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5 Easy Ways to Get Yourself to Cook More at Home

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Cooking at home is healthier and cheaper than going out to restaurants, ordering takeout, or buying frozen dinners (though all of those choices can be delicious). But it often feels so hard. Especially if you work a lot and you only have yourself to cook for. 

How do you break up with your favorite delivery dude and learn to strike out on your own culinary adventure? We attended a meal planning class with New York City-based chef and nutritionist Nancy Campbell to figure that out. Here are five deceptively easy tips she shared for taking control of your diet, your meal budget, and your pantry: 

1. YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE TIME.  

Groceries don’t just show up at your door and cook themselves. You have to spend time picking out your food (whether that means showing up at the grocery store or ordering your items for delivery), prepping, and cooking it. Campbell recommends picking a consistent day and time to do your shopping, and getting yourself to the checkout every single week. Just like anything else, being a home cook is a habit. You set aside an hour each week to watch your favorite Thursday night show or go to that workout class, and this isn’t any different.

It’s also useful to pick a regular time to do prep work for the week ahead. Maybe you want to cook a bunch of chicken breasts to use in salads or put in the enchiladas you’re making in a few days. Maybe you want to chop up those bell peppers or greens so they’re easier to use when you need them. 

2. DEVELOP A LIST OF MUST-HAVE KITCHEN ITEMS. 

No one is going to be able to plan every single night of their lives in advance. Sometimes we don’t stick to our schedule, or life gets in the way. But you shouldn’t need to resort to takeout or starve just because you didn’t make your grocery run—nor should you have to buy the same thing over and over again every week if you can buy it in bulk and keep it in the pantry for a while. Do you like to put spinach in a lot of dishes? Keep a frozen bag on hand. Are you going to need olive oil, salt, and garlic for most recipes? (Yes.) Make sure you keep your supplies steady. Do you like to be able to add meat to your dinner without doing much work? Keep some chicken breasts or sausage in your freezer. 

3. WRITE IT DOWN. 

The most important part of meal planning is, naturally, the planning part. Before your shopping day, sit down and plot out what you want to eat for each meal of the week ahead. Yes, every meal. And be realistic: Do you really want to eat that stew for every lunch and every dinner for a week, or will you cave and order Chinese by Tuesday night? Think about the things you already have in your freezer, and how you can incorporate the same ingredients into various dishes. Can you put the squash you’re including in that soup on a salad, too? Can you eat it as a side dish with something else? You can get a lot of mileage out of one grocery item if you think holistically from the start.

4. FIND A FEW GOOD DISHES THAT ONLY NEED ONE POT. MAKE THEM ALL THE TIME. 

Here’s a #kitchenhack: You don’t have to make a different meal every night. Do you like soup? Stew? Curry? Enchiladas? Lasagna? The beauty of all of these dishes is that they can contain everything you want in a meal—fat, protein, and carbs—in a single container. And you pretty much have to make them in large batches (you'd need a really tiny pan to make a single serving of lasagna). If you spend one night making yourself a giant pan of chicken enchiladas with veggies in them, you can eat for a week. If you don’t want to eat the same thing for every meal, freeze a portion and alternate meals with the frozen stew from last week or the lasagna you plan to make a few days later. 

5. DON’T BE AFRAID TO COOK A LOT OF FOOD. 

Even if you’re only cooking for yourself, it pays to make big batches—even if the dish is not necessarily a meal in itself (like those mentioned above). If you plan your meals right, you can use the same ingredients in several different dishes. That wild rice might go great as a side for your pork chop one day, be perfect for your lunch salad the next day, and be excellent topped with the stew you’ve pulled out of your freezer the day after. But, again, it helps if you’ve looked ahead far enough to know that you want to eat that rice for three or four meals, rather than coming into the kitchen every night and thinking, "Well, I guess I’ll spend the next 45 minutes making rice again."

Good luck in the kitchen! 

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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