7 Habits of the Highly Systematized Meal Planner

Brain with PuzzleHow do you explain how you do something that is automatic for you? How do you breathe? It just happens — I don’t think about it. How do you speak English?  I just do — I don’t know how not to. How do you solve puzzles? I might be able to say something about that, but it’s clear that I “don’t have privileged access to my own mind” (heard that in an interview with Errol Morris this morning – it struck a chord).

Questions about how I plan meals, after my menu planing terrorist post a couple of days ago, stumped me. Did you notice that I missed my daily posting yesterday? I felt compelled to answer, but the words didn’t fly from my fingers. How can I access that part of my mind?

Morris, the documentary film maker, believes that we often need to be interviewed to unpack and organize our thinking. In lieu of any such deeper excavation process, I’m flying solo on what I came up with – just me and my keyboard. 

What follows is an attempt at unpacking the micro-decisions that go into solving the meal planning puzzle and then summarize them. I’m no expert, this is just how I get through my cooking week. [A welcome relief from obsessing about the virus]

Here are a few simple considerations I was able to tease out of my mind. Maybe they will offer some insights – maybe you’ll just order take-out instead. More likely, you already know this stuff!

1.  Begin with the end in mind.

What is the last meal in the sequence? What could you purchase today and make fresh two weeks from now. Park that at the end of the list. That’s your starting point. Something like baked sweet potatoes with Edamame and peas – I like it topped with some grated habanero cheese. Those veg I usually get frozen and the potatoes can keep a long time. Red beans and rice is another good one for the end of the line, or scratch mac and cheese with baked cauliflower. Big favorites at our house.

If you see something at the store that will be ripe in a week-or-so pick it up and re-jig the menu when you get home — on a recent trip I saw a hard-as-rock green pineapple that was delicious after sitting in the fruit bowl ten days. Avocados, pears, cantaloupe and tomatoes are notorious for being green – ripen them on your counter.

2. Front end Fish and fancy foods.

Firs things first. Serve fresh fish on the first night. Unless I’m getting fish at the fish market, I assume it’s been frozen already, so best prepare it as quickly as possible – definitely do not re-freeze. Also slot in the impulse purchase of the special fruits you were lured into buying as you walked in the store. They are trying to unload them, because they’re about to go bad. Maybe some mangoes, avocados or raspberries. Get these perishables on the menu early on.

3. Back end dry goods and things your grandma put in the cellar.

The second week’s meals are filled with the roots, cruciferous veg, apples, pears and citrus accompanied by a variety of grains and legumes or beans. If you’re a meat eater, I’m sure you will have put something in the freezer to handle the extra protein – you’re on your own with meat planning. If not, like me, you will have a stash of tempeh, tofu, seitan or rice and bean combos to round things out.  Now you have your first couple of meals and your last ones, so just a few more to fill in between.

4. Double up. Make once – Use twice – Think Win-Win.

This is more strategic than guaranteeing a simple pipeline of leftovers. This is making double of something that takes a bit more effort but doesn’t take double the effort to make double the quantity. Does that make sense … or did I lose you? A good example of this is pie crust. I made a crust recipe for a quiche last week, and made extra for a pan-sized pot pie a few days later. Another regular feature in busier times was making a massive volume of mashed potatoes – I served half of it at the first meal as a side, and the other half became the topping for a shepherd’s pie a couple of days later.

5. Throw in some wild cards when you get to the store. First understand what’s there.

You won’t have all the answers to your plan until you first see what’s on offer at the store. Build in space for something unexpected. This week I threw in a big red cabbage – it looked too good to pass up. It’s not anywhere in my meal plan, but I know I have a tasty Asian red cabbage and carrot recipe that would go great with some frozen veggie burgers and sweet potato fries. That could be an extra meal to stretch the next grocery run, or make a lunch if there aren’t any leftovers one day.

An add-on to this, is make sure to load up on basic fresh foods that last a long time – even if they’re not on the menu: I’m thinking primarily potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, apples. Also have some basic frozen foods that are adaptable to lots of recipes: all kinds of green veg and some fruits that go in smoothies. This builds in flexibility.

6. Plan for large recipes. Be Proactive.

Large recipes become your lunch the following day. These are even more delicious during long isolation days at home. If however, your household has put the kibosh on leftovers, you can refashion them and disguise them as a side dish the following day.  Like copious veggies in a stir fry with a protein one night can be the side dish the next night baked with grated cheese or similar cover-up technique. The secret here is to never tell.

