The Cookbook Death March is a strategy I devised to address a problem I suspect may be common: the bookshelf full of barely-used cookbooks. Despite its grim name, it's actually been a good way to do meal planning during the past couple years.

Why the Cookbook Death March?

Because you've collected a lot of cookbooks that looked intriguing, but have only ever tried one or two recipes from each, at most. Meanwhile, your personal collection of recipes you've made at least once, and would happily make again, could stand to be more extensive.

How to do it

First, choose a cookbook. If you need to restrict the exercise to "entrees suitable for dinner", or some other sane category, then you might be working with just one section of it. Then...

  1. Open the book to Page One and read until you get to the first recipe. If it looks like something you'd enjoy cooking and eating, that's the next thing you're making. If not, abandon it, and proceed until you find a recipe that does look good.
  2. Cook that recipe. If it's good enough to add to your repertoire, copy it into whatever recipe-collection scheme you use (app, box of index cards, etc.) If not, abandon it.
  3. Repeat.

The make-it-now-or-never decision is crucial to keep things moving, but I do allow a very small amount of skipping forward to use up the rest of a rare ingredient or take advantage of a sale. As long as you're using clear bookmarks, that should be fine.

It's also permitted to skip recipes if you lack some special equipment required to make them, or if they're impractical due to your current budget or other temporary circumstances. Obviously a cookbook may be problematic if too many of its recipes are ruled out for such reasons, but one or two can make a good reason to revisit the book later.


Eventually, one of these things will happen:

  1. You reach the end of the book. Having proven its worth by providing several winning recipes, it returns to your shelf in a joy-sparking place of honor. If there are any recipes you had to skip due to lacking the equipment or budget required to make them--or because the last chapter was desserts and you needed dinners--you'll know where to find them when circumstances change, and you'll know they're likely to be as good as those in the rest of the book.
  2. You reach the end of the book, but see no need to hang onto it after extracting the good recipes. Maybe there weren't all that many winners, or the book's not worth keeping past the raw value of its data. The book heads off to the nearest library or used bookstore to benefit someone else.
  3. You try some recipes, but they rarely turn out well, so you might even stop before finishing. The book moves on to its next owner, who may have better luck with it.

Any one of these outcomes is better than a shelf full of aspirational vague to-do lists, which is what barely-used cookbooks always feel like to me.

I keep thinking that the Cookbook Death March is a new thing I'm doing, but especially with the last two years being as big a temporal anomaly as they were, I've actually gotten through quite a few: I've just finished the third of the pandemic, and a fourth one was completed some time before that.

Besides being a good way to clear out or give meaning to my cookbook collection, the March also makes recipe planning very easy. I'm just choosing the first good option in a list, rather than having to think up an idea out of nowhere or weigh many options.

Of course, it's easy for me to indulge in whims like this one when I don't have to cook for anyone besides myself. But if you find yourself with a similarly unused collection and too small of a real repertoire, this may be the fix you need.

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