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Monday, August 12, 2019

How I Menu Plan for Everyday Meals

I was thinking about how I menu plan and find inspiration for meals this morning and solidified some of my ideas. We all go through ruts in planning meals, so I thought by breaking my method down into concise steps, it might help someone else.

There seem to be 2 basic approaches to planning regular meals. One approach involves thinking of the meals you'd like to prepare and finding appropriate recipes, then making a shopping list to purchase the foods that required. This sort of menu planning approach is most often done on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The other approach flips these processes, so that the individual responsible for planning meals first stocks the food storage, then plans from what is abundant at home. To do this economically, one stocks up on basic ingredients when found on sale, making sure to have an adequate supply of the majority of ingredients that would go into the family's favorite meals.

Both approaches might use weekly circulars, either for inspiration or making up the shopping list. Both approaches can be money-savers. Both approaches can result in tasty meals that satisfy the family. And both approaches are lightyears better than the haphazard approach of "gee, what would we like to eat this week? I'll just figure that out when I'm at the store."

I'm attracted to both approaches for their different merits. Menu planning a week or more in advance satisfies my desire to control future events and feel more organized. Stocking the kitchen before planning appeals to my creative side -- the side that loves a challenge, loves taking 5 seemingly unrelated ingredients and making a tasty meal from them.

I tend to favor the second approach -- stocking the kitchen the planning meals a day or two in advance.

The second approach has a longer tradition in food preparation. In early human development, there wasn't the option to plan ahead what you might want to eat and then go out and acquire those foods. Your meals revolved around what you were lucky enough to obtain. In agrarian times, those obtainable foods were seasonal, tied to harvest and animal slaughter and preservation seasons. Whatever kept the longest was what you had to work with in late winter through spring.

1) Surpluses to inspire a meal plan
While I don't have to rely on ancient food preservation techniques, I do tend to think of what I have in surplus. By surplus, I mean fitting one of two descriptions. Surplus could mean I simply have a lot of the one ingredient, and by a lot I mean more than enough to last several weeks. Surplus can also mean that whatever amount I have currently will not keep very long and so is surplus in the sense that I have so much of the ingredient in a fragile state that it will spoil unless it is used in every or near every meal in the immediate future. It is surplus relative to its lifespan. I may not know what ingredients are surplus more than a few days out at a time. With a garden, a surplus can surprise me overnight. In addition, a great sale on peanut butter can also surprise me without warning. My primary shopping motivation is to buy as much as possible at the lowest possible price. As a result, I typically stock up wildly when I see a stellar deal.

So, step one in my meal planning is to survey my ingredients for surpluses.

2) Thinking of food groups
Step two involves identifying some basic food groups amongst the surpluses. When planning a dinner, I try to incorporate 1 protein source (or a combination of protein sources that will equal a serving of protein), 1 grain or starchy vegetable, and 2 fruit and/or vegetable servings. I don't adhere to this rigidly. If we have a quiche that has a grain-based crust plus rice, that's fine. We could also have an entree-sized salad that was heavier on the produce and lighter on grains or starches. And once in a while we have a "fun" meal of hot dogs or burgers and fried potatoes or chips, no fruits or vegetables. In the overall scheme of our diet, these meals are okay, as we generally eat pretty healthy. But anyway, this is the second step, finding the ingredients that will fill the protein, grain/starch, and produce requirements amongst the surpluses in my stock.

3) Using ethnic/period cuisine to help put the ingredients all together
The third step is where some thinking comes in -- how to put these assorted ingredients together in a pleasing way. Since our family enjoys foods from a variety of cuisines, I tend to think ethnic when it comes to planning dinner. We enjoy Italian, Mexican, Greek, Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and perhaps not ethnic but period, early American. In my mind, I'll run through the different possibilities with my identified surplus ingredients, and think of some of my family's favorite ways to eat those foods. Sometimes the ingredients lend themselves to particular ethnic cuisines, such as snow peas and Asian dishes or avocado and Tex-Mex meals. Other times, the ingredients are a little more ambiguous. Pureed pumpkin could be made into something period or regional American, like pie or a sweet souffle. Or, pumpkin can be the basis of a Mexican or Latin soup, with the addition of cumin, peppers and corn. I also like pumpkin as the base for an Italian pasta sauce, adding garlic, sage, and Italian sausage. If I was in the mood for an Asian meal, I could also use pumpkin cut into thin slices and added to a stir-fry. Often times, making a particular ingredient work for a specific cuisine is just a matter of using the seasonings that I find in other foods of that cuisine. I know from experience that chili powder and cumin work well in Mexican meals. So, if I take whatever surplus food that I have and treat it with with those seasonings, there's a good chance I'll have something that resembles foods from that ethnicity. Same thing with Asian meals. If I add garlic, soy sauce, ginger, and maybe a pinch of sugar, my meal will taste somewhat Asian. These meals won't be "authentic," but we're just talking about family suppers where authenticity doesn't matter nearly as much as tasty.

