Balance is the key. It's an ongoing struggle, but here are a few things that might help.
Just say no
If you tend to take on too much, try saying no — at first. It isn't as negative as it sounds. Whenever I'm seized with the impulse to make/do/buy something, I say no. In my head, it goes like this: "Ooh! Such-and-such holiday that my family doesn't even celebrate is coming up and I should try to make that complicated traditional dish for it … " And then I stop. No. Just … no.
And more often than not, it's a relief to let myself off the hook. If I end up saying yes, it's only because I've convinced myself it's a good idea, and in the process I've usually figured out a reasonable way to get it done without turning my life inside-out.
I've written about this before, but it's essential to maintaining sanity in the kitchen: Make a workable meal plan and do your best to stick to it.
A couple tips:
- Create a simple, two-week plan of favorite dishes you can make blindfolded and with one hand tied behind your back. Set it up on a repeating cycle in an online calendar. This is the default plan. From here, customize to your heart's content. (Read this post for more.)
- Pair up meals to make good use of ingredients. If you roast a chicken one day, plan for chicken salad, enchiladas, or soup the next. If one meal uses half a can of coconut milk, plan something the next day to use the leftovers (like this dessert). Today's roast vegetables become tomorrow's soup, frittata, or veggie taco. (Check out this recent article in the NY Times for inspiration.)
- Keep a freezer inventory. If you stash food away for a rainy day, don't waste it! Clean out the freezer three or four times a year, tossing the funky stuff and jotting down everything that goes back in. Type it up, post it in the kitchen, and update it as needed. In your meal plan, be sure to include convenient freezer meals for busy days.
Put technology to work
Quick access to recipes on my phone and computer help me improvise without waste at the market. A few favorite tools:
- Evernote is simply amazing. I clip recipes from websites, email pictures of print recipes taken with my phone, and sync it all among my phone, our iPad, and my computer. Evernote can even search text in images, making it incredibly easy to find a half-remembered recipe when you're eyeing a special at the market.
- MacGourmet recipe software keeps my personal collection always accessible. It automatically imports recipes from dozens of sites, and is almost as easy to search as Evernote. Creating grocery lists is easy, and I can figure out nutritional info for my own recipes. It's for Mac only, unfortunately, so it may not be right for you. Other options include these alternatives recommended by Lifehacker readers.
- Save money and enjoy peak produce by buying what's in season where you live with this seasonal ingredient map from Epicurious. Sticking to a seasonal menu helps simplify and focus meal planning.
Rely on routines and rituals
Repetition evolves into ritual. Make-your-own pizza one night is fun; do it every Friday, and it's a family event. We have a few rituals: One night each week my husband makes his stir-fry, I slip out to a coffee shop to work, and my kids enjoy "boys' night" with dad. Saturdays it's lunch at at a favorite sandwich shop. During baseball season, we picnic at the field before practices. These rituals provide structure and much-needed breaks.
Aim to please just one person at a time
You probably can't please your whole family with one meal, I wrote yesterday, and trying to do so can be frustrating. If you struggle with this, here's my advice: Stop trying.
Instead, try to please one at a time. We take turns being the "star of the day" in my family, an approach that helps resolve who gets to choose the bedtime story or pick a TV show. I apply the same idea to my meal plan, making sure at least one night a week the main dish is focused on pleasing one of the very different personalities in my home.
Take time off
When you're feeling run-down, sometimes the answer is as simple as stepping off the hamster wheel. A smart friend of mine orders takeout every Friday night. We go out to lunch every Saturday and my husband takes over dinner duty every Monday. Give yourself a break. No one's about to give you a trophy for all your hard work. If you're tuckered out, take off the apron, pour some cereal for dinner, have a seat, and enjoy your family.
And with that, I'm wrapping up my New Year musings and taking a little break for the weekend. Thanks for reading along, and for the comments here, at Facebook, and over e-mail, for this little series and throughout the past few years. Here's to a healthy, happy 2012!