When Meal Planning Saves You

This post was originally written a year ago, back when I was super optimistic about how long it would take to launch this blog. The post just seemed like it was meant for spring, so I held onto it until now---once again, the week before Easter. Nearly a full year later, the meals in this book still never fail to perk up my meal planning and remind me why we prioritize gathering around the table. 

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I hate meal planning.

Oh, I love the idea of plotting each meal nicely in it's calendar square, guiding me away from last-minute takeout and the frustration of an empty pantry. I even love it in practice: meal planning undoubtedly saves us hundreds of dollars on groceries each year, not to mention the untold frustrations of dragging two small children to Target for that block of cheese I forgot (again).

What I hate is the activity of meal planning.

There is never an hour (or even ten minutes) in which I think, "I'd like to devote this portion of my life to figuring out what my family will eat for the next seven days." Never is there a convenient time for digging through the pantry, rearranging pasta boxes and canned goods to see if we're running low on olive oil. 

And after all that, having the prophetic-like vision to combine the existing pantry goods with not-yet-purchased ingredients and make them into nourishing, well-rounded meals? Meals that fit effortlessly with the weather, our social plans, and whatever other events make their way onto our calendar? Forget about it.

Meal planning is a chore on par with scrubbing the bathroom.

Until one Sunday night, it wasn't. 

We had all been crabby and tired this particular Sunday. The toddler had meltdowns all day long. The baby kept bursting into screaming fits for no apparent reason. I accidentally fell asleep on the floor for five minutes when I took a break from folding laundry.

It was a long day, one in which we all clearly needed to hit the reset button.

The last thing I wanted to do was meal plan, but I knew I had to. It was the week before Easter. Not only did I have to round up a week's worth of dinners (including one vegetarian for Good Friday), I had to make sure I had all the ingredients on hand for the dishes we would bring to our family's Easter celebration.

Meal planning usually leads me to Pinterest, but the holiday had me reaching for printed recipes. I dug to the back of the cupboard, past the cutting board and splatter screens and muffin tins, for the cheese slicer. This is where we keep the paperclipped scraps of copy paper and post-its with my grandma's scrawling handwriting detailing the makings of our traditional family Easter Pizza. (This is the only recipe for which we use the cheese slicer, so leaving the recipe there makes sense in my head.) 

I grabbed my latest Taste of Home magazine from the basket on the fireplace hearth, hopeful that it would tell me how to make green bean casserole. Next came the mother of all cookbooks: Better Homes and Gardens. Its red-checkered cover has graced my kitchen since the day I got married, when my other grandma presented it as a wedding gift. 

And then on a whim, I picked up Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta and added it to the top of my pile. With my whiteboard calendar on my right and my stack of recipes on my left, I prepared to tackle the drudgery of meal planning.

But the drudgery never came. 

As I read through my grandma's handwritten recipe notes, I realized that I was sitting in complete silence for the first time in days. It was a moment that begged to be noticed, so of course, I read a poem.

I knew I would love Eat This Poem because I love the idea of marrying poetry with food. The book is a blend of life's best things: well-loved recipes and mini essays and curated poems to pair with them. (And if that appeals to you, check out the blog of the same name. It's a delight.)

Author Nicole Gulotta is a kindred spirit when it comes to poetry and writing and appreciation of good food. But I don't always share her idea of what good food looks like. She eats a largely vegetarian diet, and ours is decidedly meat based. She loves a good balsamic vinaigrette on a salad; I love Hidden Valley Ranch.

Still, we agree on the important parts: The best food is whole food, made from scratch, shared with those you love. Family recipes are sacred. Eating seasonally makes your food taste better.

I flipped through the book, devouring poetry and short essays along with recipes (many of which I know I'll never make). Soon an hour had passed , yet nary a meal had been planned. And then, Italian Beef Stew. 

This was the recipe I'd been waiting to find, the one that would fill us up on a chilly, rainy Monday. 

I added the ingredients to my list. I pulled meat to thaw from the basement freezer. I added a flag to the book.

This was meal planning as it was meant to be, savored as slowly as the meal itself. I had found connection through the line-by-line instructions of a family recipe, paired with carefully chosen poems.

Perhaps this meal planning was a failure. After all, I spent nearly two hours planning one meal. But I think it was a gift and a blessing, one I will be sure to seek out again.