Monday, January 31, 2011

A (Wo)Man with a Plan

Meal planning is major key to leading a somewhat organized existence, especially once you’re a bit older and have to account for another person’s (or other people’s) meals as well. In my house, I take care of the grocery shopping and cooking, so meal planning falls under my domain.

Planning takes time and energy, but the payoff is big. It dictates your grocery list, helps you stay on track with whatever your healthy living goals are, minimizes multiple midweek “Oh shit, I don’t have __________,” trips to the store, and gives you an easy answer to “What’s for dinner tonight?”

I’m not the most organized person in the world--not by a long shot--and there are lots of bloggers out there who are organization gurus and have suggested routines and templates and whatnot available for this kind of thing. But for what it’s worth, this is how I do it.

The Ground Work
1) Find a time when you can think about it. Meal planning is not my favorite thing in the world; however, I do enjoy searching for recipes, whether on the Internet or in cookbooks. I like thinking about what I’m going to eat and what I’d like to try to cook, which probably makes this process less chore-like for me. Still, I have to find the time to sit down and think about it, which usually happens on Fridays at the office (shhhhhh!) when the people start to get into weekend mode and the pace of work slows considerably.

2) Start with the easy stuff. What meals do you need to just have items on hand for, but don’t actually have to cook? Because it’s just me and MM, I only have to plan and cook for dinner. I buy various breakfast items, like English muffins and cereal, so that we have plenty to get us through a week, but I don’t bother thinking too much about it. For lunches, MM often eats out, and I tend to stick with my usual—Trader Joe’s Black Bean and Corn Enchiladas, fruit, string cheese and a bag of carrots—basically packable stuff, and yes, variety is lacking, but sometimes, you just got to roll with it if it works. If you have kids, I imagine that lunches and breakfasts become a little more complicated, but I don’t about these things, so… that’s all I got. You’ll notice that I don’t take into account weekend lunches, which usually end up being a minor clusterfuck in my household, and I should probably start planning for those as well. Next time.

3) Think about the week ahead. Do you have plans to eat a meal out? Are you having people over? Is there a certain night that spending more than 10 minutes preparing a meal is simply not feasible? I like to use Google Docs to map this out because I can toggle between my Google Calendar and other websites easily. I use a spreadsheet, type out the days, and put an N/A for any dinner I don’t need to bother planning for.

4) Have go-to recipes. Build a repertoire of five to 10 easy, quick and satisfying dinners. I would also recommend having a few quick items on hand for days when life gets in the way of meals—pasta and bottled sauce, frozen stir-fry meals, etc. I was ambitious this week and decided to try all new recipes (I’m a bit excited about cooking in my new kitchen), but usually, you’ll see a few recipes show up again and again on my weekly plan (Spicy Honey-brushed Chicken Thighs, anyone?).

5) Have go-to resources. When it comes to choosing new recipes, the Internet provides endless possibilities. I realize this is a big DUH. (which is the aggregating site for several magazine recipes, including Cooking Light) is my favorite recipe site. Every once in awhile I’ll use, but I tend to find that site overwhelming with all the users who leave comments along the lines of, “This recipe is awesome. I changed 42 of the ingredients.” If you’re a Weight Watcher’s member, the website has hundreds of recipes, and in the last year, they’ve added a function so that users can comment on the recipes, which is helpful. I also read food blogs like Smitten Kitchen and Gina's Skinny Recipes. Finally, I take the advice of friends (friend recommendations actually account for three of my meals this week), and I have been slightly obsessed with How to Cook Everything, so I’ve been picking a recipe out of that every week as of late.

6) Think about your goals. Maybe these can line up with New Year’s resolutions. They can be simple, but it’s good to be specific. For example, “I want to cook dinner twice this week.” Or, “I want to try one new recipe a week.” Think about whether you want to incorporate different types of protein, more vegetables, or try to replace processed foods with homemade. Because it is winter and fairly quiet, we’ve finally moved, I’m having semi-romantic feelings toward my new kitchen, and I finally have some breathing space, my goals have become a bit more ambitious than usual: Eat something other than chicken thighs (that’s why I put lamb on the menu this week); Focus on eating whole foods and real foods. (Are they the same thing?); Incorporate more vegetables into dinner.

7) Know thyself (and thy’s family). The best laid plans, right? If you’re used to take out five nights a week, it’s probably ambitious to decide out of the gate to cook every single night. When I’m planning, I take into account that my husband eats a lot. He usually eats two to three servings to my one to one-and-a-half, which is nice because I can cook for four without leftovers, but also expensive, and I can never count on leftovers. I also try to balance my desire to eat more vegetables with the knowledge that I’m sometimes have trouble using everything that we buy, so I do my best to not go overboard. If I’m going to try a new, longer, or more complicated recipe than normal, I do it on Sunday. Start to finish, I need to have dinner on the table much quicker during the week or I’ll lose my mind from hunger.

Stay tuned for Part 2, Putting It All Together…

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Julie or Julia?

Spoiler alert: The answer is Julia, always, without question.

Continuing on my journey of food reading that basically came out of nowhere, I decided this time ‘round to go with a slightly more current pop culture choice—not terribly current because I like to be fashionably behind the times, but you know, a little bit of pop nonetheless.

