The False Promise Of The Sheet Pan Supper

My husband keeps emailing me recipes for sheet pan suppers. For the uninitiated, a sheet pan supper happens when you take a large jelly roll pan, place a protein source on it (salmon, feta cheese, chicken, etc.), then scatter vegetables around it in a show of controlled disarray—nothing touching anything else, so everything can breathe and therefore brown. Then you shove the pan in a 400-degree oven and roast for forty minutes or until you smell something burning.

I’m afraid the fact that these recipes keep showing up in my inbox—usually in the mornings, before my husband gets down to answering emails, working on art commissions, and running work-related errands—suggests that he’d like something for dinner besides boiled cabbage and a tuber.

Which I just find so inconvenient. I’ve had it with cooking. Ditto showering, washing my clothes, and keeping abreast of what year it is. In short, I’ve had it with doing pretty much everything that keeps people functional, relevant, and out of institutions. The only thing I have not had it with is pickle ball. Long after the world implodes and there is nothing left but ash pyres and laughing cockroaches, I will be standing in the smoking ruins of what used to be Earth, swinging a racquet and screaming, “HEY! Will somebody serve already?!”

I think the allure of sheet pan suppers has something to do with the illusion of simplicity. Like one-pot meals (also popular right now) and three-ingredient sides (Real Simple magazine practically made these a religion), sheet pan suppers lure you in with the promise of ease (it’s just one pan!), effortlessness (just baste and bake!), and brevity (seated and eating in under an hour!).

In truth however, unless you buy—pre-washed and pre-chopped—the massive quantities of vegetables you will need to bring even just two people to the brink of satiety—then sheet pan suppers are not easy, effortless, or fast. As every recipe attests, the vegetables shrink in cooking, so you should use more than you think you’ll need. This is akin to saying the oil in my Jeep Renegade burns away quickly so I should top it off every few weeks, when in fact all of the oil ceases to exist moments after my husband pours it into the car. Bottom line: You’ll need WAY more vegetables than you think. Really, if you’re going to eat more than one sheet pan supper every six months, you should probably forget about building that deck you’ve been dreaming of and plant a garden instead.

Even after you procure the vegetables—whether from Food City or your own back yard, you must then wash and chop them, create garlic oil for basting, arrange all sixteen Brussels sprout halves, ten asparagus stalks, and five coins of fresh yellow squash plus your protein source on the pan, careful to maintain social distancing between them, and shove the pan in the oven. Then you must shuttle the trimmings out to the composter at the far end of the yard, step in dog poop on the way (and on the way back), wash your shoes, go back into the house and remove the pan from the oven, turn over each individual Brussels sprout half, asparagus stalk, and yellow squash coin, baste again, return the pan to the oven, sit down, get up, check the vegetables, sit down, get up, check the vegetables, think about all the fascinating things you could be doing if you weren’t helicoptering over vegetables, like listening to your hair grow or seeing if your pickle ball paddle has a smell, then pull the finished vegetables out and shake them onto a platter. If you require more than an infant-sized amount of food, you will need to repeat the above process several times, sometimes with several pans.

But the idea of simplicity is seductive. Dave Bruno, author of The 100 Thing Challenge, says, “When we crave simplicity, we are not after an easier life. We are after life.” After a particularly distressing time during which he felt his consumerism was getting out of control, he rid himself of all but 100 things, after which he felt he’d regained his life and soul (which leads me to believe that none of the 100 things was a sheet pan).

While this kind of reductive living is not most people’s path—I have perhaps a hundred categories of things with hundreds of items in each category that I cannot part with—the idea is that, in clutter (either physical or temporal), we lose the thread of who we really are or want to be, or what we’d rather be doing. By simplifying, we rediscover aspects of ourselves we may have lost or ignored, and make time for what’s truly important: creative endeavors, for example, family time, or meaningful activities.

I too am drawn to the idea of simplicity, but I am not the one emailing myself recipes for sheet pan suppers. When I consider my husband’s urgent need to eat a meal made in a pan, I wonder if it’s not culinary variety he’s after, but something more substantial: a life that feels more manageable, perhaps, less fraught, with room to breathe and become.   

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