Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Meal Planning

I have found there is one element of cooking that does not discriminate on any level. It is the same whether you cook once a day or once a month, if you cook for one or a family full of teenage boys, if you’re a beginner or a seasoned chef. And that is that the best intentions in the kitchen can go amazingly awry without a plan.
Now, before you assume I’ve just turned a painfully obvious statement into an entire blog post (yawn), hear me out. How many times do you go to your fridge, open the door, stare mindlessly at the contents until your face begins to get clammy only to shut the door and sigh “I have nothing to eat.”?
I have the same phenomenon happen with the clothes in my closet. And if you know me, you know the statement “I have nothing to wear” is absolutely false. But it feels that way more often than it should when it’s ten minutes until I need to be out the door and I’m just staring…waiting for an outfit to jump from the hangers and onto my body. The fix for my wardrobe’s lackluster appeal in the morning was pretty easy – pick the outfit out the night before. Not only do I select something with a brain that’s been firing on all cylinders for several hours (not like the pre-coffee brain I have in the morning), I’m more likely to stick to it because it’s already out and waiting for me. No running around for that cardigan that I swear I just washed or a pair of pantyhose without a run in them, just the simple act of getting myself into an outfit, topping it off with accessories, and moving on with the rest of my morning.
The same logic can be applied in the kitchen. If you plan ahead as to what you’ll be cooking in the coming week, you’ll be much more prepared when it’s actually time to step up to the stove. I’m sure if you ask ten people how they go about meal planning, you’ll get ten different answers, but there will be a few things that will stay more or less the same:
  1. Inventory of ingredients on hand
  2. Decide what meals will be made when
  3. Create grocery list
Inventory of ingredients on hand: Often times, this is the best place to start. It gives you an idea of what you have on hand and, if refrigerated, what you need to use up before it hits its expiration date. I make some notes of what I’ve got and then let the wheels start turning. For more seasoned cooks, recipes will come to mind pretty easily. For beginners, this can be the hardest step. Luckily, there are a few resources that should help you out. One is the index of any cookbook (any one worth its weight in paper, that is). Look up the ingredient or ingredients you’re working with in the back and see what recipes your book has to offer. Many recipe sites have search engines based on ingredient. Allrecipes.com has one I’m particularly fond of because you can search by multiple ingredients and also set ingredients to exclude. If you’re a little more comfortable with tweaking recipes, you can search for recipes that call for similar ingredients to what you’ve got on hand, i.e. you have tomatoes and the recipe calls for red peppers. Though, on a personal note, I would never pick a tomato over a red pepper. Just saying.
Decide when you’re making what: Once you’ve selected your culinary creations of the week, pick out when you’ll make them. I have a dry erase board that lives on my fridge that I fill out for the week that notes what I’m planning on having for lunch and dinner each day. Before I start, I mark out any days I’ll be out of town or nights I already have dinner plans. All of the sudden that week you’re planning for can go from fourteen meals to eleven and that can make a big difference when you’re planning what to cook when. Another important element in this step is to figure out how many servings each recipe is going to make. The recipe itself is usually a good guide for number of servings. Consider that number minus any additional mouths you’ll be feeding and you’ll know how far that dish is going to go for you. Plug your servings in to your calendar accordingly, rinse and repeat until the calendar is filled
Create grocery list: Now that you’ve figured out when you’re eating what, you’ll be able to figure out when you need what ingredients. Unless you have a necessity for super-fresh ingredients, shopping for the week will usually work. Look at the recipe to determine how much of each item you’ll need and write a list out accordingly. Also, a handy trick I learned from my momma: Write your list in the order that you come to the items in the store. It may take a few trips before you have the lay of the land, but being able to get everything on your list in one pass at the grocery store sure makes things easier.
Perhaps actually putting this process into words is making it sound more complicated than it is? Let’s look at this week in my kitchen as an example. This is more or less the thought process that happens whenever I sit down to plan:
  1. Inventory Ingredients:
    Leftover mac and cheese, a couple of zucchini, and mashed potatoes needed to be eaten up. I was also out of milk and needed to restock on fruit. I also have a spaghetti squash on hand.
    Recipes for the week? Haven’t had a taco night in a while. And that’s a good enough reason for tacos, right? I can use up that spaghetti squash with that Lentil and squash recipe.
  2. When am I eating what:
    This week I’m having dinner out on Thursday, so no cooking for me that night.
    Mac and cheese leftovers will be good for two lunches and I’ll take some veggies to supplement it. Potato pancakes will be good for two meals as well.
    I’m eating tacos with Lily on Tuesday, so there will be plenty of leftovers – I’m probably good for three nights of that. Three night of tacos? I can make one a taco salad to break it up a bit. The lentils and squash will be with Tom. We’ll probably split the leftovers, so I think I can plan for two servings of that.
    Let’s plug it into a calendar:
    • MONDAY: leftover mac and cheese (lunch), potato pancakes (dinner)
    • TUESDAY: leftover mac and cheese (lunch), taco night (dinner)
    • WEDNESDAY: leftover potato pancakes (lunch), lentils and squash (dinner)
    • THURSDAY: taco salad (lunch), dinner out
    • FRIDAY: leftover lentils and squash (lunch), leftover tacos (dinner)
    • SATURDAY: pancakes (lunch), chilli (dinner)
  3. Create Grocery List: Mac and cheese and potato pancakes are taken care of. For tacos I’ll need lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, black beans, refried beans, and taco shells. For lentils and squash I have everything except the onion. I need to pick up milk as well, plus some fruit for the week. Bananas and tangerines should do it. I can probably hold off on buying the chili ingredients until the end of the week.
There are plenty of things that can go wrong even when you plan. “Boy, that onion cooked way faster than expected”, “I swear there were three cups of chicken stock left in here”, “Oops! Didn’t remember to pull the fish out of the freezer”, “That’s what I forgot to pick up at the store”, “how long has that lasagna been in the oven for…”, etc. Any of this sounding familiar? In addition to helping you save money on groceries and reducing waste, having a plan in place from week to week will help you avoid many of the pitfalls that can make cooking frustrating.

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