The following 101 comes from HOMEGROWN earth mama Cornelia, a familiar face to most folks around here and a woman who knows good food. Thanks so much, Cornelia. We all eat better because of you!
Meal planning is something I started doing on a weekly basis once our son began daycare—not because I felt the need to be a black-belt parent, but because it made life easier. We chose the daycare we did for a lot of reasons, one being that we could control the food he ate while there. That, of course, means we pack up his lunch and two snacks every day. With everything I want to accomplish in an ordinary day, I clearly needed to start writing some of it down.
1. First I look at the week’s schedule. Am I solo parenting any night? Will I be going to yoga class? Are the ever-helpful grandparents in town? Is it grilling weather?
2. Then I look in the freezer and the pantry to see what I can build off of. This week, for example, I’ve decided to finally defrost those packages of squid I thought I was so clever for buying … last November. A new challenge will present itself once our CSA starts up in June. It will mean a different type of planning, more about pantry staples and improvisation. Plus, I’ll need some extra time to prep and catalog* everything before stuffing it all in the fridge.
3. Then I go to Pinterest. I keep all of my recipes and toddler-friendly meal ideas there on a board marked, uh, “Recipes.”
4. What follows is part art, part science. I ask: What components of a recipe can I prepare on Sunday for later in the week? How much time do I have to make dinner that night, usually while entertaining/wrangling a toddler boy? Will dinner tonight be good for his lunch box tomorrow?
5. Then I plot it all out in a simple Excel spreadsheet, make a shopping list, print it, and pin it inside the kitchen cabinet where my husband can see it, too. Weekends are a bit looser, mostly because we don’t need to pack for daycare. The image below is an example from this week; you can download the full version as a PDF and tweak it for your own household.
6. I try to go grocery shopping once a week, although running out of bananas is a Code Orange in our house and warrants an immediate extra trip. My favorite time to go shopping is 8 a.m. on Sunday, when shelves are well stocked and the store is relatively quiet.
*Oh, yeah: That’s a trick I learned a few years back. Have a white board or chalkboard in the kitchen for cataloging everything you receive in a given week’s share, then cross it off once you’ve eaten it. That way, when you’re cooking on the fly, you know what you’ve got to work with. It’s a life—and rot—saver!
MY GO-TO RECIPES
I guess I should say here that I only cook from scratch, using whole, organic, local, and in-season ingredients whenever possible. The quality and safety of the food I feed my family is of utmost importance to me, so no canned soup recipes here! A heat-and-eat meal made and frozen on Sunday often makes weeknights easier, but some days I have more time for chopping and cooking. Except in rare instances, leftovers are a requirement for all dinners.
1. Lasagna: It’s amazing what nutrient-rich vegetables I can pack in between noodles and cheese. Pureed squash, stewed greens, grilled eggplant, shredded zucchini—any other ideas? Husband and boy devour every version.
2. Kale pesto: Yup, more veggies and noodles. Typically eaten by the fistful.
3. Crepes: This is one of those two-hands-necessary meals, so I plan this for nights that my husband is home early from work. I stuff them with a stronger cheese, like Gruyère, thinly sliced ham, and steamed spinach (frozen organic chopped spinach is a standard in my freezer), then slice them into rounds.
4. Whole roast chicken: The simplest comfort meal ever. Also means leftovers and soup!
5. Calzones: See lasagna above—but these are like a veggie pizza, folded up!
6. Enchiladas: See lasagna and calzones above. I don’t know how I would feed my family without the help of cheese, honestly.
Got a question for Cornelia? Another menu-planning tool to share? A great source for easy weeknight recipes? Post a comment below and keep the conversation rolling. You might also join the Recipe Sharing group, browse the CSA Cookoff and HOME Cooked recipe files, and peruse (and suggest!) food producers and suppliers for the Find Good Food page. You can always find more things to cook, preserve, plant, grow, make, craft, and simmer in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
ALL IMAGES: CORNELIA