When I was growing up, my mother would sit at the dining room table every Sunday morning, clipping coupons from the circulars and planning our meals for the week accordingly. She’d then post a weekly menu on the fridge in her loopy script — “Monday, Meat Loaf; Tuesday, Tuna Casserole; Wednesday, Salmon…” (we ate as though we still lived in the 1960s for much of my childhood) — and when she fielded the inevitable whiny “What’s for dinner?”, she’d direct us to “the menu” with a knowing look, shrugging off complaints, as if to say: “Well, sorry. That’s the menu. It’s immutable. Etched in stone. It’s been handed down by God.” After mapping out our meals, she’d draw up tidy grocery lists on narrow pads of paper, organized by store aisle. Such was the impressive scope of her organizational skills–and the depth of her familiarity with our neighborhood grocery. When we’d descend upon the supermarket, shopping was an organized affair in spite of the fact that she was often accompanied by five (!) children clambering for her attention: aisle by aisle, meticulously selecting the pieces on her list, no ingredient forgotten and — usually — no last-minute add-ins permitted. The staff behind the bakery counter routinely gifted us small, flavorless butter cookies in squares of parchment paper: the highlight of these perfunctory bi-weekly excursions.
Grocery shopping with my Dad was far more eventful. I remember him lingering in the produce section, tossing big bags of not-on-sale plump cherries and pricey fruit preserves into the cart, asking for samples of exotic cheese, palming little gold tins of fruit hard candies. Even better: he almost always gave in to special requests. “Can I get these chips?” He’d glance over and nod, distracted by an exotic $7 melon. “How about these gummy worms?” “Uh, sure.”
Looking back now, I understand my mother’s seeming austerity when it came to meal-planning and grocery-shopping: it was not only a major and time-consuming part of her weekly duties (she shopped every Monday and Thursday, usually needing that second trip to refill the larder with extra gallons of milk, jugs of juice, and produce) and therefore needed to be handled with efficiency, but her approach pre-empted questions and enabled a lot of other activities in our household to run smoothly. She was able to structure her days in order to prepare whatever needed to be prepared for dinner on an appropriate timetable, whether that meant putting something in the oven two hours early or dicing vegetables in the morning so she’d have time to get the meal on the table by six in between carpool and after-school activities.
But at the time, I felt as though meals were a perfunctory, borderline saturnine component of our lives: something to be ticked off rather than enjoyed. When I lived abroad in France, I vowed to “shop like the Europeans,” picking up a fresh cheek of fish and a handful of fingerling potatoes from the farmer’s markets that cluttered the squares of Lyon — or stopping into the local supermarket for baskets of in-season cherries and wedges of emmentaler cheese with a fresh baguette. “This is how you live,” I thought, fashioning myself as a bon vivant, indulging in the delicacies of the season.
Mr. Magpie lived in this way for most of our married lives: a stop at the grocery every day or two or three to pick up whatever was needed for supper and the next couple of days. A couple yogurts, a handful of plums, some fancy seeded crackers.
It wasn’t until our move to New York and mini’s entry into toddlerhood that I found myself sloping towards my mother’s habits, understanding, for the first time, the tremendous cost- and time-savings she managed to accrue owing to her hyper-organization around meal planning. I started placing routine Instacart orders for staples every Sunday: milk, yogurt, fruit, sparkling water, butter, vegetable must-haves like lettuce and cucumber, sandwich bread. I started keeping meticulous inventory of pantry staples like Justin’s peanut butter, Bonne Maman jam, McCann’s rolled oats, and mini’s favorites snacks (freeze-dried fruits, goldfish, applesauce pouches) and ordered back-ups whenever they were discounted. And then, in the last couple of months, Mr. Magpie and I started sitting down on Saturday mornings to plan our meals for the week like two blue-hairs from the 1950s. We poke fun at ourselves for this, but I can’t explain the amount of undue stress it has removed from our lives. You see, Mr. Magpie is a foodie. I could probably get by with a last-minute omelette or a clean-out-the-fridge salad and hunk of bread for most dinners. But Mr. Magpie needs a well-rounded meal — protein, veg, starch — and he likes variety over the course of a week. Most of our meal planning touches upon which protein we should have (“but we just had chicken last night!”) and how to vary the cuisine (“too much Mexican recently — what about some Vietnamese?”) I nurture his dietary predilections because he does more than half the cooking around here and I’m not in a position to complain, and, besides, I benefit from his varied palate. I’m not a song repeater, but when I like something, I’ll eat it every day for weeks if you let me — something that amuses and frustrates him. So he’ll sit with a stack of our favorite cookbooks in front of him and toss out ideas while I’ll call out some of our “staple dishes” until we’ve rounded out the menu for the week. We nearly always plan to make enough to have leftovers of each dish a second night so that we only cook three nights a week — unless we’re cooking seafood. Neither of us like second-day fish. And then he or I or both of us will head down to the butcher on Sunday morning after Church (we’ve noticed a precipitous decline in the quality of meat from Whole Foods in the last two years and now nearly always buy our meat from either Dickson’s Farm Stand, Eataly, or the Union Square farmer’s market) and I’ll add whatever other ingredients we need to our weekly Instacart order.
