According to plan

You know the expression “paralyzed by choice”? Well, despite growing up in the US and coming back for regular visits over the ten years I was living in Europe, I still struggle in American grocery stores. For the first six or so months after we moved here, I was following my usual shopping routine, going to the supermarket whenever we needed something. After a while, though, I found I was making a trip almost every day because I’d forgotten something basic like milk, while coming home with an armload of peculiar specialties that caught my eye. Too many times, I’d find myself wandering the aisles, because I’d suddenly decided we MUST have sesame peanut noodles for dinner, and do we have fish sauce at home?

I had resisted menu planning in the past because it just sounds so regimented and, I don’t know, authoritarian. Anyone who works long hours is probably all “authoritarian? You bet!” by now. You’ve been doing menu plans forever, right? But with our time becoming more limited, between work and shuttling kids around to their ever-growing list of activities (we get more American every week, I swear), I finally decided to get with the program. So I drew up a little chart and started to fill it in: dinner each night of the week, with vegetarian and picky eater options included. With the week’s meals laid out, I wrote up my shopping list; it only took one trip to the grocery store with list in hand to make me a convert to, even an evangelist for, meal planning. No more drifting through the store waiting for inspiration to strike! I feel like a model of efficiency as I check off items and zip through to the checkout. Well, it doesn’t always go that way, especially when the kids are with me. We still fall prey to kettle corn and other stuff that’s not on the list.

Now I usually do meal planning on Saturday mornings, after a good breakfast because it’s hard to plan when everything looks delicious. I keep a folder in my browser bookmarks for recipes that I’d like to try – I make a hotlink in the menu so I can click on it directly. The library is also a great resource, I have been taking out a cookbook or two every time we go and flagging the interesting recipes (I photocopy the recipes I want to keep). I also have the calendar in front of me so I can remember when someone has a late meeting or something else that I want to take into account. I try to plan for two big grocery runs per week: one to the local supermarket and the other to Trader Joe’s, so I organize dinners around those trips. Now that I’ve been keeping a menu plan for a few months, I have also started going back through the earlier weeks to re-use the best ideas, so I’m glad I’ve kept each week’s menu intact.

Do I sound crazy yet? In case I haven’t convinced you, we been wasting less food and saving money this way – and a lot of lunches get made from the dinner leftovers. While we still end up eating nothing but potatoes once in a while (and sometimes, that’s just what you feel like eating), planning has helped us think about putting a wider range of foods on the table, even if the kids look suspiciously at anything new. They’ll come around eventually, I hope.

Here are a few examples of a week of meals at our house. I’d love to know how you manage your menu planning. Do you do a lot of cooking on the weekends and heat things up during the week? How do you track recipes you’ve tried, or want to try? Let us know in the comments!

Week One
Monday: (Veggie) burgers; sugar snap peas
Tuesday: Penne and cauliflower with mustard breadcrumbs (kids eat plain pasta and cauliflower)
Wednesday: Gorditas with leftover ground beef from Monday’s burgers
Thursday: Roasted chicken; kale and balsamic tofu salad; Nigella’s soft white rolls
Friday: Dinner Off the Grid
Saturday: Töki pompos; broccoli
Sunday: Chef’s salad, with component parts served separately for the kids: boiled egg, beans, sliced cold cuts; baguette

Week Two
Monday: Tortellini in brodo (store-bought fresh tortellini simmered in broth, homemade or not, maybe with some greens added)
Tuesday: Pork chops with roasted beets and carrots
Wednesday: Heirloom squash “farotto”; roasted green beans
Thursday: Leftover buffet
Friday: Paraj (creamed spinach) with fried eggs; french toast for the kids
Saturday: Hummus wraps with pomegranate molasses (using store-bought hummus); cheese wraps for the kids; salad
Sunday: Sausages; collards braised with tomatoes and coriander; garlic rolls


4 Responses

  1. As you know, I’m all about meal planning. Over the past few years we’ve noticed that we don’t throw much food out, and it takes the stress out of daily life knowing that we have the ingredients available for dinner. Since you asked… We do a lot of our cooking on Sundays, and then freeze. We tend to make huge portions Sunday afternoon, and typically get 3-6 meals out of one pot. We have a large variety of food available in the freezer for easy use. Right now we have multiple servings of curry, chili, spaghetti sauce, chicken pot pie filling (which goes great just over rice), pesto, leek soup, potato soup, and Indian eggplant – all homemade and at the ready. We tend to eat freshly made food on Sun-Tues, and then reheat from the freezer on Wednesday and Thursday. Fridays and Saturdays we decide on the fly, mostly because we do our planning and shopping on those days. We also prep our veggies on Sundays… broccoli, beans, snap peas, carrots, etc. are cut, cleaned, and ready to go for a quick steam or stir fry – that way we can round out our freezer food meals with something fresh.
    As far as recipe sources go… we have a ridiculous number of cookbooks, but I have to say that we use them quite often. I’ve been getting recipes from Food & Wine Magazine for years, and last year began to save all my tried and true recipes electronically for easy access… now I no longer have to figure out which book had a particular recipe, as it is all at my fingertips, carefully filed by category.
    More than you wanted to know?

  2. Oh, prepping veggies ahead of time is brilliant! I am notorious for underestimating the time it takes to actually, you know, COOK a meal, but I always feel guilty if I buy the “ready to use” produce, which I always feel like I should wash and trim anyway.

  3. I started to plan our meals too, but then I think that we have too many leftovers (or we skip some planned meals), which let us with too much food in the fridge. As our freezer is too small and it contain already baby food, we balance between one planned week and nothing to eat the week after…

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