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May 5, 2011 2:30 PM   Subscribe

(Un)Plannedchaos: Help my wife and I feel less paralyzed when it comes to planning meals!

We're late-twenties omnivores, willing to eat all kinds of food. I would say we're stuck in a bit of a recipe rut and, not only that, there are many instances where we've missed ideal mealtimes because we just can't decide what to cook and nothing we usually make will do.

Lately making lunch seems to be especially tricky as we both work irregular hours and often end up eating some pretty vile fast food which I think makes it even harder to work up an appetite in the evening.

What we're looking for are your strategies when it comes to maintaing a varied, balanced (preferably healthy) diet without feeling like you're starting at square one every day. Any tips on dead simple recipes whether they be soups, sandwiches, stir-frys etc. would be much appreciated. Alternatives to sweet or egg-based breakfasts would be awesome, too (I love me some quinoa in the morning but it can get a bit bland).

How do you stave off the hunger??
posted by knilstad to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Step 1: Get a good cookbook or subscribe to a magazine like this.

Step Two: Decide on Saturday what you want to eat for dinner every night for the next week.

Step 3: Make a detailed list; go shopping and buy everything you need for every meal.

Step 4: Make sure to make enough for dinner each night that you can both have yummy leftovers for lunch the next day.

* Bonus note: Every time you try a new recipe, decide together if it's a keeper. If yes, tape it in a notebook. If no, throw it away. As your notebook grows, it will get easier and easier to follow steps 2-4 each week.
posted by SamanthaK at 2:41 PM on May 5, 2011

I've long been an advocate of Eastern-Med breakfasts, whether Egyptian-style ful medames or Lebanese za'atar manakish or labneh.

Staying in that part of the world: spreads and condiments are a good way to give yourself greater variety in sandwich options. Hummus, pesto, tapenade, other purees like ajvar or muhammara, etc.
posted by holgate at 2:44 PM on May 5, 2011

A friend of mine has a loose structure to her two-week menus -- two nights will be pasta, one night will be stir-fry, one night will be brinner, one night will be chicken, one night will be beef, one night will be ethnic, one night will be something she's never made before ...

Not every night has a "theme," but it helps her cook a more balanced menu over the course of the week and plan effectively for leftovers, as well as limiting her choices so she isn't facing the limitless universe of ALL possible food options. It prevents option paralysis, which sounds like part of your problem.

And I don't think most people can make a varied, balanced diet without starting at square one every day without doing weekly-ish menu planning. I think for most of us the planning part is pretty crucial if we want to eat healthy and varied and have limited time.

Another strategy that we stumbled on accidentally was, when my toddler started eating solids we had a little spreadsheet with his recommended weekly intake of various food groups/nutrients across the top, with each day of the week down the left, so we could keep track of whether he was eating a balanced diet or not ... especially for when the doctor asks, "What's his average food day like?" and I'm like, "Um .... I feed him?" Anyway, we found that by filling in HIS chart with "raspberries" and "peas" and "beef curry over rice" and so on, OUR meals (since he basically eats what we eat as long as it's not a choking hazard) got a lot more balanced. So if balance were a big concern, you might make a similar chart with X servings of vegetables/week or whatever and try to fill it in.

Cookbook-wise, I like Mark Bittman's cookbooks and the More with Less Cookbook (and companion Extending the Table), for simple, healthy recipes ... in Bittman, with a lot of elaborations to add if you feel fancy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:47 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Having a list of everything you know how to make is a nice place to start. On Fridays I sit down with the list (it's a Google Spreadsheet, actually.) and plan out 4 or 5 meals for the next week. (The other days we eat out or have a family function, or eat a home-made frozen dinner or cereal.) I don't really bother to assign specific meals to specific days, we generally just decide that afternoon which option we're in the mood for. Then I write a grocery list for all the ingredients we need. Having limited options, and knowing you have all the ingredients you need is most of the battle.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 2:50 PM on May 5, 2011

We were in the same fix a while back - just burned out on all our old menu routines. This site: helped us find new input. Complete planning per season, including shopping lists. Menus also have 2-person, vegetarian and low-carb/cal options. Just ignore any chatter about "busy moms" and the like.
posted by likeso at 2:53 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know what you mean about the rut. I think if you're accustomed to using recipes, its easy to get stuck in a rut; I used to feel that way a lot, especially when I first began cutting out meat from my diet.

