I can’t even tell you how excited I am to share this “how-to” series with you!! This is has been planned for a few months; Will and I have bantered back and forth about it, deciding what to include, what to say and whether or not we were qualified to do a series like this. After some initial hesitation and a few poignant conversations with friends, I think the time has come to share with you just how we operate our kitchen. I often reference some of our techniques (making a menu, packing lunches, etc) and I think it would be useful to those who read this blog, to understand why we do things the way we do and what works for us. It may explain some of our recipe choices and what I’m talking about in my little intro write-ups in each blog post. I hope that through this series, you will discover ideas and suggestions that will be useful to you!
How-to: Meal Plan
The most important step in our cooking process is meal-planning. I cannot emphasize the importance of meal planning enough. We sit down every Saturday/Sunday morning (really!), tear through cookbooks, blogs, ripped-out magazine pages, our recipe binders, and the blog’s Google doc where we collect links (they used to get buried in emails and we final made a spreadsheet to keep track of things we found online), to decide what to make that week. Usually there are one or two recipes that have jumped out at us recently, that get to the top of the “potentials” list. We then inventory what kinds of things we have in our cupboards/fridge, taking stock of items that need to be used sooner rather than later, grains we haven’t used in awhile, and whatever else might inspire us or remind us of a recipe we’ve seen. We then pick a few of those items and try to find recipes within our resources to translate them into meals that can go on the “potentials” list. For example, one week I had needed a couple jalapenos for a recipe, but ended up having to buy an entire tub. The next week, I made sure at least a couple of the recipes I was planning to make involved jalapenos or could easily be enhanced by their addition. The result you saw was the initial recipe – Spicy Soba Noodles – followed by Cilantro-Lime Cod with Corn-Jalapeno Relish and Jalapeno Cilantro Hummus. By crafting this set of recipes, I ended up being able to use all the jalapenos!
Once we’ve compiled our “potentials” list, we both stop looking for recipes and review our combined collection. Then, together, we look over the ingredients for each recipe and determine which will be the most effective use of our resources. This is especially important when you have fresh fruits/veggies/meats/dairy in the refrigerator that need to be used by a certain date. Make sure you cook with those first!! The ultimate goal with meal-planning is to creatively and wisely use your resources, to create the least amount of waste as possible. If you cook for one, this is particularly pertinent, as trying to consume large amounts of fresh food can be difficult! This has been my biggest adjustment without Will and probably my most demanding cooking challenge. Careful, thoughtful meal planning has made cooking for one more purposeful and rewarding. But no matter how many people you regularly cook for, these principles still apply!
Once we have selected what recipes we want to make during the week, we review their difficulty and time commitments, based on either the suggested time that the recipe has or the amount of ingredients/steps that are involved (the latter are usually a good indicator of how much time you can expect to put into creating a meal). We then compare our schedules to see who has what going on and which nights are better for each of us to cook. We try to balance so I cook once a week and Will cooks twice. Because it’s just two of us, we typically make a single-serve meal on Sunday, a two-night meal on Mondays (eating the leftovers Tuesday) and a three-night meal on Wednesday (to get us through Friday with leftovers). Saturday is more flexible and sometimes we cook for both Saturday/Sunday on Saturday. Or sometimes we do wine and cheese – we tend to leave it open!
Upon deciding what recipes work for which days, we pull out our handy-dandy recipe pad.* We map out our dinners, list our breakfast, lunch and “grab bag” items, so we know what we’ve got on hand. It’s magnetic, so we can both see it on the front of the fridge. Quite honestly, the introduction of this visual menu planner is what really began to hold us accountable for our cooking schedule. Prior to having it, we had been pretty good about following our weekly plan of what to cook, but occasionally would leave which recipe was going to be cooked, up to the mood of the day. I know the visual menu planner may seem like it’s restrictive, but I find it useful because it reminds you of why you set the schedule the way you did – someone may have a class, an after-work commitment, or some other event that conflicts with making a particular dinner on another night. Therefore, with the menu pad, you know why you planned to cook recipes the way you did!
When everything for the week is selected, planned and charted out, it’s time to go grocery shopping. But the fun doesn’t stop there! Since we are weekend planners and shoppers, we have one final crucial aspect to our meal planning: Sunday afternoons. Our Sunday afternoons are our most valuable time in the kitchen – it’s when we make lunches like Power Bowls or prepared dinners like Veggie Burritos. If there is anything you can do in advance for the week on a Sunday afternoon, do it. You will thank yourself at 7 PM Tuesday night when you come home from work/class, exhausted, and unwilling to cook. It helps you resist the urge to throw in the towel and eat out or swing by the grocery store and pick up a frozen dinner. Food preparation is one of the most important aspects to a well-functioning meal plan. Realistically, you can’t prepare everything for the week in one afternoon and for certain ingredients, doing so is not logical. But for easy foods like lunches and basic veggie chopping for the next two or so days, Sunday afternoons can make or break a weekly menu. Anything you can do to help yourself later in the week, will be appreciated by future you!
In summary, our meal planning goes like this:
1. Dig up recipes we’re interested in trying
2. Figure out what things we have on hand/needs to be used ASAP
3. Pick what recipes are the most realistic/desirable
4. Look at our schedules and recipes, then map out a cooking plan for the week
5. Put our menu plan in writing
6. Grocery shop
7. Sunday afternoon food prep
8. Enjoy the fruits of our labor!
All said and done, meal planning can take upwards of half an hour of our time. We find that Saturday morning over coffee is the best time for us to sit down and do this. Then we have the rest of the weekend to grocery shop and it leaves Sunday for food prep!
So there you have it! We hope that this helps you tackle the ominous task of meal planning, which can be one of the most helpful tools you can use to organize what happens in your kitchen, as well as assisting you in saving money and time! We certainly don’t think the way we do things will work for everyone, but if you’re completely lost, we hope this will help! Leave any questions in the comments section and we’ll be happy to offer any insight we might have, from our experience 🙂