Welcome and thanks for dropping by Next Week’s Dinner. This blog is for anyone who has ever arrived home after a busy workday (in my case, as a full-time cookbook editor and sometime author), opened the fridge at 5:15 pm and not had a clue what to cook for dinner for their ravenous family (my beloveds are a 6 ft 2 husband and two 5-and-under children) – all by the magic hour of 6:00 pm. Or for anyone who has just fed their cupboards, fridge and freezer after a couple-of-hundred-dollar grocery shop and thought, ‘there’s nothing to eat’.
Why (and How) Meal Planning Saves my Bacon
The blog documents the prosaic reality of how, after decades of placing meal planning in the same heinous food crimes category as: sun-dried tomatoes; sweet chilli sauce; salad dressing in a jar/bottle; cheese not found in the refrigerator section of the supermarket; salad without dressing (I still have flashbacks from preschool) and peanut and coriander ‘pesto’, I’ve come to embrace it like it’s the greatest thing since, well, organic spelt sliced bread.
On the spontaneity–stress-relief continuum, meal planning literally saves my bacon every week. But, there are a couple of rules (blame the editor in me):
- I’m not a short-order cook – It’s challenging enough cooking a fresh, from-scratch meal each night in 45 minutes from door to table, so there is no way I’m cooking separate kids’ meals. This means that we have less spice (and more cheese) than I’d prefer, but it also means we all (largely) eat the same thing.
- There is no such thing as ‘kids’ food’ in my kitchen – In fact, although my 3-year old manages to live in a world primarily consisting of three food groups (carbs, meat and fruit), it is often the 6 ft 2” husband that is the fussiest eater of all (he of the no-meat-with-bones/ pepper-is-too-hot school of thought). Just because I have vowed to cook only one meal each night, this does not mean being relegated to a culinary landscape of macaroni cheese, pizza faces and fish fingers. Conversely, it also means a world without a lot of curry (although, through trial and error, I’ve found that Middle Eastern/Moroccan flavours are an excellent middle ground in the spice wars and, if all else fails, there’s always sriracha sauce, sambal oelek and my Uncle Richard’s supersonic homemade chilli sauce for my plate).
- We all sit down at the dining room table and eat together every night (excluding those rare occasions when one of us adults gets to play outside for the night). Answering, ‘So how was your day?’ is mandatory.
- Rules are made to be broken – Hell, if my train is cancelled (thanks Cityrail!) it might just be that we eat pasta on Thursday night instead of Friday, or say there’s a school event in the middle of the week, I may just dish up the re-purposed Sunday night leftovers then instead of on Monday. Living on the edge, I know…
- The time/money cost-benefit analysis (see, I did once study economics at uni) – As the blogosphere will tell you, meal planning is not just about saving time it is also about saving money. Nothing wrong with that.
- The Saturday morning shop – The whole system is predicated on planning and getting the shopping done by Saturday morning. Then, with all the meals for the week sketched out and the necessary shopping done, it’s easy to introduce planned flexibility by mixing and matching up the nights as circumstances arise (yes, that means you, Cityrail).
- Sometimes the meal planning and shopping work in reverse – Say we manage to make it to Eveleigh Markets and I find something that I just have to take home, then I buy what ever I like the look (and price) of, then plan the meals in reverse. We always have the basics like pasta, rice, condiments etc to hand, so it’s just a matter of buying the protein and fresh fruit, veg and herbs for the week. It’s really not the end of the world to do it the other way around (despite what the personal finance/ frugality bloggers would say).
My Meal Planning ‘Philosophy’
I don’t think that eating healthily and well is about spending a lot of money. Part of respecting your ingredients and the resources that have gone into growing, harvesting, packaging, transporting and selling them is to use them wisely and use them all. Call it the thrifty Chinese gene that my cousin Lilli reckons hits every second member of our family, but I can’t bear to throw out good food. It pains me to do so. Luckily I have our next-door neighbours’ chooks to feed whatever scraps don’t go into the compost bin or to my two King Charles Cavalier spaniels (I have even been known to get a bit obsessive about this, packaging up leftovers from dinner in a Thai restaurant with friends and asking for colleagues lunch scraps – seems that my compulsion to feed extends beyond people to chickens!).
