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…

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