Regardless of how much time or desire you have to cook and clean - having a few meal planning concepts in your “culinary toolbox” can really come in handy, make life better, and far easier.
I’ve been effectively meal planning for nearly a million years now.
Here are a few of the tricks
Our lives are dynamic. Opportunities change. Today’s solution may be different from tomorrow’s… or the one from 20 years ago. I find that it’s useful to have different ideas to select from so you can recognize what’s right for you at the time. Mix up these experiences, recognize when things have changed, and adjust as needed, and you will likely rotate in and out of these a few times each throughout your life. I'm always using at least a few of these at a time. I list them out at the bottom of this blog.
Clubbing It with Friends~
Get a group of friends with a few key things in common:
Ability to get together regularly (once or twice a month? What works for your/their situation?)
Have similar taste in food
Have similar requirements: quality, sustainability (GMO/local/pesticide free/organic), bang for your buck, hygiene, shopping locally, what ever is of interest to the group
Need similar volume
Get together (yes, get together. It’s more fun that way) to discuss and agree upon meals. Make a date for the next gathering, at which, you will all bring enough of each particular meal for each participant.
If there are 6 of you, picture this - you make 7 meals. You eat one and freeze one for yourself to have later, and bring 5 to give to your club when you meet. You will go home with 5 meals from your club, and you’ve got a stocked freezer.
Freeze all the meals you make once they’re done, please don’t let them sit in your fridge for a few days, as you want them to be as fresh as possible for yourself and your friends.
My favorite exchanges are when we get together for the exchange and planning for the next one while having a coffee or a cocktail. It’s relatively quick, and totally fun, and you’re considering the fact that most of your commodity will be frozen. Just enough time to make it both a pleasant, and a productive visit.
The Loan Wolf, Frozen~ Would it work for you to have several fully prepared single servings available to heat up or take with you? For more than 10 years I did this. Whenever I had the chance to cook, I would make a whole bunch of whatever it is, and portion it out in a bunch of single serving containers - back in the day, I didn’t have such nice things, but glass with silicone lids are the best choice, as they can be both frozen and heated.
Once a week make two or three things. Package them in a perfect 1 portion for how you like to eat. Imagine making several burgers, or a lasagna that yields multiple portions, a stir fry and rice for a few meals. Whatever a normal volume is for you. When making these meals, cook up one or two for that day/night, and some leftovers. It’s more economical to buy a whole chicken rather than individual pieces and cooking separately each time you eat. So eat some today and tomorrow, and the other portions are in the freezer to eat later. Is it any easier to cook up one piece of chicken than a whole one? No. Would you make one portion of lasagna rather than a whole pan? Jeez I hope not—what a pain in the ass that would be! So this plan is totally worth trying if you’re eating in small portions at a time.
The Loan Wolf, Fresh~
This is for just the next 3-4 days. I love canning jars and tempered glass containers with silicone lids. Salads, chopped and/or sauteed vegetables for speeding up
my morning eggs, juicing produce, and smoothie ingredients are all good examples of what can be done here, and in fact what I do periodically, or all the time, depending.
It’s a Family Affair~
Every time you cook something easily duplicated/stored/reheated, make 3 or 4 of them. I find this works particularly well when I have time to cook regularly, but not nightly. It’s also great when a band of teenagers could descend on your home at any time.
Make a few pans of enchiladas, an extra large pot of chili, lasagna, marinated chicken, or breakfast bread pudding.
Certainly there are enough times when I went too crazy at the farmer’s market, got behind on the CSA, or had a bumper crop in my own garden, I could roast and freeze all of those extra vegetables, make vegetable stock, make veggie burgers. As these opportunities arise, fit them into your grocery shopping, and you’ll be set next time you want cheer up a friend with a visit and a couple meals, or take a few with you on a weekend getaway.
I always have a heavy duty freezer zippy bags, and I like to keep on hand a few foil pans. Don’t be surprised if the next Banana Berry Bread I give you is in an off season wrapper - just know I got a good deal on them.
Some Like it Hot, Some Like it Cold~
The idea here is that you make a versatile base and work with it for several days. I tend to go with roasted vegetables because I’m always trying to get more into me/us, and roasted vegetables are my favorite way to eat them.
Roasted Vegetables - can be tossed with olive oil and served with pasta; in a warm salad with young goat cheese; mixed into soups; folded into eggs; or used for Eggs In A Basket; stuffed into sandwiches with melted gruyere; puree into tomatoes for an awesome marinara; toasted into a quesadilla; pureed into a dip; and swirled into humus… … …
Vegetable Soup - for the next few days, add items to make it unique each time: fresh herbs and additions make it go from Mexican (black beans, corn, chipotle, scallions, cilantro), Minestrone (kidney beans, pasta, potato), Mexican Wedding (turkey meatballs, rice), Maryland Crab (tomato puree, crabmeat and garnish Old Bay; and whatever else. Get creative and use what you like and have.
Ice Ice Baby~
Okay, I’m sorry about the ear worm. I get it for a moment too, but after years of this song always coming into my head, I have developed an antidote - I turn it into Under Pressure by David Bowie. You’re welcome.
