Little Big Kitchen: Create a Working Menu

29 Apr

First of all I’d like to say thank you to those who took the time to (very thoroughly!) write up insightful replies to my post about meal planning. Everyone’s ideas really got me thinking and it was encouraging to hear others say they occasionally struggle with this, too.

I think my main problem lately has been motivation. Before the baby was born I was on top of the weekly cycle of planning, shopping, prep, and cooking. Having a baby just makes everything more complicated, and it can be difficult to work up the enthusiasm to plan, let alone to get in the kitchen and actually cook.

Since planning is where I’ve been getting stuck I’ve decided to face the problem head on: my solution is a default menu for those weeks when I just don’t want to reinvent the wheel. In the past I dismissed the idea of a set weekly plan, fearing I’d get bored of eating the same thing on a weekly basis. Then I realized that I crave the same things over and over and I pretty much do that anyway. I created my default menu based off the (affordable, healthy, and tasty) things my husband and I enjoy most often.

PREPERATION & PLANNING

I made a happy discovery and relish really went up in my estimation when I found out I could add personal recipes in a custom section of the website. The company would then transcribe the recipes for you so if you wanted to print it out with the rest you could, or if you wanted to view it on your iphone app, and (joy of joys) you could click your recipe and ingredients would be automatically added to your shopping list. Now I just need Grocery Gadget & relish to link up and I will be happy forever and ever.

BREAKFAST

Breakfast doesn’t stress me out in the planning stage. Anthony eats cereal and we always keep fruit around for morning snacking. I eat either toast, cereal that I buy cheaply in bulk, or Greek yogurt topped with granola. Lunch will be leftovers plus salad and a supplemental soup.

LUNCH: SOUP

Pre-baby I was a devotee of making soup on a weekly basis. My menus could get pretty elaborate and I made endless pots of soup as accompaniment. I decided I need a default soup to fall back on so I’m going with minestrone, which both Anthony and I love. Plus there’s enough variation within minestrone to keep from getting bored. And when I feel extra-motivated, I can switch the soup up a bit and do lentil, or potato leek, or pumpkin.

LUNCH: SALAD

Salad is an art with endless room for extensive improvisation. I usually buy a dozen of eggs a week even though we rarely go through all of them. After a trip to the store I take the eggs from the previous week, boil them, then use them on salads or to make deviled eggs. Sometimes I eat them as a snack in the morning if I feel I need that extra shot of protein.

Marinating vegetables is a very good thing, another thing I really like to do is to marinate beans and then add them to salads. Kidney, cannellini, and garbanzos are particularly marinade-friendly, but others should work as well. Canned beets are a special touch to any salad (if you like beets, that is—I love them).

I’m not shy about using pre-prepped vegetables from the salad section of the produce aisle, either. (With the exception of baby carrots. I find their bitter flavor to be very off-putting and favor prepping full-sized carrots and/or adding shredded carrots to my cart.) I buy prepackaged, pre-prepped versions of cabbage, rainbow slaw (with broccoli), snap peas, cauliflower, and a mix known as ‘California stir fry’ that includes broccoli florets, carrot coins, and sugar peas. Sometimes I like to buy bean sprouts, too, but only if I have another recipe or two to use them in. They tend to spoil before I can get through the bag.

I like to add nuts and dried fruit to my salads also, and I keep them in hand in small quantitities. The high fat content of nuts spoil after awhile and the last thing you want on your salad is something rancid.

I HEART CHEESE

Let’s talk about cheese, shall we? I finally figured out why so many people assume I am vegetarian. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my enormous cheese consumption. Cheese is pretty much my favorite thing and a meal isn’t complete for me unless it has a strong dairy component. What can I say? I blame my lactose-loving Scandinavian genes.

