Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How it all goes down

A new mother, Jody in Toronto, left a comment asking for more information about how I manage to get dinner on the table every night. She probably doesn't have time to read all this but I'll discuss it here anyway.

Menu Planning

I have to plan ahead. When I was single, and even when I was first married and my husband worked nights, it was easy to plan dinner on the spur of the moment but that doesn’t work for my life right now. There is rarely something waiting in the refrigerator to cook if I haven’t planned ahead. Meat is almost always frozen around here (more on that in a bit). Stopping at the store after work with two kids in tow is something I do only when absolutely necessary. Take-out on a regular basis is too expensive and again, I hate getting out of the car with two kids. We only have one fast food outlet with a drive-thru, McDonald’s, and that’s reserved for weekends only (only one trip per weekend maximum).

As much as I’ve tried, I can usually only plan one week of meals at a time. I plan for Monday-Thursday. Friday is always pizza or take-out. Weekends we wing it since I never know what meals we will be eating at home on weekends. I keep ‘weekend food’ on hand (chicken patties, hamburgers, hot dogs, meatballs – basically anything I can put on a bun).

I have several different menu planning strategies. I switch them off. I find it nearly impossible to have a quick, cheap, healthy NEW recipe (that I can whip up with food I already have on hand) on the table every night. So some weeks I concentrate on healthy, some weeks I concentrate on using up what I have, sometimes I’m looking for all new recipes, sometimes I have no time to do prep work on the weekends so I need fast recipes. Certainly I do try to hit all key points every week but it helps to focus on one strategy at a time. My most basic strategy is picking four meats (or other proteins) that I already bought and working from there.

I buy meat on mark down, as loss leaders, and at Costco and then I freeze it. So I know exactly what I have to work with before planning meals. I’ve found in the past that if I used the current week’s ad to plan my meals that they might be out of the sale item when I shop, or it might not look as appealing as I thought (fatty meat) or occasionally I found out too late that I was looking at the wrong week’s ad.

Sometimes menu planning is a snap, sometimes I sit there drawing a complete blank. I have a few tricks that usually unstump me. I sometimes think in terms of ethnicity of dishes - something Italian, something Mexican, something Asian, etc. Or I plan meals around starches - rice, pasta, potatoes.

I used to hit the cookbooks more randomly for recipes but I’ve started keeping a running list of recipes I’d like to try. In a notebook, I copy down the recipe name, cookbook title and page number and any additional information that might be helpful (cut of meat recipe uses, odd ingredient I might only have once in a while). I start with that short, easy to handle, list when planning meals and then hit the cookbooks if necessary. I rely on past recipes and freestyle cooking too. For a long time, it was four new entrĂ©es every week but I just can’t keep that up all of the time and some recipes are too good not to make again. There is a benefit to what I do here - I now have at least one 'go to' recipe for just about any cut of meat I keep on hand.

I try to do some cooking ahead on Sunday but I don’t want to spend my entire Sunday in the kitchen so I plan some things I can cook ahead and some things I can whip up pretty quickly after work. When the menu is done, I sit back and review the actual work required and make adjustments as needed. These days I often have to sacrifice making a new recipe in order to keep my sanity.

I make up my menu and shopping list at the same time. I try to double check all of my ingredients so I’m not left in the lurch at the last minute. More than once I was sure I had something in the cupboard but it was no longer there.

I shop on Thursday nights, and again on Sunday for some items like salad and bread. I go to Costco on the weekend when I need to. I sometimes go to a local farmer's market (called 'the auction' here) for produce on Friday nights. My husband watches the baby while I do my main shopping but my five-year old likes to come with me now. I happen to like to shop for food but if I didn't I'd probably try to go less often. I find the fewer trips to the store (any store) I make, the less I spend overall.

Tomorrow (or later this week), I’ll explain more about how I get dinner on the table as quickly as I can.


Annie Jones said...

I've been thinking of all these things this morning as I try to plan my menus for the upcoming week.

Like you, I usually only manage to get a week planned at a time (I used to do monthly, but have fallen out of that habit for some reason).

Like you, sometimes I plan around ethic food, using up what's on hand, finding ways to use up what's bountiful from the garden, etc. Other times, like you, I draw a blank. That's what's happening right now...glad to know I'm not the only one.

La Pixie said...

thanks for the tips. Im newly married and in the process of buying a home, so fast, cheap meals are ideal and going out to eat is not. I know that meal planning will help, but I have been struggling with it. thanks for the inspiration.

Heather said...

No wonder I like you so much Paula, we are so much a like. You are better at getting stuff up on your blog, but we plan about the same way. I use my magazines though and make a good menu for the week and then make my grocery list at the same time. I check and make sure I have things that I need to prep all of the meals. What I really what to watch is I really only need to plan for 3 meals as at least one night we have leftovers from a previous night and if I buy things for lunch we don't need them for that. Thanks for sharing what you do.

Anonymous said...

This is so helpful! Thank you. I usually use the sales flyers for the week, but, like you, am disappointed when the item has sold out. Another irksome thing about flyers, here in Canada anyway, is that a good portion of the flyer is filled with on sale junk food. Does anyone else notice this?
Jody in Toronto

The Cookbook Junkie said...

You know I rarely even look at the weekly ad anymore since I wasn't finding much in it. If I see a good deal while I'm shopping, I might pick it up. The only problem there is that they will remove the sign in the meat dept. if they run out of a loss leader. If you haven't seen the ad, you don't know to ask for a raincheck.

ChickiePea said...

:) Good tips! I like this meal-planning site a lot and it lets you import online recipes really easily and share them with friends too. It also cross-references your grocery list, so that in itself is amazing and time-saving for us, especially with being on such a restricted diet but still wanting variety (so I don't always have a lot of ingredients on hand that we need for certain dishes, like gluten-free flours, etc.)