Introducing The Fresh 20

No matter who you are or what you do, sometimes it’s hard to know what to make for dinner.

When I was in my 30s and single, I had no one to please but myself. And still, I grew overwhelmed with the stacks of papers to be graded, lined up along all the walls of my apartment. Sometimes I avoided the stacks by taking three hours to make mushroom stock from scratch and crafting a smoked mushroom soup from it. Other times, I dove into them fast by heating up a frozen macaroni and cheese dinner in the microwave. There was no equanimity in my dinners. Everything was decided at the last moment. And my grocery bill was huge because the nights I did cook my food from scratch, I made an entirely different recipe every night, none of the ingredients related to the one from the night before.

We don’t heat up mac and cheese in the microwave now. But still, sometimes, even after a day of creating dishes to test recipes for upcoming cookbooks, we find ourselves with an odd assortment of breads and sauces, all good, none of them dinner. And the kid is hungry. If only we had a plan…

So many of you have written to us in the past few years, asking if we offered any gluten-free meal plans. Because, if a week’s worth of good dinners can be hard to plan, imagine how terrifying the weeknights can seem when you’re newly gluten-free. What do you eat? How do you feed your family nutritious foods and still help them enjoy their time at the table? And how do you create a food life of whole foods in season without it seeming daunting? We understand why some of you might want to see meal plans from us.

We don’t have meal plans on this site. However, we are happy to tell you that we’re pairing up with The Fresh 20, our favorite meal plan site with great gluten-free meal plans.

The Fresh 20 is an innovative meal-plan site, run by our friend, Melissa Lanz. We met Melissa back in April, in New Mexico, at the writing workshop I co-taught with Molly O’Neill. I was immediately struck by her fierce intelligence, her business acumen, and her love of food. This woman knows what she’s doing. But that wasn’t always true. As she wrote recently:

“I started The Fresh 20 to improve my own family food culture. I was addicted to salt, sugar and fat and tired of eating frozen burritos over the sink once my kids went to bed. I needed a plan for weeknight dinners but couldn’t find one that fit my notion of health and happiness. The Fresh 20 became my plan. After the first year, I heard from hundreds of families that needed a plan for gluten free meals so I added those too.”

What is The Fresh 20?

The Fresh 20 is a meal-planning subscription service, with vegetarian, lunch, and gluten-free options. For only $5 a month (billed in three-month installments, or an annual subscription for even bigger savings), you receive an email Friday evening with everything you will need to cook for the next week.

In the email is a shopping list with the 20 fresh, seasonal ingredients you’ll need to buy to make that week’s meals. Fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood, plus nuts or gluten-free baked goods show up, organized by the aisle of the grocery store. Also listed are amounts needed of what might already be in your pantry, ingredients you should keep on hand at all times, such as onions and olive oil.

After the shopping list comes the prep list, an organized guide to chopping vegetables, making brown rice to freeze for later, creating vinaigrettes, and putting together pesto or toasting gluten-free breadcrumbs. The idea is this: get your email Friday night and think about the week’s meals. Go shopping Saturday morning —— hopefully at the farmers’ market, when it’s open — and spend an hour or so preparing everything for the week. Monday night? Make the first recipe.

And of course, there are five recipes included in the email as well, recipes that are thoughtful, interesting, and nutritionally balanced.

As Melissa writes, “Instead of grabbing five unreleated recipes and spitting out a shopping list, the Fresh 20 helps you plan a week of meals that mix and match a short list of seasonal ingredients to create five well-planned, balanced dinners. One day’s roast becomes the next night’s soup or pasta.”

Danny and I have been making dishes from The Fresh 20 for a few months, to make sure these nutritionist-created recipes met our standards for flavor. They did. Lucy is still talking about the brisket we made a few weeks ago. (“Mama, that was good brisket. When can we have that again?”) This weekend, we made the vegetarian taco salad —— crisp romaine, hothouse tomatoes, Monterey Jack cheese, two kinds of beans, homemade tortilla chips, and an avocado-yogurt dip —- for my parents when they came for their Saturday visit. They were thrilled. We were too. Danny was surprised at how much he liked it. He was also surprised to find that a taco filling of ground turkey, sweet potatoes, and black beans was deeply satisfying. Red beans and rice get a new healthy spin with kale, spaghetti squash, and shrimp. Everything we made was healthy, not-too-complicated, and enjoyed at our table.

If you are the kind of person who loves to create new dishes every night and throws food into a hot pan based on feel and smell, without a recipe, this kind of service isn’t right for you. But if you are like a friend of mine, who is looking through cookbooks and food blogs for hours before coming up with a plan for the week and writing a shopping list on the back of an envelope before going to the store, we think that The Fresh 20 might be just what you need. It’s bound to get you cooking gluten-free from scratch, instead of relying on packaged or frozen foods. And it’s likely to make you more comfortable in the kitchen, which will only entice you to cook more often. That can only be good.