What Making Pig Soap Taught Me About Meal Prep

Several months ago, I came into 15 lbs of pig fat. I bought half of a pig from farmer John in West Virginia; an Appalachia-style man with a long beard and way too many ‘back in my day’ stories. Aside from the beautiful pork chops, ribs, and ground meat, I found myself staring at 3, 5lb bags of pig fat. After a quick ‘what can I do with 15 lbs of pig fat’ Google search, I realized my options were:

A. Deep fry everything in my house
B. Make candles
C. Make soap

After ruling out option A (for fear of a swift and immediate heart attack), and option B because meh, I just can’t get all that excited about candles, I decided to begin a soap-making adventure.

After putting in due diligence to find a reputable soap-making recipe , I realized this would be quite the endeavor. I had the lard, that part was given. But this recipe seemed very specific and I was certain that any mistake in this recipe would result in a reenactment of this scene from Fight Club. The process roughly went as follows:

1. Go to Lowe’s and buy lye (Lowe’s was actually the third store I went to after spending the better part of an afternoon going to Home Depot and a local hardware store and realizing neither carried it. $13.
2. Go to Target and buy essential oil. $20.
3. Reach out to my client who I let borrow my kitchen scale to ask for it back. Go pick it up from said client.
4. Start thawing out fat and realize I won’t be able to start cooking it for a couple days.
5. Cook the fat and figure out that cooking pig fat for 24 hours stinks up your kitchen and may be considered a hate crime against your Muslim roommate.
6. Skim the solids off the oil and throw them out (if I’m feeling more ambitious next time I’ll make pork cracklins).
7. Let the oil cool to exactly 37-51 degrees Celsius (be sure to check the temperature neurotically out of fear you may miss this temperature window).
8. Pull up a calculator and figure out the exact ratios of fat to lye to oil.
9. Cover up your entire body like a stormtrooper to make sure you aren’t going to burn your skin off.
10. Mix the precise amount of lye with the precise amount of water.
11. Saponify the lard with the lye by stirring the crap out of it until your arm wants to fall off.’
12. Add in 10 drops of essential oil.
13. Realize that it still smells exclusively like bacon and dump in the entire bottle of essential oil.
14. Pour into moulds and let sit for a week.

Total cost: too much money when I could have just bought the 8/$1 bars at the grocery store.
Total time: roughly two weeks.
Totally soap quality: Meh, it turned out ok.

I gave this thorough list of the soap-making process because I want to highlight a common misperception that people make when they think about meal prepping. When people aren’t familiar with a process, they follow a very specific set of instructions. They conflate the small details with the big picture. And they tend to make a lot of mistakes. This is good. This is part of the learning process.

The first time I made this soap, I found a specific recipe and followed it to the letter. This ensured that I would have a final product that at least resembled what I was trying to make. I made sure I was as diligent with every ingredient and every step as all the others. And I made a lot of mistakes that ended up costing me a lot of time.

This will happen the first (couple) times you do batch-cooking/meal-prep. You’re going to find some beautiful recipe from Pinterest and think you need to follow it to the letter. You’re not going to know where to get half the ingredients. You’re going to add the ingredients in the incorrect order. ¾ of the way through the recipe, you’re going to think ‘Oh shoot, I forgot to add the Nepalese smoked nutmeg 11 steps back’. On top of all that, it’s probably not going to come out exactly as Pinterest advertised. It will probably be ‘good enough’. But not great.

And that’s a good thing. In this process, you’re going to learn which grocery stores have which ingredients. You’ll find out which section of the grocery store you find your Nepalese smoked nutmeg (no idea if this is a thing but it sounds delicious). Most importantly you’ll discover which parts of the recipe are critical (if you want to make vegetarian chili, it would be good to make sure you have beans). You’ll also figure out which parts of the recipe are the ‘supporting characters’ (Like, it’s ok if you don’t soak the beans beforehand overnight like the recipe says).

And very quickly, this full day of meal prep which effectively takes over your Sunday, will become more efficient and productive. No longer will you have to search the back of every single cabinet for soy sauce. It’s right where you left it from last week! And now you know those potatoes you’re roasting don’t need to be checked every 5 minutes out of fear you’ll ruin them. They might just turn out slightly more/less crispy than last week.

Batch 2 of pig soap adventure looked a little more like this:

1. Take out fat and melt it.
2. Skim out oil.
3. Let oil sit outside in the cold for awhile.
4. Measure out lye and water (ok this part’s actually super important to get exact).
5. Mix lye and water.
6. Add to fat.
7. Stir for awhile.
8. Add in some essential oil until it smells like how you want your body to smell.
9. Pour into moulds and let it sit overnight.

Total cost: Already had all the ingredients.
Total time: About 90 minutes.
Total soap quality: About 1000x better.

The same principle can be applied to your workouts. Should you do 8 reps or 10? Should you rest for 30 seconds or 45? 90 degree hand position or 60 degree hand position on chest presses? Elliptical machine or bouncy-jumpy elliptical machine thing? It really doesn’t matter. Some angles and hand/foot positions are certainly going to feel better for certain people’s bodies than others. But take a 500 mile perspective on your workout and look at the big picture. Did you cover most of your major movements? Did you work at least sort-of hard (at least enough to give your body a reason to change/adapt)?

Recipes and prescribed workout templates are a safe bet when you’re just starting out and have no idea what you’re doing (and don’t want to make soap that will burn your skin off). But it’s important to become intuitive into which exercises are going to give you the most bang-for-your-buck. Figure out which exercises are starting to feel pretty easy and modify them to make them harder. Figure out which exercises are still as challenging as day 1 and practice the crap out of them. In the same way, figure out which parts of your meal prep are the big players and which parts you can neglect or at least not pay as much attention. Focus on the big players. Soon you’ll tease out which steps of the meal-prepping/soap-making/workout writing process are fluff. Do less fluff.

From what I understand, these principles 100% do not apply to baking. Always follow a baking recipe.

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