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Can ‘kitchen hacks’ really overcome the challenges of proper meal planning?

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The cover of the cookbook makes a clear promise, almost too good to be true: "One pan, one meal, no fuss."

Inside Sheet Pan Magic, by Sue Quinn, is a hodgepodge of recipes – cheeseburgers, fish and chips, full English breakfast, risotto with peas. The fuss-saving gimmick is that every dish is cooked in the oven using a single baking tray. It makes sense in the way that putting all of your clothes onto one foot will cut down your morning commute time. Even the cover illustration, a tray of squash, mushroom and lentils, glistening as no tinned bean ever has, not at all dried-out from their time in the oven, betrays the con of the premise. Next to the tray sits a bowl of basil oil, which the recipe requires you to purée in a food processor, certainly exceeding the one-tray and no-fuss mandate.

And yet there are enough books on this trend (The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer, One-Pan Wonders by Cook's Country, Sheet Pan Suppers Meatless by Raquel Pelzel, A Man, a Pan, a Plan by Paul Kita) to fill a table display at your local bookshop. Molly Gilbert, the doyenne of sheet-pan cooking, has so far published both Sheet Pan Suppers and One Pan & Done, with a third book, One Pan Perfect, on the way. There are plenty more, all wrapped around the central premise – what if you used a baking pan in your oven instead of a frying pan on your stove?

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"That's just cooking," Naomi Duguid says. The author of eight cookbooks (including Burma: Rivers of Flavor and Taste of Persia), who typically spends months travelling for her research, dismisses the sheet-pan trend as a hustle, selling consumers a basic cooking technique packaged as a time-saving trick.

"Mostly the one-pot meal is because people don't want to do more dishes. The slow-cooker is not ready immediately. It's not instant gratification."

But no matter our method of cooking, we still have to choose recipes, gather ingredients, chop and stir. In truth, sheet-pan cooking (and before that, Instant Pots and slow cookers and sous-vide machines and Magic Bullets) is just the latest chapter in our quest to cheat our way out of cooking.

Before becoming an instructor at George Brown College, Alison Fryer operated The Cookbook Store in Toronto for 31 years. And while she says that home cooks have always been trying to find ways to get meals out as quickly as possible, she can trace the origins of these fads back to one significant, cultural shift.

"This started in earnest when women went to work in droves, starting in the 1970s, but more like the start of the 1980s, when young women were graduating in ever-increasing numbers from college and university and working full-time."

Fryer recalls a wave of popular "quick and easy" cookbooks during in the 1980s. "They were not books to aspire to. Rather they were functional," she says.

But in the smartphone era, books and magazines aimed at having dinner on the table in 20 minutes have given rise to shortcuts such as "kitchen hacks."

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I hadn't heard of a kitchen hack before an editor requested I write some. When I looked up examples online, I found that many of them were just basic cooking techniques and tips, rephrased to sound like secret cheat codes. Slice bananas before freezing! Eat a salad with chopsticks! Mince garlic on a microplane! Fake day-old bread by toasting cubes of fresh bread! These ideas are just common sense (what idiot puts a whole frozen banana in the blender?), cutlery preference (would it be a hack to tell an Asian audience to eat noodles with a fork?), basic tool use (grating food is literally what a microplane is for) and a recipe for croutons.

The ostensible purpose of all these shortcuts is that we are all busier than ever, with no time to cook.

To a certain extent that's true. Most of us work past 5 and on the weekend, our non-office hours eaten up by daily transit, gathering our children from their extracurricular activities or the constant demand from our addictive, electronic devices. But to say that people don't have time is less accurate than that we choose to spend it on other activities. Anyone who's seen a Fast and/or Furious movie, or an episode of The Bachelor (or The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise or Bachelor in Paradise: After Paradise) has more free time than they're admitting.

"I think we have managed to convince ourselves we have no time to cook," Fryer says. Part of the problem is that we're not taught to cook in school, that we view making a meal as a self-contained achievement rather than an expected portion of everyday life.

In her 1995 book Roasting: A Simple Art, Barbara Kafka captured this phenomenon through a cooking mindset she called "the continuous kitchen."

"It seems to me that less cooking is done today than used to be and that when it is done, it is so much more work because we have lost the habit of the continuous kitchen. We start each meal from scratch with fresh shopping and a brand-new, independent recipe. Our predecessors didn't, and we can save ourselves a great deal of work and have better, more economical food with greater depth of flavour by seeing cooking as an ongoing process. Leftovers have gotten a bad name. Having good leftovers is like having a good sous-chef in the kitchen, someone who has done half the work before I turn up for the finishing touches."

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Treating food as entertainment instead of part of our public-school curriculum, it's natural that we have no kitchen literacy. Of course we don't know how to improvise with ingredients. And our gullible appetite for instant gratification has only gotten worse thanks to social media. Our collective will to commit to anything ended with Facebook's "maybe" button (which they changed to the even less-committal "interested" in 2015). Since then, social plans now mean "unless something better comes along." In such a landscape, what hope does meal planning stand?

"People don't know if they might go out to dinner tomorrow night," Duguid says. "They might get a better offer. Or they might order in. So it's all last-minute. People aren't planning because they have the luxury of living contingently in a continual way."

And our allergy to commitment, our eagerness for a way out of doing necessary work, makes us rubes ready to be fleeced.

"Food preparation is very complex. But our minds like simplicity to preserve energy," says Dr. Barbel Knauper, professor of psychology at McGill University. "These tricks or hacks sound so simple and promise to solve a very complex, exhausting issue. No surprise it is so appealing to our mind. Almost more an emotional than a cognitive judgment. A mental shortcut."

Knauper says the appeal of these tricks is a problem of cognitive fluency, a measure of how easy or difficult it is to think about something. We fall for quick-fix meal-prep hustles because we're disinclined to invest the mental energy to think about their obvious limitations.

"People want a magic solution for feeding themselves," she says.

In other words, we're dumb.

Chef Matt DeMille has a recipe and technique to pull off a sous-vide steak, without the need for an intense immersion circulator machine or vacuum pack.
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