Since I first discussed my meal planning woes here on Little Big I’ve been plugging away at dinner each night, trying to get something delicious and healthy on the table in a timely fashion. I feel that dinner is a task of Sisyphusian proportions. Do it well or do it wrong, either way that boulder is rolling right back down the mountain to be pushed back up the next day. For all my complaining you might assume that I hate cooking, or find working in the kitchen a chore, but it’s just the opposite: when I have free time cooking and meal planning are what I enjoy. The problem is, I don’t always have the time, and I have my limited budget of time and energy to contend with. Like a Top Chef quickfire challenge, home cooks have to produce a wonderful meal within a narrow scope of limitations.
I learned a lot from that initial post and the subsequent post made up of all of your wonderful advice. I made some decisions and went forward with a new plan: a set weekly menu. The concept of “themes” was touched upon in the comments but I really had to go through the process of trial and error for myself before I learned what worked with that and what doesn’t. I think a lot of my problem lies in that delicate balance between preparation and spontaneity. I’ve tried planning everything out to the letter and I’ve tried cobbling dinner together each night at the last minute. Both result in unsatisfying meals and wasted money.
Predictably I became bored serving the same thing week after week, but what is working a whole lot better for us is almost the same thing week after week. The freedom and flexibility make it work. I need the structure of themes but also the room to improvise.
CHICKEN: My favorite is baked chicken with caramelized shallots, but all sorts of variations of baked chicken fit here. I keep packages of chicken in the freezer and put them in the fridge a day or two before to thaw. I stock up on chicken when on sale or at Costco to save money. Variations on the chicken theme include marinades, barbecue sauce, herb and spice blends, and pan gravy.
PASTA: Default pasta night is spaghetti, but I can only eat so much spaghetti before I long for a change. Fortunately, pasta is the kind of dish with a multitude of variables: pasta shapes, sauces, meats and vegetables can be made ahead or mixed at the last second with wonderful results. I like researching pasta recipes and daydreaming about which one I’ll use this week. Variations: seriously limitless, although a favorite of mine is spinach pasta with Parmesan cheese and sautéed mushrooms, or creamy lemon pasta with prosciutto and peas.
EGGS: I like eggs, but the true reason I devote a whole evening to them is that they are cost-effective. We splurge and by the organic, free-range eggs and even then they are still cheaper than a lot of different kinds of meat. And sometimes that’s what counts. Fortunately, the eggs we buy are fresh and delicious so I don’t mind relying on them to get dinner on the table. I love baking eggs, also. There’s something very comforting about that. Anthony is a fan of scrambled eggs and omelets, and I always have hardboiled eggs around for adding to salads.
STIR-FRY: So far this is my weakest night. I admit it. I know more variations of a theme for the other nights so I usually end up making either teriyaki chicken bowl, stir-fried veggies with rice, or a noodle-dish from prepared Chinese noodles from the produce aisle. I need to build up more of a repertoire for this night. But, I’m sticking with this night because it’s a tasty way to serve veggies and Anthony and I are suckers for Asian flavors.
LEFTOVER REMIX: I like to plan dinners for 5ish meals a week. Anthony and I meet friends and family for dinner quite frequently, or often we’ll have one of those nights when he works and baby and I just kind of scrounge around for dinner. Either way I’ve learned it’s useful to have a day set aside for making smoothies from leftover fruit and soup from whatever’s in the veggie bin. If we have leftovers I’ll try to revamp them in a way that makes the most of what we have. Anthony is very good at this kind of dinner. I’m working on it. (Want to know a dirty secret? Sometimes this night just ends up being a big green salad with a baked potato with leftover roast chicken and bacon on the side.)
This revised menu works as a default plan and some weeks we deviate from it quite a lot. Maybe we’ll have chicken like usual but we’ll mix it up with Anthony volunteering for cooking duty (aside from smoothies he’s quite good at burgers and quesadillas), or perhaps I’ll volunteer to make something more elaborate. I refuse to stick to any meal plan slavishly but have learned from trial and error that no menu plan means I tend to surrender and grab dinner from a taco truck. The main thing is that I’ve planned to have the wherewithal to put any of these meals together any particular night. And that gives me freedom.