15 May 2013

The Pleasures of Running Lean

There was a recent event that was mindblowing and I want to go into raptures over, but I'm going to hold off on talking about that for now.

I wanted to talk about a change in the way I've been stocking my kitchen and running the food in our two-person household. By "lean" I mean like a startup, not lean like chicken breast. And I definitely don't mean "running" in that sense. I mean only keeping a bare minimum of produce and meat in the fridge, forcing you to shop and make some decisions during the week.

Brown Bag Lunch in Black and White

Recently, I've been taking a great deal of pleasure in not stocking the fridge for the week. Over the weekend, we had been planning our dinners for the coming week. Doing this has given me insight into what the throughput on our kitchen actually looks like and has forced me to change how I cook. Planning ahead has some great advantages, chief among them that you can stock the fridge with healthy food. But not planning ahead can have real benefits, too.

Faster and Easier Meals - By this, I mean that when I'm planning on Sunday, I'm far more likely to believe that my Wednesday self will want to cook something challenging, time-consuming, or involved. But the Wednesday me wants something basic and satisfying. If you want another example of this phenomenon, check your Netflix queue. How many challenging foreign films are there? That's because all the basic, satisfying, funny ones done got watched.

You'd expect that short-term shopping makes for poor choices, health-wise. There's some pretty good studies around the idea that we'll make unhealthier choices for our near-term selves. But I've never been very good at forcing myself to eat things that are unpalatable and (putatively) healthy according to the prevailing wisdom (v.s., chicken breast). When I swing by the market on the way home, I'm much more likely to choose something that'll take less time, and will be less complicated, and result in fewer pots and plates to clean. A

Less Food Waste - We find that we waste far less food by buying only three dinners per week at the weekly supermarket run, and filling in with takeout or leftovers for the rest of it. My office has lunch catered with leftovers a tasty side benefit. That will supply at least one meal a week. I just have to not mind eating the same thing for lunch and dinner (which I often don't). It's galling to throw away expensive wilted produce.

Fresher Food - If you try to eat seasonally and locally, it left the farm two days ago. Why make it then linger in your fridge for four days? Our food co-op runs through it's entire inventory in six days on average. Produce turnover is much faster, on the order of four days. After reading Harold McGee, I'm much more aware that the kale in the fridge is not an inert green thing just waiting to be eaten. It's a living thing--or, more gruesomely, a slowly dying thing--and living things need nutrients. From the moment it's picked, produce starts to digest itself.

More Serendipity - Wandering through the market. "Hey, I've never cooked veal breast before. I wonder how you do it." One hour in the pressure cooker with dried porcini reconstituted in broth, and an onion. Mix in a dab of cream and serve. Heaven. And I never would have (or should have) planned it. It needed to happen on a night where I had a bit of time to play with. And it did.

Clearer Vision - I may be alone in this, but when there's too much variety in my fridge, I can't "see" what's there. I suspect I'm not alone, though. There's good science on how too many choices can be harmful. Contrary to the ice-cream-and-vegetables experiments above, real-time choice is as much of a factor in healthful eating as anything. A bursting-to-overflowing produce bin is more likely to get ignored in my house because I can't "see" what's in there to remind myself that we were meant to have the Tuscan black kale salad with Meyer lemon caper vinaigrette tonight (so good).

Hmm, looks like there's at least two recipes I have to get out on the web.


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