I also used to plan out the meals for the week as SamanthaK suggests, but this didn't fit with my personality; I hated feeling like I HAD to make something, it became a chore instead of a pleasure.

Now, I hardly ever use recipes at all and this keeps eating somewhat interesting. Of course, YMMV; you have to be willing to be a little experimental and not everything comes out great, but it is a way to make simple things that generally taste different every time.

So what we do is keep a variety of useful ingredients on hand: rice, pasta, beans, assorted fresh vegetables, meat for my partner, eggs, bread, canned goods, etc. Then we throw something together that satisfies a variety of food groups and fits our mood. I'll make pasta with some type of marinara and sauteed veggies, or a big pot of soup with whatever's available, or chili, or some kind of tortillas/veggies/beans/cheese concoction, or a vaguely Asian stirfry or sauteed noodle dish. He will grill veggies and meat, or make rice with various things mixed into it, mayonnaise based salads when it's hot, etc.

For this to be fun you have to keep good cooking additions on hand, too -- a lot of herbs, seasonings, spices, a variety of vinegars, several flavors of cooking wines, hot sauces, mustards, etc. Once you invest in these ingredients, though, it becomes much easier to make good stuff out of not too much.

For lunch we generally eat salads, sandwiches or leftovers, equally out of the whatevers-on-hand variety.

You could also try visiting some farmer's markets or ethnic grocery stores, picking up some ingredients you're unfamiliar with, and basing meals off those. Recently I did this with bok choy, which inspired some new meals, and I have also been experimenting with my new favorite condiment, Thai sweet chili sauce.

Or, if you're looking for a more formal solution to the problem (and this pretty much contradicts all the above, but you know), you could try one of those Rachel Ray 15-minute meals type cookbooks (I multiply all her prep times by 2, because for real, no one else has all the ingredients arranged aesthetically at hands reach when they walk into the kitchen) and cook your way through that one till you find new, exciting stuff.
posted by crackingdes at 2:57 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Leftovers, my friend. You're cooking for 2 and most recipes are scaled for 4 - 6 servings, so you're golden. Build a repertoire of favorites that reheat well and you've got dinner and lunch taken care of, and maybe the next night's dinner as well. Plan to cook 3 or 4 nights a week, make a weekly menu and shopping list, do your more involved cooking on the weekend, and stash those leftovers for busier nights. Freeze 'em if you got 'em.

You'll get lots of specific recipe recommendations here, so I'll try to generalize helpfully.

Things that always reheat well: soups and stews (bonus - often these recipes serve 8), curries, chili, pasta sauce, pot roast. Anything kind of liquidy, basically. These often taste even better the second day.

Things that sometimes reheat well: stir-fries, casseroles, roasted vegetables. You just have to try them to see which ones you like as leftovers.

Things that don't reheat well: fish (it overcooks on reheating), pan-fried things like hamburgers and griddle cakes (they dry out and/or lose their crispness), anything grilled (lose their wonderful smoky flavor).

Salads don't keep well after being dressed, but you can usually toss the greens and vegetables and refrigerate them in a covered bowl for a day or 2, and add the dressing right before serving.

P.S. If you're taking leftovers for lunch, pack them the evening before as you're cleaning up after dinner, or even before you serve dinner. Mornings are too hectic to cram another task in.
posted by Quietgal at 3:12 PM on May 5, 2011

Oh, and for some off-the-cuff inspiration of the mouthwatering kind, I'm kind of addicted to foodgawker. Plenty of new ideas there.
posted by crackingdes at 3:17 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Printing out a calendar and planning out your meals makes life A LOT easier. It saves you so much time in shopping, preparation as well as the time you end up wasting trying to decide what to make.
posted by mungaman at 3:31 PM on May 5, 2011

You know, I hate that pressure of "I'm so hungry and tired and now I have to solve a problem and cook, too, before I can eat?!?" So I do almost all my cooking in advance, then it's ready when I'm ready to eat. Right now, I have a couple of servings of Shepherd's Pie in my fridge, along with some cooked felafel, hummus, and chopped veg to go with them. So I would suggest planning it in advance, then cooking at least some of it in advance as well, so that you're all set to take your lunch with you and have quick dinners at home.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 3:40 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would start by going over what you currently make. What do you still like, what are you sick of, what could you modify to make it more interesting.