For reasons I cannot explain, I chose Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously despite the kind of terrible reviews on Amazon and even though I saw the movie and had already determined that Julie kind of sucked (though Julia was fascinating; they should have made the entire movie about her). I figured that maybe the book was better.

I was wrong.

For as sucky and whiny and annoying as Julie is in the movie, she is infinitely more self-indulgent in the book. In the movie I think I kind of didn’t like Julie because I identified with her. You know, someone who is watching the years go by, unfulfilled in her job, wondering why her BIG writer dreams never really happened.

So what does she do, she starts a blog.

I did that! Me too! Hey over here!

Only when I saw how annoying Julie was about her dreams and whatnot, I kind of hated her because it kind of made me hate myself. But at least I understood where she was coming from.

In the book, she had few redeeming qualities. She's a former struggling actress (not a writer), which means that she’s abandoned that dream, but really has no clue what to do with her life, so she’s a secretary at the government agency charged with building the September 11 memorial. She hates her job. She’s married to a guy who seems really nice, but she treats him crap. They live in a horrible-sounding apartment in some Long Island City outside of Manhattan.

But hey it’s New York right? And for some people that is all that matters.

Did I mention that she has few redeeming qualities? The whole point of the book and movie (which you probably already know) is that Julie, who feels stuck in life and on the verge of almost-30 breakdown, decides to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And she decides to blog about it in 2002 when blogs were still new to most of us.

So as the book goes on, we read about Julie run around town trying to find bone marrow for various obscure recipes; having fits of rage over failed attempts at making mayonnaise; treating her husband like a second-class citizen; flirting with her male coworker who seems like an asshole; bitching about republicans (which, I understand, but you know, we get it, you’re liberal); talking shit about the commenters on her blog who ask her to expand her vocabulary beyond the word “fuck” (which is kind of annoying, but seriously, she used it all the time, which felt, more than anything, a little forced); hating cooking/her life; wondering why she undertook this project; and finally, ending up with a ton of press, a book deal, and a movie option. And you’re left with the feeling that it couldn’t have happened to someone who deserved it less.

And all this wraps up with a lesson: Julia Child saved Julie’s life. Julia reached down and plucked Julie from her awful 9-to-5 government job and showered her with fame and fortune and thus, Julie now sits at home, in her pajama being a “writer.” Or something like that.

It’s a little disheartening, but there is one glimmer of hope, which comes not from Julie, but from Julia. Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37. And it was then, at 37, she found her passion for cooking, a reason to get up in the morning, something to go after. I think that alone can give those of us who are still searching for the right path, particularly when it comes to careers, some hope. It’s not too late. You can find and then follow your dream at any age. You don’t have to find it in your early- to mid-twenties, which I think is a message many of us receive (intentional or not) when choosing a career. There’s still time. And that’s inspiring.

This is the point that I think Julie was trying to make, but it gets lost between her drama queen antics and delusions of grandeur.

I think My Life in France, Julia Child’s book, will be next on my list and probably infinitely more satisfying.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Moving Day Eve

Don’t they say that moving is one of the most stressful life events after divorce, death and major illness? (To be honest, I looked this up on the Internetz and moving is not at the top of the list or even in the top 10. It clocks in at No. 32 or something after events like “sex problems.” Also on the top 50 list, pregnancy, jail term, beginning or ending school, and vacation. Good times for sure!)

There are plenty of reasons why this move is more stressful than others. MM and I are not just moving; we’re moving into a house in the suburbs that we own.

In some ways, it feels like we are jumping ship. We are leaving Chicago, and moving to what I call “The Illinois,” a place I never thought I’d live. Sure, the suburb we are moving to is no further from my downtown Chicago place of employment than our apartment in the Chicago neighborhood of Ravenswood Manor is, and our new ‘hood is rather urban for a suburb, but it’s a statement nonetheless—a statement that means (to a lot of people anyway)—you’ll be pregnant within five minutes of setting up your new residence.

Yep. That’s the elephant in the spare bedroom… so to speak.

Some people—mostly MM’s coworkers and friends—walk through our new house and say “Is this the baby’s room?” They think it’s funny, but some of them are dead serious because, that’s what you do when you buy a home and move to the suburbs. My friends don’t say that so much, unless of course, we’re having the baby discussion, which happens, but they at least don’t boil down the whole thing to a simple equation: “House+Suburbs= Baby.” Or maybe they just don’t do that to my face.

And perhaps it’s true. Maybe we’ll start having kids immediately. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we’ll wait two or three more years. Or maybe we’ll decide the whole thing isn’t for us.

Sometimes I wish I had this biological clock ticking phenomenon that people talk about because it would at least make the whole thing a lot easier. I’d know, and when I know, I know. MM is pretty much on board with whatever—he says he wants kids. But sometimes I think that if I just sort of don’t talk about it, he’ll fill his time with so many other things that he wouldn’t notice that we don’t have them.

Sometimes I forget I’m an adult, and there’s no way people could possibly see me as a day older than 25, which technically is an adult (you know legal drinking, pay your bills, rent a car, commit a felony kind of adult), but not one who is settled, who has put down the roots. Not in my world, anyway.

Remember, you’ll blink your eyes and suddenly you’ll be here—settled. And here is a great place to be, even though I made it sound somewhat depressing. It’s really not.

And so those are my deep, disjointed thoughts on the Eve of Moving Day.