How I Became A Prepper

(No, not that kind.)

Somewhere around month ten of the end of the world, I decided to become a prepper.

No, no—it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not loading up on iodine pills and MREs or digging a fallout shelter in the backyard. Our neighborhood restrictions won’t allow it. (I’ve checked.) No, in the event of a true end-times scenario, something more definitive than the faint whiff of Armageddon that we’ve had lingering in the air for most of the last year, my disaster plan remains what it’s always been.

(Die quickly, and with minimal fuss.)

For now, though, in the midst of the crushing sameness of our featureless yet not-quite-apocalyptic times, I’ve gone back to a different kind of prepping: spending most of my Sunday afternoon making meals for the week ahead. It’s something I did pretty regularly in the Before Times, when my family’s schedules felt far fuller than they are now. Back then, an elaborate choreography was needed each day to get the adults to and from work, the kids to and from school and after-school activities, and everyone fed in the times in between, a daily run-through of the river crossing riddle. Those days have been gone for a while now, but the Food Prep is back.

This is a somewhat surprising turn, because—despite my well-known love of cooking—I am absolutely sick and tired of making food. I am dying for the day when I can sit in a fancy restaurant or a Waffle House booth or at an airport bar and have someone bring me food that I had absolutely no part in making, sourcing the ingredients for, or even coming up with the idea for. I don’t care if it’s good. Bring me a crab cake that I know will be bad, because restaurant crab cakes are almost always bad, and I will hold on to the same hope that I always hold on to, the hope that this, this is the time it won’t have the texture and flavor of a hamburger bun left out in the rain. 

(It will, though, and I will still be happy, because I didn’t make it. I will eat it and I will tip 30% and I will ask what beers you have on tap and I will accidentally order an IPA and still drink it even though IPAs are also bad.)

Despite restaurant dining being technically allowed under most states’ haphazard public health restrictions right now—the ongoing week-over-week farce of our elected officials watching intensive care unit capacity and twisting an imaginary knob between “restaurants at full capacity” and “restaurants at 75% capacity”—I know it’s neither necessary nor advisable, a risk I can’t justify taking for myself or others.

So, as we have for ten long, boring months, we cook at home.

The first few weeks after things shut down last March, I was gripped by the notion that we had to carefully plan our meals and ration the store of canned food I’d bought in a panic on the evening of March 11th, but that feeling soon subsided, and since then it’s been a dull routine of making virtually everything ourselves—twenty-one meals a week for four people, plus the roughly eighty-seven snacks my kids consume each day.

Did you ever see when actor-slash-lunatic Mark Wahlberg posted his supposed daily schedule on social media? Mine has been just like that, only if you replace two out of every three items on the list with “unload the dishwasher” and “load the dishwasher”. 

Through much of 2020, we often coped with the anxiety and boredom of pandemic life by entertaining ourselves with extremely unhealthy food, a portion of which has proudly made its way onto the pages of this newsletter. There were just as many days, though, where meal times would roll around and my wife and I would stare at each other perplexed, asking “why can’t we remember what we like to eat?”  It was mostly bad, it involved a lot of pizza, and my physical condition deteriorated accordingly.

Starting off in 2021, I have become seized by the madness that things will be different. 

Each Sunday this month, I’ve spent hours in the kitchen, not concocting my latest Friday masterpiece-slash-abomination, but assembling a week’s worth of nutritionally-sound, functional and boring lunches for my wife and I, getting ahead on a few family dinners, prepping lunchboxes for the kids, and generally pretending that I have a handle on what’s going on. It always takes longer than I think, and I inevitably overcook the chicken breasts because I’m tending to the broccoli or the sweet potatoes or tonight’s soup, but also because boneless skinless chicken breasts are an inherently awful food that’s either raw or overcooked and nowhere in between but they’re healthier than thighs and you can tell because they don’t taste nearly as good. The kids’ lunchboxes are filled to our collectively bargained parent-child parameters of health and happiness, a hard-fought accord acknowledging that you can’t eat peanut butter and jelly for every meal, but we’ll give it to you just enough that you don’t go on strike from whatever it is you do.

Does all this effort save time? Maybe. There’s probably some economy of scale to it, although it certainly doesn’t feel like it by the third hour in the kitchen. Does it lead us to eat better? Probably, although beach season is a long way off both on the calendar and my physique. It might save money, it might lead to less waste. I don’t know. More than anything, though, going through this process once again feels like an attempt to wrestle some sense of shape and order back to an otherwise-featureless time.

For those of us who have taken the pandemic seriously, there have been time this past year where it has felt like we’re simply acting out roles in Normal Life Theater. We have pretended that Zoom happy hours are the same as gathering with friends in person, that distanced holidays are still joyous, that distanced-everything isn’t robbing us all of something essential no matter how necessary we understand it to be, that the passing of a calendar page feels like something that’s actually happening and that we’re not still locked into the third week of March 2020. 

Perhaps this return to meal prepping is just more of that pretending, but for right now, I see it as an attempt to seize control in one of the few places where it can be seized under our current conditions. I don’t know what’s going to happen this week. I don’t know if it’ll be another horrorshow like the first few weeks of this year were, or if things will start tipping towards the better days that I know are ahead.

But I know what we’re having for lunch on Thursday.

Also, I know that the dishwasher needs to be unloaded again.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)