I agree with crackingdes that having some staples on hand (pasta, rice, canned beans and tomatoes) will make things lots easier. You should have a couple of recipes that are quick and made with ingredients that are always on hand in your kitchen (*examples below).

I would not try to make 7 new recipes every week. Try one or two, but definitely make enough for 4 servings so you can make lunches.

*staple quick meals for Bebo (YMMV): poached egg over sauteed/grilled/roasted veggies; this salad (ohmygod so good!); canned beans and rice.
posted by Bebo at 3:41 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

BTW, one easy thing to cook now that the weather's getting better is to grill up a bunch of stuff on the weekend, then use it through the week. For example, a grilled marinated chicken breast or sausage makes a really nice sandwich. Grilled veg and garlic bread are good, too.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 3:53 PM on May 5, 2011

Just what crackingdes said. Don't look for 'recipes' that sound good, but, rather, think about what flavors you are in the mood for. Maybe think of 2 or 3, then gather them and just make something up with them for fun. Pretend you are a famous chef and start combining things that sound tasty instead of 'oh, do we have the ingredients for chicken parmesan?'

I hated cooking for a long time because I was stuck on what you were 'supposed' to do: follow recipes, make elaborate sauces, measure (ugh). Once I realized I could just make stuff up and play, I can actually cook and have fun with it. It was the rules that destroyed my happiness.

Also, incorporate dinners into lunch leftovers the next day.
posted by Vaike at 4:21 PM on May 5, 2011

You could try
posted by ghharr at 4:32 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing I do is to cook for the freezer. Anything that freezes gets doubled for another night, so I have a stash of soups, lasagna, enchiladas and other casseroles, falafel, homemade veggie burgers, etc. I make a list of the "meals" in the freezer that I stick to the front with a post-it so that I'm not constantly rummaging around in there.

I cook Monday's dinner on Sunday night at the same time I'm making Sunday's. Things that hold over well in the fridge tend to be the same things that freeze well, so I make lots.

If it's a favorite meal that I only make now and then, I make double and we eat the same thing two nights in a row. This is something I only do a few times a year though.

I don't have a problem with part of the meal coming from a box, as long as it's not ridiculously unhealthy. A homemade side can balance it out with regards to the fat, salt, and cost.

When I was in a food rut, I promised myself I'd make one new thing a week. I went from having just a handful of recipes in the rotation to having dozens. I used Cooking Light magazines for most of my inspiration because this was before blogs, but blogs are even better!
posted by zinfandel at 4:40 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

during the winter i pretty much always have chili leftovers in the fridge. during the summer i pretty much always have a modified couscous tabouli* in the fridge.

i really dislike coming up with meals when it is time to eat - that's how we end up with taco bell or mac&cheese or burger and fries. planning can take 15-20 minutes, cooking is usually 20-45 minutes - so if you decide when you're hungry, you're either eating crap or putting food off for at least an hour. meal planning once a week is far easier.

when i meal plan i usually think of one thing i really want and write all the ingredients down. then i look at those and figure what i have left over, and plan another meal from that, then i take stock of all the leftover ingredients again on my list and plan the next meal, and so on.

*my couscous tabouli - make couscous and chill it. chop/food process parsley, radishes, hothouse cucumber, bell pepper, a couple tomatoes, green onions/shallots/red onion (pick one), garlic, add cracked pepper. mix veggies with couscous, add some dressing. let sit in the fridge for at least a couple hours. right before you eat it, put some feta in it. this whole thing lasts about a week.
posted by nadawi at 4:43 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I actually plan ahead for dinners, I like to do japanese-style meals that can be packed into a bento for the next day's lunch. JustBento is a great resource for this, and the blogger (Mefi's Own, I believe) even has some tools for meal-planning and pantry stocking. Plus, miso soup + rice is a delicious and relatively easy breakfast.
posted by specialagentwebb at 6:01 PM on May 5, 2011

First, before anything, you need to promise yourself that you will dedicate a little of your time each week to planning meals. It doesn't have to be much, maybe 5 to 20 minutes a week, but if you can't do even that, then none of the suggestions listed by other users are going to work.

People here are giving you recipe ideas, suggesting that you use a spreadsheet, encouraging you to experiment with foods, or try new cooking techniques. While all these suggestions will probably make you a better eater, they also require time. So no matter how busy or hectic your schedule is, you'll need to dedicate at least SOME time in your week to planning your meals or cooking them. Do that, and I can guarantee that you will be eating healthier and better.
posted by nikkorizz at 6:09 PM on May 5, 2011

The JustBento woman is a MeFite? We're not worthy!