7. Get over the “I might not feel like eating it” syndrome. Synergize.

You can do some re-arranging as the week unfolds — this is, after all, your menu. Massage it, optimize it, re-create it. Look for the synergies across the different days and meals. I promise you that you’ll quickly get into the groove and get determined to make this work. Hey, in case of total melt-down, there’s always the college emergency backup of cereal or popcorn for dinner, or pizza take out. 

I’m sure I’ll think of much more to say as soon as I press the “Publish” button on this, but I’m also sure this is already more than you care to read.

Have some fun! Let me know what strategies you would add here.

Toilet paper and masks for Easter Sunday party favors

Easter Sunday-1The early morning is quieter than usual. The dark stormy sky and eerie silence feels ominous. The alerts on my phone show the US breaking new coronavirus records. We always do like to be at the top of charts. Easter Sunday does not announce itself with a rousing “He is Risen” joyfulness. 

Texts and WhatsApp messages await from near and distant time zones. Best wishes from Texas, Asia and Europe are heart-warming and bring a sense of connectedness that is reassuring. 

The quote in the last entry of my Lenten daily reflections from Thomas Merton also gives courage: “But now the power of Easter has burst upon us with the resurrection of Christ. Now we find in ourselves a strength which is not our own, and which is freely given to us whenever we need it.”

A windy and balmy walk before morning tea and newspapers soothes the soul. The streets are deserted. No cars full of Easter church goers with crisp new dresses and seer sucker suits. I’m donning all purple Lulu Lemon as my special Easter outfit.

The church service streams on Facebook Live propped on a makeshift coffee table on the patio. Neighbors stroll by and wave – everyone moving at half speed. There’s no rush. No big family dinners to prepare.

We agree to a social distancing take-out Mexican lunch in the garden with our adult children. Two tables set up at 6ft apart, it’s more like sitting at a conference table than a family dinner. The serving and food handling carefully kept separate by gloves and sanitizing cloths. The clouds part, the heat and humidity overwhelm. After too much food and margaritas we succumb to the call of an afternoon nap.

We yearn to retreat to our air conditioning, so call it a day. Maybe next year will be different. We bid each other safe-distance farewells and promises of outdoor dates in a couple of days when the next cool front blows through. Ahhh, back inside the house we enjoy the delicious a/c and naps.

The afternoon is sprinkled with circulating family photo texts  – each grouping in the safety of their isolated bubbles. News of a tornado in NE Louisiana in my brother’s town lights up the group text anew – they mark themselves safe. Checking in with my stepmother, I learn that their take-out Easter dinner from the yacht club this year included a roll of toilet paper and two surgical masks as party favors. A cousins sends out an appeal for masks – her daughter-in-law, a surgical nurse at a local hospital, is getting exposed to COVID-19 patients without proper protection. Scary.

I listen to the Andrea Bocelli Easter Music for Hope live from the Duomo in Milan. It brings tears to my eyes. Today’s empty streets in European capital cities look like scenes from an apocalypse movie. Who could have imagined this just a few weeks ago.

Late afternoon we experiment with our first remote video Boggle game challenge with my son’s fiancee. The three girls, me, my daughter and future daughter-in-law battle it out. What a welcome escape and energizer. In spite of the copious chocolate eggs that I consume to fuel my brain, I am defeated by my high-functioning daughter. She’s in medical school and clearly at the top of her game. You go girl! But I demand revenge tomorrow.

Now the sun is setting … I’m still too stuffed from chocolate eggs and fajitas and chips to worry about supper. Let’s go for another walk before we close the shutters on this most strange of Easter Sundays.

“Next year in Jerusalem”


Holy Week – Holy Zoom Transformation

Queen of Virtual MeetingsIn less than four weeks, my allergy to virtual meetings seems to be recovering. I noticed at the end of the Holy Thursday Zoom service that my fever had broken. I wasn’t rushing to click the Leave Meeting button; I was suspended in the moment, sitting quietly with my fellow Zoomers as the final image of the bare altar was projected onto the screen.

After decades of exhausting corporate collaboration across far too many time-zones and cultures, I really didn’t care if I ever participated in a Zoom, Webex, Skype or any other flavor of cool connectivity tool ever again. When I retired I took off my “Queen of Virtual Meetings” crown – yes, that was my nickname! I was done with that.