Here's an example from my life: we currently have a surplus of eggs (bought 15 dozen in a case a week ago), rice (bought in a 25-lb bag a couple of months ago), tomato paste (was frozen once already and has been thawed and in the fridge for over a week, so needs using ASAP), kale in the garden, and foraged blackberries. When one item seems unrelated to the others significantly enough than flavors would just no go, I separate out that one item and serve it on its own. In this case, it's the blackberries. I don't think the blackberries would go well in a main-dish prepared with the rest of the ingredients. So, I could serve the blackberries as dessert, like topped with honey or sweetened yogurt. That leaves me with eggs, rice, tomato paste, and kale. My family enjoys even-baked frittatas and they are easy for me to make. (I saute whatever veggies I have and put into a buttered pie plate along with beaten, salted eggs and milk, then bake in a low oven for half an hour. Cut in wedges and serve.) So a kale and onion frittata that is seasoned with salt and garlic will fill both a protein and vegetable need. Since I have tomato paste needing to be used, I'll make a quick tomato sauce with water, garlic, salt, and oregano to spoon over the top of the frittata in the last 10 minutes of baking -- bonus on the veggies with this meal. I have lots of rice. I also have 2 new loaves of French bread. I consider the rice more of a surplus ingredient because I have more rice than we can consume in the next several weeks. Whereas with the bread, it would take me additional labor to add to our bread supply when we run out in a few days. Even though we have a lot of the ingredients to make more bread, I factor in the labor that is required. So, although we enjoy bread more than rice, I tend to include a lot of rice in our meals because it is easy on my labor. This is my meal plan for tonight. I really love Italian cuisine, so my inspiration for using my ingredients comes from Italy. I serve something similar to this almost every week. It's an easy meal for me to think of and takes relatively little hands-on time  to prepare.

Here's another example from my life: we also have a surplus of beans and lentils, barley, carrots, garden kale, blackberries, plus the above-mentioned tomato paste. There was leftover cooked barley and lentils in the fridge from a previous night, both of which needed using soon. It was my husband's night to cook and his cooking skills and ambition are more limited than mine, so he chose to make a soup as the entree. He combined cooked lentils and barley with tomato paste, water, chopped carrots, onions, garlic, and Italian herbs/spices (oregano, basil, red pepper flakes), and salt and made a very respectable soup. He served this with fresh blackberries sprinkled with sugar and leftover pita bread. I'd say this was a Mediterranean-inspired meal with a PNW dessert.

Here's one last example from my real life: Asian-style ham and egg fried rice, using surplus cabbage, garden snow peas, garden garlic, leftover brown rice, and ham from Easter, plus blackberry pie. The day that we had this meal, I had a surplus of previously-frozen eggs (now thawed and on their last day or two), leftover brown rice, an aging head of cabbage, and a whole bunch of snow peas in the garden, plus the usual bucket of blackberries. When I have eggs that need using plus leftover rice, I usually think of fried rice. It's an easy one-dish meal to prepare -- throw everything into a skillet and just like that, you have dinner. When I'm experiencing a drought of ideas for dinners, fried rice is one of the first meals I think of. On this day, since I knew that throwing together the main dish would be easy, I  was able to focus my kitchen time on baking a pie. I satisfied everyone.

While I've identified two different approaches to meal planning, these two don't need to be exclusive. A lot of people use a hybrid approach. They keep most of the basics in stock at all times, but use flyers and cookbooks to plan a week's or month's worth of meals before making a shopping list. They will look at their current stock in addition to what they find on sale or determine what they need for particular dishes. I do this occasionally, too. I may have a particular recipe that I want to make or we may have a celebratory meal in our week, so I'll think of the foods I want to make, then add the ingredients that I am lacking to my grocery list. The hybrid approach can provide increased variety to the week or specialness to a single meal. We are blessed to live in a time that a hybrid approach is possible. We have salaries that allow for the purchase of ingredients (instead of relying solely on what you can produce for yourself), we have retail outlets that stock a variety of foods year round, and we have a constant flow of information that exposes us to lots of new ideas for meals. When you pair these with the relatively new concept, the warehouse store, large quantities of any ingredient can be had at a discount, leading to many people unintentionally or intentionally stocking up on the basics and giving them some surpluses in their kitchen stock. This is a blessed time and place for meal options.

Anyways, these thoughts were jumbled in my mind and I thought I'd share them, like I said, in case my thoughts can help someone else, or in case my thoughts could spur more discussion on the topic. Speaking of food and meals, I need to eat some lunch! Have a good rest of your day!


  1. I also love the challenge of feeding my family with ingredients that I have on hand. My son teases me about that - trying so hard not to waste anything. That's ok - I can live with that. I remember Amy D. writing about that concept years ago and I've always remembered it. We are blessed to have so much variety in spices and herbs and information to create tasty food out of basic ingredients. I appreciate your tips and experiences and have incorporated many into my routine. One question - you have mentioned several times about using chutney. What do you use it in? I have made relishes, jams, sauces, etc. but not chutney.

