I used to come down from doing our homework to sit with our father and talk over the day as he ate his late dinner, after an evening shift as a pharmacist. Sometimes, he would ask for a bit more meat or vegetables so he would “come out even” at the end of the meal.
  • When I was making my first Thanksgiving in my 20s, I had a fair amount of cooking under my belt. Still, one of the biggest worries was everything coming out ready at the same time.
  • Last, now, living and cooking alone, and doing some cooking for friends, I want to eat good food, but not the same thing three times in a row, nor have too much food leftover at the end of the week.

We want the Goldilocks solution: just the right amount of food, variety, cost, and time investment to eat well at home. But how to do it?

This book addresses these issues in 16 year-round menus, with attendant shopping lists and cook plans. The writers, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, are businesswomen and trained cooks, who also put family dinner on the table week in, week out. The plans are heavily loaded to batch cooking at the start of the week, with some small tasks later on.

Shop the Story

Television shows and other cookbook writers have used similar approaches, but our authors find a nice balance between using too many ready-made ingredients (expensive and some degrade quickly) and too many fancy sub-recipes (chefs—you know who you are). So we get real food, from real ingredients, with the occasional yelling of “uncle”—real-life admissions that sometimes we're too tired, the pantry is empty, or we've run out of ideas, so let’s order pizza.

As all reviewers were asked, I tested one week’s plan (Amanda’s fall menu of tomato soup, short ribs and chicken, butternut squash and fennel). Some dishes I ate at home; some I took to friends’ tables for Rosh Hashanah, where we found some dishes more to our taste than others (the butternut squash puree and the chicken were big hits).

In addition to all of my thoughts on quality/time trade-offs, I had another test for the book: Would it work for someone (me) who keeps the kosher (Jewish food) laws?

Quantities

The plans are geared to a household of 4. If yours has many more, double up. If you have fewer, cut the recipes in half or only make some of the dishes. I found the quantities generous, and had more leftovers than expected. This makes sense if you are amortizing your time, and you can often freeze or re-purpose intentional extras.

Particular diets

From experience and reading, I think this book is usable by and valuable for kosher, halal, and vegetarian cooks, but would require too many adjustments by vegan or paleo cooks, or someone with a severe allergy in the household.

Other situations where this book might be useful

If you go away for vacation to a place with limited grocery shopping, or you don’t want to give your precious free time to it, use these plans for cottage/boat/skiing weekends. Also, if you have guests in town and, again, want to have more time with people and less with the slow lane at the check out, use these (week) plans for a long weekend with friends.

Market inspiration or strictly-planned menus?

If you’re a fan of “look and cook” (what looks good at the market is what I buy and cook that night or three), this book may sound too rigid for you. It’s not. The authors plan for seasonality. And no one says you have to cross every t and dot every i. If someone in your family doesn’t like fennel, choose another vegetable from that season’s menus. Also, I found the planning, shopping, and cooking a nice way to shake up my cooking habits.

Thinking back to my three original situations, this book would have helped my mother cook for a big household and plan for my father’s off-schedule meals, and it would have helped my younger self plan how to have Thanksgiving dishes ready to serve at the same time. Now, it will help my current self make tasty meals with some variety on a week-by-week basis.

Did you miss any of our community members' reviews from earlier this week? Find MrsWheelbarrow's here, aargersi's here, and Kristen W.'s here!

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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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6 Comments

Mrs B. October 24, 2016
Thank you, Nancy, for this lucid, thoughtful and informative review. I find your candor and clarity so refreshing. (It makes me wonder what you do when not participating in Food52 activities.)
 
Jennifer October 20, 2016
Hi Ali, Yes, thanks, I've read that intro section, and it does not respond to the kinds of questions I raised. I had pre-ordered the book from Amazon and was excited to start working my way through it. I expected to write what Joy wrote--that I love the "concept" of the book--but the actual book itself fails to deliver, on my view. Or maybe it's just me. "Day of" instructions include such pointers as "heat the soup," "slice the bread," and "dress the arugula." I suppose it depends on the individual reader--helpful? or insulting?
 
Mrs B. October 24, 2016
Jennifer, thank you for posting all of your comments here, which I have found interesting and quite helpful. Based on the advance press for the book and a peek at the T of C on Amazon, I've wondered how useful this book would be for someone like me, who has always planned meals well in advance. I approach it as a relatively simple project to manage, though like you, I'm constantly searching for better ways to execute the plan most efficiently, e.g., performing like tasks together, using the freezer - full of the meals and components made on the "cook once, eat twice" principle -- as a workhorse pantry, etc. <br />I've therefore been on the fence about whether to purchase this book. Your comments have provided valuable information in that regard. Happily, I discovered last week that the lending library in town has this in hand (still "processing"); my name is now first on the hold list so it's only matter of a week or so before I shall be able to see the book.<br />What one finds rather fascinating is that planning ahead is somehow "new." One can certainly see how doing so when one hasn't before would make a big difference.<br />Again, thank you for posting this helpful information.<br />P.S. A useful building block recipe on this site, with links to others which use it as a springboard, is Mallika Basu's tomato curry sauce. I make double batches and freeze it in small containers. https://food52.com/blog/13865-curry-on-how-to-use-indian-curry-sauce-in-5-dinners Look at her website as well. I'm currently on the hunt for more make-ahead components like this to prepare in quantity and freeze for future use. (Any suggestions?)
 
Joy October 20, 2016
I love the concept of this book. Being widowed for the past 2 years, I found myself dreading managing meals every evening. Eating healthy became a chore and I would find myself snacking on junk food because the labor of daily cooking for myself and no one else was a reminder every day of my loss. I love the fact I don't have to come up with a shopping list and in one single day of just a few hours I have complete HEALTHY meals for the rest of the week. So far the recipes are delicious, lots of flavor. I am happily anticipating cooking my way through all 4 seasons. This is the cookbook I have been searching for my entire cooking life.
 
Jennifer October 20, 2016
I strongly disagree with the reviewer that the book would be useful to vegetarian households. A standard menu is built around meat & dessert, with vegetables as an afterthought. Yes, the authors include seasonally appropriate vegetables--but menus are rarely built around them. My other big disappointment about the book is that it does not actually give that many tips about preparing food in advance. Given that the authors advocate cooking for the week ahead (assuming we all have a "weekend" or equivalent--what a great life they must have!), I expected more tips along the lines of--these vegetables can be chopped days ahead, but these can't be; these vegetables can be half-roasted, refrigerated, then finished in a final 20 minutes--that kind of thing. There are some organizational ideas, but I actually gain no information at all about what works and what doesn't in terms of advance prep. Book will be most useful to families with 1950s food preferences (and a work schedule that many working families would envy).
 
Ali S. October 20, 2016
Hi Jennifer: I'd love to help you with this! Each meal plan starts with a weekend cooking plan, which shows what you can do in advance. Then, on the page that lists the week's meals, it says exactly what you need to do to prep that night's meal, which is often very little since you cooked over the weekend (or if you don't have a weekend, you cooked ahead when you had three or so hours). For even more detail (or if you don't intend to make the whole plan), in bold in each recipe, it says "The day of:" and then gives instructions for what you need to do to bring a made-ahead dish to the finish line. For more general information, there's a section in the introduction about how best to store fresh, cooked, and frozen food, along with reheating tips.