A Typical Week of Home Cooking

Going through the Dinner Table Tournament, I have discovered many different ways to cook. The process of writing and documenting those different services changed the way I thought about the cooking experience. To put it on an even comparison against our typical routine, I decided to write up what a typical week of cooking looks like.

Home Cooking: Take about a couple hundred

Julie and I usually start our weekly meal planning on Sunday morning over brunch. That way, we can go grocery shopping that afternoon. Brunch is typically eggs (scrambled, omelet, soft boiled, fried, poached, or whatever Julie is in the mood for), toasted leftover whole wheat sandwich bread ends, and fruit. We had guests over on Friday, so we substituted in strawberry long-cake and salad greens. Continue reading A Typical Week of Home Cooking

I finished Battlestar Galactica, and I have to talk about it

In this age of binge-watching, I continue to be bad at watching TV shows with any haste. I’m actually quite proud that Julie and I finished watching all 4 seasons and 75 episodes of Battlestar Galactica (BSG) in about 3 years. Although I’m about 6 years too late, I have to talk about it.

If you haven’t watched the show, there are spoilers ahead, and even if you don’t mind the spoilers, this post probably won’t make much. If you have not watched BSG and enjoy sci-fi, I recommend it.

Continue reading I finished Battlestar Galactica, and I have to talk about it

Donning a Blue Apron

I don’t really get calories. Every time I go to In-n-Out, I am stuck by the fact that the french fries have more calories than the burger and that both are far below that of the milkshake. Since I already know what I’m going to get, I stare at the calorie counts on the menu and rationalize all of the sides by going for a grilled cheese.

I have 2 big disconnects with understanding calories. First, calories don’t always match fullness or centrality in a meal. I assume that they are strongly correlated, but it turns out that those bags of chips can add up, while juice goes right through my system. Second, I still don’t get how non-meat food catches up to meat in calories. I always kind of figured that meat was the heavy-hitter, but peanut butter or pasta don’t seem so offensive.

I remember hearing awhile back that calorie counts on New York menus wasn’t decreasing consumption, though I think that it might be missing the long-term effect. Standing in line at In-n-Out, I can’t make sense of the calorie counts nor can I override my momentary desire for particular menu items. I do, however, now have a better sense for how many calories go into an entire meal: before seeing calorie counts on Munchery/Plated/Blue Apron menu items, I had no idea how many calories should be in dinner. That allows me to compare that to the snacks or other meal options I have. I may not be good at judging calories, but at least I know I’m bad at it and think about my choices along the way.

Blue Apron: Take 1

Blue Apron ships you weekly, insulated boxes full of raw ingredients for a few different meals. You can choose how many and what types of dishes you want (veggie, beef, fish, poultry, etc) as well as your preferred delivery days. The website is easy enough to use and of course features very attractive food photography. Continue reading Donning a Blue Apron

Still Munching

Growing up, my family ate everything, well, family style. All meals, whether stir-fry or barbecue, came out in serving dishes on the table. Even ostensibly single serving meals like hamburgers or baked potatoes were usually assembled away from the table from the big stack of food and brought over. Even these days, Julie and I often cook family style between the two of us. Portion sizes for 2 aren’t too hard to figure out, though we will often leave a half-serving of food behind for tupperware.

As such, one great contrast in restaurant food is getting a complete plate, with grains, veggies, and meat all at different clock positions. With a full plate in front of me, I feel compelled to finish as much of it as possible or to give up early for a doggie bag. There’s something about having everything already on my plate that pushes me to eat a little more, where seeing an equal portion in the serving dish doesn’t. The strange world of individual servings at home adds an element of restaurant fanciness, but also makes me overeat slightly more than I normally would.

Munchery: Take 2

Our meal schedule has been somewhat erratic for the past month, so Julie and I couldn’t commit to any of the full-week meal options recently. Despite lapsing on that, we were able to order Munchery to fill in an unusual day, and it was quite convenient. Even without considering the number of meals, it was much more convenient because we ordered our meals for the next day, while Plated needed to be ordered several days in advance. Continue reading Still Munching

Getting dinner Plated

Targeted ads seem to work pretty well these days. After publishing my blog post about Munchery, I started regularly getting ads for Plated on Facebook. They were quite conspicuous on my newsfeed with a list of friends who had also liked Plated.

