If you remember watching Degrassi and 90210 (or even Happy Days and M*A*S*H) as a kid, chances are you or someone you know was raised on a schedule of regularly rotating weeknight dinners: meatloaf Mondays, spaghetti Tuesdays, shepherd’s pie Thursdays, or some version thereof. Some parents assigned dinners more rigidly to days of the week, others just stuck to a handful of dishes in their wheelhouse for years on end. In the early eighties, our neighbour down the street had a box of recipes she circulated through year-round; each shopping day she’d pull out seven cards for the coming week and make up her grocery list.
Some friends and I were recently reminiscing about this way of feeding a family, chortling over the old-fashioned simplicity of it, until it occurred to me that none of these parents ever wondered what was for dinner. There was never a sudden five-o’clock realization that there was no plan in place, no hungry scramble through a packed grocery store at rush hour, grabbing a deli chicken and bagged salad. Their kids knew by the day what would be on the table at six, and so never had to ask. Not only that, scheduled meals ensured grocery lists and budgets were simple and straightforward, and not as susceptible to impulse buys.
Deciding on dinner has become one of the most sigh-inducing daily challenges of our time, contributing to the 220 or so food-related decisions we make each day, according to researchers at Cornell University. A sharp increase in culinary conveniences, from innovative products on grocery store shelves to new technologies and services, coincided with growth of the number of women in Canada’s labour market, from 25 per cent in the early fifties to 82 per cent in 2014, at which point women made up almost half of the country’s work force.
Today, families with two working parents tend to seek out more solutions to help them get dinner on the table. Of course, more mealtime options tend to compound our decision-making fatigue, rather than relieve it – the arrival of Skip the Dishes and Uber Eats gives us access to a far broader menu at home, and there’s the option to combine home cooking and delivery by ordering groceries or meal kits online. Thirteen per cent of Canadians have had meal kits, with ingredients premeasured and ready to assemble, shipped to their doors, overwhelmingly motivated by the potential to save time on planning, prep and grocery shopping.
For those cooking from scratch, there’s the question of what to do with the groceries we’re now able to source nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week; cookbook collections have swelled to many times the size of past generations, and we have access to unlimited recipes and cooking tutorials online. Most of us have quick meals we tend to fall back on, such as lentil dal or eggs on toast, but the culinary bar has also been raised far higher than it was in the days when so many dinners began with a pound of ground beef and a tin of cream of mushroom soup.
“As a kid, I thought that was the way everyone had dinner,” my friend Melanie Pastuck tells me of her mom’s schedule. “We didn’t have assigned days of the week, but tuna casserole, hamburger hash made with ground beef, tomato soup and macaroni, perogies, and a pork roast or chops were in regular rotation, with mashed potatoes and creamed corn.”
Repetition, it seems, was the trade-off to free up some of the brain space that keeps tabs on the contents of the fridge and tries to piece together what it might have the potential to become on any given evening. It’s the same rationale Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg have given for wearing the same outfits day after day – even seemingly small, mundane decisions can erode your ability to make other, more important ones. And when those decisions take place in the late afternoon, when mental depletion makes us more willing to accept the default choice, and hunger can dictate what we want to eat, solving the dinner dilemma can be tricky to navigate on the fly.
But when it comes to what we eat, are predictability and repetition really so bad? Kids don’t mind, they actually find comfort in the familiar – no doubt there are plenty of grown-ups who feel the same, who don’t crave something new and exciting every day. In recent years, Pastuck and her sister have realized that their mother’s meal plans were a necessity of the tight budget she followed in order to feed her family of five, a challenge Pastuck faces today as the parent of a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old. “Thinking about our rotation of meals makes me want to try it for a month to see how it affects my grocery bill,” she says. “I know meal planning would save me, and my kids, so much stress – and money.”
These days, my own mom tends to be apologetic about pulling out old standbys, such as pan-fried fish filets or scrambled eggs and brown beans, when we’re over, as if dinner must always involve some level of inventiveness to be appealing. Except that I find comfort in it. Although the dishes of the day may have changed – perhaps your kids will know it’s Thursday because buttermilk-brined roasted chicken with kale, cauliflower and garlicky tahini is on the menu – rotating dinners may be the most helpful culinary strategy we retrieve from generations past.
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