The responsibility of cooking rarely rests with me. For the sake of my family’s health, this is a good thing. It’s not that I am unwilling to help and more that I don’t bring a lot to the table. If meal prep were left to me, I’d dig out my third grade lunch calendar and we’d have the same ten awful meals in rotation. Soy burgers, tots, and “salad”! Yum!

That’s probably my greatest weakness: meal planning. Wife once told me in college that a meal must include a side. Up to that point, when I’d say I was “making hamburgers” this is what you’d get on your plate:

Aside from a short, tired menu of only simple entrées (easily solved by making whatever Wife tells me to make), another weakness is meal execution (i.e. the actual cooking). I’m great at following recipes so long as I don’t have to deviate from the instructions or make substitutions. Actually, a few substitutions are OK—I can look things up on the ol’ internet or check covers of the cookbooks. I can’t handle some of Wife’s mental recipes, though.

I have a final, challenging problem: I have to focus when I’m cooking (or doing anything for that matter).

These issues lead right into the root cooking-related problem in our house right now: I can’t cook with Wife. Either we get to talking and then I screw up whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, or she has so many changes to a recipe that we no longer really have a recipe on paper (it’s in her head) and I can’t cook it.

But I have a solution.

I plan and prepare to the point that it’s almost silly. This means I refuse to make anything unless I have a recipe. I read the recipe. I understand the recipe. I am one with the recipe. We’re BFFs.

Then I get a ridiculous number of bowls and measure out everything. Spices, water, flour—everything. Then I put it in order of when it’s going to be needed.

Then while I’m actually cooking I make a conscience effort to avoid talking to anyone or doing anything else.

That’s how I make something simple like drop biscuits. If I’m responsible for an entire dinner—entrée and side—I do one more critical planning step: I make a timeline.

This is the completely overkill part that I’m most proud of. By making a timeline, I can have each element of food on the table at the right temperature at the right time. This is something that is apparently second nature to some people but I have to be deliberately systematic about it. Here’s an example.

Suppose we’re having steak and baked potatoes. This is a cake walk for most people but here’s what I actually did last time I made this meal:

  1. Find and study a steak recipe. Check!
  2. Find and study a baked potato recipe. Check!
  3. Make sure we have everything. Check!
  4. Make a timeline like this (working backwards from Go Time):
  5. Execute timeline

This approach yields one other awesome benefit aside from helping dinner hit the table on-time and at the right temperature: it’s stress free. I just follow my timeline and don’t worry about what I might be missing. When I finish a task, I just set a timer to go off for when I need to start the next step so I can safely zone out on something else (e.g. after “set table”, set timer for “7:40”).

In summary: plan, portion, plan, execute.

Oh, and I drink while I cook. Happy eating.


Michael Haren said on 2011-01-30

Oh, and please don’t assume from this that I do much cooking. On the contrary. I’m a cleanup-after guy. Sarah’s the real pro.

Sarah said on 2011-01-30

Haha :) This post made me laugh in how very very true it is. I like your timelines ~ very practical.

picturingtheordinary said on 2011-01-31

Wow, I’m very impressed with the timeline. I didn’t even know there was a recipe for baked potatoes, I thought you just put them in the oven for an hour…is that all the recipe said? :)

Michael Haren said on 2011-01-31

@picturingtheordinary what about poking them with a fork? Foil on or foil off? Oil/salt rub?

I guess my baked potatoes are just in a different league…

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