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Deciding on dinner

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"A meal plan should not dictate your life." Tony Naylor

Every day everyone has to confront the issue of what to cook for dinner. Well no I guess that should be what to eat for dinner. After all we may go for a takeaway, we may go out for a meal, we may just reheat something from fridge or freezer, or we may be fasting. And for most of the world's people there probably is no choice anyway, indeed there may not be anything to eat at all. And this is dreadful and absolutely solvable if the world's movers and shakers put their minds to it. .However, I'm afraid, selfishly, I am only talking about what we well-off inhabitants of the western world do when faced with deciding what to eat for dinner.

So this post is inspired by this item on the left, which I found in Woolworths Fresh Ideas magazine. Read the text underneath the jar and you get the idea.

I have a lot of cookbooks and a lot of assembled recipes in folders from here and there, plus a database of recipes mostly gleaned from delicious magazines. I also check out the Coles and Woolworths magazines on a regular basis, and discover recipes on the net whilst writing this blog. Inevitably I come across things that I would really like to try. Indeed sometimes I vow to try them that week or next time someone comes to dinner - whenever. But inevitably I don't and so I forget all about them. So when I saw this idea in the magazine I thought maybe I could modify that by writing on a slip of paper or card, a recipe I see that I want to make - including where it came from of course - and then when I'm looking for ideas for what to eat for dinner I could pick one. Or I could make myself pick one once a week.

Pretty though that picture is with its tastefully chosen, artfully curled pieces of paper; from a practical point of view it's not very efficient is it? I mean are people going to scrabble for that small yellow curl in the bottom of the jar? And it's only a little jar. Wouldn't it soon fill up? Mind you that might be a good thing and make you do something quicker than if you have a massive number of option. Maybe you could put a time limit on it - a jar a month or something? Would that mean you would end up with a line of jars? Whatever you did, I suspect it would end up being like having a massive number of cookbooks. Even if you threw away the piece of paper or card, once the dish has been chosen and cooked I suspect it would end up being unwieldy. I suppose you could be firm and have a limit on how many cards in the jar - say ten - then don't put any more in until you've cooked all ten. Yes that might work,

Somebody suggested "post it notes one fridge of what we like". Same idea really in a different format, but the person who made this suggestion - it was a comment on an article - also confessed that the fridge was getting a little bit crowded with post-it notes. And anyway, do you really have to be reminded of what people in your family like? Surely you would know that. Suggestions for new things - now that might be an idea.

In a way my computer recipe database is a digitised version of the jar idea. I used to subscribe to delicious and pretty soon I had stacks of them, so I decided to go through them, pick out the recipes that I thought worth trying and put them in a database, It took me some time - over a year I would guess, because I just did one recipe a day, but eventually I had a collection on my computer. And every now and then I do turn to it, but it's just one of the many sources available when you are looking for, say, something new that uses corn.

Did I throw out the magazines? Well a few, but most are now stacked up really high in my kitchen looking faintly decorative and completely unreachable without a long step ladder. I kept them because the choices I made for my database were entirely dependent on how I was feeling the day I made the choice, Maybe one day I might need something else from the actual magazines. No not really. Obviously entirely irrational and actually not why they were kept. They were for decoration. You see the shelves were already there, so I had to put something on them. Mind you if you kept them for a hundred years or more they might eventually be valuable.

But going back to that ideas jar, how would you decide what to put in there? Do you disregard all the cookbooks neatly arranged on your shelves, and just go from what you encounter from hereon in or do you, for example, work your way through your books one by one - say one a week and pick something out for the jar. Or not, because nothing catches your fancy, as the case may be. Which could be disturbing - should you then throw out the book? Decisions, decisions ...

As you know I vowed to have a David's special meal once a week a long time ago. This meant that David would give me an idea - something vague - I remember a really good one being 'light but elegant' - something like that anyway - although more often or not he would just suggest an ingredient. Then I would rummage around and find something I had never made before. It was satisfying, but, as usual, somehow or other it disappeared as a weekly thing. I would like to blame it on lack of enthusiasm from David - I would tell him to think about it and he would promptly forget. So not wanting to nag it just didn't happen. So really it was my fault for not pinning him down. Or else I should just have found some other strategy for finding some new dish to make. Work my way through my library or something.

