Jessie Raymond: Meal planning for happiness

Years ago, someone gave me a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” a pocket-size volume written by a father to his son, who was leaving for college.

I hated that book.

Among its “511 reminders for a rewarding and happy life,” it did offer some valuable, if obvious, suggestions, such as “Admit your mistakes” and “Floss your teeth.” But other tips — “Drink champagne for no reason at all” and “Buy a house with a fireplace” — smacked of privilege and hinted that the real key to a rewarding and happy life was “Have a lot of money.”

I say it’s something much simpler: “Make a weekly meal plan.”

Amid all the triumphs and challenges, joys and sorrows of adulthood, there’s one burden that we all must shoulder, one universal struggle that doesn’t get easier over time. It’s the inescapable but vital question we face every day: What should we have for dinner?

It never ends.

And that is why last week, when our daughter went back to college and into her first apartment, I showed her my latest meal plan and encouraged her to get in a routine of making one for herself.

She gave me a look I couldn’t decipher. Was it disdain, because I was implying she couldn’t handle cooking on her own? Or pity, because I didn’t recognize how old I sounded?

It certainly wasn’t gratitude for my wisdom. But I couldn’t blame her.

When I was her age, I got annoyed if my parents asked me at 4 p.m. whether I’d be eating dinner at home. How could I commit to a boring meal with them when anything could happen in the next two hours?

If my parents ever suggested that I start making meal plans at 20 (and maybe they did, who cares, I wasn’t listening), I would have rolled my eyes. But that one habit could have saved me years of hassle.

I spent every afternoon for the next couple of decades hoping that a nutritious, tasty and exciting meal idea would pop into my head, that it would take no more than 30 minutes to prepare and that I’d have all the necessary ingredients on hand. More often than not, at 5 p.m. I’d find myself staring into the fridge, willing a green vegetable to materialize in the crisper.

What goes with rice? Do we even have rice? Is there a way to make a yummy dinner in a half hour with a frozen four-pound pork roast, a two-year-old can of baked beans and some limp scallions? Could those scallions, with a clever dressing, be considered “salad”?

Eventually, I figured it out: by putting in a few minutes every weekend to plan meals for the coming week, I avoided a daily stressor, saved multiple trips to the supermarket and gave myself peace of mind. Why hadn’t anyone told me? (Or had they?)

To prompt meal ideas, I keep a long list of dishes we often eat. On Sundays, faced with a sheet of paper, blank but for the days of the week, I refer to the list for inspiration. I’m always surprised by the many meal options I’ve forgotten about.

“Baked ziti!” I say, as if I’ve just invented it, scribbling it down on my paper. I keep going until all of the days are accounted for. Then I draw up my shopping list accordingly.

Looking back to my own youth, I can see why my daughter isn’t interested in meal planning yet. When I was away at school, I ate ramen, mostly, and restaurant food — one of the advantages of waiting tables. I’m sure I never planned a meal more than two hours, let alone two days, ahead. It was many years before I ever uttered the words “Ooh, look, canned artichoke hearts are on sale; I’d better get three.”

And I never imagined I’d find myself, 30 years later, eagerly waving my weekly meal plan in my kid’s face while she rubbed her temples and silently vowed never to become like me. (Don’t tell her how that turns out.)

In college, she’ll learn more than I ever did about statistics and computer programming and even basic Spanish, and she’ll probably go on to be more successful than I’ve ever hoped to be.

But I want her to know that the secret to a happy life doesn’t have to be pretentious or require a lot of money. Something as boring as a weekly meal plan can be surprisingly rewarding.

Even more so, I’d argue, than a fireplace.

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