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16 may 2007

What's For Dinner?
By Susan Maas

I can tell you where my family is vacationing in six months, and for how long.

I can tell you what I’m scheming to do for my husband’s 40th birthday in a year. I can tell you whom I’m hoping to vote for in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate election in November 2008.

I cannot, however, tell you what’s for dinner this evening. As I type this, it’s 4:50 in the afternoon. I have no idea what we’re eating in an hour. Part of me feels guilty for this, or worries that I SHOULD feel guilty. But I’ll cobble something together, and we’ll eat.

At our house, I do dinner, Dad does cleanup: because of our work arrangement (he works 9 to 5; I work from home, mostly at night), because I’m a better cook, because he’s the tidier parent. But I am not an advance menu-planner; never have been, never will be. I see these well-considered meal schedules affixed to friends’ refrigerators—menus planned a week out, two or three weeks out— and am bewildered by them. I feel a little inadequate.

My mom always made these menus. Four weeks out, at least: Date, entrée, starch, vegetable. She’d write them in the long skinny reporters’ notebooks my father, a newspaperman, brought home from the Gazette. And those meals might just as well have been chiseled onto stone tablets. You’d see, “Tuesday, Oct. 3, liver & onions, mashed potatoes, green beans,” and you’d know that meal was as certain as death and taxes. Ain’t nothing going to stop it, and no one would have dreamed of trying. Sometimes I’d flip anxiously through that notebook, searching desperately for one of my favorites, oppressed by the crushing inevitability of it all. DANG it! When are we gonna have something I like?

I understand the rationale: It brought order and calm to her life. Grocery-shopping trips were organized and intentional. My trips to the store, by contrast, are governed by what’s on sale, what veggies came in our CSA farmshare delivery, what strikes my fancy that day, maybe even the weather: It’s too hot to cook inside; let’s grill some turkey burgers.

The way I see it, daily living has so much inflexibility built into it already. Your kid has a bad day at school, he likes pancakes: Hey, let’s have pancakes for dinner. My husband and I are feeling stressed or overwhelmed: Guess what, guys? We’re getting Chinese takeout. There is no painstakingly orchestrated plan to violate (and hence to feel bad about violating); this is just fate, and we’re rolling with it. Conversely, if I’m having an easy day—work’s light, everything’s fallen into place, I’m feeling inspired—I may be moved to try making something new, something special: I think I want to give that acorn squash lasagna recipe a shot. Shut up! This has happened.

Or maybe this is all rationalization. Maybe I’m just lazy, or willfully disorganized. Maybe some perverse part of me likes a bit of chaos, enjoys flying by the seat of her pants. It’s 5:05. Will it happen? Will this be the day the family does not get fed? What will she pull out of her sleeve—and will she manage it before they melt down, or kill each other? Will they like it? (The little one won’t; he almost never does. There’s your reassuring element of predictability.)

As my favorite ECFE teacher once said, “There’s always frozen pizza. And if you’re feeling really fancy, you can put it in the oven and heat it up!”

Susan Maas is a community organizer, a freelance writer, and a mom. She was the publicity manager for “A MOMbo Mother’s Day Celebration!”




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