Lots of great advice here. I like to cook, and I usually work from home, but I *always* have at least one dinner in the freezer along when inspiration fails. Also dried pasta, butter, parmesan and capers. There is nothing better.

Oh, and salad bars are usually a really cheap source for a handful of fancy veggies. Just don't buy it as a salad and avoid things that are obviously heavy.
posted by cyndigo at 6:44 PM on May 5, 2011

I'm starting to use Ziplist to keep track of recipes. If I want to make something in the recipe box, I can click a button and it'll put the ingredients into a shopping list. I started doing serious meal planning about 10 years ago, and while I'm not as exact about it as I used to be, we don't start the week without some sort of plan for what we'll be eating.

We always have a cooking magazine of one type or another coming to the house - right now it's Martha Stewart's Food magazine - and I switch them around. Eating Well, Cooking Light, and Cook's Illustrated are all reliably good for dinner recipes.

We have kids and get home from work right before dinner. Everyone's usually starved when we walk in the door, so a long, drawn-out cooking session isn't in the cards. We do a little convenience/frozen stuff here and there, but most of the time we have a pasta night, a chicken night, etc. My husband and I will sometimes email a recipe to each other during the day, and if it's something that looks good he'll grab the ingredients on the way home.

I keep meaning to use our slow cooker more, too. It's great for stews, soups, killer spaghetti sauce, etc. If one part of dinner is done in the crock pot, then that means all we have to do is make a starch or a side when we get home.
posted by hms71 at 7:06 PM on May 5, 2011

In cooking for two, I find it much easier to plan meals with "rollover" built in. Tonight, for example, I'm making six chicken thighs and a package of bratwurst since I'll have the oven on anyway. We'll have a thigh each (they're clearly from Chickenzilla) tonight with some vegetables (probably frozen, though I do have some spinach that needs to get eaten) and I'll debone and bag the leftover chicken, freezing some. Tomorrow night I'm going out and he's going to have frozen pasta and vegetables with some bratwurst (he's kind of a fledgling cook, so I keep it easy*). Saturday lunch we'll have brats wrapped in tortillas, and Saturday night we'll have chicken quesadillas.

*In truth, I know my husband: he'll have In-N-Out. But in theory he would cook himself dinner.

I cook my breakfast on Sunday afternoons, generally an egg-and-veg casserole that I portion out and have at work with cottage cheese. Since there will be frozen chicken and brats left over, they will go in that. I'll cook again on Monday for the next couple of days. I'm still cooking *something* every night, but usually warming up something from a previous day plus a side from scratch, and for the most part our sides are just green vegetable with flavor.

Not every meal needs to be an identifiable recipe. I usually make one truly composed meal a week (curry or a casserole or something), but most of our meals are protein + 1-2 veg, because that's plenty healthy. We're never bored and you can get wildly creative with basic flavors and still stay largely in that zone. Assuming you're in North America or Europe, produce is at its best and doesn't need much to be fantastic. In winter there are more stews and chili and curries, but I make those by the vat-full and freeze some and eat the rest over several days.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:32 PM on May 5, 2011

Epicurious has weekly dinner plans which I've found to be helpful (although occasionally complicated). There are also a bunch of healthy dinner options on the same site.

I'm all for the leftovers idea that others have mentioned, and I'd also suggest that you keep some quick appetizer type things on hand (e.g. edamame beans) so that you can snack on those while you decide on/cook the rest of your dinner. I find it much easier to make decisions when I'm not starving.
posted by monkeys with typewriters at 8:57 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is me!

What I have trouble with is that half the time I want to be great at planning ahead for the week, and half the time I want to be spontaneous and fun. Acknowledging that both aspects need to be addressed (for instance, making frozen soup but keeping my options open by improvising biscuits or salad or quinoa etc.) helps.

Also following some good food blogs for inspiration (101 cookbooks, Smitten Kitchen, David Lebovitz and the Amateur Gourmet are great for starters).

I had a stretch where I said it was okay to have lunch for breakfast. Lunch foods... for breakfast! Like Breakfast for Dinner but less syrup. Soup and salad is great for this.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 10:32 PM on May 5, 2011 is another weekly menu planner - you tell it what kind of meals you want (veggie, omnivorous, gluten-free, etc) and for how many people, and it offers a week of suggestions. We discovered some good new recipes that way.

