Monday, May 10, 2010

No-Worries Menu Planning

When I started this blog, my intention was to demonstrate that it is easy to cook in college, to balance one's schedule, shop on a budget, etc. I seem to have strayed pretty far from that goal, giving you, instead, a Mondrian cake, chicken that takes two hours, etc. So now (and with my last post on the quickest, most delicious fried rice--have you made it yet?) I'm trying to get back to that original idea, with a guide to planning a week's worth of menus.

The title, by the way, is a lie. I always worry about menu planning, but I am crazy. Because I am crazy, I developed a careful method for planning weekly dinner menus, grocery shopping, etc. Because I am crazy, it starts on the Wednesday before the week in question. It's the only way I get by. But I bet that you, sane reader, can take some tips from my system and make it your (less obsessive) own.

Wednesday: My Fresh Picks order is due Wednesday night for Saturday delivery. My neighborhood farmer's market starts up this week, so I might be eliminating this step soon. Anyway, when I order Fresh Picks, I tend to just get whatever suits my fancy, plus a box of mystery vegetables.

Saturday: Fresh Picks arrives. (Or I go to the Farmer's market.) I take everything out, decide what goes in the freezer, and try to make a list (at least in my head) of what I have.

This Week: crimini mushrooms, lettuce, carrots, mixed greens, arugula (!), green garlic (!!), ramps (!!!), bread, and short ribs. This was the best week ever for Fresh Picks. It's not always so exactly suited to my tastes, and I frequently have to try new things or find new recipes, which is one of the cool parts of the service.

Sunday: On Sunday, I make lists. First, I make a list of everything that we have. This includes the Fresh Picks order, plus stuff like eggs, cheese, milk--whatever is in the fridge, and frozen meats and seafood. I also try to take stock of the pantry staples (beans, rice, pasta, canned goods, etc.). I'll discussing stocking a pantry in a later post.

Next, I make a list of meals I've been craving, that David has asked for, that I've seen on blogs or read about in cookbooks or magazines. Then, I try to fit the two lists, together, trying to use up as many ingredients from Fresh Picks or the fridge as possible. After I've chosen 5 meals, I put them in order. I try not to have two starch-based meals (with less protein) in a row, or to eat meat two nights in a row.

Here's what this week's menu looks like:
Sunday: Spring Risotto with Ramps and Crimini Mushrooms, Arugula Salad
Monday: Fresh Pasta with Ramps, Green Garlic, and Fried Egg, Salad
Tuesday: Braised Short Ribs, Green Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Roasted Carrots
Wednesday: Chili-Lime Tofu, Cinnamon Quinoa, Braised Greens
Thursday: Leek Fried Rice with Egg

With this menu, I will get though everything from the Fresh Picks box, except for some of the carrots. I also try to make things easier for myself. For example, on Tuesday and Thursday I work at the cafe in the afternoons, so I'm pretty tired when I get home. Tuesday's meal will mostly come from the slow cooker, and Thursday's (as you've seen) is super easy.

After I've determined the menu, I make a grocery list. This week, it looked like this:

-sandwich supplies (whatever is on special at the deli)
-brown rice
-salad dressing

The grocery store has so many options, that I find it much easier to base my menus around my Fresh Picks box, or what is available at the Farmer's market. Then, shopping at Treasure Island is under control, and I have less of a tendency to impulse shop. Having not just a grocery list but also a meal plan makes it easier to get everything that I need for every meal. If I just go through the store stocking up on everything I usually buy, I will inevitably forget the leeks for the fried rice or the limes for the tofu.

For Honesty's Sake: I frequently stray. Usually at least one meal a week gets axed or drastically changed. If I've had a horrible day at work or I have a paper to write, we usually end up getting sushi or thai or something. If it's unexpectedly nice out, we will end up grilling sausages or hamburgers. Also, despite my system, I do end up forgetting things at the grocery store, which is when David makes himself indispensably by running out when I realize halfway through a cake that I've got no eggs.

I know that this is a little crazy and complicated, but it's what works for me. It helps me to spend less, waste less, and eat better, all of which are noble goals.