  2. Hi Ruthie,
    I use chutney in curries and curried salads. My mom used to make a really delicious chicken salad that had cooked chicken, mayonnaise, celery, chopped almonds, raisins, a little curry powder, and chutney. It was one of my favorite things that she made and wonderful for a hot, summer day as it can be made in the morning, then chill all afternoon. When we have a hot curry dish, I will usually add a bit of chutney to the dish, then pass the chutney so everyone can have some on the side or mix some in to sweeten/flavor to their taste. It's like having cranberry sauce on the side with turkey. Chutney is also good on meat sandwiches. I spread it on top of mayo on the bread, then add chicken or turkey. You could use chutney as a condiment on the table when serving a plain meal. It adds the flavor of sweet and spice. It's delicious, I think. Do you have favorite must-do relishes, jams, or sauces that you make?

  3. How do you freeze eggs? I enjoy your blog you make me think of things in a different way.

  4. Hi Bobbe,
    Basically, I beat eggs with a little salt or sugar, then freeze in 3, 4, 5 or 6 egg portions -- the amount I would likely use within 3 or 4 days. I will sometimes freeze individual eggs in a muffin tin, but lately I haven't had time for that and just freeze several at a time in plastic containers. To use the eggs, thaw in the fridge overnight and measure out 3 to 4 tablespoons per each egg that you need. If you're freezing with the salt addition, make a little adjustment in your recipe for the salty eggs. Here's a post from several years ago that explains the ration of salt or sugar to eggs. The salt or sugar helps stabilize the yolk in freezing.

    Freezing Eggs Now to Use in Cooking Later

    Hope this helps, Bobbe.

  5. We I was growing up, my sister and I cooked most of our suppers from middle school on because both of my parents were working long hours to help us make ends meet. My mother told us a basic rule when preparing a meal, that sounds a lot like what you said. She said each time we needed a meat, starch, yellow vegetable, and a green vegetable. My father was a farm boy, so we had milk to drink at every meal. That was back in the meat and potato days, so we said meat instead of protein.

    Today we also try to balance things, but as you said, that it's more an average than with each meal. Also, we use more of the hybrid approach here for meal planning.

    What I think you do best is step number three trying to make each meal special and varied for your family. That is evident when you post what you've eaten for the week. I've said it before and I"ll say it again, your family is very lucky to have you.

  6. I enjoyed reading about your process. Another long-time reader of the Tightwad Gazette here who semi follows the "pantry principle" though I've evolved to more of a hybrid approach, I think. We purchase a side of beef yearly from a man at my husband's church. Then this past fall, my husband also harvested a deer, so we have some venison as well. We've tried buying pork this way as well but haven't found a place to do that from consistently, so tend to fill in with pork and chicken (and turkey!) from the store to stretch the beef/venison usage out over the course of a year.

    Until a few weeks ago, we'd had chickens for many years for eggs. But, decided to simplify and no longer keep chickens.

  7. Hi live and learn,
    A friend of mine had the same experience as you and your sister, with making dinner every night because she was the only one home in the afternoon. Families do what needs to be done.
    Your mom's instruction sounds a lot like the 4 food groups., which fortunately for us growing up when we did, were a lot easier to remember than the food pyramid.
    Thank you for the nice comment. I needed that today! :-)

  8. Hi Cat,
    wow, you've got a lot of your meat pretty much taken care of. That must be a good feeling. I've been considering hens. What do you think was the downside to keeping chickens for the eggs? And are you still keeping a garden?
    I can understand wanting to simplify some things.

  9. Lili,

    We had chickens for eggs for about 10 years. The kids rotated through being responsible for the daily feeding and changing out of water. I had some testing done at a holistic medical practice I started going to several months ago, and it indicated that eggs are not something I should be eating a lot of. And once I wasn't eating them much, my family didn't eat them much, either. So it seemed like we were spending more on keeping chickens than the amount of eggs we eat are worth.

    I still have the garden area, but didn't plant this spring. We have some things that produce anyway (asparagus, apples, peaches). I've been doing a lot of backpacking and was also working quite a bit (Valentine's was a busy time period, for instance, in the floral business). I do have green beans, zucchini, and squash planted for fall harvest and will probably add some lettuces and greens when (IF?) it ever cools down a bit.

  10. Cat said...
    . . . it seemed like we were spending more on keeping chickens than the amount of eggs we eat are worth.

    Hi Cat,
    I've often wondered if it would be financially advantageous to keep a few hens, or if it would wind of costing more than the eggs we'd get. Maybe along the lines of pets with benefits.
    It sounds like you still have quite a bit growing, considering you didn't plant in spring. That's great!


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