And then along came the Coronavirus, and self-isolation and “Stay At Home” orders. My beautiful retired world switched to Zoom overnight. I felt like I was right back at work and not happy about.

But this Holy Thursday Zoom service was a pivotal moment. It mirrored my 4-stage transformation over the past 4 weeks of social distancing. This is my more sober variation on Jimmy Kimmel’s 5-stages of the Coronavirus.


I started out the appointed hour Thursday evening feeling rushed. This was an imposition on the well worn groove of our new evening sequence of activities. I pull myself away from that cozy, dull routine to power-up, login, put on headset, connect audio & video. By the time I’ve reconnected three times due to dropped internet and cursing AT&T, I’m feeling irritated as well as imposed upon. As others join and I try to assist them in finding the video, or the Chat, or getting them to show their face instead of the ceiling or feet. It’s like teaching someone to drive blind. Now I’m frustrated too. What am I doing here?

That describes my Week One in isolation with Zoom. Not these meetings again?  I just want to be with people face-to-face. I’m feeling imposed upon, irritated and annoyed at having regressed to living my days out in online bubbles.


As everyone gets connected, the smiles, laughter and sense of joy start to percolate through the bumpy start. Most are happier to see each other, to reconnect, than they are worried about any earthly technical nuisances. That has a calming effect on me. I can see the value in this. Look at their faces. Nevertheless, I’m still hovering around the edges trying to push for more efficient tool usage. Getting everyone to use this feature, or that feature. Pushing for deeper functionality usage rather than deeper connections. These are, after all, the same thing for a techy.

That describes my Week Two in isolation with Zoom. The annoyed expert and even more annoying know-it-all. Once pressed into service, wanting it to be technically flawless and technically exquisite.


Then the service starts, someone else takes control. My “co-hosting” role is removed – both literally and figuratively. They’ve created new ways to transform this corporate tool into an experience that might also touch our hearts. I trust these leaders, so I sit back and watch. All the while carefully taking note, ready to catch them if they fall, willing them to succeed.

That describes my Week Three in isolation with Zoom. No longer “Queen of Virtual Meetings” , it’s like being past president on a committee. You feel like you still have a stake in the success of the outcome. You’re torn about no longer being in charge; partly relieved and partly missing being in the center of all the action. Overall you’re happy to be on the sidelines.


Then the service moves into the meditation of Jesus washing out feet (since we’re not doing virtual feet washing) and I’m transported. I’m no longer in a Zoom call in 2020 during a pandemic, rather I’m at the Last Supper with Jesus over 2,000 years ago. I’m fully engaged in the service, immersed in this bubble of time and space. I’m connected to my spiritual community a way that feels even more proximate, more tangible and more real than sitting next to each other in the pews at church. It’s unexpected. How did they do this?

This experience transcends technology. I’m stunned. I’m deeply moved.

That describes my Week Four in isolation with Zoom. The corporateness has evaporated. These Zoom calls have lost their straight-jacket dimension. They’ve gone from life-draining to life-giving. It’s a tectonic shift.


Zoom is no longer about a corporate technology – I am indeed done with that. Rather, it’s become a rich, multi-dimensional life-line. I’m grateful. I’m finally onboard!

Happy Easter!

[Special recognition to Rev. David Wantland, Roger Hutchison, and Dustin Jesudason for their creative re-imagining of our Holy Week at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in this time of social distancing. It’s been powerful and memorable!]

Slipstream paranoia

slipstream runnersI cannot get this picture out of my head. The person in front is one of those speedy runners zipping past me on my daily run, and the person in the back, splattered with COVID-19 lurgies, is of course ME dragging along behind!

A new study, a collaboration between Leuven University in Belgium and Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, popped up in my Facebook feed last night with this picture [thanks to my cousin Cindy]. The title “Why in times of COVID-19 you can not walk/run/bike close to each other” demanded to be clicked. I definitely needed to know about this.

If the speedy runner’s “cloud of droplets” are free of contamination, then this is reduced to an abstract yuck factor. If they do have COVID-19 however, then I’m getting slammed. The trails along our bayou are narrow. Running single file is the only option in many places. Geez, yet another COVID worry that will require extra vigilance. Is it even possible to make my outdoor routes safe? To what extremes do I really need to take all these precautions?!?!

