Blog Archive

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Way I Cook

For the past few years I've been hounding all sorts of home economics, money saving, and meal planning blogs for ideas to help me better run my household. Nearly ALL of them tout planning meals at least a week in advance as a way to stay organized and to save money. Many people also sing the praises of planning meals based on your pantry contents and what is on sale.

Both methods make sense, especially for people who lack the desire to cook and absolutely must save money. I am not one of those people. I always sorta brushed off the whole meal-planning thing because I enjoy some surprises in life.

However, with a child who thrives on a consistent schedule I can't pull off my "hmmm, it is 5:30pm...let's figure out what we'll cook up for dinner" and still get him to bed at a reasonable hour. (Right now he's in bed between 8-8:45pm, which is too late for both of us. I tried putting him to bed at 7:30pm, assuming he'd get up earlier than his current 8am...but I was wrong. Sigh, now I have to purposely wake him up in order to get us to preschool by 9am.)

So I tried planning my meals a week in advance and shopping to make sure I had everything for the week. But it just doesn't work for me. And I finally figured out why.

1. I like variety and I never know what I'm going to be in the mood for a full week in advance.
2. Since I am alone with Eddie during the week, I need to cook freezer-friendly stuff or just cook smaller portions so we aren't eating the same thing as leftovers, over and over again.
3. I get bored easily. A lot of families have a list of meals they tend to eat frequently and they just rotate through them. With a few exceptions, I do NOT like to eat the same meal/dish more than once a month or so. I LOVE variety in my diet.
4. I adore cooking and all its components (recipe hunting/development, preparing the ingredients, cooking, serving, eating, and cleaning up afterward). So fast, easy meals are not my thing. I need the whole process to enjoy a meal and to destress.

So how can I plan a week's worth of meals considering my food preferences? I think about a few key dishes I want to eat soon, make a list of the ingredients necessary, and then plan the rest of the week around the remaining ingredients as the week progresses. So I usually only plan about 3 days out and keep my pantry and freezer really well stocked so I can make anything, anytime. To figure out what else I'll want, I think about it this way: "If I got to eat out at a restaurant instead of cook this week, what would I want to order?" I love eating at Mexican, Japanese, Indian, and Thai restaurants so I force the ingredients to fit into those categories usually.

For instance, if I know I will have a bunch of mushrooms left over from making beef strogranoff, then I will decide to make red, yellow, or green Thai curry using the mushrooms and whatever other veggies are in the CSA basket that week. And if I'm using any type of dried bean I'll also make a Mexican casserole that I can freeze for later or just freeze the cooked beans in baggies to toss into some other dish later on. If I know I will need to buy half-and-half for a sauce (and I always buy a half gallon of it at Costco because it is so much cheaper there), then I will plan on freezing a bunch for later and also making a cream soup or Cajun pasta sauce.

Fresh herbs make food taste SO MUCH BETTER--sprinkling some basil or thyme leaves into your salad or stirring in some mint or citrus zest into a rice dish can make the whole meal "pop." (Seriously, you'll be blown away.) A bunch of fresh cilantro or basil at the store can cost up to $3 around here...which is a lot if you will only use it for one meal. But I splurge and then make sure to use it throughout the week. Basil works in Thai and Italian; cilantro works in Thai, Indian, and Mexican); taragon is delicious tossed with roasted or sauteed veggies of any kind. We have perennial crops of rosemary, sage, taragon, oregano, chives, lemon verbena, a few types of mint, and stevia. In summer we obviously have tons of basil and in winter we have cilantro. We are lucky to live in CA where fresh herbs are available locally year round at the farmers market, too.

