Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Make the Most of Your Meals (Part 2)

Meal Planning 101

I love to cook, but I know that's not the case for everyone.

It's easy to find yourself in a rut, uninspired and out of time when dinner rolls around. Even though I love to cook, there's often not enough time, energy, or food available. I stay at home, and still find it challenging to put a nice, reasonably healthy meal on the table each night.

The only thing that works for me is to create a (flexible) meal plan for the week. There are myriad reasons to consider making your own plan:
  • avoid multiple trips to the store for just a handful of items
  • save money you might be tempted to spend on going out to eat or ordering takeout
  • using all the food you buy, versus letting it spoil or throwing it out because you are sick of it
  • attempting to eat a balanced diet

Of course, if you like wasting food, you'll enjoy the tongue-in-cheek suggestions here.

So, how exactly does someone go about making a meal plan or weekly menu? I'm sure there are other ways, but this is what I do.

Step 1: Pick a day
Choose a day (or night) each week that you have time to look around for ingredients and recipes. It's very important to do this when the fridge is getting on the empty side and before you go grocery shopping. For some reason, Sunday afternoons work best for me.

Step 2: Grab a piece of paper and a pen
Or a whiteboard and dry erase marker. Whatever works for you. If it's reused or recycled, even better! You're going to be making a list of what you already have that needs to be used.

Step 3: Open your fridge
List what you have in your fridge that is an ingredient. This includes meats, leftovers not already re-purposed into soup or casserole form, vegetables, starches, cheeses or other dairy items, etc. At the same time, make note (maybe in another column) of the stuff that you are running low on. We always try to have baby carrots, onion, celery and apples around. If something is missing, I am sure to add it to the shopping list.

Step 4: Look on your counter, in your freezer, and in your pantry
See what kind of produce, breads, or desserts might be hanging around and need to be eaten. Even though these things are in plain view (like the three large zucchini I had on the counter the other day), I might end up losing them if they don't make it to the menu. Likewise, see if you over-bought on pasta or have way too many pieces of frozen chicken in the freezer.

Step 5: Generate 5-6 dinner ideas
This is the hardest step, since it's kind of like playing chess. Look at the ingredients you have and consider how they might be arranged into main dishes. It really helps if you can look at all your recipes to generate ideas. It's okay if you don't have every ingredient for every entree; you can add things to your grocery list. Just make sure you are using up everything already on hand when you make your list. If you are motivated, you can plan out lunches and breakfast, too. Make a new list with the meal ideas (and side dishes if you want) and hang that on your fridge or even put it on your calendar somewhere.

Step 6: Stuck? Don't limit yourself.
Remember that cooking is not a "chemically dependent" process like baking. Proportions do not have to be exact and you can swap out ingredients. Stir-frys, soups and casseroles can be made from any combination of things. I recently tweaked a chicken lasagna recipe to use up bowtie pasta, chicken sausage and some turkey lunch meat. It was still delicious!

Step 7: Go shopping
I'll talk more about this next week, but this is where you purchase the additional ingredients that you need for the meals in the coming week, plus your regular staples of milk, eggs, etc.

Step 8: Review the list and Cook
When I first began menu planning, I tried to designate a specific entree for each day, rotating chicken, beef, pork, meatless, etc. I found that only worked if I had a set schedule for the day and could plan the more involved recipes for days with more time. Now I just look at the list and cook what I feel like I have time for.

Yes, there will be days that you still can't stick to the list. I call my husband from time to time and ask him to pick something up on the way home (using coupons, of course!). Also, with it being so hot, I don't always want to bake something for an hour and heat up my kitchen, so I pick the recipe that fits the day, switch to leftovers, or make something from the freezer. (We'll talk more about having quick meals on hand in a future post.)

Next week, we'll talk more about shopping strategically.

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