Simplified Meal Planning

Simplified Meal Planning

I have always enjoyed putting together weekly meal plans or planning out a themed meal with recipes that complement each other.  In fact, this activity was the initial inspiration for Cozy Cuisines, the personal chef service that I started with my friend and fellow lover of food.  We used to plan out these elaborate meals and choose several recipes that we thought would go well together and then get together on a weeknight after work and cook it all together over a bottle of red wine.  It felt so rewarding to be able to start with this seemingly random pile of groceries and turn it into a delicious meal.  I still love that feeling!


So even after the Cozy Cuisines era came to an end and I was no longer preparing large quantities of food for other families, I continued on as a personal chef of sorts for my own growing family.  And I still love providing healthy and delicious meals for people.  I think it comes from my partly Italian mother to whom FOOD = LOVE.  <3  However, the constant demands of parenting small children and running a household can interfere with my idea of “from scratch” cooking.  In an effort to make everything fit into a busy family schedule, meal preparation can often take a backseat and we end up serving prepared meals out of a box in order to get food on the table.  I recognize that there is a time and place for such options and I certainly use this when necessary.  But I have found that regular meal planning (I do mine once a week and I know others who do it once a month) can greatly reduce the reliance on prepared foods and quick-fix dinners. 


For what it’s worth, here is my simplified method of seasonal meal planning…


Once per week (usually on a weeknight because I find weekends to be too chaotic and unpredictable), I sit down with my recipe binder, my cookbooks, my favorite food blogs and our calendar and I plan out our dinners for the following week.  During the growing season, I might also have a sticky note with a list of the fresh produce already in our fridge or in our garden or on the way from our weekly CSA pick-up or available at the local farmers’ markets.  In the old days, I would then sift through countless recipes in my cookbooks or online and choose mostly brand new recipe combinations for each night of the week.  As you can probably imagine, this would take me hours to figure out – not to mention the time it took to then prepare these elaborate recipes at dinner time.  Not exactly sustainable when you only have approximately 1.1 hours per week available to you for any and all quiet, uninterrupted activity. 


After reading a book called Simplicity Parenting, I switched it up a bit and now we have a weekly meal schedule that goes like this:

SUNDAYS – grilling night in the summer, soup/stew night in the winter
MONDAYS – pasta night
TUESDAYS – stir fry night (or a rice-based dish)
WEDNESDAYS – soup or seafood night
THURSDAYS – salad or frittata night
FRIDAYS – pizza night
SATURDAYS – wild card or “try a new recipe” night


Even on the busiest of weeks, this new planning method allows me to take any fresh produce that is in the fridge and throw it into the menu in a quick and easy manner. 


[On Sunday, we might thaw out some chicken and grill it up with some fresh zucchini.  On Monday, I might just toss some pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil and some mozzarella.  On Tuesday, I might chop up some peppers and onions and mushrooms and thaw out some chip steak and stir fry it all up to serve over brown rice.  On Wednesday, I might thaw out some salmon and grill or broil it and serve it with some quinoa and some fresh green beans.  On Thursday, I might throw together a frittata with garlic and green onions and bacon and potatoes and cheddar cheese.  On Friday, I might chop up the leftover grilled chicken and make a homemade BBQ sauce and have a BBQ chicken pizza.  On Saturday, I might try out the latest recipe that I saw on My New Roots or 100 Days of Real Food.]


These are mostly summer ideas coming to mind right now because I’m writing this in the heat of summer.  But you can imagine how you could do the same thing with seasonal produce in the spring, fall, or winter. 


Once I have my plan in place, I record it in a document on my computer where I can refer back to it throughout the week to remind myself of what’s for dinner each night.  In addition, I also keep a handwritten piece of note paper on my bulletin board that lists any individual action items for each day of the week.  For example, I might need to thaw two pounds of chicken on Monday, soak one cup of black beans on Tuesday night, cook the beans on Wednesday morning, etc.  Many times, I even do all of the chopping required for a meal either the night before when the kids are in bed or early in the morning when things are still going relatively well in the sibling fighting arena or during naptime for our youngest son.  [Also, I LOVE slow cooker meals because it shifts the emphasis on cooking to the night before or the morning of rather than during that horrible last hour of the day before dinner when everyone is tired and hungry and cranky and generally out of patience.]  When the cooking tasks are broken up and recorded as daily reminders for me, it helps me to manage my time better and allows us to eat fresher, healthier options instead of just grabbing for something already prepared and loaded with preservatives or additives.