I guess it worked, however, because I ended up using the promotion via Facebook to use Plated. The discount was worth it, but I do feel dirty about it because according to the marketing numbers, I just validated advertising my Facebook feed. Yikes.

Plated: Take 1

Plated is a service that creates menus and delivers ingredients to your home for exactly those meals. You can prepare the meal basically from scratch without having to find recipes or do any grocery shopping. Continue reading Getting dinner Plated

Not Too Little, Not Too Munchery

Many websites today have poor user experiences. Some are annoying. Some are cluttered. A common problem is that they make it difficult for users to do what they want to do. You know what flows typically are very easy? Anything where users are buying things.

It’s not perfect: I have many times dug out my wallet to type in the credit card number on the front of my card, then flipped it over for that XYZ or POS or whatever that number on the back is, then flipped it back over for the expiration date. But sites generally make that “Add to Cart” button very visible, and it’s only a few steps away to check out and give them money. If only we were so well-aligned and practiced in other flows on the internet as well.

Munchery: Take 1

Ordering

My Munchery journey started from the recycling bin. I found out a few days later that they had mailed coupon codes to apparently everyone, but I had initially ignored the flyer, then dug it out a few days later. I was probably hungry right then. Continue reading Not Too Little, Not Too Munchery

Introducing the Dinner Table Tournament

table-147314_640Long ago, humans discovered fire and began to cook their food. Not soon after, they began to complain about eating the food cooked yesterday and why they couldn’t go out and hunt or forage for new food instead.

Fast forward to today, and not much has changed. Basically, there are 2 options: going out or staying in. I grew up in a “staying in” household, where my mom cooked everyday except for leftovers. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the recipe), my mom is not around to provide for me on a daily basis. On the other hand, the options for staying in have changed dramatically. No longer are we restricted to cooking or ordering pizza delivery. We can:

  • shop for groceries and cook dinner like always
  • skip shopping for groceries and have groceries delivered
  • skip coming up with a grocery list and have ingredients for a meal prepackaged with a recipe
  • skip the cooking and have an equivalent to a home meal delivered
  • skip the delivery and eat in someone else’s home
  • skip the “home meal” restriction and order delivery from a restaurant
  • skip talking to the restaurant and order through a delivery service

I bet some cavemen would have literally killed to get their meals like that.

I tend to believe that the old ways are the best ways and try to cook more often than not. Despite it just being myself and Julie, I believe in the value of family dinners and cooking at home. We spend time working together by cooking. I think we tend to make more nutritious meals. Meals around the dinner table are a time for bonding and tradition.

But I can understand why many people don’t do it. Cooking requires planning when our lives seem more unpredictable than ever. It takes a long time to prepare, eat, and clean up when we don’t have enough time anyways. Most of us don’t cook well, and almost all of us don’t cook restaurant-quality food. Instead, we go out to eat, or pick up fast food, or microwave a TV dinner.

We make compromises in our daily lives, and new “staying in” options can help to find that balance. Although I come into this with strong biases towards cooking, I also am an adventurous eater and need ways to generate blog content. Therefore, I (and by extension and some duress, Julie) will embark on a months long hunt through many dinner acquisition services to find out what works and what doesn’t. We will judge our meals and experiences and share those thoughts on this blog. Here are some of the criteria we will be considering:

  1. Nutrition. Did the meal look balanced? Is this a sustainable diet?
  2. Taste. Did it taste good? Would I eat this every day?
  3. Convenience. How was the experience of getting and preparing the food? Does it generally fit into my life?
  4. Experience. Overall, how was dinner? Did it address the peripheral, related aspects of a home dinner?

Julie and I have discussed many options so far (and we’re open to more suggestions, but so far, we have come up with CSA, Instacart, Plated, Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Munchery, delivery, DoorDash, and EatWith. We are open to any other suggestions as well

To spice up our meals, I want to put out an open invitation for dinner guests. I would be worried about regularly having friends try our usual dinners, but this series of experiments seems like a perfect opportunity to share the experience. To fulfill such a role, the qualifications are:

  1. actually knowing Julie or me
  2. transporting yourself to be physically, preferably punctually present at our place
  3. informing us of any dietary restrictions or strong preferences you might have
  4. helping with meal preparation as necessary for the selected service
  5. contributing opinions freely to be shared in future blog posts

Note that the requirements do not include paying for your meal. As guests, we will be providing for your meal.