Also, as a menu planning variation that works for my house, rather than plan out chicken meal on Monday, fish recipe Tuesday etc., I make a shorter list of what meals I've bought groceries for and cook what I/we are in the mood for.

I like the idea of plotting our what nutritional needs have to be met - I might integrate that one.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 5:40 AM on May 6, 2011

Thank you all so much for sharing your methods, it's really inspiring!

After reading a few responses last night and checking out some of the websites mentioned (foodgawker is amazing!), I got off my butt and followed a combination of your advice by making an old standby and then getting ingredients to make a semi-improvised beef stew after scanning several delicious looking recipes.

Cooking something I know like the back of my hand while cooking something new, and in big quantities, seems to be pretty promising. I think when trying something new it helps to have a dish on the go that you're sure will taste good, and like some of you said as long as you use nice, fresh ingredients and have a good selection of spices, cooking wines etc. it seems a lot harder to go wrong.

I imagine the more we can broaden our repertoire the easier both planning and being spontaneous will become. Having a bunch of frozen meals available will reduce the madness by at least 70%. Those mediterranean breakfasts look delicious too, ack!

I kind of want to leave this thread open-ended as it's pretty wonderful to have so many people sharing their ideas. It's nice that hunger is such a universal motivator. I'm hoping that by the time we have child(ren) we can quickly whip up a plate of plain pasta for Jr. Hatesonions while making an avocado cream sauce for ourselves. Time will tell!

p.s. if anyone is curious about making the "old standby" (a delicious ethiopian cabbage, potato and carrot dish) make sure you double the recommended spices
posted by knilstad at 10:11 AM on May 6, 2011

"I'm hoping that by the time we have child(ren) we can quickly whip up a plate of plain pasta for Jr. Hatesonions while making an avocado cream sauce for ourselves."

Dude, feed the Junior Hatesonions the avocado cream sauce. My sprog was eating curry by 9 months (we are not Indian). One of his first "finger foods" was toast pieces with very garlicy curry. I made a spicy chicken in spicy salsa the other night -- almost too spicy for me! -- which we call "Chicken Montezuma" but my husband has redubbed "Toddler Crack" because he ate his whole portion before we got half-started and then demanded half of dad's and then cried when it was all gone. He gets so excited by pasta primavera in cream sauce with mushrooms and peppers and squash that he panics if I have to reheat the leftovers in the microwave because it takes 30 seconds longer to get to his mouth. He loves going to the specialty grocery with the stinky cheese samples so he can try the stinky cheese du jour.

Feed kids what you're eating unless it's a choking hazard or they flatly refuse it. You don't have to raise children beigeitarian.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:21 AM on May 6, 2011

I think you're totally right Eyebrows, I was raised with a beigeitarian palate as you say and it took me forever to appreciate the foods and flavours I now can't get enough of. Good advice!
posted by knilstad at 10:41 AM on May 6, 2011

I just started getting into meal planning this week! Your question is perfectly timed.

This is what works for me:

I pick one recipe that really interests me. For example, this week it's quinoa pilaf w/sweet potatoes and kale. I take a look at the ingredients in that recipe and I find recipes that have similar ingredients. (This is easy for me to do because I have a huge Evernote notebook filled with recipes I've collected over the past few years. Each one is tagged by individual ingredients.)

There are several benefits to this method. You have fewer items on your grocery list. If you have produce or perishables, this method allows you to use them all up instead of letting the extras rot in the fridge. Also, it saves time when you're making time-consuming items like rice, pasta, or chopped veggies. Instead of having to cut up an onion or make rice every time you need it for each recipe, you can get it all done at once in one fell swoop at the beginning of the week and just pull out whatever you need throughout the rest of the week.

Here's my menu for this week:

1. Quinoa Pilaf w/Sweet Potato and Kale
2. Caramelized Mushroom & Onion Pizza
3. Sweet Potato Hash w/Adobo, Egg & Tomato
4. Stiry Fry Quinoa w/mushrooms, bok choy, carrots, ginger, etc.

I plan to cut up all of my produce this weekend and make the pizza dough and quinoa as well. The rest of the week should be a breeze.
posted by chara at 1:06 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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