It’s 4pm and you’re only now starting to think about dinner tonight. Am I right? For me at least, lack of advanced meal planning is one of the top barriers to eating healthy and frankly, reducing stress. Especially given my family’s dietary restrictions (I am gluten free, though soy sauce is fine for me) – weekly meal planning has been my saving grace. It sounds so simple and yet so few people actually do it. I hope you’ll give it a try. And to get you started, I’ll share with you my own meal planning routing.
My weekly cycle starts on Saturday morning at the farmer’s market. I browse and pick up whatever vegetables strike me. This past Saturday, Oct 21 it happened to be heirloom tomatoes, spaghetti squash, purple cauliflower, trumpet mushrooms and a pointy variety of cabbage that the Germans call Spitzkohl, which translates to Peak cabbage.
This approach of FIRST shopping and THEN planning the meals is key here, though it goes against what society teaches us. We live in a world of convenience and consistency. Orange juice is available year-round as are fresh tomatoes, strawberries, asparagus, winter squash, fresh meats, liquid milk and every other food that traditionally was seasonal or scarce. This has enabled our restaurants to offer the same menu year-round. I think this convenience has programmed us into thinking that we can and should eat anything we “feel like” any day of the year. And while technically we can, I think there are tremendous benefits to eating what is local and in season. For one thing, the flavor and superior. It also means you’re more likely to get it locally and therefore can have a relationship with your farmer. I also think we appreciate a food more if we’re not eating it year-round. Additionally, I believe that too many choices can be debilitating because you feel a need to pick something amazing and the brain cycles needed to make the choice can be significant. (Reminds me of how people tout Mark Zuckerberg for wearing the same outfit every day in order to free up his mind to think more important matters, which for him probably means Fabebook.)
Step two happens when I get home from the market. I lay all my spoils on the counter and then add to it whatever other vegetables I find in my fridge since these are most perishable. This past Saturday it happened to be Sweet Potatoes, Yellow Potatoes, Chard and Sweet Onions from my farm buying club, carrots that I grew myself and harvested a few weeks ago, some green beans, spring onions and the staples that I always have stocked: yellow onions, garlic, ginger and avocado. In addition, I visit my chest freezer downstairs and note which frozen meats are waiting to be used. I generally have ~10 cuts that I always keep stocked (chicken wings, chicken breast, beef steaks, beef stew meat, pork shoulder, pork chops, ground pork, various sausages, ground lamb and beef, etc) and maybe a few others. Whenever I use one up, I immediately log into my farm buying club account and re-order it. And then there are the semi-perishable items that last longer than vegetables but not as long as the frozen meats, but which I always keep stocked: eggs, various cheeses, flour/grains, fats (ghee, lard, tallow, olive oil), nuts, etc.
Next step is to start planning some meals. I start with the biggest thing in front of me – Spaghetti squash with sausage and sage from my garden sounds good, so I move the squash aside. Burgers would be nice for a Sunday barbecue – perhaps I use 50/50 beef/lamb. That will also use up a tomato, part of a sweet onion. What might go well with those burgers? How about coleslaw and mashed sweet potatoes? Perfect. I’ll make extra coleslaw so that I have some for the week. Tomato, cabbage, sweet potato and sweet onion have left the pile and been put away – my counter is almost clean – progress! Ok, now what do I do with those green beans…how about a chinese stir-fry? I open up my Fuschia Dunlop Szechuan cooking book and follow the recipes for a “fish-fragrant” pork stir-fry but instead of bamboo shoots and dried mushrooms I will use green beans and those lovely fresh trumpet mushrooms. It also uses spring onions – great!
Ok, what’s left? Two more tomatoes – how about just enjoying them today in a salad with fresh buffalo style mozzarella? And now carrots. Lots of carrots. And that cauliflower and chard. Well, I can add some carrots to the coleslaw. A great way to use up lots more carrots is Jamie Oliver’s Indian Carrot Salad. Now it also uses ground lamb, so maybe I won’t have this immediately after I eat the burgers s that I don’t have lamb overload. That also uses some onion and ginger. But I need cilantro – well, I can skip it if I don’t have it. Now let’s see, we can pan-fry the cauliflower for lunch on the weekend along with a fried egg and some bacon. So that just leaves the chard – I wonder if I can mix chard into the spaghetti squash…let me google it. Oh yes, others do it! Maybe I’ll also top it off with cheese – yum!
As I’m doing this, I’m writing it all down on whatever paper is handy – the back of a receipt usually or in this case the back of an old envelope. At this point, all I’m doing is listing the meals. The last step will be to re-order them by adding the day of the week. And finally, I”m done and I breathe a sigh of relief. My week will go so much better now, I am sure. Because every day I know what I”m eating that night AND the next night, so any prep that is required, like defrosting meat, I am prepared. And I only need to make that one weekly trip to Whole Foods – yay!
Now one other key to successful meal planning is to involve all members of the household, even if they claim not to care – they must participate in the process. I don’t know about you, but I am the primary cook and meal planner in the house, which includes my husband, a 19 year old German au pair and my 5 year old son. Of course they all have their preferences. For instance my husband longs for noodles. My son complains that he’s tired of spicy food and when can we make pizza? My au pair…well she doesn’t actually complain, thankfully! But I often lament that my daily cooking and meal planning is underappreciated. But when I involve the whole family in the meal planning, including accounting for their wishes, it reduces the number of complaints and stress on ALL sides.
Ahhh, peace, harmony and happy bellies. 🙂