Friday, June 10, 2011

Cooking Basics: Meal Planning

In March of 2011, I presented an online "Kitchen Basics" workshop on a website called Crazy Domestic.  

In preparation for that series, I relentlessly interviewed, questioned, polled, and otherwise exhausted my precious girlfriends trying to get a bird's-eye-view of what information would be helpful to readers. 

Overwhelmingly, these phrases kept surfacing: "meal planning", "grocery shopping", "becoming more efficient in the kitchen", and "what to cook when the hunger pangs are already gnawing at your stomach and your kids are having low blood sugar-induced meltdowns."

And I knew when I read the following comment from Ginger, one of my dearest friends, that I had to share it with you.

I believe this is the cry that rises at dinnertime from kitchens across the world:

Ginger wrote:
"I have a tendency to put so much pressure on myself to make a nice, healthy, big meal that when I DO cook, I'm so exhausted and overwhelmed when it's over that I'm like "I don't want to do that again." I think just chilling out and having FUN with it is a big thing. Finding out what meal works for YOUR family instead of pressuring yourself into thinking you're not a good mother if you don't cook a meal that has 25 or more ingredients in it. This includes the pressure I put on myself to go to the farmer's market instead of Wal-Mart, or using fresh veggies (that have a tendency to rot in the drawer) instead of frozen. I think just knowing some good short cuts and knowing that it's OK to use them. And that you're not a failure if you do so."

Can I get an "Amen" to that?

If that is how you feel, would you please take a deep breath, give yourself a little hug, and say "It's gonna be OK." Quit putting so much pressure on yourself, my sweet dears! The world does enough of that already. Let's lower our goals from being Ms. Stewart to simply not having our family starve, have scurvy, or lighting our kitchens on fire because we hate being in there so much.

Overall, the results from my survey revealed this: MEAL PLANNING is a biggie.
Here's a great illustration of the importance of meal planning and learning the basics of cooking.
"The Sound of Music" is one of my all-time favorite movies. As Maria is teaching the children how to sing, she advises, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start..."
You obviously don't have to watch this clip, but it makes for cheery background music as you read the rest of the post.

And, at 1:37, Maria delivers, in her peppy British accent, my philosophy for cooking: "Now, children," she says. "Do, re, mi, fa, so" are tools you can use to build a song. Once you have these notes in your head, you can sing a million different tunes by mixing them up."

RIGHT! And once you know the basics of cooking and have some recipes under your belt, you can cook a million different different things by mixing them up!

She says, "When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!"

Likewise, when you know the meals to cook (and a few cooking basics), you can cook most anything!

So, meal planning. I'll begin there, as it lays a great foundation for being successful (and less neurotic) in the kitchen.

Modern-day meal planning can be boiled down to two categories: "old-school" and high-tech.

Let's start with "old-school."

"Old-School" Meal Planning

What you will need:

1) Cookbook(s)* and/or a collection of recipes on the Internet (like All,, The Food Network,, food blogs that you like, or, if you are feeling brave Martha*) For online recipes, save the site in your "Favorites" so you can easily find them again;

2) Your personal favorite recipes, if any, that you already feel comfortable making and that a quorum of your family enjoys;

3) Two pieces of paper and your favorite pen;

4) Something to sip on out of a pretty cup (Let's make this a positive experience!);

5) And about 30-45 minutes.

I heard that. You said, "But I don't HAVE 30-45 minutes!"

Investing this amount of time weekly will save you over double that standing in front of your pantry and open fridge (in tears) saying, "What the heck am I going to fix tonight?" It will save you money because you will consume everything you bought at the store instead of having it rot in the crisper drawer or mold in the pantry.

Step 1) Decide which recipes to prepare for the week. What is your favorite thing to eat? What does your family like? (I heard that. You said, "Eating out.") Eating out is fun and convenient, but it is also expensive. What are your family's favorite things to eat at a restaurant? Do you think you can find something similar to make at home? Flip through cookbooks or browse sites on the Internet (or recipes on my blog, *wink*) and find something that you think you can do.

Step 2) Make a meal list. When you come across a promising recipe, get one of your sheets of paper and write down the recipe name and where you found it. (Example: "Turkey Noodle Casserole", page 7, Rachel Ray's 365: No Repeats cookbook.)

Step 3) Make a grocery list. While you have the recipe in front of you, jot down items you will need to pick up at the store. (Later you can go back and group the items by aisles/categories such as dairy products, produce, dry goods, etc.).

Step 4) Repeat until you have your desired number of meals for the upcoming week and your grocery list.

Step 5) Put the grocery list in your purse. You can even go a step farther and look online or in the newspaper for coupons that correspond to what you need to buy.

Step 6) Tape the meal list to the side of your fridge. Now, you don't have to break out in hives when it's time to start dinner. You know what you're making, and since you've planned and have gone to the store, you have what you need at home.

"High-Tech Meal" Planning
You can also do all of the steps listed above with the help of online programs. Some are free, others are not. Most generate grocery lists for you (and even organize them by aisle! Our grandmothers would be astonished.). Some you have to import recipes from other locations, some give you a weekly meal plan, and others have categories of meal plans (low-fat, heart-smart, low-carb, etc.)

There are literally hundreds of meal planning websites. Here are just a few, in no particular order of preference...

  • $5 a month
  • Meal plan options
  • Generates grocery lists
  • Corresponds with your selected grocery store for coupons
  • Mobile access
Plan to Eat:
  • $5 a month
  • Import recipes from blogs and websites
  • Generates a grocery list
  • Access from your smart phone
Say Mmmmm:
  • Free
  • Recipe organizer
  • Generates grocery list
  • Smart phone access
The bottom line with meal planning is this: find something that works for you and try to stick with it.

And have confidence in yourself.

I will leave you with this little clip...(and ***spoiler alert*** Stewie from "The Family Guy" makes an 8-second appearance. I wasn't expecting that.)

This is how I hope you  start to feel when you step into the kitchen.


Say Mmm said...

Nice article. Thanks for mentioning Say Mmm!