Oh, the birdsong I have heard ever since we adopted my mother’s formerly stodgy-seeming habits–especially now that we have made an effort to eat with mini at the table alongside us. I usually get dinner started (sometimes completed) while Mr. Magpie is still at work, and he’ll come home and finish things off, especially when there’s a steak to be pan-seared or a roast chicken to be carved, duties I am sure I could master but that I have always relegated to him, as master chef and man of the house. Pasta is usually under his purview, too: he’s a master at cooking it to the perfect level of al dente (P.S. — if you haven’t bought bronze-cut pasta from Afeltra, you haven’t lived; it totally changes the quality of even the most basic of pasta dishes. We buy it in bulk quantities from Eataly every time we are down in Flatiron.) and he’s gotten quite good at the art of “marrying” the sauce to the noodle by incorporating just the right amount of starchy cooking water.
Or if we’re both at home, I often handle the sides (and always the salads — I’m good at making homemade dressing) while he’ll treat the protein, as he’s particular about dry-brining and wrapping or not wrapping his meats in the fridge the night before. I can never keep up with his latest discoveries: does he like to let his pre-seasoned steaks sit on a wire rack, loosely covered in a dish cloth, or has that now been superseded by a new experiment with saran wrap? These are the intricacies of food preparation that interest me not at all, but that — I know — mark the difference between us as home cooks: he is all about detail and process, and I prefer…we’ll call it pragmatism in the kitchen, and I’m quite certain he’s a better cook than I am for it. But. If he hands me that damn Zuni book one more time with its over-fussy instructions, I might scream. Of course, the recipes always turn out flawlessly and I think, “OK, fine. Maybe he has a point.” But reading her recipes is like sparring with a really nit-picky know-it-all. “Add a decent amount of oil, but not enough to wilt the leaf. Chop the parsley finely but not too finely or you will break down the cellular…BLAH BLAH BLAH.” It’s like that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when Paul Rudd is telling Jason Segel how to stand up on a surfboard: “OK, pop up. No, do less. Pop up. Do more. You gotta do more. Pop up. Do less man.”
But I digress.
The bottom line is this:
Somewhere over the course of the last six months, we have evolved into new, more disciplined and organized, versions of ourselves. A part of me wants to say that this is owing to the imminent arrival of a second child and a corresponding need to stay even more organized than before. A part of me wants to say that New York has forced this orderliness upon us, as grocery shopping is no longer as easy as jumping in a car: there are crowded supermarkets, subways to navigate, long check-out lines, empty Oatly shelves (why is New York perpetually suffering from a shortage of Oatly?), the trickiness of knowing how much you can carry home in two bags with you, the fancy footwork of making sure you schedule your Instacart order appropriately as sometimes — especially in inclement weather — they will experience a surge in orders and be unable to deliver until the following day. But most of me knows that this is part of the inevitable march of time, the slow evolution of my youthful self into a version of my mother, a coming of age, a welcoming of this new, heavy-on-the-vine season of life.
How do you plan your meals?
+There are two items at the top of my kitchen gear wishlist: a Smeg four-slice toaster (we currently have a very good, perfectly proficient two-slice toaster but I am already finding that I am toasting things in batches for just three of us and I love the styling — but DO note that this thing is HUGE so I will need to make sure it actually fits in our next kitchen/after we move in the fall) and a Vitamix blender. We have a decent blender by Breville (actually the first kitchen appliance Mr. Magpie and I ever co-owned…one that led to quite a lot of hand-wringing TBH) but we’ve come to the conclusion that there is simply nothing as powerful as a Vitamix and any other blender is subpar. (Read reviews!) We’re in a place where we don’t use our blender enough to legitimize the purchase of a new one “just because it’s better” but…I’d love it.
+I daydream of an enormous pantry lined with utility shelving where I can stow every possible ingredient and access it with ease. One day, my friends. One day. And I will stow everything in these and these in tidy rows.
+Nothing tickles my organizational fancy more than my beloved label maker. It truly sparks joy in my soul. I actually might buy one of these for my sister — I think she’d get a kick out of it, too.
+New spring-to-summer candle scent: Lafco’s Duchess Peony. How did I not know about this elegant scent? Obsessed!
+These are the best solution for food/leftover storage. They never warp or color, can be microwaved, and create an airtight seal. Also, you’re never left trying desperately to shoe-horn one side of the tupperware top onto the lip of the bowl like you are with those plastic cheapies. When we move to NY, we threw away all of our plastic tupperware and invested in a good set of these and I’m so happy we did.
+Is it embarrassing to admit that I sent Mr. Magpie a birthday wish list and among several of the items here (at the top of my wishlist: this bag), I included this Miele vacuum? I’ve mentioned my love for this vacuum about two dozen times on this blog but I really, really want to upgrade to it.
+This is a super clever solution. We use colanders but I occasionally find that the water in the base of the sink floods the basin of the colander, which is kind of gross.
+Another random thing that sparks joy in my organization-loving soul: these can organizers, which I use to stow all of our sparkling water and San Pellegrinos. Stowing the boxes in the fridge blocks out a lot of light and also tends to take up too much space. It was actually hard to find a soda can organizer that stacked, but this one does! And the lid means you can stow extra stray cans and other items on top.
+Dying over this sweet babydoll pram.
+Did anyone else grow up with a breadbox in their home? Mr. Magpie finds this product so bizarre (and we certainly lack the counterspace for one at present), but we always kept bread in one of these. It’s meant to keep bread fresh and also — I like the fact that it keeps it all organized.
+There’s such a thing as a proper meal planning notebook?!
+Unrelated, but just ICYMI: my favorite caftan is on sale for only $60! I now own this in multiple prints/patterns and wear them alllll summer long.