At any given moment I probably have about seven different kinds of cheese in the fridge. I always keep a wedge of Parmesan, a large block of cheddar, a few slices of American (for cheeseburgers, particularly), feta (great for salads!), cream cheese (not exactly sure if this counts, actually), then usually a couple of rotating favorites such as brie, Gouda, or Muenster. My husband said he never really feels satisfied with a meal unless there’s some meat. I rarely feel satisfied with a meal unless there’s some cheese. It’s expensive, make no mistake, but I budget to allow for it.

DINNER TIME! THE MENU

I have the set meals all picked out, with input from my husband. When I do find the time to cook he’s an excellent person to feed: willing to try new things, not picky, always hungry enough to devour whatever I put in front of him. When I remember to ask him to rate a meal to gauge whether I should make it again, he usually raves about it. One time, at the beginning of our relationship, I put a huge plate of Brussels sprouts and roasted red peppers in front of him, and bless his meat-loving soul, he ate the whole thing. A lesser man would have called out for pizza.

I decided on four meals per week to allow for the fact that we go out at least once or twice and I sometimes actually have the energy to improvise.

MEAL ONE: Pasta. I know a lot of different pasta sauce recipes by heart and most often make Bolognese because the husband loves it so and never tires of it. Add a salad or some sautéed spinach and I get a gold star.

MEAL TWO: Roast chicken with caramelized shallots. I posted the recipe link and a photo on my flickr not too long ago. I need a go-to recipe for chicken because I can buy it in bulk and because it is delicious. This meal will be the one that I mix up the vegetable accompaniment: artichokes, asparagus, roasted cauliflower, steamed broccoli, etc. A potato or some wild rice from the pantry rounds out the meal.

MEAL THREE: Broccoli beef stir fry with rice. I also posted a photo of this one to flickr recently. (The recipe for this is from Gourmet magazine and can be found on Epicourius.) I know, stir fry is not the first thing I think of when I want something quick and easy (all that chopping and prep can be a betch) but I use pre-prepped veggies and carne asada that I snip into bite-sized strips. I also have a rice cooker, which I heart heart heart and makes life a lot easier. It also frees up a burner on the stove.

MEAL FOUR: Something with eggs. Eggs are nutritious, fast, and yummy. They are pretty inexpensive when compared to other meat, but I buy the free-range fancy eggs, so they cost more but are worth every penny. I’m thinking I could do omelets, frittatas, baked eggs, etc. And it’s easy enough to add slices of bread and a salad.

There you have it. The proof, however, is in the pudding, or in this case, in the dinner. Will I be able to stick to this plan? Will I conquer dinner? We’ll find out.

(Previous posts on this topic can be found here and here.)

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No Responses to “Little Big Kitchen: Create a Working Menu”

  1. Sandy May 3, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    Ok, so I have only JUST discovered this lovely blog of yours and sense I will be spending some time in your archives!!
    Meal planning is a constant issue with me, and I love dwelling on it. Ha.

    I haven’t read the original post that started your meal planning topic, which I will next. But before I forget, I wanted to give you an awesome alternative to your pasta with bolognese sauce. I occassionally switch that up by using cubed eggplant in place of the meat (which we do love also), and it turns out just as hearty and tasty, but not the same old, same old.

    And I have a pretty neat crustless quiche type recipe somewhere I am going to find for you, that has some crushed up crackers in the mix.
    If you like new recipes, I will gather a couple that have helped me along the way.

  2. LittleBig May 4, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    Thanks, Sandy! This is a fairly new blog so there won’t be a whole lot of archives to get caught up on.

    I’m very interested in trying the Bolognese sauce with eggplant. I love eggplant and this sounds perfect.

    Pass that those recipes my way!

  3. Drea @ Monkey Monkey Underpants May 4, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    I’ve fought the idea of a set meal plan too, but finally found something that allows me to have freedom and structure all at the same time. Each night has a “theme”.
    Sunday – Grilling (summer) or Casserole (winter)
    Monday – Soup/Salad/Sandwich
    Tuesday – Italian
    Wednesday – Mexican
    Thursday – Misc.
    Friday – Fish or Vegetarian
    Saturday – Eat out or Husband Cooks

    This way I just plug in a meal of that type without thinking too hard about variety, because it’s already built in. I can do as fancy or as simple as I want (or have time for!). :)

  4. LittleBig May 4, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    Yes! THEMES! Great idea. Room for improvisation but most of the thinking is already done for you so you’re not trying to creat a dinner from scratch.