I realize that not everyone may be as interested in cooking or as obsessed with planning as I am but I hope that anyone would be able to take something away from this meal planning method and be able to simplify their lives.  The main points to keep in mind are:

  1. Planning ahead eliminates the stressed and rushed feeling of “What’s for dinner?!” and allows you to be more conscious of what ingredients are included in your meals.
  2. Planning the meals on a weekly or monthly basis can help you to rotate the individual ingredients (meats, grains, veggies, etc), which will give your body a break from too much of things that may be harder to process in large or consistent quantities, such as red meat or wheat or dairy.  You can also be more intentional about doing things like having a meatless meal once or twice a week.
  3. Having a basic outline of nightly themes (pasta night, pizza night, etc) takes a lot of the guesswork or research out of the planning process for you.  [I am working on reorganizing my recipe binder into pasta recipes, rice-based recipes, seafood recipes, etc to make it even easier for me to quickly choose my recipes for the week.]
  4. Having designated “nights” for your weekly menu outline can add some consistency and dependableness to your lives that you and your kids will find refreshing and comforting at the same time.  [Now when the kids ask me “What’s for dinner?”, I can quickly and confidently respond with “Today is Monday so it’s pasta night!” and I get a lot less complaints about the menu because it’s sort of just the way things are in our household.]
  5. Breaking each dinner into manageable steps throughout the day or week will help you to have a timely dinner on the table without feeling rushed in the end.


I do realize that although I call this a “Simplified Meal Planning” method, it may be way more complicated than what you are currently doing.  I guess I called it that because this is what I arrived at after years of trying too hard and acting as though I were planning out the menu for a gourmet restaurant rather than a family of five where anything resembling gourmet would be lost on our children. 


However, if even this feels like too much for you to start with, some things that can help you to implement this meal planning method are to make sure you set aside time every week for meal planning (20-30 minutes would be great!), regularly stock your fridge and pantry with fresh produce and other basic ingredients that you will need for your favorite recipes, keep your freezer stocked with meats and seafood packaged in the quantities that you need for one meal, and start a collection of family favorite recipes that you can flip through every week and pick out what works best for that time of year and your weekly schedule.  Trust me, a half hour of meal planning will be time well spent and will make the rest of your week go so much more smoothly! 


Good luck and good eating!

eat local or organic?

Eat Local or Organic?

Which is more important, eating local or organic?  This question has been asked so many times over recent years and has many different answers, depending on who you ask.  Even though you may not have asked, here is my version of an answer to this question.


The short answer is: ORGANIC.  The long answer is: local but only if you can find a local source that grows their food using organic practices.  If you can find both, that is the best possible source of food for you and your family.  A local farmer who may not necessarily be certified organic but follows organic farming practices such as not using pesticides or antibiotics or growth hormones.  This is the ideal.  If this is not possible, I think it is actually more important to support organic than local.  After all, local chemical farming still pollutes the earth and increases our carbon footprint and energy usage.  Organic foods are cleaner, healthier, safer, and taste better than those that are farmed or raised with chemicals.  Organic farming is more productive than chemical farming and can help clean up the planet at the same time.  Don’t get me wrong, I firmly and consistently support our local farmers and our local economy whenever possible.  I believe this to be an important step to healing much of what is broken and hurting in our society today.  However, what ultimately convinced me to value organic over local sources was the fact that organic farming has the ability to pull excess carbon out of the air (of which we have too much of right now and, ironically, is largely attributed to chemical farming and the mass production of meat, both of which you could be avoiding by choosing to buy organic) and fix the carbon in the soil (where we do not have enough of it right now because of chemical farming processes that deplete the soil of its nutrients).  So much so that it would offset any carbon footprint that was created during the transport of this organic food around the world to your grocery store (this same carbon footprint had previously swayed me towards favoring local foods to avoid the environmental costs involved in stocking the modern day grocery store).  I feel like buying organic is a way for me to maybe make some small difference in a worldwide problem and, if everyone made that same choice, we could actually reverse the problem and start to heal the planet.  That’s huge.  But we cannot leave it up to the CEOs and politicians to make the “right” decision just because it feels good.  The truth of the matter is that the decision would have to be based on what makes the most financial sense for those individuals or companies.  Which brings me to my next point…


I firmly believe in the power of voting with our dollars and supporting organic farming is the most important way you can spend your voting dollars, in my opinion.  The amount that you spend on this voting method will be different for every budget but the important thing is that you are making your vote known.  And I believe that, by showing the world that we demand organic, we will start to see more and more local farmers using organic practices and move towards that ideal of local AND organic food on our dinner table.


