What *Actually* Makes a Meal Satisfying?

Taste is only the beginning.

Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).

The other night, on her way out the door to a birthday dinner with her sister, my wife gave me this piece of sage advice: “Treat yourself to something delicious. Don’t eat a sad dinner.”

Dinner is seldom sad for me. It's the only meal of the day that I actually pine for: my true north. But I got what she meant. Don’t scrounge for fridge scraps. Cook something you’re craving. If nothing appeals, get takeout. So, what did I do? I scrounged for fridge scraps. I cooked something I wasn’t particularly in the mood for. I poo-pooed takeout. And it was glorious.

The gist: There was one grilled Italian sausage, still slicked in peppers-and-onions, leftover from my son’s 2nd birthday party. I crumble-chopped that, put it in a skillet with some fat leftover from cooking carnitas, and let it brown while I took a shower. I added the rest of last night’s brown rice to sizzle in the fat for a minute, then the final drips of some weeks-old teriyaki sauce — just enough to wage a flavor turf war with the Italian sausage. I scrambled in the egg yolks that never made it into the kid’s birthday cake, scattered in a few snap peas (some fresh, some cooked) and chile flakes, and ate it on the couch while watching a documentary about fish. I was happy as a sustainably harvested clam.

But why? Why was this home-for-wayward-ingredients fried rice so damn satisfying? Sure, I thought it tasted good (I fall hard for ground meat), but not that good. And while it may not have been the least delicious meal I could have cooked or procured for myself that night, it certainly wasn’t the most. So, why did it bring me such joy?

Because here’s a highly curated list of things that make me happy:

Using up all the random things that are loitering in my fridge, even if they don’t really belong together. Ever pick up a 7-10 split in bowling? Me neither, but I imagine it produces the same feeling of pride and excitement you get by knocking down Italian sausage and teriyaki sauce at the same time.

Cooking solely with ingredients that are already in the house. Yes, my local grocery store is a 30-second walk from my front door, but that’s not the point. If my meals were scored on a points system, extra shopping trips and not-totally necessary expenditures would be major deductions.

Quick dinners. To be clear, slow dinners also make me very happy. Per list item #2, I would sooner spend 30 minutes stubbornly making two flour tortillas for a quesadilla than walk that 30 seconds to the store to buy them. Still, there is something undeniably satisfying about a meal that tastes good and can be made in less than the time it takes to decide what takeout to order.

Cooking dinner while taking a shower. Seriously, a total treat. Not every meal affords this luxury, but think of all the recipes that ask you to start cooking something and come back to it five to 10 minutes later. That’s my shower sweet spot, but if you need a little more time (or have hair to shampoo, which I don’t), just knock the heat back a little, so things cook a bit more leisurely. I’m telling you, the sensation of stepping out of a steamy bathroom to the smell of browning onions or a searing roast really does it for me. (Further digression: Growing up, we hung our shower towels on the railing of the stairs that led down to the kitchen. They would gently absorb the fragrance of whatever was cooking downstairs, which was admittedly risky, but borderline magical. It was like wrapping yourself in a towel fresh out of the dryer, if your dryer also happened to contain a roast chicken.)

So, that fried rice got me thinking: When it comes to figuring out what makes a meal truly satisfying, how it tastes is only one piece of the puzzle. The pleasure (or pain) that comes from cooking is always a multivariable equation: Did we enjoy the process? Did we learn something? Did we waste less food? Did we save money or time? Did we cook for others? Did we make them happy?

What we value as cooks — what we prioritize, what makes us tick, and how all these pieces fit together — is intensely personal and subjective. Consider a steak. I have been told by countless people that the way to achieve a flawlessly cooked steak, perfectly pink from edge to edge, is to sous vide it. In other words, seal it in a plastic bag, give it a bath in temperature-controlled water, sear it, and enjoy. Here’s my problem: I don’t want to cook a steak in a plastic bag. I’ve tried it. It brings me no joy. No, I’d rather slap a raw steak on a hot fire and listen to it sizzle while I drink a whiskey and pray for the best. And when it’s not perfectly pink from edge to edge, so be it. (If controlling the process were more important than enjoying it, everyone would kiss with their eyes open.)

Others will disagree, and that’s the point. We want what we want. We like what we like. And it’s our perpetual hope to figure out which parts of cooking and eating make us happy, and to seek those things out when we can. I, for example, like how eating on the hood of my car makes me feel free. I like how a good view makes up for bad barbecue. I like how instant ramen with a tuna fish and Cape Cod Potato Chip fountain in the middle reminds me of being a kid. And who am I kidding? It’s delicious.

In tomorrow’s discussion thread we want to know what makes a meal satisfying to you. I’m not sure any two cooks would answer this question the same way, so we’d be thrilled to hear what you have to say. We hope you’ll join us tomorrow at 3 p.m. EST. Until then, one piece of advice: Treat yourself to something delicious. Don’t eat a sad dinner.