Menu Planning and What I’m Cooking

Dear Joey,

As you know, I love to cook. But are you aware of how much I dislike planning to cook? I like the idea of it. Pouring over cookbooks and getting lost in words like braise and saute and julienne is my idea of a good time. I have a stack of cookbooks perched precariously on many a surface of our house most weeks, old favorites alongside newly discovered gems waiting to become my new go-to cookbook.

And yet.

Settling on a selection of recipes to make in any given week is not exactly fun because, well, it just doesn’t lend itself very well to my creative cooking style (read: figuring-tghings-out-at-the-last-minute-style cooking). In years pastI thrived on the challenge of putting together a killer menu at last minute. With a well-stocked kitchen, doing things last minute worked for me, for us.

And then there were children.

These days, last minute dinners include Amy’s Macaroni & Cheese, PB&J, grilled cheese, quesadillas, or leftovers. It’s not that I couldn’t throw together something more classy than these things; it’s just that it’s not so easy to get creative with two small children clamoring for my attention, staring me down with hunger in their eyes.

But menu planning hasn’t been exactly easy for me. Plus, there hasn’t seemed to be a need for true menu planning because there is always something to cook with around here, be it a fresh stash of veggies or a nice cut of meat. Thinking about meals perhaps a day in advance worked fine for me in some ways- I had plenty of time to defrost, marinate, or last minute grocery shop.

I admit, however, that this isn’t exactly the most cost-effective strategy for cooking. Maintaining a well-stocked pantry isn’t exactly cheap, mainly because we tend to make a trip to the grocery store the moment a staple ingredient runs out around here simply because we might need it before payday rolls around again. Like a block of cheese or a bottle of oil or frozen chicken breasts or another pint of sour cream. The truth is, we can easily make it through to payday without these things, but we’ve become accustomed to the convenience of having foods fit for last minute cooking around all the time.

My mom and I did the math a few days ago to figure out about what we’ve been spending on food lately, and after that discussion, I knew I couldn’t just play around with menu planning anymore. It has to become a way of life for us, otherwise we’ll waste a lot of resources around here (money, food, time, etc.). But admittedly, the joy of thumbing through cookbooks disappears the moment the pressure is on to choose something that meets all of our family’s requirements. It must appeal to low-carb dieters and those who eat mostly meatless, as well as toddlers and adults. It must be quick and easy enough to cook with children underfoot, and yet make use of a wide variety of whole, real foods. It’s got to reheat well, as the dinner hour stretches from 5:30 all the way up to midnight around here. It’s got to include Mexican food as much as possible (as it is a clear favorite around here), appeal to your love for classic homestyle foods while also being highly health conscious and low calorie, and, it’s got to give me room to experiment and play. Oh – and, it’s got to take into account allergies (sensitivities?) to coconut, peanuts, lentils and possibly dairy.

Sheesh. Do you see why I get a little overwhelmed?

When I sat down to do a menu planning template two weeks ago, I landed on an approach that helped me to feel a little less overwhelmed by this daunting task. First, instead of thinking of it as a “Meal Plan,” I think of it as a list of things I’m cooking (and so, I’ve dubbed my list “What I’m Cooking”) Second, instead of thinking about two weeks’ worth of dinners all at once without any direction whatsoever, I’m doing it week by week, using a template with parameters. Meaning, I assigned different types of meals to each day of the week to take most of the burden off of me; the day of the week decides what type of food I cook. (Example: on Mondays, we have Mexican food.) With this template in place, any requests I get for the week (“Let’s have enchiladas! or “I’m hungry for barbecued chicken.”) will slip into their pre-appointed day.

Take a look – see what I mean?

Sunday: Hearty Meat Dishes
Monday: Mexican Food
Tuesdays: Homestyle Favorites (crock pot soups/stews, easy casseroles and other comfort foods)
Wednesday: Creative in the Kitchen (with an option for leftovers or sandwiches instead)
Thursday: International Flair (especially carb-heavy dishes with pasta or rice)
Friday: “Fun” Food (like homemade pizza, hotdogs/hamburgers, breakfast for dinner, etc.)
Saturday: Something Grilled

To be more specific, here’s what I’m cooking this week:

Sunday: Beef Stroganoff with Roasted Brussel Sprouts
Monday: Taco Salad
Tuesday: Crock Pot Broccoli Cheese Soup with Green Salad
Wednesday: Leftovers
Thursday: Vegetable Curry with Chickpeas (with or without chicken) over rice
Friday: Grilled Bratwurst with Baked Beans and Corn on the Cobb*
Saturday: Fish Sticks with Mac & Cheese*

*I know, I know. I switched themes on Friday and Saturday, but hey – it’s my plan and I have the prerogative to switch it up as I see fit, right? 

I know it doesn’t take a genius to figure out meal planning, and I know that there are many other better meal planners out there (forms, templates and people), but for me, for now, this is hugely helpful. Life changing, really. It gives me freedom to be creative and yet keeps me organized enough to stay sane.

And you know what? I think you agree. You have, after all, complimented my cooking every night for the past week. Without any sort of prodding from me.

That’s my favorite part.


One thought on “Menu Planning and What I’m Cooking

  1. I love this! For me, planning my meals each week is so much fun. Sometimes the highlight of my weekend. Is that lame?

    I was actually considering not going grocery shopping for the remainder of this month. It will force me to be more resourceful with my well-stocked kitchen and make some pretty creative meals!

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