Anyway all this made me ponder on what others do when deciding what to cook for dinner. For myself there are a number of stimulants. What's in the fridge that needs using up, be it vegetables or leftovers, is obviously one starting point. I do try to have at least one vegetarian and one fish meal per week, although the fish, in particular, doesn't always happen, and I confess I am often tempted at the last minute to slide a bit of ham or bacon into my planned vegetarian meal. I also try not to have a lot of red meat on the menu. Besides it's so expensive these days is it not? And I do try to vary the cuisine as it were - not pasta every day sort of thing. But none of this is thought out in advance. It's always a night before decision, sometimes even ten minutes before. I would like to think I'm a bit like Nigel Slater in this, but I suspect not.

"I have made myself many a fine supper from warming a glug of olive oil and a slice of butter in a pan, then adding bits from the fridge – leftover cooked potato, sauteed vegetables or mushrooms, a few cold noodles or a spoonful of cooked rice, then folding in harissa sauce or several shakes of za’atar. A bit of a mixed bag to be honest, with some compilations more successful than others, but something of a blessing when you come home tired and hungry." Nigel Slater

I don't come home anymore of course - and actually now that I think of it, neither do lots of us - confined to working from home as many people still are. With me, it's just a time thing. Something needs to be prepared to eat at the end of the day, sometime around 6 or 7 in our house.

The magazines on the other hand, and all the home economics and health gurus, seem to think we should be planning our weekly menu. Every issue of the two supermarket magazines has at least one week of menus, sometimes two. There are always lots of tips for planning in advance so that you can do one big shop. They talk about your one big weekly shop - and I suppose there are lots of people who do this, judging by the quantity of food in some trollies. But I wonder do people actually do this? Even more I wonder whether anyone follows those supermarket plans.

I have a feeling my daughter-in-law follows a plan - plan that involves her two daughters cooking a meal each a week. I don't know how closely she follows it though, or whether it has any sort of structure. Well I just found out for here is her plan for this week - or part of it anyway. Lots of extra curricular activities to fit in there as well. Apparently each member of the family picks a day of a week and what they are going to cook on that day. Well little Max - he is five, almost six - just picks a day and says what he would like, but as my daughter-in-law says his choices are limited, because he doesn't really know what there is to choose from. So that's five days. I'm guessing mum does the other two. She also said that she is trying out a Palestinian recipe this week because she has to cook something Palestinian at a function that has something to do with refugees I think. Anyway she was asked to cook something Palestinian, so she is practising on her family first. Well done Dionne. I'm full of admiration. I would love to know how rigid it is kept to though.

There are, lots of suggestions for structure out there. Mostly from the health gurus who are very keen that you get your allotted quota of everything you should be eating. One of the more original suggestions I saw was this from The Guardian's Tony Naylor:

"Another useful discipline is to stick to one type of cuisine each week ... so you don’t end up having to use leftover pak choi in a lasagne." Tony Naylor

Wouldn't that be a bit boring though? I love Thai food but I do remember on a short break in Thailand yearning for something boringly British after a few days. And I think as much as I love French and Italian I don't think I would really enjoy a whole week of pizza and pasta. Yes, I know the Italians eat other things too but still. When you're on holiday there it's different because you have a whole range of possibilities in front of you on the restaurant menus, and besides you're in Italy! I don't think his argument about the pak choy works either. If you vary your cuisines throughout the week then you can fit in something oriental for the pak choy. Besides, why couldn't you put it in lasagne? Slice the stalks thinly and shred the leaves and nobody would know it was pak choy.

Maybe you should allot a day to each member of the family for their choice. You could probably think up some idea that would prevent them asking for spaghetti and meatballs every time. Not that I was able to overrule my son on his decree for dinner with the family yesterday. Shame on me. But it does show that that sort of rule might be tricky in a family with children. Children tend to be picky and not very adventurous.

One bit of good advice though, when planning, was to check the weather. A salad is probably better on a day of over 30 degrees than a day of 18 for example. The longer you are planning for, the less reliable the weather forecast will be. You should also check what's in season and what's on special at your local supermarket, and this is not just an economic thing. Things in season are not just in their prime and therefore tastier but they are also cheaper because there is lots of it. But that's just obvious.

