Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.
I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.
But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.
A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.
To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.
But my problem is that I'm terrible at planning. I'll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.
Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.
I know I'm wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.
So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell'Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.
The Game Plan
"Obviously I'm a big fan of planning," says Dell'Antonia. "There's nothing like realizing that it's 4 pm and you'll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you've got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time."
But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?
Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.
"When planning, think in terms of formats," she says. "Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary."
In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you'll buy overlapping ingredients.
At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.
"Don't shop for the seven nights' worth of formats—you'll waste food and money if something comes up," she advised. "Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner)."
Grant even suggests preparing more than one night's worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes "can be a life saver, You won't get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques."
Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you've chosen.
The Defense Formation
After you've figured out the formats and recipes you're interested in for the next couple of days, it's time to actually buy the food.
But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).
If you're not careful, you'll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)
That's why Dell'Antonia recommends shopping with a list, "and not buying anything that's not on it," says. "Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I'd spend in 'Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'"
Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. "Don't shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what's left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables."
Time to practice my new strategy.
I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant's blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)
Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.
I'm in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.
The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.
Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn't wither like a raisin during the process.
A sense of peace had been restored in my life.
Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.
But as Cara says, "Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook."
And if you're going to do it, plan ahead.
Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad: