Drawing parallels between meal planning and project management can help us make decisions about what to cook. In the kitchen as on any construction site, scope, time, and cost have to be kept in constant balance if you want to serve your loved ones really good food.
The project management triangle applied to home cooking
In construction, software development, and countless other industries, professional project managers are assigned to juggle the many people and things that must come in at just the right time. Their job is to deliver the best-quality product possible within the constraints imposed by money, time, and scope. Scope reflects the specifications of the project: how big and complex the resulting product is supposed to be.
A grandiose project requires a proportional amount of money and time. A backyard shed can be built on a small budget over a weekend. But what if the scope shifts? If one wants to add intricate custom cabinets in the shed to accommodate a hobbyist’ gear (scope creep), it will either cost more (hiring a professional for assistance) or take longer (as one learns the skills and does the work over several weekends). If suddenly the cost of materials explodes, then the shed design will have to be simplified, or the budget will have to increase, or the total time to complete the project will stretch into the future. A good project manager understands the constraints and resources available, and makes the best possible decisions — sometimes difficult ones — to make sure that what matters most isn’t compromised.
In everyday cooking, although you may not have seen it that way before, there is also often a project manager, even if they don’t know their job title. Many of them go by the name “Mom” although dads, aunties, grandpas, and kids also sometimes happen to be in charge. Their ambition isn’t to erect a new skyscraper or create a new version of an operating system, but rather to keep their loved ones (and themselves) fed, perhaps even nourished. That’s one of the most important jobs in the world! So let’s dedicate a few minutes to thinking about it as project management. What does the project management triangle mean when we apply it to our kitchen lives?
As the lead cook in your home, what are you trying to achieve? If you are aiming for 21 different home-cooked plant-based meals made only from whole foods every week, that’s a more ambitious set of specifications than simply “curbing hunger.” For the latter, a bowl of cereal will do the trick. For the former, you will need to invest more money (for kitchen appliances and ingredients) and more time (to learn and use knowledge and skills required to plan and execute).
Within the concept of scope, specifically related to vegan cooking, there are many dimensions to consider:
- Wholesomeness: Do you want to use only minimally transformed foods or are you OK with some level of processing? For example, is it important for you to eat only whole grains (like wheat berries), or are you satisfied with whole-grain pasta, or is regular pasta perfectly fine to you?
- Variety: How many different foods and dishes do you want to eat at every meal, every day, and every week? Are you content eating the same breakfast every morning? Do you like a dinner that’s composed of a spread of dishes, or are you A-OK with a one-pot dish like a hearty salad that contains everything in a single bowl?
- Freshness: Will you pull carrots from your garden right before dinner, buy produce from the farmers’ market, use bagged carrots from the grocery store, or go for frozen or canned mixed veggies? Each level of freshness requires a different amount of effort.
- Presentation: Are you the styling type who fusses over the placement of basil leaves on top of your plate of spaghetti, or do you believe it’s unimportant because “it all goes in the same place anyway?” How many different colors do you prefer to have on your plate?
- Environmental footprint: Do you want your food to come from within a 100-mile radius from your home? Trying to go zero-waste and plastic-free? Such requirements also add to the scope of cooking.
Cooking takes time. There’s no way around it. So does cleaning. Every time you increase the complexity of the desired scope of your meals, you increase the number of bowls and kitchen tools that will need to be cleaned.
Planning meals and procuring ingredients also takes an amount of time that can vary greatly depending on the meals’ specifications, and the knowledge and skills of the project manager. Deciding what’s for dinner is a chore that can feel like a heavy burden, especially if the household’s specifications are complex (allergies, picky eaters, etc.). If the cook isn’t particularly skilled, recipes may need to be found. Generating a shopping list from the desired selection of meals also takes time, as does getting to the store, selecting the products, transporting them back home, unpacking, and storing them.
There’s also the time needed to manage the kitchen inventory. When ingredients start to add up in the pantry and produce isn’t cooked out of the fridge soon enough, the project manager has to invest more time to make some more decisions or clean up the mess.
If you live in a metropolitan area, and not in a food desert, basic ingredients are probably available at a reasonably low cost: dry beans are cheap, whole grains reasonably inexpensive (if perhaps harder to find in some parts of town), and many basic yet nutritious vegetables like sweet potatoes, cabbage, and kale don’t break the bank. If your specifications are strictly to cook up reasonably healthy meals without too much variety, it is possible to do so on a strict budget.
However, most of us have grown accustomed to a high variety of intensely flavored foods. This is perhaps more true for those who eat out a lot and have a choice of dozens of cuisines at every meal. In addition, processed and prepared food makers use many chemical tricks, including an enthusiastic embrace of salt and sugar, to enhance the taste of their dishes. Only about a third of Americans cook and eat at home every single day (for at least one meal), so if they are served a dry bowl of quinoa, black beans, and mixed greens, they are likely to be underwhelmed.
The seasonings that add spice and zest to our meals are more costly than the basic ingredients. They are an up-front investment that can be intimidating for new cooks. Ready-made, bottled dressings and sauces do exist, but are generally much less healthy than their home-made counterparts… which require having a well-stocked pantry and cooking skills. Healthy options do exist, but they tend to be much pricier.
And then of course there are the appliances and, generally speaking, the space one has to store and manipulate foods. Those are upfront costs that will also influence the possible scope of cooking in a given home.
What really matters to you choosing meal planning priorities?
Take a moment to consider your priorities when it comes to food, along with the resources you can realistically mobilize toward preparing the meals you wish for.
If you have high specifications, you will need to increase the amount of time and/or money you spend on ingredients and cooking.
If you have lots of time, then you can spend it learning how to make everything from scratch.
If you have lots of money, then you can cut back on time by hiring help. (You’ll need to account for the time you spend finding the perfect personal chef and giving them direction.)
We all have limited time, and most of us have limited money.
Write down the specifications of your weekly meals’ scope. What matters to you when it comes to food? Think about what’s really critical in your eyes… and what expectations you would be better letting go of.
Consider possible innovations, which create opportunities for project managers. Maybe you can learn new skills that will make cooking faster (knife skills, cleaning…), or discover a new store where pantry ingredients are cheaper.
What is YOUR number 1 priority when it comes to food… and what can you set aside for now?