Nowadays there are lots of tools to help you with the planning process. At left is just one of the many charts you can download. The shopping list is an important part of it and if you haven't got a lot of time, doing one big shop a week is an obvious advantage. It just doesn't allow for a lot of improvisation on the day. Or you could go for one of those meal box things where everything is decided for you. Now that's a real opting out of the decision process. Not a good one for people on a budget though.

Looking at all these magazines and the internet you would definitely think that everyone - well all the young yummy mummies are carefully drawing up detailed weekly plans for what they are going to cook for dinner. It must take ages, so I actually don't think it would save time.

"Not having to think about what you’re cooking is liberating. It saves money, time and stress.” Kate Turner

Another device I saw for deciding what to cook for dinner was the meal wheel. I think these are mostly apps like this one. It seems that you can change the options, but looking at the choices here, unless you can just type in what you want to type, rather than picking from a list you are likely to end up with a pretty unexciting, even unhealthy number of choices. The idea is that, faced with not knowing what to cook for dinner, you take out your app 'spin' the wheel and cook accordingly. Of course you still have to find a recipe. 'Asian' for example is a bit vague.

However, all that planning doesn't take into account mood does it? You may well have constructed a perfectly balanced in every way, week of dishes. Health, budget, variety, weather, seasonality all carefully taken into account. But what happens if, when you come to Thursday and you're supposed to be cooking pizza you just really don't feel like making pizza. I suppose if that's because you don't want to go to all the bother of making pizza dough, you can take a shortcut and use a premade base or a pita bread or something, providing you have been farthinking and organised so that you have such things in your freezer. But if you really don't fancy pizza what then? Well it depends how rigid you are I guess. The easiest way to compromise but still sort of stick to the plan is to swap a day, always supposing there are not other factors that might prevent this - weather perhaps. Or you could just abandon the plan anyway. Or maybe one of the days in the plan should be open with no suggested meal, and you could swap with that. Etc., etc. Honestly I really wonder how many people do indeed work on a plan and then stick to it. Do you? I would love to hear if you do. It's not something I have ever done in my life so I would be interested to hear whether it works or not.

Another approach is to sort of reminisce. To list somehow the foods/recipes that have given you pleasure in the past. This too I think takes a dedicated approach. Nigel Slater proposed this as a 'now and again' thing. He has a series of little black books - one is pictured at left (what very self-consciously decorative handwriting don't you think?) in which he writes down, each day, what he has eaten. From time to time he flicks through and may well cook something again. Mostly though he admits he reads back to see how his eating habits have changed. Which could well be interesting, but not much help if you are looking for ways to plan your eating.

"Take a look at what you were cooking a year ago, two years ago. It’s a good way to remember things you used to cook, and still love." Nigel Slater

Interesting but not really all that helpful when it comes to deciding what to cook for dinner.

I, however, shall be doing what I always do and working from what I have got in the fridge. What I have in the fridge is a mixture of leftover things, jars of condiments of various kinds and a selection of vegetables that I have usually bought on a whim from the supermarket mostly, although I am trying to get into the habit of a visit to the Queen Vic market every fortnight or so.

This is a picture of what I currently have to work with. Five cobs of corn - well you had to buy five to get a good price. Leftover sauce - lots of it, from last night's meatballs, ricotta cheese, that needs to be used before it goes off - ricotta goes off quickly. Then there is also some leftover spaghetti, a bit of leftover rice, tzatziki, coriander, tomatoes - and the usual things that are always there - eggs, cheese, carrots, lemons, grapes - they're in season.

Tonight it will be quiche. It's a warm day and quiche is nice on a warm day even if it uses the oven. I think it will be a corn and pea quiche with some ham - I bought too much for the children's lunches. There would be chilli too if it wasn't for David. I also bought too much cream because I thought I was cooking quiche for the family until my son, no sons bullied me into meatballs. We are going to the market with friends on Tuesday so I'm going to buy some fish for dinner that night I think. The fish is so wonderful there. Maybe I'll find some capsicum that is not exorbitantly expensive at last which will add a bit of variety. Zucchini too.

I would like to find some way of making myself cook something from an actual recipe - a new one to me - every week though. I'll try the David special meal thing again, but if he doesn't co-operate I'll just have to devise some new scheme. And stick to it. Aye - there's the rub.

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