On the first Sunday of 2021, I sat down to make a grocery list. After writing down a few pantry staples that needed to be replenished and the ingredients required for that evening's dinner, I asked my partner what else we should get. He suggested we purchase supplies to meal prep breakfast burritos for the week. I swiftly shut that idea down with a scowl and a curt, "I don't think so."
While my partner's suggestion of meal planning was a big mistake, it was also an innocent one. In our previous, pre-pandemic life, he and I would often spend a Sunday afternoon cooking up a big batch of scrambled eggs and a whole pack of bacon, then putting those prepped ingredients together with shredded cheese into a stack of tortillas that could be thrown in the freezer. It pains me to admit it because it sounds so basic, but the end result was a reliably quick and filling breakfast that could be scarfed down as we rushed out the door to our respective jobs. In the year 2021, however, we're in no hurry to get anywhere and we no longer feel like we must constantly be maximising our time and prioritising productivity, so why the hell should we prep any of our meals in advance? Come to think of it, why did we ever feel like we needed to do it at all?
There has long been a strong culture around meal prepping, with numerous online communities — Instagram accounts, subreddits and Facebook groups — dedicated to documenting the process by sharing recipes, hacks and even the best food containers. Though meal prepping is a topic that thrives online all year long for a select group, it gets an extra boost of attention at the start of every new year, as many more people, like clockwork, make resolutions to eat healthier or spend less money dining out. This new year feels different, though, since the calendar starting over seems less significant a change than the one we're all really waiting for: the end of the pandemic. With that date still up in the air, it feels silly to make any kind of resolution to mark this particular trip around the sun by making big plans to alter, of all things, our eating habits.
As someone who, for the most part, enjoys cooking and also finds the new year self-improvement cycle exhausting and inevitably embarrassing, I've never been a huge fan of the meal prep trend. In the past, I've grudgingly participated in it off and on as a way to save money and feed myself when work and other obligations got in the way of being creative in the kitchen. But I also always felt like it took the joy out of cooking and made what could be a pleasurable activity into something purely utilitarian. No matter who's doing it, the practice of meal prepping has always had a sort of obnoxious, bro-y, "always be hustling" energy, which is a huge turnoff and also feels especially out of touch with our pandemic reality. As it's done with so many other aspects of our daily routines, the pandemic revealed that this kind of energy is — and always has been —problematic. And it's why, in 2021, I have accepted the fact that jumping on the meal prep train wouldn't help me at all; it would only rob me of the very few joys this new way of life has provided.
As the sourdough bread-baking boom of early 2020 proved, once we realised we were stuck at home, many of us retreated into our kitchens for a much-needed boost of amusement. Over the course of the pandemic, cooking and baking projects became more than just a means to feed ourselves, and making meals was no longer simply something to be crossed off a Sunday to-do list. Instead, cooking has become a hobby and even a lifeline, providing a dose of pleasure that can be injected into otherwise mundane days, weeks and months. We got used to shopping for groceries differently, and we transitioned to keeping our pantries and fridges stocked with ingredients for easy-to-whip-up lunches so we could add a bright spot into our days and always having the supplies needed for our favourite baked goods on hand. While spending almost all our time at home comes with many drawbacks, the ability to have a leisurely breakfast of pancakes on a Tuesday morning is a gift, and it's one I will not squander by defrosting a breakfast burrito I hastily made a few days before in the hope of giving myself more time to…what? Sit around staring at a screen? No thank you.
I would also argue that one of the toughest parts of being a meal prepper — namely, that it means you'll have a lack of variety in weekly meals — is made even more miserable by life in quarantine. Some days, the only way to mark the passage of time while being constantly inside is with a specially made meal or sweet treat. In the before times, the same sad pre-prepped chicken breast with green beans and rice for dinner every single day was bad, but in 2021, it would surely push me over the edge. Now, I have the luxury to make whatever it is that I am in the mood for at any given moment, and I'm embracing it.
Punctuating the end of a workweek with delivery from my favourite local restaurant has also become the only way I'm able to shift gear into weekend mode since there is no physical difference in where I while away my Wednesdays and where I sit around on Saturdays. And given that I'm also incredibly concerned with keeping my favourite neighbourhood spots afloat during this dreadful time when so many restaurants are being forced to close their doors, meal prepping doesn't even make as much sense as a financial proposition. Since I am employed, I'd rather help save the businesses I love than save money.
Meal prepping is all about planning for the future and working hard in the moment because the payoff — cheap, readily accessible meals all week — will be worth it. But what this pandemic has made very clear is that you can't actually plan for the future; strange things always pop up. So why not enjoy the moment by making brownies at 2.30 in the afternoon on a weekday? Or eating a block of cheese over the sink in the middle of the night because that's what you were in the mood for? Or ordering the exact dish you're craving for dinner multiple nights in a row? Let's stop trying to optimise every part of our lives and just live.
Of course, meal prepping does work for many people, and there are definitely those who feel like keeping their Sunday meal prep routine has helped them find order in these otherwise chaotic times. If meal prepping is the only way you can make sure your family gets fed because you're having to homeschool your kids on top of working a full-time job or you just genuinely enjoy finding new meal prep hacks and recipes, by all means, continue the practice. But if you're like me and the meal prep game has always been a burden, something you felt like you had to try embracing each January in order to start the year off on the right foot, let this be the year when you finally say: Fuck meal prepping. You won't regret it.