meal planning without the planning
January 7, 2017 1:23 AM   Subscribe

I want to be a little more organised with regards to how I approach my weekday evening meals, but I want my planning to incorporate some space for flexibility, to allow for different moods, levels of hunger, etc. Can any of you seasoned meal-planners tell me how you manage this?

I don't like the idea of rigid meal-planning. If I'm not in the mood for e.g. soup on a particular night, I'm not going to eat it even if it's all that is available. Sometimes I'm not very hungry and want to nibble on something, other times I'm starving and want something that'll stick to my ribs. It's very difficult to predict how I'll feel from evening to evening. I'm sure I'm not alone in eating this way. But this means that I am not very systematic or cost-effective about eating, and I also have to muster up the energy to cook and wash up every evening after work. Both big minuses especially since I work long hours.

How do those of you who meal-plan effectively allow for some degree of flexibility in your meals? I feel like I would need to have ready-cooked 'elements' of meals ready in the fridge to combine in different ways, but could do with some ideas as to what exactly those elements would be! Assume I have low to middling-level cooking skills, and an afternoon per weekend to devote to cooking. No hard and fast nutritional requirements but I always eat a starch, a protein, fat and a vegetable. I hope this question makes sense.
posted by Ziggy500 to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I make large portions of food that I can freeze into portion size tupperwares. Examples: ragu, dahl, various curries. Then I store them in the freezer and microwave them when I wanted to use it.

For starches, I cook rice in a rice cooker which makes it no effort at all. I also have pasta (12 minutes) or soba noodles (4 minutes).

For vegetables, I have microwave them (long beans, Brussels sprouts, asparagus), or eat them raw (soba noodles with small carrot sticks, sesame oil and soy sauce is amazing, you should already have the last two in your pantry), or grill them in the oven. The last one takes surprisingly little time and effort. Place an foil on a baking tray, add veg, drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper and it tastes amazing! Plus zero clean up too (just throw foil away)!

If I am not that hungry, I just cook vegetables and that is all.
posted by moiraine at 2:13 AM on January 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

My most effective meal planning is always just scribbling down four meals or so to cover a week, making sure I buy/have ingredients for all of those, and then having each meal as I'm feeling it through the week. I supplement with leftovers/pantry or freezer meals/and the occasional take-out, and I only plan four meals because experience has told me that planning seven will end with some of those meals never eaten.

It's not perfect if you never want to eat out, but I feel similarly to you about rigid planning. We tend to have a good supply of stuff to make pasta or quesadillas or rice-and-stuff (usually boxed Indian from TJs) when we're at a loss and don't want to get take-out, too. We also tend to have a few tasty containers of frozen leftovers around, which maps to moiraine's suggestion above.
posted by hought20 at 2:26 AM on January 7, 2017 [15 favorites]

Yeah, we usually plan for one or two big legit cooked meals as leftovers from the weekend or lay in vegetables to cook midweek (soups, stews, etc), and then when that runs out or we need a break: pantry pasta, scrambled eggs, tuna melts, fried rice with eggs and frozen vegetables. If that doesnt appeal, take out. Mostly commenting to follow this thread, though-- we are not experts At. All.
posted by athirstforsalt at 3:38 AM on January 7, 2017

> I feel like I would need to have ready-cooked 'elements' of meals ready in the fridge to combine in different ways, but could do with some ideas as to what exactly those elements would be!

This is an excellent approach, fwiw. Here are some of the things I like to have on hand:

Roast Veggies - cauliflower works very well, celery root or any root veg as well. Some like beets, I don't. These keep up to a week and work with just about anything. Bell peppers and tomatoes have a little more flavor and don't keep as long, but if you like them I'm sure you could make them work. A head of garlic gives you roast garlic for the week, which is handy to have. These veggies can be eaten with a bit of flavorful oil like garlic-infused oil, chili oil, or sesame oil over starches.

Par-Boiled Veggies - Kale, boiled for 2-3 minutes, works as a good base. Broccoli as well. You can eat this with oil and vinegar, or you can store and cook them later, so you have some flexibility. You could stir-fry the broccoli for instance, or simmer the kale in some stock with spices.

Stocks - Stock doesn't have to be a day long ordeal. I have 2 go-to stocks: Kombu stock takes 20 minutes and replaces water in any recipe. The second is just the cooking liquid of any meat dish. Cuts of meat that should be braised are perfect for weekend cooking and give you stock as a byproduct. Otherwise bone-in cuts work as well. Whole roast chicken is another idea (and no buying chicken parts, the bones are useful!)

