Every year, I try to attend Camp Bacon. And yes, it’s what it sounds like: a week of bacon-centered events put on by Zingerman’s, the famous deli in Ann Arbor, Mich.
I don’t only go for the bacon, although they serve plenty of it. I go for the speakers, everybody from Allen Benton, the famous ham producer from Tennessee, to Tanya Nueske, whose Wisconsin family has been in the meat business for almost 100 years. One of the best speakers is always Susan Schwaillie, an executive director with the NPD Group. Each year, NPD tracks 30,000 people for the ways they dine out, what they eat, and how they cook.
Schwaillie was the first person I heard talk about “blended meals”—only, she didn’t mean juices or smoothie bowls. She referred to meals that people put together with prepared main ingredients, whether they came from deli counters or gourmet stores, doggy bags from restaurants or delivery food.
Schwaillie said diners were transforming that food into follow-up meals by adding things they had on hand in the fridge, or items in their pantries. That helped illustrate one of her statistics: 80% of meals are still made at home, even if the centerpiece of those meals comes from somewhere else.
Hey, I thought, that’s how I cook. Only I have always called it something else: meal assembly, or just “assembling.”
This isn’t simply eating leftovers for lunch, or serving them again for dinner. And it isn’t passing off someone else’s creation as your own. Assembling is turning premade food into something different and equally (or even more) satisfying. You get the opportunity to cook and be creative, but you aren’t spending massive amounts of time and effort doing it.
In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve learned that assembling gets much easier when you go about it with a plan. So, this series on The Takeout will help you get great at assembling.
I’ll explain how you can get your mind around the idea, set up your kitchen to be able to assemble quickly, and then offer you some ideas for delicious meals using all kinds of centerpiece ingredients, from rotisserie chicken to tofu, pizza and the salad bar.
Assembling is a two-step process that involves purchasing and preparation. It cuts down on the time you need to make a complete meal and helps to eliminate food waste, since you’re using what you brought home from that dinner with your friends instead of finding the moldy container and throwing it away a week later. (Guilty.) It also eliminates stress. You aren’t cooking multiple courses, or main dishes with sides. Instead, you just make the most of what you already have.
But assembling gives you a role to play, and that kind of easy creativity is enjoyable on a weeknight, and helps you put lunch together swiftly. I think of assembling as a bridge between home cooking and dining out.
- Those who are just learning to cook
- People who know how to cook, but just don’t always have the time
- Moms who want to do more than make a fast food run
- Anyone who wants to reduce their food waste
- Pretty much everybody who makes a meal at home (it gets expensive to be summoning carryout every single night, and you’re still going to be left with way too much food in the fridge, because American portions are enormous)
People just get bored eating the same things all the time. Assembling will hopefully give you some ideas you haven’t seen elsewhere—and I’m counting on you, dear reader, to offer your own suggestions.
Assembling starts before you go to the store, go out to eat, tap on your app, or open the fridge. Ask yourself these questions:
1. “What do I feel like eating today?”
2. “How much work do I feel like putting in?”
3. “Are there any leftovers that are going to grow legs and walk away if I don’t use them by tonight?”
Another consideration: How much do you feel like spending? It’s definitely cheaper to go to the grocery store than to order delivery. But when you get to the store, do you feel like springing for the steak, or would you like to get out of the store for $10 max? And would you like to make enough for both dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow?
Be honest with yourself. If you’re already hungry, you probably won’t want to spend 25 minutes waiting for a whole grain to cook, even if it’s easy to make. (In that case, rice noodles are faster.)
And if you had a long day at work, you might not feel up to chopping any veggies. If that’s the case, just use your limitations to help decide what you’ll be making.
Here’s an example of how I assembled a meal this past week, rather than cooking one from scratch: After bingeing on mac and cheese during a recent snowstorm, I was craving salad. So I stopped by the Produce Station in Ann Arbor, which has a gorgeous variety of veggies, ingredients, and prepared food on its food bar.
Making an entire salad with grains and proteins from a prepared food bar can get pricey. Instead, I filled a container with salad mix that included raw Brussels sprouts, greens and broccoli, and chopped carrots (all very light items when you’re being charged by weight). At home, I put some already cooked rice in a bowl, placed the salad on top, then added feta cheese, dried cranberries, and balsamic dressing. The result: a colorful main dish without much work, and making use of what I had on hand.
As you can see, you don’t have to head straight for Seamless—assembling is going to be your new friend.