  5. Stefani W. May 4, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    Hi- this sounds like a great idea. I often get too complicated in my menus and then suddenly it’s 5:30 & I don’t have time again.

    If you’d like to keep your nuts from going rancid, pop them in the freezer. Their high fat content means they don’t really freeze, so you can use them right away.

    I got this link from Parent Hacks.

    • LittleBig May 4, 2010 at 10:23 am #

      Storing nuts in the freezer is an excellent idea, Stefani!

  6. Nichole May 4, 2010 at 11:17 am #

    I’ve tried several times to do something like this, but the only thing that ever sticks is Pizza Friday. I’m too fickle to stick to my plan! I think, though, that I’m going to sign up for Relish. I saw that they have a refer-a-friend program. Do you want me to give them your name? (Email me if you do, please.)

  7. Heidi May 4, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    hi there,
    also found you via parenthacks. i’ve been thinking about this recently, too, and (like you) have been hesitant that it’d be too boring. but i like the way you structured it, with flexibility. and i like Drea’s idea of themes.
    i’m thinking i might try set meals/themes) but not designate which days we actually eat them. if i buy avocados for mexican night, i’m gonna eat them when they are perfectly ripe, not when my schedule calls for it, yanno?
    here’s what i’m thinking: pasta, mexican, stir-fry, pizza, chicken, left-overs, and one night for eat out/guests/take-out whatever. thanks!

    • LittleBig May 5, 2010 at 11:18 am #

      Yes, I agree, you need the flexibility to use whatever is at its peak.

  8. Tor May 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    Hi, I do kinda similar to Drea’s flexible/structure “themes”, but the opposite way around.

    I have the protein allocated to the day, so that if I shop twice a week I then eat the proteins in order of how long they last (eg seafood that day, poultry the next day, red meat the third. Repeat that twice a week plus one day for either takeout or something that doesn’t go off like tinned tuna or something frozen).

    Then the THEME is the thing that changes. I always have a variety of veges and the starchy staples, so I might know that say Monday night is chicken breasts , but can still decide whether to make it italian or mexican or asian or whatever depending on what my mood is at the time.

    • LittleBig May 5, 2010 at 11:19 am #

      Alloting a protien a day is an excellent suggestion. You won’t get bored if you vary the protien’s treatment. It seems like a loose guide, with room for interpretation, is key.

  9. MamaCooks May 4, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    We do something similar: A two-week default plan that repeats endlessly in my Google calendar. It’s basic, relying on staples we keep in stock. It’s set up to match our weekly routine, with fast meals on busy nights and more relaxed dinners when we have time together in the kitchen. And I can easily customize it as events/motivation allow. I’ve got a fuller explanation at http://www.cookplayexplore.com/2010/01/tips-gadgets-meal-planning-simplified.html. Good luck with the meal planning! It really makes a huge difference for family sanity.

    • LittleBig May 5, 2010 at 11:22 am #

      I couldn’t agree more with you about family sanity. Very necessary. I love the idea of a two-week default plan to introduce variety. If only our lives were more predictable. I’m bookmarking that link–thanks for sharing!

  10. Justin Toland May 12, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Great article! Your writing is so much better compared to most other writers. Thanks for posting when you get the chance to, I will be sure to return!

  11. Peeved Michelle May 12, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    This is a fantastic idea. It’s one of those ideas that is brilliant in its simplicity. You have saved me so much angst about meal planning that I would really like to give you a big hug.

    • LittleBig May 12, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

      Aw, that’s so nice, Michelle! High five!

  12. To66wnsend May 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

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