Along the way, I may provide some musings about food, cooking, hosting, or other related topics. Stay tuned, and let me know via any contact method if you wish to join us for dinner. Even you lurkers who I have barely talked to in my life: you’re all welcome!

My Top 5 Funniest Movie Scenes

I once read that lists are a cheap way to write blog posts. They are easy to write because instead of composing 1000 words that flow together, you just have to write, say, 5 200 word snippets that fit together.

From a writing perspective, this is true, but I have been thinking about this blog post for a very long time. I have laughed hard at many scenes in movies, but these are the most enduring ones in my mind. Without further ado (or unnecessary effort writing, here’s the list of my top 5 funniest movie scenes.

Honorable Mention: Hot Tub Time Machine – “Crispin Glover’s arm”

This was one of the best running jokes I have seen in a movie, but sadly, a running joke doesn’t count because it isn’t a single scene. Even so, I find it worthy because it integrates suspense really well: after the first time, you never quite know how any scene is going to turn out.

5. Kung Pow – “Radio Shack”

Kung Pow is a dumb movie. The jokes are absurd, but at least the concept of redubbing and working into an old movie with green scene is executed well enough. Some of the movie is too much for me, but some jokes just really stand out. This scene is a one-liner that I find really funny for no particular reason

4. Dodgeball – “The Bar Scene”

There are 2 jokes in this scene that I like a lot: the player introduction at the beginning and Ben Stiller’s comebacks at the end. Sadly, they are split over 2 videos on YouTube. Oddly, I don’t think the jokes play off each other, and independently, they wouldn’t make it into my top 5. It doesn’t really make sense in my mind why they should work together, but they do.

3. Mystery Men – Superhero Training

Just before this scene is the training montage with “All Star” playing over it, and I like that scene, too. Mystery Men is just a strange, strange movie that feels like the 90s, and I really enjoy the self-aware, ridiculous humor in it. Although Ben Stiller usually plays the joker, he happens to be the straight man in this scene, and he pulls it off really well. Humor usually depends a lot on unpredictably, but the over-predictability of this scene build an awkwardness that brings the humor through for me.

2. The Big Lebowski – “We? I!”

Another quick hit of a joke. The feeling of a poor cover-up is very relatable. Overall, I’m only so-so on The Big Lebowski, but there are a few jokes that really work for me, and this is the winner.

1. Men in Black – “Written Exam”

I enjoy physical humor. I enjoy awkward humor. The pacing of this scene just feels right once the written exam starts.

Hopefully you guys enjoy these clips as well. I would be curious to hear what the favorites in the crowd are as well.

When Fun Stops Being Fun and Becomes a Grind

(Author’s note: you know that thing I do in my writing where I write about one thing but am actually writing about something else? Yeah, that’s happening below, so even if you don’t care about video games, you may still like the rest of my post. However, you may not like any of it. Just don’t use the topic of video games as a predictor for your interest. Read as you will.)

I was catching up with my friend Reno, and he mentioned that he was, with shame, playing a lot of Destiny. Despite coming from the makers of Halo, this video game was highly criticized by the community for becoming unreasonably difficult relatively quickly. To progress through the game, one had to do a lot of grinding (and not the kind you get kicked out of high school prom for). When I mentioned criticism to Reno, he countered that he didn’t really see it as a grind because the gameplay was fun for him, and he wasn’t too worried about leveling and strengthening his character.

I didn’t know how to respond.

I recently wrote a blog post about how I wanted to move away from video games that require grinding, as many role-playing games do. Perhaps a childhood of video games desensitized me to the joy of watching my character progress, and I recently have been left wishing I could skip past the gameplay and just get to the end goal. In my tirade, I think I forgot that video games are supposed to be fun and worthwhile in its own right. The in-game goal of progressing through levels isn’t supposed to reduce that pleasure. Grinding isn’t grinding if you’re having fun. In fact, just calling it “grinding” presupposes the monotony of it. It becomes a grind if the gameplay isn’t fun in the first place.

