the different kinds of meals

I’m a sucker for those “what chefs eat when they don’t want to cook” interviews but usually I end up rolling my eyes because invariably the chef says something like, I mash some canned sardines into a hot skillet, toss in some pea shoots, and reach for the truffle oil, blah-blah-blah, and I’m like, THAT’S CALLED COOKING, DINGLEBERRY. HOW ABOUT A BOWL OF COLD CEREAL.

Because that’s what normal people eat if they’re not going to cook, right? I mean, if not cereal, then popcorn, or maybe apples and peanut butter, or — and this is my go-to — hard pretzels, cheese, and white wine. (There was one chef who confessed to eating leftover cold rice. If he was feeling fancy, he’d dribble some tap water on it to soften it up. And that, my friends, is what honesty looks like: cold rice dressed with tap water. I nearly swooned.)

So that’s one kind of meal: the no-meal meal.

Then there’s the planned meal. Planned meals can be broken into two kinds: a) the “read the recipe from top to bottom and buy ingredients ahead of time” structured meal, and b) the old-hat “made from the standard stuff that’s always on hand” type. But it’s gotta be planned. That’s key.

Moving on! The leftovers meal is structured around whatever you cooked the last couple days, adding to and/or reshaping them accordingly. 

There’s the silly supper which is just straight-up leftovers, plus vegetables and a couple junky additions, like cereal or toast, to make it feel fun. One might also call this The Hodge-Podge Meal. (The only difference between this and the no-meal meal — and they are nearly indistinguishable, I admit — is that this has more components, plus veggies, which therefore makes this meal a smidge fancier.) 

And then there are the Magic Meals, unplanned and cobbled together entirely from whatever bits and pieces are banging around the kitchen, but in this case the end result, while not predetermined, is an honest-to-goodness meal, seemingly conjured out of thin air. Even to the cook, these meals feel like pure magic. 

For example. Here’s what I rustled up one night when there was (what felt like) no food in the house and I had less than zero inspiration. 

I doused my eggs with champagne vinegar.

I started with a half pound of pasta (because I doubted my concoction would be a smash hit and there’s only four of us). While the pasta boiled, I minced part of an onion I found in the fridge, the last of the celery (leaves included), and the rest of the fresh parsley. I drained a can of tuna, a can of chickpeas, and, oh hey! How about a can of black olives, too? I pounded a bit of garlic with a hefty pinch of salt and added lots of olive oil, and squeezed in the juice of a lemon. Then I remembered a container of goat cheese and tossed that in, too, the heat from the pasta turning it creamy. Since we were drowning in eggs, I quick boiled up a kettle of them. I was going to chop them in but at the last minute I decided to keep them separate. A bag of green beans from the freezer, boiled and salted, and — voila — supper! 

My son’s portion, boxed up to eat in the car because he was running out the door to youth group
(but then he left it behind in the back hall, ha).

In just minutes, I went from feeling like there was nothing to eat to dishing up a veritable feast. Made me feel like a queen, it did. And that, my friends, is how magic meals work.

So there you have it. My meals, classified: the no-meal meal, the planned meal, the leftovers meal, the silly meal, and the magic meal. What other kinds am I missing?

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (4.6.20), scatteredness, the quotidian (4.6.15), the quotidian (4.6.13), daffodils and horses, my baby’s faces, the case of the flying book, sourdough bagels.


  • Deborah R

    Magic meals are what we call rabbits (as in I just pulled a rabbit out of my hat). Problem with that, as my daughter says is “we’ve had a lot of really good meals ONE time!”

  • MAC

    I’m afraid that, in our house, the dinner-of-bits has come to be called “Put Out.” As in, “What are we having for dinner?” “Oh, stuff put out.” Put Out must include olives, and at least one cheese, and usually includes a couple sliced bell peppers or tomatoes or carrots, and sourdough. It is a family favorite, which is a bit bewildering.

  • Jennifer Piper

    Snacky Dinner is definitely a category in our house. Cheese and crackers, some kind of meat stick (pepperoni, summer sausage, venison sausage), raw veggies or fruit.

  • Susan

    I hear so many friends say they don’t mind cooking/meal prep, but they hate deciding what to make. I actually LOVE the challenge (well, usually) of seeing what’s in the fridge of coming up with something. A few months ago, I tried meal planning and making 2 weeks of meals in a day. Those two weeks were so boring for me. I guess I enjoy the relatively low-stakes problem solving and creativity of making it work. I like the little rush of seeing that it’s 5 pm and dinner is still TBD, but I can usually pull something off. My version of an adrenaline rush, haha.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Oh yes, THIS. I’m always torn about ready-made meals. On the one hand, they’re awfully convenient. On the other, they kinda suck my energy and make me feel depressed. Because now there’s no reason to cook, no adrenaline rush, no forced creativity….

    • katie

      I feel similarly to you generally. However, I will say that this pandemic combination of being two school teachers + full time employee up until the moment (or a lot of moments past) of returning to being mom, when dinner is on the table has softened me to several ideas. One of these is just super basic meals, another is prepped-ahead meals. It doesn’t normally stress me to have to (get to!) materialize a meal out of thin air. But when that needs to happen at the same time as meeting a work deadline, or after a day of juggling too many needs/thoughts/tasks simultaneously, the pre-prepped meals are a relief. Boredom has just very much not been a thing we have had to worry about this past year.

  • Kris Shank Zehr

    If you’re separating leftover meals into two categories, I would argue that you need to separate planned meals into two categories as well. For me, there’s a big difference between a planned meal using what’s in the pantry and/or freezer and a planned meal for which I need multiple specially purchased groceries not on hand. In fact, in my cooking habits there is MORE difference between those two kinds of planned meals than the two kinds of leftovers meals.

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