Pressure cooked stuff - Some veggies like carrots have enough liquid content that you only need to add a bit of butter and salt. It really brings out the best in carrots. You can throw veggies cooked this way over grains, and it works as a meal. This also results in cooking liquid you can use. Or you can also make pulses like this, and you have carbohydrates for the week. If you like Indian food, when you have cooked lentils in your fridge then you can make a curry in less than 20 minutes. You make the base as usual, add cooked lentils and then roast veggies at the end.

Pickles - it's more adventurous, but we've made pickled sweet peppers, sauerkraut, kimchi, brussel sprouts, even chili and garlic paste. The idea is that if you have homemade pickles then you never have a bland dish. Rice + pickles + roasted veggies = Bibimbap. A more accessible alternative are "Quick Pickles." These are made with vinegar instead of natural fermentation.

Putting it together - So whatever long-cooking time thing I need to do, I do on the weekend. Braised meat is ideal, as are roasted veggies that take 45-60 minutes.

Never leave half of a purchase of veggies uncooked. If veggies are starting to go limp, cook them for later, even if you aren't going to eat them right away.

Store cooked food dry in the fridge. Food keeps longer than you think if you have a clean fridge and good practices.

Any cooked veg can be fried with onions or simmered in stock and you have a 10 minute meal.

Anything you find that you really don't want to eat at all, you can throw it into a spicy soup. Sauerkraut soup is my go-to soups. Bacon + Hungarian Paprika + Kombu stock + all your leftovers you don't want, and it's so acidic it lasts for at least a week.

That's it. My partner is a chef and I learned these ideas from him. It's really more "fridge management" than "cooking", but even if you know how to cook you don't necessarily know how to manage your fridge.
posted by cotterpin at 4:02 AM on January 7, 2017 [22 favorites]

Dittoing moiraine upthread--I regularly take some weekend time to make large batches of soups, chili, stews, sloppy joe mix, pulled pork, casseroles, etc and then freeze individual portions. I'll also make a big portion of regular rice and freeze it in smaller portions. I freeze portions in heavy duty ziplock bags or in leftover sour cream/ cottage cheese/ chip dip containers. Do this a few weekends in a row and you quickly build up a nice inventory of meals that allows you to choose what you're in the mood for on any given day. I love coming home from work feeling too tired to cook, but still able to enjoy a nice home cooked meal with very little effort.
posted by bookmammal at 4:13 AM on January 7, 2017

I always have dry staples: rice, pasta, lentils, bulgar wheat, and instant polenta.

Tinned kidney beans, chickpeas, cannelloni beans, peas, carrots, chopped tomatoes.

Frozen staples: vegetables, fish, any meat I'm not eating today, bread.

Stocks and gravy mixes, taco seasoning

Various cheeses (cheddar, parmesan, feta, soft cheese), yogurt (which I have for breakfast every day), lemons, limes, milk.

As long as you have these, you should only have to go shopping for fresh items. But you can still open your fridge or freezer and make basically anything.
posted by toerinishuman at 4:20 AM on January 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

What you need is perhaps more a well-stocked pantry than a meal plan. I've had to learn to work this way because I can never know who and how many people will be home for dinner.
Mine looks a lot like toerinishhuman's but I also buy some seasonal vegs and fruit once or twice a week including potatoes, which I keep in the crisper. If I don't get the vegetables eaten in a week, there will be a minestrone, which everyone likes and which can be kept in the fridge or freezer (only add pasta to the amount you think you will eat). My daughter enjoys a thermos with soup for her lunch bag when it's cold.
I also always have butter and cream, different oils, vinegars and condiments and a selection of herbs and spices. Food sites like Serious Eats often have features on pantry-stocking
The only thing about this approach that needs a little discipline is to remember to eat the stuff in the freezer - in the beginning I would often buy something on the way home, forgetting I already had it. Thawing things in cold water is safe and much faster than thawing in the fridge.
posted by mumimor at 4:35 AM on January 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

If you do any batch cooking on days when you have time, divide and freeze/fridge into half sized portions. That way you can do two portions for average hunger, one for less hunger, and three for ravenous. And it's easier to mix and match - cup of soup + salad + single enchilada; bowl of soup (2 portions) + selection of veggies that need eating; three enchiladas; etc.

One thing that can make a big difference is having a nice selection of condiments. A sandwich is a perfectly respectable dinner, especially if you've got lots of flavor in there via horseradish or kimchi or Russian dressing or balsamic vinegar or whatever makes you salivate. You can make up home versions of a lot of dressings and toppings if you like, and that's a good way to avoid needless amounts of sugar and salt. But of course store bought is fine (channeling my inner Ina).
posted by Mizu at 5:31 AM on January 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend this book: Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal. It's a slim book, but it has so many wonderful ideas for stretching your food and using it up. It will get you out of using recipes for everything and teach you how to cook what you have, and prevent it from going bad. It's also beautifully written if that makes a difference.
posted by peacheater at 6:18 AM on January 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

I have a couple of different approaches, depending on the season, my mood, how much free time have for meal planning, meal prep, and cooking during the week.