This is where planning your meals in advance and shopping from your pantry, fridge and freezer first are as much about saving resources as they are about saving time. So, if I use half a carton of pouring cream on Saturday night, I’ll include say a cream-based pasta sauce in that week’s rotation, and if I’ve bought coriander to make pot-roasted chermoula chicken on Sunday night, then I’ll use the rest in a marinade for chicken destined for the wok or a Thai-style pork omelette before it has the chance to go to herb heaven.
It is also why I take a lot of inspiration in the kitchen from the great cucina povera culinary traditions of Italy, Greece, the Middle East, China and North and Southeast Asia. Grass-fed beef goes a lot further in a stir-fry or casserole. I only buy organic, free-range chicken and eggs, grass-fed meat and dairy, organic spelt bread (again, no folic acid fortification), sustainable fish and the hit list high-pesticide fruits and vegetables, then I use them all, with meat more often than not a supplement to rather than focus of the meal. This is where the cucina povera approach to cooking really comes into its own.
The Meal Plan
With all of this in place, a week’s worth of dinners looks something like this:
Saturday: this is ‘try something new’ night. This is where I get to take the time to cook for pleasure, experimenting with ideas I’ve wanted to try, actually cook form my gazillion cookbooks (like I had planned to do when I was on maternity leave with my first child – haha!) or, these days more often than not, cook from something that’s inspired me in the blogosphere. It’s also when I’d generally cook fish and seafood, or anything involving more than 45 minutes total prep/cooking time or requiring bunches of fresh herbs. I’ve been on an anti-folic acid fortified commercial bread tangent lately, so it’s when I’ll try my hand at homemade tortillas, pita bread and yeasted breads. Still not brave enough to give ‘birth’ to a sourdough starter, but one day…
Sunday: Cook once/eat twice. As a matter of happenstance, the types of dishes that are most suitable for cooking once and repurposing to serve another way are also those that take the longest to cook, making them perfect Sunday night fare (think roasts, braises, casseroles and stews). It takes no longer to cook a pig pot of goulash or dried beans, so why not do double? So far, it’s working for me.
Monday: Sunday night take two. Not much to say here really than that this is all about minimum effort for maximum reward in the kitchen. Also works for us as one Monday night per month is occupied by the school P&C meeting, so dinner definitely has to be done and dusted by 6:25 pm.
Tuesday: Stir-fry/noodles/ rice. I guess this is really an Asian food night where I’ll cook the Cantonese-style comfort food of my childhood, or go with Vietnamese, Thai or Japanese flavours that I love. It’s also early in the shop so a good time to use up herbs and Asian greens purchased on Saturday before they get past it.
Wednesday: Protein –plus. I guess this is really what would have you’re your ‘meat-and-three-veg’ night of the past, but hell, I LOVE mashed potato and a nice bit of steak (and what kid doesn’t love sausages?). Or a panko-crumbed pork schnitzel with Japanese-style potato salad and coleslaw, for that matter.
Thursday: Veg/egg/pulses night – just because it’s good to mix things up a little – for the budget, our health and, dare I be political, the planet. For some reason, though, fritters and cheese (and cheesy fritters) do seem to feature rather heavily!
Friday: Pasta. I’m a huge fan of pasta sauces that are made in the time it takes for the water to boil and the pasta to cook. Plus, this storecupboard staple-based meal is perfect for the night before the next big shop of fresh ingredients makes it home. It’s also a good way to use up all the bibs and bobs lurking about in the fridge, such as half-used cartons of cream, bits of veg and ends of speck or bacon, plus I stockpile organic tomato passata and have tins of anchovies and tuna on standby, plus a wedge of Parmigiano has permanent residency status in my fridge, so it’s a no-brainer. It’s also not too daunting a prospect when I have the end of the week blaahs and takeaway menus come a beckoning…
So, that’s it for now. In the coming months I’ll also be sharing meal plans from fellow meal-planning friends, and will update every Saturday with a rundown on next weeks’ dinners.
Please feel free to join the meal-planning fun and post your own weekly (fortnightly or monthly, if you are that organised) meal plans to share with us.
If you’d like to check out my first cookbook (on my own), which documents the food I ate when I was pregnant with both of my kids, here’s the link to the Penguin website: http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780670073092/eating-two-simply-delicious-recipes-happy-healthy-pregnancy