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 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.
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.
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.