Freeze things in ice cube or jumbo muffin sizes and store in zippy bags (see my blog Waste Not! Just Eat It) You’ve got leftover stock, oven roasted vegetables, basil pesto, clean & dried fresh herbs in olive oil, all sorts of things. Now you can create quick sauces and sides with complexity, and in no time at all, because you knew what to do when you had leftover pizza sauce, mussel liquor, or wine (lol).
Add stock to rice to jazz it up
Roasted tomatoes with pesto and wine is now marinara sauce
Some of the same rules apply as do with not wasting food too. When you get home from the store or market, prep your food. Wash and dry greens, cut up cantaloupe, and portion out large volumes of meat into meal sized portions. This works well to keep from wasting food (easily grab a handful of clean and cut veg to throw into something), saving money (family sized portions are always less expensive than small portions), and it aids in smart snacking (a whole pineapple or watermelon doesn’t look like a snack to me, but a chore that will eventually result in a snack, so take care of it early, and be prepared for the munchies or filling lunch boxes).
What I'm doing now ~
Ice Ice Baby - I always, and always will make the ice cubes of sauces, herbs, stock, etc. It's just too practical not to do it!
Snack Attack - My father did this with celery sticks and carrots. I can't think of a time when I didnt have this going on, and don't want to! The kid is more likely to snack on produce if it's already cleaned, cut, and ready to pop into her mouth too!
Some Like it Hot - This happens at least a couple of times a month. It's nice to have a bit of homemade soup available, particularly when it also morphs up other leftovers. It's a win/win/win!
The Loan Wolf, Fresh - At the risk of sounding totally organized, which I'm totally NOT... Yes. I do this too. I make two egg sandwiches 3-4 mornings a week, and I wouldn't get the eggs I wanted if I had to do everything from scratch every single time. The others aren't as common in all honesty ;)
I will often post recipes that are particularly good for these meal planning concepts. You’ll be seeing recipes for them as I continue to write this blog. Here are a few meal ideas.
Butterflied Chicken (any kind of rub, sauce, or marinade) (I’m including one of my absolute favorites below) Enchiladas Lasagna Burgers (beef, bison, turkey, black bean, lentil, vegetable Breakfast Burritos Oven Roasted Vegetable Soup (see Autumn Oven Roasted Vegetable and Chicken Stew for a version of that from a few months ago) Ratatouille Chili Breakfast Bread Pudding
If you like the idea of “Taco Tuesday”, “Spaghetti Sunday”, and “Meatless Monday”, then go for it. Make meal planning work the way you want it. The way it works for you at the time. My hope is simply to make eating healthy attainable to more people.
I rarely post complicated recipes. We all need solid concepts with endless possibility in our culinary tool belts. You can use the overall concept with your own concoctions. This Butterflied and Roasted Chicken can be used with a locally made favorite marinade, seasonal herbs, berries, bbq sauce, and anything else you want. Knowing how to cook chicken in this manner is what is going to give you years of easy peasy chicken meals … that fit perfectly in a gallon sized zippy bag :)
Lemon Herb Chicken, Butterflied and Roasted
This is the most moist chicken you’ll ever eat, and the only time that the skin is equally delicious and desirable in my opinion - so crisp and flavorful - it’s irresistible!
The photo here is it cut in half again. I shouldn't have thought that half would have been enough though, we put that baby on an oak plank, and right on top of the hardwood coals, and I'll tell you what - it was off the HOOK!
Salt and oil the skin, and roast in a sauté pan @ 475 F for 3-40 minutes, depending on the size of the bird—you want the skin crisp and browned, and clear running juices. If it’s getting too dark, cover loosely with foil. When done, remove from the pan, cover with foil. Make Pan Sauce. Cut chicken, and serve with the pan sauce.
Butterfly a chicken by removing the spine (reserve for stock), snipping the breast cartilage, and removing it so you can open the bird up flat.
If you're making stock, clip off the wing tips
Place the bird in the skillet you'll be cooking in
Place bird in a heavy duty freezer zippy bag if you're storing
Combine Herb Marinade ingredients.
Herb Marinade 1 Tbs Rosemary 1 Tbs Thyme 1 Tbs Parsley 1 tsp Fresh Cracked Pepper 1/4 Cup Olive Oil 1 tsp Salt 1/2 Lemon, juice and zest 2 Cloves Garlic, crushed
Season under and on the skin with Herb Marinade.
If you're cooking it now, put it in the oven @ 425 degrees until the juices run clear. I like birds under 5# that are done in about 35 minutes.
If you're storing, seal up that zippy bag and file it away in the freezer.
If you're giving it to a friend, seal it up in a zippy bag with instructions to thaw it for a day in the fridge, place it in a preheated oven @ 425 degrees until the juices run clear.
Chicken Stock, if you're making it, and why wouldn't you want a nice homemade chicken stock on hand?!?! Place it in a pot, cover with water, and simmer: Chicken Parts Carrots Celery Onions Water Herb Stems
Perhaps you don't need a pan sauce, but if you've made stock, it's really easy, so consider it on occassion.
Spoon fat from the pan, place pan on burner @ medium heat, add about equal part flour. Add up to 1 Cup stock, scraping the drippings, cooking, and reducing for about 5 minutes. Taste and season with salt & pepper: Pan drippings Chicken Stock Sliced apricots Flour Salt & Pepper