And then there are all my "go to" dishes that are so adaptable that I don't get sick of them because they vary in texture, taste, and appeal depending on what ingredients are available. I love these options because pretty much ANY veggie or meat can be used:
  • Risotto
  • Omelet or fritatta
  • Pizza
  • Pilaf with whatever grain you feel like (quinoa, rice, barley, wheat berries) or using boxed Rice-a-Roni as a based to which you add other stuff
  • Curry (Indian, Thai, etc.) with rice
  • Enchiladas
  • Poached eggs nested in sauteed veggies
  • Ramen noodles (we pump ours up with extra water, sesame oil, fish sauce, poached egg, and whatever veggies we have around)
Now that I've written all this, it seems ridiculous that I still go looking for new and exciting stuff to try. It does take me a while to stumble upon something that is exciting/new enough for me to want to try it. Lately I've been perusing Samoan food blogs since we love anything containing coconut milk and I'm inspired by my friend Kaitlin's dishes. I'd like to try making bento boxes for lunch with dinner ingredient left overs, as well as more Chinese and Japanese foods.

Tonight we are having raviolis (fresh, bought from Costco) with some sort of creamy-herby sauce and salad. And I intend to make a giant batch of pico de gallo to use up the tomatillos and tomatoes from the garden as well as a bunch of cilantro I bought last week when I made enchildads and chili (I hope isn't rotten yet!).

Our meals for this week are/were:

Monday--dinner out with family in the bay area
Tuesday--welcome dinner on campus for my graduate group
Wednesday--fresh pasta with salad
Thursday--CSA basket veggie saute with poached eggs
Friday--beef pad thai noodles
Saturday--whatever Dave wants (probably a hunk of meat on the BBQ with veggie kebabs)
Sunday--who knows

Last night I FINALLY went to Costco after more than a month. I spent a ton of money on chicken, cheese, milk, and other things that will hopefully last us a few months. After Eddie was in bed, I divided up the chicken, seasoned it with either Asian salad dressing, chili powder, or garam masala, and froze it in baggies. That way it'll be marinated once I defrost it so cooking something delicious with it will be a snap. I bought a pack of English muffins, cheddar cheese, eggs, bacon, and sausages with the hope of making a ton of breakfast sandwiches that I can put into the freezer. Eddie would eat oatmeal every single morning if I left him decide...but I am getting really sick of it. So I need to add some other stuff to our options. He loves all foods that can be carried around outside so I think he'll like the sandwiches.

So......what are YOU having for dinner?


Team Roy said...

We had Mexican meatloaf tonight, ground pork + ground beef, chopped green chilis, seasonings and some bread crumbs with a sweet tasting tomato and apricot jam glaze. Kyle recently found out that he has a lactose intolerance, so I'm cooking with almost NO dairy these days. Lucy however is fine with every food I've given her - wahoo! And my kids eat oatmeal every morning for breakfast, or toast...its all Charlie's ever been able to really have. It gets veryyyyy old, but it sure fills him up in the morning! Good luck with the meal planning, I only started it a few months back but I really see a difference - financially and emotionally (for me). I'm not so stressed about what to make!

steph.kelley said...

You are a mama MACHINE! That's amazing, all the stuff you manage to do — and that's just for the food part of things! Your cooking style is very familiar to me: I like variety and dislike planning in advance, but end up thinking about primary ingredients getting a second wind later in the week, etc. etc., just as you said. These days I am not in the mood to cook — it's strange. Dinners are consisting of quinoa with any variety of accessories; carrots and nut butter; kale salad (didn't like it; ended up steaming it and loved it); and random fruits and veg. I am enjoying baking a bit, anyway. This morning I made a peach-raspberry pie with crisp topping.

Kelly said...

I have the same problem with shopping and planning ahead for meals, I never know what I want a week in advance! And I'm not very passionate about cooking at the end of the day when I'm already hungry and tired. But, I love your ideas for planning ahead with a lot of wiggle room. :D And I especially love your list of go-to's that can be changed up according to what's in the fridge. Thanks Julie!!

My newest go-to meal when I have no energy is cubed sweet potatoes tossed in coconut oil, curry powder, tumeric and a little salt. Bake at 350 for ~45 min., super yummy!!! That and a big salad and we're good to go. I've had to endure a bit of complaining, but Jeff is now used to meals with no meat ;)

erin said...

oh how i wish i liked cooking like you do. honestly, i would love to have that drive!

Kaitlin said...

how did i miss this post until now? i want to try your curry recipes! i loooooooooove curry but am not so good at making it.