With this new picture imprinted in my brain, I braved one of my usual routes this morning. Everyone in my field of vision became a potential threat. I continuously scanned the horizon, like one of those green radar screens on a submarine … in an old movie. Bleep – adjust – bleep again – adjust course again. Avoid the torpedoes and destroyers. I could see all these imaginary emissions spewing behind the runners, walkers and bikers around me.

According to latest findings in this Belgian-Dutch study, “the scientist advises that for walking the distance of people moving in the same direction in 1 line should be at least 4–5 meters, for running and slow biking it should be 10 meters and for hard biking at least 20 meters.” 

That’s all well and good, but when they quietly sneak up behind me, and swish past me, I have little recourse. They breeze by, cut in front, and I’m sprayed (see picture again) by the time I can react.

The study states that The risk of contamination is the biggest when people are just behind each other, in each other’s slipstream.”

So when forced into the “slipstream” what can I do? Slide down the embankment to the water, or jump out into the deep weeds, or the road, and by then it’s too late anyway (again … see picture of me covered in red-, yellow-, blue-, green-sized viral droplets), or start wearing a mask? Forget the mask — that thing makes for labored breathing in an air conditioned room – much less in humid 89F temps while running (yep, that’s ~32C for my metric friends – it’s getting hot round here already).

Today I abandoned the bayou trail after a few hundred yards and returned to the neighborhood streets. I found running in the middle of the road was really the best way to avoid the slipstream. Cars don’t sneak up on you and they just spew out exhaust fumes – I can handle that, my lungs are used to it.

Oh wait … the mayor is announcing on the radio right now that “County and City Parks will be closing at midnight tonight for the Easter Weekend”.

Maybe I’ll be running in place in the garage tomorrow, or doing laps around our postage-stamp sized garden?

Conquering the Mask

Mask SuppliesToday was going to be Mask Day. Not the wearing of a mask, rather the making of a mask. I’ve witnessed enthusiastic and prolific sewers of masks scattered across the landscape of my internet feeds. A cottage industry has popped up in this country churning out an assortment of bright colors, funky designs, re-purposed cool t-shirts, even a Melitta coffee filter version.

I love sewing but none of this has inspired me. I used to love finding a unique pattern and unusual fabric to make a new outfit. But a cloth surgical mask? … not cute. I’d have to dig through my stash of sewing supplies buried in the back of the closet, find a pattern online, reacquaint myself with the workings of my sewing machine, etc. All very tedious. I don’t think so – it can wait. And anyway, there was no urgency to have a mask since we a) basically never leave the house and b) none of the experts can agree whether this is useful or not.

Now it seems that the ‘experts’ are getting behind the wear a mask campaign. I guess I’d better join the band of merry mask makers. Enthusiasm is still lacking, but I willed myself into the closet this morning and started pulling out boxes to see what I had on hand.

With the ‘Sew Easy’ pattern displayed on my smartphone I checked off all the materials needed. In my treasure trove of saved-just-in-case-you-need-it sewing supplies I found everything on the list – even pipe cleaners for the nose bridge fitting. At the family fitting session at lunch there were some complaints about the stretchy-ness of the elastic on my prototype. Well, ok, so maybe that elastic in the packet with a 75 cents label was a bit on the old side, so I replaced it with some I found in another packet costing 90 cents, and we were good to go. [Out of curiosity, I looked up the current price online and see that it now costs $4.99 – oops, I guess I’ve been saving that for quite some time.] There was also some grumbling about it being too loose around the sides and the pleats not being as tight as they should be. I can tell these are going to be picky customers.

The second product to roll off the production line was much improved. The elastic was tight, the gaping on the sides was remedied and the pleats were might tighter. It even has a pouch for a filter insert. It’s the Cadillac of masks, IMHO, I was chuffed. Then there was some questioning about the smell of the fabric. It smelled a bit ‘old’, maybe musty. Where had the material come from? Honestly, I’m not sure. If I had to guess, it came from the same place as that 75 cent elastic. Maybe they won’t read this. I’m going to put a dab of lavender oil on each one. 

And now, on closer inspection, I’ve been informed that one side is longer than the other. Yep, a bit fussy. These people!

Four more cut out and ready to go. It’s becoming a matter of pride. I’m going to get it right. Even if I miss my daily appointment with my blog tomorrow, I will conquer this mask thing.

Mask Lynn-cropped