Sunday, October 9, 2011

Menu Planning

I know I have posted on this before, but I keep running into people who want to start menu planning but say they don't have the time.  I can understand being rushed each day and not really wanting to sit down and figure out what you are going to eat a week in advance.  I like to have freedom each night to cook what I am in the mood for and not feel boxed into what is on the menu, yet having a loose plan helps in those nights when you just can't figure out what to make or when you are pressed for time.  On top of that, menu planning really helps to cut grocery bills significantly, something that has let me start working on buying more organic foods while still even cutting our grocery bill. 

My goals in menu planning probably go in this order:
1. use all of the vegetables from the farm that week
2. make as many meals from whole ingredients as possible (making as many parts at home as possible)
3. have meals that are appropriate for the schedule of each day
4. mix it up and  try new things
5. have at least 3 vegan meals per week
6. incorporate as many organic and fair trade items as possible
7. stay in budget, and if at all possible, get as under budget as possible
Now, I love to cook, and I love to browse cook books so menu planning isn't something I generally have trouble working into my schedule because I enjoy it.  For many, cooking is a hassle that just makes another mess to clean up, and another responsibility to add on to your plate.  But I find that by taking at least a half hour to create a menu each week really allows me to be creative in my cooking and use cooking as a creative outlet.  By using new recipes each week (at least 1-2), I have gotten to learn different techniques and a lot about how to pair ingredients.  The more new recipes you use, the more familiar you will become with spices and ethnic foods.  It takes time, but you can eventually use recipes as a starting off point, and really look to your ingredients to determine your meal. 

When I do not have a box of food from the farm, I do try to look to vegetables that are in season.  This not only is easier on your wallet, but it is also better for the environment and you get tastier vegetables since they are local and not grown in the wrong situations.  Tomatoes were just not made to be eaten in December fresh, and the flavor just isn't there in January.  So in January, if you are hankering for a fresh vegetable, look up what is in season in your area.  Some cookbooks are even separated into seasons, giving you seasonal recipes that highlight the best your area has to offer. 

So, I encourage you to give menu planning a try.  I bet you can even start with 10-15 minutes if it is something you truly dread. 

Grab a pen and pad of paper and start by browsing your fridge and pantry, do you already have a can of black beans or a half-eaten jar of spaghetti sauce?  Write those down to the side of your paper so if you crack open a cook book or magazine, you have in your head those things you don't want to waste. 

Using a cookbook or magazine may add some time, or it may significantly reduce your time spent menu planning, depends on if you need the inspiration.  A cooking magazine will already be pretty seasonally organized for you and make it easier to stay within budget. 

Next, write down each day of the week and note the activities you have that evening, keeping in mind if you have to get home and leave within a half hour.  Don't plan a lasagna for that night, you know that it takes at least an hour to prep and bake.  That night would be a good night for tacos, burritos, pizza, or sandwiches. 

With that half jar of spaghetti sauce, can you add a can of tomatoes and make soup or eggplant parmesan?  Those black beans are a good start to a big pot of chili (which also calls for a can of tomatoes- so get the bigger can, it's cheaper).  Maybe you have 10 green peppers in your fridge (like me right now)...perhaps sausage and peppers is in order that week, and chili, and gumbo.  Use up what you already have, and see if there are areas you can make once, use twice.  A few weeks ago I made cashew cream for the lime-agave tofu recipe, and knew that I would have a lot left over, so I also put on the menu creamy tomato soup to use up the rest.  Not only did I not waste the rest, I also cut my prep time for tomato soup night by about 15 minutes. 

What if you don't have much food in the house at all?  Start fresh, and create a menu that sounds good to you.  If you have a hard time getting started, flip quickly through that cooking magazine or cookbook.  What if you hate cooking and menu planning even moreso?  Start by writing down why you cook: providing nutritious meals for your family, preserving family dinner time conversation, saving money as opposed to eating out, etc.  I cook for my family because for me sharing a meal with someone and feeding them is a sign of love and care.  Food is a sign of that no matter your culture, to feed someone is to show your care for them.  If you hate cooking or dislike spending all the time, start small, and paste the person's picture for whom you are cooking above the sink or the stove.  Show them you care so much about them you are willing to take time at an activity you'd rather not do to serve them. 

What's in season this week?  Greens (spinach, swiss chard, lettuce), eggplant, apples, pears, winter squash (butternut, spaghetti, delicata), bok choy, potatoes, etc. 

Do you have any menu-planning tips?  Any other vegetable that is in season I let out?  Why do you cook for your family?  Or yourself?

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