Ah, margin. The two red lines gently guiding you to give more breathing room to your paper.
I can see those lines so clearly when it comes to paper and pen- but when it comes to my time, it’s just so easy to fill my page to overflowing. In fact, I rarely consider margin at all when I am planning my week- let alone my meals.
Rather, I am usually trying to squeeze every last millimeter out of the day, and that leaves me feeling cramped and anxious, with important parts falling off the edge.
“Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is…the space between breathing freely and suffocating.” – Paul Chappell, The Burden Bearer
Whether we like it or not, the page is only 8 1/2×11. There is no such thing as adding more margin (OK, unless you have a glue stick…). But seriously, there are real edges to your page. There are real limits to your day. You can’t glue-stick an extra hour into the evening. Each day gets only 24 hours, and not one more.
Rather, we need to decide on purpose to leave margin on our days. To see the edge and decide to stop ahead of time. To leave room so that unexpected “e” can put it’s toe over the line without falling clear off the page.
How can you give yourself margin…in the kitchen?
A meal requires more than just ingredients.
Or rather, it requires a sneaky ingredient that we usually overlook.
I love home cooked meals- lasagna with a warm fresh loaf of bread is the stuff fall dreams are made of…but cooking real food takes time. Time to thaw the hamburger, brown it, and mix the sauce. Time to boil the noodles and knead the bread. Time to gather the ingredients and tools, and time to clean up the mess of cooking along with the mess of eating the meal.
We’ve got to take into account the time a meal needs. And then we’ve got to give that time some margin- some space for the unexpected. The toddler meltdown, the kitchen that wasn’t quite all the way clean from lunch, the preschooler who has a picture to share.
Unfortunately, we can’t run over to the neighbors for that extra half-hour like we can for the cup of sugar.
When we leave that extra time, we can face these obstacles (and opportunities) with more peace and a clearer mind.
How can we leave margin for the kitchen? How do we go about making room for the unexpected here?
Strategy for Margin 1: Consider Your Week
One very simple way to leave margin on your days when it comes to your kitchen is to consider what else is already filling your page for the week as you make your meal plan.
On paper I can make chicken pot pie with homemade crust regardless of the fact that I was gone all afternoon for co-op. Or regardless of the fact that my garden (and, therefore, kitchen) is overflowing with green beans.
Making a considered plan allows me to look ahead and know where I should put in a simple meal of cold meat sandwiches, or when I need to pull out that crock pot to do the cooking for me while I’m gone for the day.
Strategy for Margin 2: Substitute and Simplify
If you are running out of room when it comes to the end of a page, you can substitute a shorter word (go) for a longer one (traversed). Or maybe you need to simplify the whole sentence.
Not every meal has to be Pinterest-worthy. Sometimes simple food is the best food because it is what can reach the table. I try to have freezer meals on hand for the days where things spin out of control. I also stock my pantry with things like these jar soups that take a little time to set up, but can be easily paired with some bread from the freezer or crackers in a pinch.
If a day unexpectedly pushes into the margins in other areas, I can substitute a simpler meal for the more complicated one that I had planned.
Strategy for Margin 3: Spread out
If all of your thoughts can’t fit on one line, spread onto the next line. Use the lines above. Take up more pages.
Of course, the answer is not always the simpler meal. While some super simple meals sprinkled throughout the week might allow for just the rhythm you need, nourishment, rejuvenation, and family culture all benefit from real food. Just like a paper written using only three and four letter words has a hard time giving richness and depth of thought, a week of meals consisting of foods that can be zapped in a microwave lacks something of family culture that we desire for our homes.
Ironically, sometimes the only way to leave margin is to take up more room.
We know this instinctively when it comes to meals like Thanksgiving dinner. No one thinks they can build that meal within the morning hours of Thanksgiving alone. We make the pies in the days ahead, we bake and freeze rolls, we even google ways to freeze mashed potatoes. Anything to keep that morning from being too much. But when it comes everyday meals- we almost always try to do it all at once.
But we can apply some of the same thinking to our daily food. One of the reasons having a plan is so important is that it allows us to spread out the components of a meal over multiple hours or days. We can soak the beans on Monday even though we aren’t using them until Wednesday. We can cook the entire week’s ground beef at once rather than at three separate times.
Plans – all plans – are both delightful and dangerous
They are delightful because they begin with a blank slate, full of possibilities and dreams, where the kitchen is always clean, well-stocked, and ready for a cook.
But they are also dangerous, because they are devoid of the realities of everyday life. The ink is barely dried on the page when the 3pm toddler meltdown, the too-long school-day, and the still- frozen meat-brick come to wreck our best-laid-plans.
And herein lies the conundrum.
Because plans so often fail, should we just not plan?
It’s a real question. I have made so many meal plans that started out beautiful, exciting, wonderful, but when plugged into the actual day, those same plans became a tiresome and unreasonable master.
What is the solution then?
We have got to plan in margin. We can’t cram every minute full. We have to remember cooking takes time. We must expect that life will happen, that our plans will be necessarily imperfect. And when we give ourselves that room, we can face our days – and our kitchen- with peace and confidence.