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.
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 entrées 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.