When the pandemic started, I made a weekly menu and stuck to it with religious fervor. Every Monday we had the same pasta; every Thursday, the same pizza. The obsessive routine helped with everyone’s anxiety: When the news seemed to change hourly in March and April, knowing exactly what was for dinner each night was a small point of control. Of course, mommy bloggers, influencers, and “clean”-eating gurus have long extolled the virtues of menu planning — it’s supposed to help with everything from portion control (dubious) to quelling whining about dinner (more dubious). It did none of these things for me, but during the first phase of the pandemic, precise menu planning was both practical — it stretched our groceries as far as possible — and emotionally necessary.
It’s now been six months; the at-home eating habits we had at the beginning of the pandemic are shifting as supply chains (for now) stabilize. My version of menu planning started to feel stifling: I would show up in the kitchen Thursday to make what I had ordained I would make on Sunday and feel a bored sort of dread. So in September, after writing out an exact list of what I would cook every Sunday for six months, I threw out my menu. I couldn’t take the monotony anymore. But that didn’t work either: Instead of being simply bored, I was anxious, rushed, and unmoored. Facing the kitchen at 5 p.m. with no concrete plan was worse than existential ennui. There is no way to make the constant production of food during a pandemic fun, but surely there was a happy medium between overplanning and underplanning.
By the end of the month, I had a new kind of “menu,” one that left room for creativity. I discovered I still need some routine — flying blind for the week doesn’t work with grocery shopping still at a minimum. Instead of a precise list of ingredients and meals for the week, I’m using rough guidelines that felt useful, rather than constricting — that means (mostly) discarding recipes and precise grocery lists in favor of writing “whatever looks good and is on sale” on the shopping list and “some kind of pasta.” The menu, in other words, has been liberated.
Only plan for dinner. Your niche for daily novelty needs to be breakfast. Assuming you aren’t logging into a 9 a.m. Zoom, it’s more viable to try sticky buns (prep the night before), sourdough pancakes, overnight oats, or savory yogurt on short notice than a complicated new recipe at 6 p.m. Lunch is a free space for sandwiches, leftovers, or cut-rate charcuterie plates from Aldi. Just don’t post pictures to Twitter.
Plan, but not too much. I plan meals around a complete protein and staple starch — aka my version of the house meal. We have Legumes Night (including tofu), Fish Night, Poultry Night, Noodle Night, and Meat Night (Leftovers and Takeout Nights make seven). In my house, those anchor ingredients always go with either rice or pasta as a carbohydrate. In your house, it might be corn or quinoa. Using an anchor ingredient lets me know what’s happening every night while still leaving freedom to change it up weekly according to everyone’s mood, energy level, and the season.
Build in breaks. Designate one night for leftovers and, money permitting, one night for takeout. Vary where you get takeout, so you get rotating flavors. You will not want to do this, because going to the same pizza joint every week is comforting. Do it anyway. If you have a long-term relationship with said pizza joint, warn them when you start to shake it up or else, like me, you may get a call from an irate Napoli man demanding to know if you’re in the hospital or what. As for the leftovers, I personally prefer to make leftovers into a new dish rather than microwave the original (roast chicken made into chicken soup, kitchen-sink frittata, pasta with tomato sauce made into fried spaghetti). However, most children seem to hate these tricks. Buyer beware.
Pick a night for experiments. Choose a type of cuisine you wish you knew more about. Got the budget for it? Preorder some new cookbooks. No budget? Check YouTube. Then, try one night every other week where you cook something new. If you get to experiment night — or any night, truthfully — and it seems too overwhelming, try breakfast for dinner, which conveniently also works as a backup in case said experiment goes disastrously sideways. Tip: Check for local specialty grocers before committing to a deep dive into a new cuisine. It’s a lot less fun to splash out on three new Indian cookbooks only to find you can’t get ahold of reasonably priced fresh curry leaves or black cardamom.
Rotate nights. Every few months, change it up. You’d be surprised how scandalous moving Legumes Night over a day can feel. Tip: If you have neurodiverse children (or are neurodiverse yourself), this may not be the best plan. Pasta Night is always Monday night in our house, and Takeout Night is always Thursday night. We find our novelty elsewhere.
Embrace crowd-pleasers. Inevitably, not everyone will love Experiment Night, including you. The rest of the week lean into crowd-pleasers. This is not the time to deny children dessert (please, just let them have dessert) or insist on paleo-keto-cauliflower whatever the fuck excuse for a noodle that American health cults have come up with this time. Just eat the pasta.
Commit to ritual meals. Experimentation is all well and good, but there’s a lot to be said for the ritual of designating one night a week where you make something that isn’t more complicated but does feel more luxurious. Religious cooks already have this covered. In our house, Red Meat Night is always Friday night, which is also the only night we have fresh-made bread. But the atheists and spiritual-not-religious among us need ritual meals too. Secular Christian atheist? Try making a to-do out of Sunday lunch. Embracing celebratory meals that mark time let us feel more comfortable within time.
Read (then ignore) food media. I read the New York Times’s “What to Cook this Week” email every week and every week, without fail, I cook absolutely nothing from it. Same for Samin Nosrat’s delightful Home Cooking podcast. But somehow, simply reading or listening to food-related media shakes loose ideas and plans for what to cook in the coming week. Just looking at things through a fresh set of eyes can be enormously helpful, even if you never actually cook the shallot pasta or make the no-knead bread.
T.S. Mendola is a writer living in Philadelphia.
Photo credits: Hands, Red Sky/Getty Images; Fire, Prasngkh Ta Kha/EyeEm/Getty Images