I don’t play any games these days that I consider grinding in a traditional sense. I do, however, play some video games relatively seriously and consider it an exercise to improve and get better. For example, I started a blog to catalog my progress and lessons in StarCraft 2. Despite having evangelized the game and related my passion for it, I never actually played that much StarCraft. To have actually improved, I probably should have played at least 5 to 10 games a week. To my shame, I only played that much a handful of times. It’s a common phenomena known in the community as ladder anxiety: it’s intimidating to play, the games are stressful, and the result is exhausting. If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you probably have a healthier understanding of fun than many StarCraft players.

Ironically, I think that the gameplay of StarCraft is fun. What I suspect went wrong is that I took a fun activity and reframed it as practice. When my first priority ceased being fun and instead became self-improvement, the games unsurprisingly were no longer fun. Each game was a test where suboptimal performance was a disappointment. I knew that my mechanics weren’t good enough: I needed to practice to click the buttons and react fast enough. Every game against a real human being felt like a recital, where I could hear myself playing the wrong notes all along the way, and whether I finished the piece or not, I could only remember the struggle. By turning StarCraft into an activity to improve in, I made a future goal my requirement for satisfaction–it was grinding. I was grinding to improve myself.

Looking back, I thought that framing StarCraft into practice was a brilliant move without consequences. I could take something that I enjoyed (StarCraft) and add structure and progress to it. I fooled myself into over-optimism about the idea by glossing past the potential downsides. Looking back, I think I undervalued the intrinsic value of video games as a source of fun, and by reframing it otherwise, I diminished the driving factor to play in the first place.

Extrapolating to the rest of my life, I see the same pattern across many of my activities. Whether it’s board games or fantasy football, activities lose their charm when I figure that I need to be good at them. It changes epiphanies into research, participation into performance, mistakes into disappointment. It doesn’t even need to be competitive (though the competition doesn’t help, either): I can induce this attitude in isolation, and it results in me stopping out of an activity entirely when I have gone too far and no can longer enjoy it at all.

For example, I was a tuba player in high school. I really enjoyed band and playing music, but it was mostly structured as a lot of hard work. I learned a lot of work ethic through it. Since then, I have picked up the tuba a handful of times, but never really sustained it. I tell people that it is because I will never be as good as I was when I was practicing a half-hour to an hour daily, and that’s just disheartening. That explanation makes a lot of sense until realizing that I want to play music again to have fun, not to be good, and those two things don’t necessarily need to be tied together.

The same is true for racquetball: I only picked it up again in the past 2 months after a few years of not playing. I kept telling myself that I would never be as good as when I was practicing with my friend Dave twice a week. Despite being a competitive game, I forgot that I can have fun with it without playing at my best and beating everyone.

To self psych-analyze, it comes from my upbringing in primary and secondary education. Our system is totally a rat race, where even extra-curricular activities are competitive because we are all putting together college resumes and trying to get ahead in any way possible. My band director put this thinking together succinctly as something along the lines of “We have fun, and it’s fun being good.”

My director was right: it can be extremely rewarding to be good at things. However, I think there’s a dividing line between activities that we do for pleasure and for gain. In our education system, it turns out that everything is done for gain. In real life, this is it. This is our lives, and some things are worth doing without a greater goal. My yoga instructor in college often reminded us, “Remember, this is adult fitness: do what you’re comfortable with.” Yoga class isn’t about having the best downward facing dog in the room: it’s exactly what each individual wants it to be. Sometimes, it isn’t work that leads to fun: it’s the fun that leads to the work.

I was traveling for the past 2 weekends, and I had plenty of time both to visit with friends and family and to reflect on my own during long car rides. I was so excited when I got back home with a list of things that I wanted to learn to do or to do better: driving a manual, going rock climbing, speaking another language. I even made a bucket list for them so I could work through them methodically and become the modern-day renaissance man. Looking at the list now, the entire exercise feels ridiculous. Not only do my backlog lists usually fail, I realize now that I didn’t put things there because they sounded like fun. I put them on my list because I wanted to be good at more things.

Not to say that I shouldn’t do any of these things. But maybe I should do them because they sound fun. Maybe that way, I won’t be grinding until I’m disheartened. They can be the fulfilling lifelong activities I imagined instead.