How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Menu Planning Made Easy

menu planning, how to plan a menuIt’s been a while since I’ve done a cooking blog post, but I’m still very interested in teaching folks how to cook, rather than simply follow recipes. Which is why I’m looking at menu planning today.

Here’s the thing – there are lots of reasons not to cook for yourself. Certainly, there are tons of good services out there, some that won’t expand your waistline too badly. But there are more reasons to do the cooking yourself. You reduce waste, you keep better control of what goes into your food and, hence, onto your hips, it’s a great family activity. I could go on. But let’s assume that you’ve already decided that you need to cook more at home. Where and how to begin?

That’s where menu planning comes in. Having a plan makes it a lot easier to come home and start cooking, maybe after a short rest or other decompression ritual. On the other hand, if you come home at a dead heat and find that all you have in your fridge is a pound of frozen chicken breasts and no clue what you were going to do with them, then it’s all too easy to hit the drive-thru again. Also, if you have a plan and you forgot to get the chicken breasts out of the freezer, you can still cook because tomorrow night’s dinner is a salad and all you have to do is put the chicken breasts in the fridge, then make the salad, instead.

A menu plan, basically, plots out a week or more worth of dinners (and lunches and breakfasts, if you want to go that far), so that you can go to the grocery store once a week or so, instead of daily. You don’t need anything fancier than a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. I have used calendar pages in the past – they worked great. But now I use a Google calendar, which means I can look up what’s for dinner before I get home, or if I see something at the supermarket that might work well with what I’ve chosen for a dinner. There are apps that will help you with this but in my experience, they’re very tied to using recipes – which we are trying not to use here – and you have to game them to get a simple list of items you want to prepare. Seriously, you don’t need a recipe for a basic side salad, and if the app is going to insist that you use one, why mess with it?

Menu planning steps

It always helps to start menu planning by looking through your fridge and pantry to see what’s already there. I’ll often write down a list of which veggies didn’t get used up the week before, and maybe thumb through the freezer compartment to see what meats I’ve already got and need using. I also think about the rhythm and flow of my week. For example, in the picture below, you’ll note there are no entries for Tuesday and Thursday nights. We’re not going to be home those nights, so no point in planning a meal. (I also tend just to plan dinners, though I should plan lunches, as well). Sunday nights, I like to have something a little more special and since we have a tradition of the Mid-Week Break, Wednesday nights are generally going to be a bit more involved and/or special.

menu planning, how to plan a menu

Next step is figuring out what goes where. Now, if I’m using a piece of paper that doesn’t already have the days of the week on it, I write them in. Sundays also have the advantage of generally being more open time-wise, so I’ll often cook a roast or a whole chicken or something fairly large so that I can use the leftovers during the week. Usually, that’s just sandwiches or chicken salad, but that also means another meal on the menu that I can schedule and not think about. Or a couple lunches. Most meals in our household involve a protein and two vegetables (side salads count as one veggie). For example, if I’m making lentil chili, I’ll either count the lentils as a protein and/or add some cheese. Then I’ll chop up a veggie or two to cook as part of the chili. Or we’ll have a bit of roasted pork tenderloin, with broccoli and salad, and maybe some sweet potato oven fries as an extra treat. You’ll note protein does not necessarily mean meat. I’ll often use high-protein grains or legumes instead, and I don’t often combine meat with high-protein grains. It’s not necessary.

Now, if you’re not certain what you want to cook, you can look through your cookbooks or online for ideas. There’s nothing wrong with using recipes, especially if you’re new to cooking. Just be aware that it’s a lot easier for something to go awry, such as forgetting to put a key ingredient on the shopping list.

After that, it’s just a matter of plugging in what goes where. So, say that bit of roasted pork tenderloin is scheduled for Sunday. There will be leftovers, which can become Cuban sandwiches on Thursday, along with some coleslaw and green beans. We try to practice Meatless Mondays and also abstain from meat on Fridays, and it looks like the weather is going to be fairly warm Monday, so I’ll throw together a gazpacho for that night, and gee, grilled cheese sandwiches sound good for Friday, maybe with a cucumber salads, since I’m doing coleslaw the night before. That leaves Wednesday… Hmm. Haven’t done a chicken piccata in a while. That sounds yummy and with my beloved and I working together, not nearly as much trouble. That leaves Tuesday. We’ve done chicken and pork. Maybe a skillet lasagna, with spinach and chopped kale (the two veggies) for Tuesday. Boom. We’re done.

Now, all I have to do is look over my menu, figure out what I need to buy, put it all on the grocery list and go shopping. But that’s next month’s post.

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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