In Defense of Food Ruts

It’s Meal Planning Day in the Counter kitchen, and we hem and haw about what to eat over the next week. Do we try a new recipe? Use up frozen leftovers? Cook old standbys?

Our weeks are not simple; like many families we work, we parent, and we socialize while fitting in couple time and home time and time for hobbies. Although we love cooking together and choosing fun new things to make, there just isn’t always time to be inventive. So when one of us mumbles something about, “Maybe we should just make [insert regular staple meal here],” it is rarely met with dissent.

We have some fallbacks; I bet you have yours. We never quite sink to the level of Kraft Dinner (that’s what Canadian chefs call Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, for all you Yanks) or noodles from a can, but we certainly make almost-convenient foods like grilled sandwiches, eggs for dinner, and pasta. Our real standards, though, keep us coming back for more, and are made with the same principles as the showstoppers we make when we have more time: fresh ingredients, simple preparations, and lotsa love. Here’s a quick list of our favorites:

  • Shepherd’s Pie – Ground beef (lamb if we’re flush), gravy made from scratch, frozen vegetables, and mashed potatoes made with real butter…c’mon, this is not too bad
  • Chili – My secret recipe involves the opening of many, many cans, but we use fresh ingredients and spices, too.
  • Roast Dinner – Pork loin most often, but sometimes other cuts of pork or beef, with potatoes, carrots, other root vegetables, and herbs. This literally takes me minutes to prepare, with so much reward.
  • Fried Chicken – I can’t take credit for this amazing but less than healthy staple in our rotation; Justin says it’s why I married him.
  • Chicken and Dumplings – Chicken thighs or breasts stewed in gravy with dumplings, served with potatoes and vegetables. Another blessing from my Southern husband.
  • Homemade Mac N Cheese, sometimes with Bacon – a favorite of the Little Man

I’d love to say it’s all exotic dishes and chopped salads here, but really one of these pops up on our weekly meal plan at least twice a month. Why? These meals are easy–we can make them on autopilot–and last into leftovers so we can eat them for work lunches.


Fried Chicken and Mashed Potatoes. I have mastered the country gravy, despite being a Northerner.

We build our variety around our standards, which shift slightly with the seasons (more smoothies, flatbreads, and salads in summer; more casseroles and stews in winter), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the same dishes over and over.

You may have a vision of a 1950’s housewife (“Meatloaf again? Aw, Mom!”) when you think of having a stable of dishes that you march out on schedule, but it definitely reduces stress in the kitchen. We know if we are busy or can’t think of anything new and exciting we want to cook, we will cook one or two of our standards and fill in the extra days with something light, like a salad meal or sandwiches. There is absolutely no pressure in the Counter kitchen to be unique all the time; quite the opposite, in fact, because we have warm associations with our favorites, which seem only to get better in repeating.

Food ruts are really a matter of attitude. Maybe you feel like avocado on everything for a month: so eat it! Maybe fresh spinach or salmon goes on sale and you overbuy and have to put it in everything: so enjoy it! If you dread repeat meals, leftovers, or similar ingredients you are making a choice to put yourself into a rut; instead, put creative spins on your excess, enjoy the luxury of getting more of something delicious, and think of “food rut” days as days to relax and enjoy the time off from worrying about that eternal question: What should we have for dinner?

Thanksgiving, the Duck

Some months ago, my friend Melanie decided to raise ducks.  As in, for food.  Little chickies came by mail, and their peeping turned to quacking, and we enjoyed cookies made with duck eggs and other delicacies.  The Little Man visited the ducks a few times, and one day memorably asked their names.  Melanie answered that the ducks did not have names, because they are food.  Her husband joked, however, that they were named “Christmas, Thanksgiving, My Birthday…”

The Little Man wasn’t sure what he thought of this.  He is generally against killing animals, although not so much that he doesn’t eat meat.  He said he wanted to name them, but Mel warned him against doing so.  He contemplated the issue, wondering whether he would be able to eat these ducks.  He was undecided.

Fast forward to autumn, and slaughter time.  I let the Little Man know that some of the ducks were going to be killed, and that we would be eating duck instead of turkey for the holiday.  He said, “Which duck is it?”  I reminded him it didn’t have a name, and he said, “Oh, I remember.  It’s named ‘Thanksgiving!’  I’m going to try some.”  He smiled before adding, “but first I’m going to hug it.”  Still, I think a brave step for a sensitive kid.  I’m really glad he’s going to be able to connect to his food in this way.

Not the best photo on the iPhone, but you get the delicious point.

The duck was delicious.  Simply prepared with potatoes from Melanie’s garden, stuffed with bread and apples and herbs, and roasted.  Melanie picked the apples with Hidden Harvest, a local initiative that makes the most of food-producing plants in the city.  A neat trick:  after stuffing, cap the bird with the end of the loaf of bread to seal in the moisture.  It worked great.  Thanks were definitely given.

Strawberry Picking

Strawberry picking

Angela picking berries at Orleans Fruit Farm

It was a very warm day, but since I had the day off, we leaped at the chance to go berry picking.  We had been making plans to go pick strawberries and try to make jam this summer, and who knew if we’d get another chance.  So, out we went: three adults, one baby, one seven-year-old boy…determined to find the sweetest, the reddest, the most delicious strawberries at the U-Pick.

Thanks to some great advice from, even the absolute beginners among us were able to spot the best berries and fill baskets quickly.  We probably picked too many berries; we definitely overestimated how many we’d need for jam.  The strawberries were delectably sweet, however, and irresistible.

After a little lunch, we set about making jam.  This was a first for Justin and me, so we didn’t get it perfect, but we made 12 beautiful jars of jam: 6 strawberry, 6 strawberry-vanilla.  We used a water-bath canner to seal the jars, and every one of them sealed, which we thought was a victory.

The next day, we could hardly wait to taste the jam, and Justin made biscuits for breakfast.  It came out beautiful, red, sweet, and just a bit runny…all in all, a success.  We’d thought we’d save money by making our own, but we’re eating it by the spoonful so I doubt there will be much savings!  However, it’s going to be a nice treat once the strawberries are out of season, to have our very own fresh and local preserves, made by us!