Plotting, Pantsing, and Meal Planning

A recent pizza experiment—red potato / red onion.

Meal planning was once a tool exclusively to organize budget- and health-friendly meals that reduced the likelihood that I’d panic-order pizza delivery multiple nights a week. It’s taken on an entirely new art form during pandemic: we stretched our bi-weekly grocery run to three weeks, innovated new aisle routes to maximize efficient shopping and minimum in-store time. But even with those responsibilities, my meal planning is never the rigid templates of Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Pizza Fridays. I totally see the appeal—and time savings!—of that sort of menu rotation. But I love to indulge in an evening trying a new recipe I just happen to have all the ingredients for (like this bacon-wrapped pork loin I made last night and the potato pizza I’m tried for the first time today) and decide what I’m going to cook based on my mood. I love plating a creation, unsure whether we’ll love it or hate it until I take the first bite.

It’s not total chaos though. And we eat before 8:00 pm (…most nights). Like Deb (and goodness, can I nominate how she stocks the smitten kitchen as one of my favorite reads?), “I have to be strategic; I need a system.” Every grocery trip I make sure to restock on chicken, chicken sausage, and frozen shrimp; half a dozen 28-ounce cans of plum peel tomatoes are always in the pantry for our reliable standby favorites of shakshuka, lentil soup, tomato soup, and a new household favorite of shrimp with capers from this cookbook; Better than Bullion in chicken, beef, and vegetable (because #SOUPSEASON, folks), the vegetables we like best and can mixed into a dozen recipes, and the assorted 40 spices we keep in the cabinet. And on the baking end of things, I try to have plenty of butter, flour, sugar, cocoa powder, heavy cream, and chocolate chips on hand at all times for whenever the craving strikes (I’ve been baking my way through this delicious book during pandemic, no regrets). These baseline ingredients create a sort of outline that’s looser, flexible, more open to regular experimentation—a creative process a lot, I realized, like my writing process.

I keep a brainstorming notebook with scraps of ideas, scene details, character sketches, and once a story idea has enough meat on the bone, I create a loose outline. Enough of a road map that I know where I’m going, what ingredients I want to mix into the bowl, and some of the pitstops along the way. I allow the creative process to innovate, explore, and wander for the pages in between, excited to taste the results in a reread.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” ― E.L. Doctorow

It allows for discovery and impulsive character-driven scenes. Rather than a predictable outline that I’m bulking out with dialogue and description, when I sit down to write this way, I’m excited by the chance that I’ll be surprised on a hairpin turn 1,000 words in. It might not be the most efficient writing (or cooking) process, but I’ve come to accept that it’s the way I love to create.

Published by hannahkarena

author & book publishing person.

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