7 Habits of the Highly Systematized Meal Planner

Brain with PuzzleHow do you explain how you do something that is automatic for you? How do you breathe? It just happens — I don’t think about it. How do you speak English?  I just do — I don’t know how not to. How do you solve puzzles? I might be able to say something about that, but it’s clear that I “don’t have privileged access to my own mind” (heard that in an interview with Errol Morris this morning – it struck a chord).

Questions about how I plan meals, after my menu planing terrorist post a couple of days ago, stumped me. Did you notice that I missed my daily posting yesterday? I felt compelled to answer, but the words didn’t fly from my fingers. How can I access that part of my mind?

Morris, the documentary film maker, believes that we often need to be interviewed to unpack and organize our thinking. In lieu of any such deeper excavation process, I’m flying solo on what I came up with – just me and my keyboard. 

What follows is an attempt at unpacking the micro-decisions that go into solving the meal planning puzzle and then summarize them. I’m no expert, this is just how I get through my cooking week. [A welcome relief from obsessing about the virus]

Here are a few simple considerations I was able to tease out of my mind. Maybe they will offer some insights – maybe you’ll just order take-out instead. More likely, you already know this stuff!

1.  Begin with the end in mind.

What is the last meal in the sequence? What could you purchase today and make fresh two weeks from now. Park that at the end of the list. That’s your starting point. Something like baked sweet potatoes with Edamame and peas – I like it topped with some grated habanero cheese. Those veg I usually get frozen and the potatoes can keep a long time. Red beans and rice is another good one for the end of the line, or scratch mac and cheese with baked cauliflower. Big favorites at our house.

If you see something at the store that will be ripe in a week-or-so pick it up and re-jig the menu when you get home — on a recent trip I saw a hard-as-rock green pineapple that was delicious after sitting in the fruit bowl ten days. Avocados, pears, cantaloupe and tomatoes are notorious for being green – ripen them on your counter.

2. Front end Fish and fancy foods.

Firs things first. Serve fresh fish on the first night. Unless I’m getting fish at the fish market, I assume it’s been frozen already, so best prepare it as quickly as possible – definitely do not re-freeze. Also slot in the impulse purchase of the special fruits you were lured into buying as you walked in the store. They are trying to unload them, because they’re about to go bad. Maybe some mangoes, avocados or raspberries. Get these perishables on the menu early on.

3. Back end dry goods and things your grandma put in the cellar.

The second week’s meals are filled with the roots, cruciferous veg, apples, pears and citrus accompanied by a variety of grains and legumes or beans. If you’re a meat eater, I’m sure you will have put something in the freezer to handle the extra protein – you’re on your own with meat planning. If not, like me, you will have a stash of tempeh, tofu, seitan or rice and bean combos to round things out.  Now you have your first couple of meals and your last ones, so just a few more to fill in between.

4. Double up. Make once – Use twice – Think Win-Win.

This is more strategic than guaranteeing a simple pipeline of leftovers. This is making double of something that takes a bit more effort but doesn’t take double the effort to make double the quantity. Does that make sense … or did I lose you? A good example of this is pie crust. I made a crust recipe for a quiche last week, and made extra for a pan-sized pot pie a few days later. Another regular feature in busier times was making a massive volume of mashed potatoes – I served half of it at the first meal as a side, and the other half became the topping for a shepherd’s pie a couple of days later.

5. Throw in some wild cards when you get to the store. First understand what’s there.

You won’t have all the answers to your plan until you first see what’s on offer at the store. Build in space for something unexpected. This week I threw in a big red cabbage – it looked too good to pass up. It’s not anywhere in my meal plan, but I know I have a tasty Asian red cabbage and carrot recipe that would go great with some frozen veggie burgers and sweet potato fries. That could be an extra meal to stretch the next grocery run, or make a lunch if there aren’t any leftovers one day.

An add-on to this, is make sure to load up on basic fresh foods that last a long time – even if they’re not on the menu: I’m thinking primarily potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, apples. Also have some basic frozen foods that are adaptable to lots of recipes: all kinds of green veg and some fruits that go in smoothies. This builds in flexibility.

6. Plan for large recipes. Be Proactive.

Large recipes become your lunch the following day. These are even more delicious during long isolation days at home. If however, your household has put the kibosh on leftovers, you can refashion them and disguise them as a side dish the following day.  Like copious veggies in a stir fry with a protein one night can be the side dish the next night baked with grated cheese or similar cover-up technique. The secret here is to never tell.

7. Get over the “I might not feel like eating it” syndrome. Synergize.

You can do some re-arranging as the week unfolds — this is, after all, your menu. Massage it, optimize it, re-create it. Look for the synergies across the different days and meals. I promise you that you’ll quickly get into the groove and get determined to make this work. Hey, in case of total melt-down, there’s always the college emergency backup of cereal or popcorn for dinner, or pizza take out. 

I’m sure I’ll think of much more to say as soon as I press the “Publish” button on this, but I’m also sure this is already more than you care to read.

Have some fun! Let me know what strategies you would add here.

The menu planning pantry terrorist

Menus-3Early this morning we geared up for our now once every-two weeks grocery store run at 7am. Masks, gloves, and extra sanitizer wipes at the ready and off we go. I’m still training myself to not touch the mask. This takes a lot of deep breathing. Are my eyes and nose that itchy normally, or only when I put on that blasted mask?

I’m not gonna lie, I’m pumped about our meal planning efficiency at this house. We’ve shifted gears from a very loose and frequent-trips-to-the-store approach to a tightly controlled sequence of meals and committed grocery items for each menu in the plan. Woe betides anyone who consumes an item “off script”, that was planned for a future meal.  The penalty could be as serious as being sent to the grocery store without a mask!

Arranging the menu to ensure two full weeks of three meals a day, including fresh fruit and veg right up to the last day, takes some puzzling out. I love the challenge. When I get near the end of the planning period I start moving things around to try to stretch the supplies even further. 

This drives my housemates nutsy and also increases the reign of terror over what you can and cannot use in the pantry. They get nervous — worried that if we let it go too long the stores will be emptying out and our pantry will be empty, and we won’t have any options. I guess we would just starve? Resort to more take-outs?

I’ve heard them complaining about me when they think I can’t hear. This is when it really gets fun. I am channeling my grandmother from the 1930s — I’m in my element. 

I’m a menu planning pantry terrorist and proud of it.

I sense a general rising nervousness about the food supply chain even though the press is trying hard to allay fears. Well, except for the reports popping up today about shuttered meat plants “pushing out country perilously close to the edge in terms of meat supply“. Personally, the only thing about a meat shortage I find worrisome is that the meat eaters might wander over to my veggie section and start hoarding that too.

If things get extremely tight I’m ready for the challenge. I may be pretty useless in a messy scramble to fight for a bigger share of the pie, but I’ll be great at maximizing what little bit of the pie I do end up with.