Okay, so maybe you are ready to make a change in your food buying behavior.  But where do you start?  And how can you afford to switch to organic when it seems to cost so much more?  Here are a few ideas to get you started today:


  • Check out the “Dirty Dozen” of produce at EWG and start buying the organic versions of these twelve items.  Here is the list for 2016:


EWG's Dirty Dozen list for 2016


Once you make the decision to start buying these items organic, start looking for sales and then buy as much of that item that you can handle.  You can buy more than you need at the time and then preserve it for later by freezing, dehydrating, or canning.


  • For any foods that you eat a lot of in your family, check to see if there is a way to buy that item in bulk and save yourself some time and money.  For example, in our household, we buy pretty much all of our grains, flours, beans, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, honey, maple syrup, salt, and even coconut oil in bulk.  We purchased food-grade buckets and bags to store these items in our basement – where it is cool and dry and usually dark – until we are ready to use them.  Keep in mind that we did this over the course of several years though.  Don’t overwhelm yourself.  Just pick one thing at a time to work on.  Little changes will still change your life!


  • Choose one food item to investigate each month (preferably one that you buy and use regularly – maybe carrots or pears or milk or chicken?) and then do some research to find out where that item comes from, how it is grown or raised, and how it gets to your table.  If it makes sense to switch to the organic version of that item (maybe because of heavy pesticide use, the use of antibiotics or hormones, or GMO seeds), then switch!  Don’t forget to check to see if a local option exists before buying it at the grocery store.


Now, if you’re already doing some of the things above and want to work towards buying organic AND local, here are some ways to dig even deeper into the source of your food and start to support your local economy at the same time that you are putting healthier food options on your table:


  • Look up the dates and times and locations of your local farmers’ markets and put a reminder on your calendar to visit a market next weekend.  When you go to the market, be sure to bring your own shopping bags and cash in your wallet, just in case the farmer is not set up to accept credit cards.  When you get there, take the time to walk around and ask questions of the farmers.  Don’t hold back!  A good farmer will be happy to share their farming practices and tell you about what they have for sale that day.  So ask them things like, “Do you ever spray your crops with pesticides or use chemical fertilizer?” or “When did you harvest those greens?”  (The answer to that last one is usually “This morning!”)  And if you see something new that you want to try, ask the farmer, “How would you recommend storing and preparing these dandelion greens?”  Sometimes they even have recipes available for you to take with you and try at home. 


  • Look up some local farms and orchards in your area, call them ahead of time to confirm organic practices, and then make a point to visit one of them in the next three months (preferably one that sells something that your family likes to eat…maybe a blueberry farm or an apple orchard?). 


o   BONUS: See if you can find a farm that offers a “Pick Your Own” option during the growing season.  This is a great way to save money and have fun together as a family!  Every year, we visit our local farms and pick as many strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and tomatoes as we can and then either freeze or can them to use for the rest of the year.  (We have never been able to pick enough to match our annual consumption but hopefully as the boys get older and are able to help out more – instead of eating as many as they pick – we might just have enough!)


  • Check or ask around for restaurants that support the farm-to-table mentality.  Pick one that sounds yummy, call the babysitter, and set up a date with your favorite person!  (NOTE: this option will definitely be more expensive than what you are used to spending on a meal so be prepared, make it a special occasion, and know that you are getting what you pay for!  For example, Joe’s company gives him monetary awards as recognition for a job well done so, when he comes home with one of these awards, we like to celebrate by going out to dinner and letting the company pay for our farm-fresh food!)


  • Sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in your area.  These have come so far in the past 5 years that there is a good chance you can find an organic farm in your area that provides CSA shares throughout the summer or winter months.  The way these usually work (every one is a little bit different) is that you sign up months in advance (usually as early as January or February for a summer CSA that runs from May through October) and pay the farmer the entire cost of the CSA season up front.  (To give you an idea of what to expect, we pay about $600 for a full summer share of non-certified organic produce that is meant to feed a family of 4.)  Then, every week during the CSA season, you either pick up your produce at the farm or sometimes it is delivered to another central location and you pick it up there.  We have been participating in a CSA program for the past 8 years and we absolutely love it! 


For all of the suggestions listed above, you can find out more by visiting the Local Harvest website or looking up your local chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local.  Both of these organizations provide lists of farms, farmers’ markets, CSAs and restaurants in your area to get you started on your journey!


And if you are interested in learning more about this topic, here are some of my favorite books that have inspired me over the years to be more mindful of what we eat and where it comes from and how its production impacts the world.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – by Barbara Kingsolver

Omnivore’s Dilemma – by Michael Pollen

Organic Manifesto – by Maria Rodale


In Organic Manifesto, Maria Rodale states, “If you do just one thing – make one conscious choice – that can change the world, go organic.” “No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet will have greater positive repercussions for our future.”


What change will you make in your life today?