It’s a few days before Thanksgiving and meal planning is well underway. Recipes are being selected. Ingredients are being checked and double-checked. Pots, pans, and utensils are being itemized. We are getting ready. Timing for what can be prepared in advance, what needs to be started early on Thanksgiving day, and what must wait until the last minute is being calculated.
And, truly, this task is significantly harder than it needs to be.
As I partake in the frenzy known as cooking for Thanksgiving, I am thinking about a much better way to plan, organize, and execute the event. One that is optimized, computer-driven, and simple to follow. Here is what it looks like.
Selecting the Menu
The first task is creating a nice menu. To create a menu that will make everyone happy, I need to consider many things. Among the things I am keeping in mind are:
- The number of people I have to feed
- The various courses I plan on serving
- Food restrictions
- Balancing the meal nutritionally
- Making tasty food that will appeal to everyone in my family
- How easy or difficult it is to cook each item
- Keeping traditional Thanksgiving fare and possibly incorporating new and different dishes
- The availability of ingredients
What if I could input this information into a form. For example, I could input information about the people I will be feeding:
- Eight adults and 4 children
- One adult is vegan
- Three adults are limiting their intake of carbohydrates (even better if I know exactly how many carbs they are going to allocate for the meal)
- Half of the people do not eat red meat
- One child is lactose intolerant
- One child is allergic to peanuts
Next, I might consider putting in some ideas or general categories I want to include:
- Something with cranberries
- Two vegetable dishes
- A starch of some type
- A main course for the vegan
- A pie
- An additional dessert
I input this and some additional information. The computing system returns no more than 3 recipes of each type of dish I want to serve. The system selects the recipes based on the information I have provided.
Once I have selected the menu, I gather the ingredients to make the meal. Most likely, I already have some of the ingredients in my pantry, refrigerator, or freezer. The other ingredients I need to purchase.
First, the system provides me with a list of all of the ingredients I need for the entire meal. For example, if two dishes call for 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the system says that I need 4 tablespoons of olive oil. It compiles all the ingredients and quantities into one large list. That way, I don’t have to manually calculate the amounts from easy recipe. It is done for me.
Next, I check what I already have. In my fantasy world, everything in my pantry, fridge, and freezer has an RFID, and there is a system that has been recording this information that tells me what I already have. I have even bigger fantasies about the system being able to tell me when something in the fridge has expired, and so on. If I have a system that already knows what I have, it can interface with my new list and cross out things that I do not need to purchase. Otherwise, I need to do this step by hand.
Once I have my list of ingredients, I send that list to a store. The store puts together my order and delivers everything to my door. Okay – that might be taking it a bit far, but it would be nice if I didn’t have to battle the crowds. Have you ever tried to go food shopping a day or two before Thanksgiving? Yeah, its enough to make me want to order take-out from a local Chinese restaurant.
Tools and Utensils
In addition to compiling a list of ingredients, my computing system itemizes other things I need:
- Pots and pans
- Small appliances, such as a food processor or a juicer
- Special utensils such as a whisk or a potato ricer
If multiple dishes require the same pot or pan, the system tells me that, too. That way, I can decide if I need to purchase any extra tools.
The Order of Events
The system evaluates all of the dishes I plan on serving and divides them into categories:
- Things that can be made in advance
- Things that need to be made on Thanksgiving day
It asks me questions such as:
- How many ovens do you have?
- What is the size and number of racks per oven?
- How many microwaves do you have?
- How many burners do you have on your stove top?
From this information, it creates the schedule of meal preparation and cooking. The system tells me which dishes to start with and how far in advance I can start preparing and cooking. Because the system is smart, it groups together steps from different recipes. For example, if I need to chop onions and carrots for two different dishes, the system instructs me to chop all of the onions and carrots at once.
Time to Cook
The system knows the different oven temperatures and burners needed for the entire meal. It knows cooking times. It knows refrigeration times. it knows everything that I know. However, it is smarter than me. It organizes everything I need to do, for every dish, and presents that information to me in a series of contiguous and parallel steps.
I begin preparation and cooking according to the instructions the system provides. It takes into account how much time my oven needs to move from temperature to temperature (both up and down). It knows which dishes can be cooked simultaneously. The system even tells me what time I need to begin in the morning to have everything on the table by, say, 4:00PM. It knows everything I need to do. My job is to follow the instructions.
With the advances we are making in cognitive systems such as IBM Watson, I have no doubt that cooking Thanksgiving dinner will be significantly easier in the future. The logic exists. It’s only a matter of time. For now, though, I will continue to do things the hard way – recipe by recipe, ingredient by ingredient, with a piece of paper and a pencil, or (nowadays) an Excel spreadsheet.
But just imagine how much easier the task of selecting, preparing, and cooking a big meal will be in the future. Think about how much time, energy (both human and appliance), and thought power we will save. Think of the turkeys that won’t be burnt.
Once we solve the cooking challenge, I will need to get a robot that will clear the table, put the extra ingredients away, do the dishes, wash the floor, stove, counters, and oven, and do the laundry. When that day comes, we will all have something to be thankful for.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!