One is like hought20, where I plan out enough meals to last the week, scratch out some basic meal prep (e.g. thaw chicken, chop veggies, soak beans) and a grocery list.

Another is to have a repertoire of meals that I don't have to plan so much for--with ingredients I tend to have on hand, like beans and cornbread (or rice), tuna patties with whatever veggies I have, warm potato salad with sardines. This has also been helped along by the Storm Gourmet, which is supposed to be recipe for power outages but also works for cooking from pantry staples.

I have also used what my household has deemed Tamar Adler'ing (book recommend by peacheater), where we'll buy a bunch of vegetables and cook them all at once and base off-the-cuff meals off of those. It works well for me, though I tend to cook without recipes for the most part.
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:44 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just have a list of stuff I buy every week, and a fully stocked pantry, so we can choose from a bunch of things to meet particular tastes most nights.

List includes chicken thighs, ground beef, pork chops, sausages, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, avocado, lettuce, spaghetti, tomato sauce, diced and stewed tomatoes, salsa, beans, a bunch of frozen veggies (peas, green beans, broccoli, and mixes), frozen fish fillets, canned soup, canned tuna, cheese, bread, butter, etc.

So for instance on the night when we decide to use the ground beef, we could do spaghetti and meatballs, burritos, or chili. On chicken night we could do a stir fry, roasted with root veggies, or burritos. Fish night could happen any time, or grilled cheese and soup. Tuna sandwiches when we don't feel like actually making dinner.

With chicken in particular, I usually do one night of roasted chicken in the oven but make enough to have another meal that includes chicken in some way that's easy to throw together -- various salads with chicken thrown in for protein, for example.

The trick is just to have a bunch of staples on hand and a small list of things you can do with them so things don't get super-boring.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:37 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I do something like this, and my fridge elements are similar to cotterpin's, when I'm on top of it. Usually i keep in my fridge and pantry some combination of:
Roasted veggies (Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beets, acorn squash...)
Veggies that don't need cooking (arugula, sprouts, cherry tomatoes...)
Grains and legumes (cooked lentils, quinoa, canned chickpeas...)
Tasty additions (kimchi, ricotta, feta...)
Easy sauces (ready-made pesto, Chinese spicy-crunchy, tahini....)
All can be combined for tasty bowls, fried rice-type things, pasta dishes, and salads in just a few minutes. Roast a bunch of veggies one day and you're set for the week.
posted by EmilyFlew at 7:41 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think the key is knowing how you like to eat (you're halfway there because you know your formula is starch + veg + meat + fat) so I think it would work well for you to come up with acceptable units of each of those things, and get a variety of category-units, and freeze or preserve those things, then supplement with fresh stuff that sounds good on the way home from work. My advice is to buy things that work in a bunch of recipes, rather than single-use ingredients (my go-to example is Worcestershire sauce, which I use in exactly two recipes, so I try to just borrow some from a friend so I don't have the bottle sitting there going stale.)

So it's the end of the day, you're standing outside the grocery store, thinking that you have some meat units, some frozen veg units, and some bread units (that's what I call "slices" fyi) so you could pick up a bagged salad and a tomato and a hunk of cheese and have a nice meal when you get home, then eat the leftovers for lunch tomorrow. If grocery stores are plentiful, it's not like it's cheaper to buy a pound of tomatoes and let most of them go bad if all you want is one tomato for tonight.

You can take a photo with your phone of your pantry and fridge once a week, so you have a visual reminder of what you have right now, and can mentally formulate a list. I have a pretty good memory for what's in the fridge, but sometimes it's like "Do we have mustard?" "....maybe?" and having the picture just solves that issue for me.

I don't eat meat so I can't advise you as to a pantry list or a collection of recipes, but the Bittman How To Cook Everything book has a pantry list and easy recipe ideas. Some of the Rachel Ray cookbooks have a pantry list and easy recipes, but the framework is less improvisational than Bittman.

He has another one, Kitchen Matrix, which starts from a technique or ingredient (for example, soup, or chicken) and gives 10-12 different wildly different variations for the theme. That's pretty close to my approach which is to have a basic concept (I want noodles with stuff on them!) or ingredient (I want cheese!) and work from that (I'll have noodles with a Mornay sauce, tomatoes, onions, and bell pepper!)
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:47 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question last year, and got some great answers about ideas for meal components that we can make at the beginning of the week to mix and match for dinners and lunches.
posted by stellaluna at 2:37 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

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