Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bon apétit

I have had a lot of questions about how I do my meal planning. I put thought into it, yes, but trying to figure out exactly how to write it out has been driving me crazy. (Once you finish reading this, you will confirm that I actually am crazy, but my methods are solid.)

Step 1: Check the weather.

I don't like cooking hot food when it's hot outside, or cold food when it's cold. I don't run my oven when I run the air conditioning, partly because of how I was raised, but mostly because it's wasteful. So, first, I check the weather.

Some of my favorite "hot weather" foods include Kale Salad (I promise I'll post my variation soon), bruschetta,  pesto and pasta, and grilled chicken. (The grill and I have a tenuous relationship, but we're working through it.)

Step 2: Regular rotation check

I have a couple of dozen meals that are "repeaters"; stuff we like to eat on a regular basis. When I make something new, we always ask, "Is this a repeater?" This takes practice, and it can be a challenge to establish what is a repeater because you *first* need to cook on a (somewhat) regular basis. I promise, it gets easier.

Our regular rotation includes meatloaf, beef stroganoff, risotto, and kale salad, among other things.

Risotto with peas and lemon

Step 3: Go to the source

I have quite a few cookbooks- some are specialty cookbooks, some I bought on impulse, but I have a select few that I use all of the time. I use these post-its, write the name of the dish, abbreviate the title of the cookbook it comes from, and include the page number that the recipe is on. Then, the post-its go on the large calendar on our fridge on the day I'm planning to cook the food.

The way I try to pick recipes is "three tried-and-true, one new." 
You can see some of my repeaters.
This works on a number of levels; I plan the meals around the weather, around activities, and because life is nothing if not unpredictable, it helps me go with the flow without causing any disruption come dinnertime.

Step 4: Know your pantry, stock your pantry, love your pantry.

While I'm making my post-it's, I'm also making my shopping list. We are all busy people, and good planning saves time. When I was growing up, my mother would go to the grocery store once a week, that's it.

We keep a running list on the side of the fridge so that we can restock regular pantry items as we run out (or just before). Things I tend to buy every week include: carrots, cabbage, onion, potatoes, cheese, bread, meat, bananas, milk, yogurt, and sour cream.

My pantry also includes spices from Penzeys (which is a fantastic value, even if you mail order), my herb garden of love, and tomatoes. (Oh. My. Tomatoes. Love is homegrown tomatoes.)

I try to check my fridge before we go to the store; mostly because I don't want to end up with three cabbages. (Again.) Three is too many for cabbages.

Step 5: Shop the seasons, shop the sales

Once you get in the swing of regular cooking and meal planning, you'll be able to do a little improvising at the store- alternatively, if you have your cookbooks on your kindle or smartphone, you have your recipes at your fingertips. Chicken thighs are on sale? STOCK UP. (I love chicken thighs.) Beef chuck roast is $3.99/lb? Sounds like pot roast (or Texas chili!) just hit the meal rotation.

The same goes for produce. I don't buy berries or melon in the winter. EVER. Why? Because it's expensive. (As I write this, I recognize that a lot of my rules are my mother's as well. Coincidence? Perhaps.)

Joining a CSA is a great way of getting accustomed to what grows locally and seasonally for you; alternatively, the farmer's market does exactly the same thing without the problem of getting three beets, a dozen bunches of chard, four leeks, and a small squash. (What I'm saying here is, we got a lot of weird stuff in strange quantities.)

Step 6: Prep your kitchen and do the cooking.

If you don't have a lot of time to cook, you need to have your ducks in a row. A 30-minute meal will take twice as long if you have to wash the pots, knives, measuring cups, and mixing spoons before you can even start your mise en place.

(Trick from Mom: if you clean up during the "let simmer for 10 mins" bits of the directions, you will end up with a hot meal and a clean kitchen.)

I also regularly double my recipes- this way we're guaranteed leftovers another night during the week. (I try to cook four meals during the week and use leftovers for lunches and dinner on the weekend.) Sometimes I freeze stuff, too. Depends on my mood.

Step 7: Enjoy

Plate your food, take off your apron, and enjoy a meal with your family.

Bon apétit!


  1. Love this! I plan our meals too (the week just goes so much better if I do!), and it helps save $, reduce our food waste, and maybe most importantly reduce my stress level! I don't use the post-it flags but I think I'm going to.

    I want to let other readers know that it gets way easier after you've been doing it for a while (kinda like a new knitting technique). Thanks for the great summary.

  2. We're lucky enough to have a local Penzey's. I can't get out of there without spending like fifty bucks. SO DANGEROUS.

  3. Ww this is stellar and simple! You are such a good Mom! Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Love this! I follow many of the same techniques, but without the post-its :-). Just out of curiosity- what do you do with a weekly allotment of cabbage? I hardly ever use cabbage except for in an occasional fall soup, so I don't know what to do with it!

    P.S. I tried to post this comment once already, but it gave me an error message, so sorry if this is a repeat.

  5. Love this post! Lots of good organizing ideas but also some good meal ideas - thanks. By the way, I love kale salad - I make one with quinoa and avocado and a lemon dressing.

  6. This is basically what I do, also. I try to make my menu right after I get my weekly CSA list, so I can plan recipes that use my bunches of chard or whatever is coming. In our house, though, we don't have leftovers, we have "planned-overs."

  7. Great post! I really need to get better at meal planning.


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