How can I learn how to plan meals?
July 9, 2006 9:00 PM   Subscribe

I have a hard time preparing and eating three healthy meals a day. I 'm a great cook and I've taken college-level nutrition courses, but there's a big difference between knowing how to make one particular dish and being able to shop for, prepare and eat three meals a day, five or six days a week. I've tried many times to have a healthier diet. It's not that I crave fast-food or junk - I prefer foods that are good for me. But I just can't get to a point where I consistently eat good food on any sort of schedule. [mi]

Both of my parents were mentally ill, so I didn't grow up in a household where people ate normal foods at normal times.

I want to be one of those people who makes dinner and eats it at dinnertime. Cookbooks give me recipes, and that's good. I've consulted nutritionists who have told me what to eat and what not to eat, and that's good too.

I feel like I want someone to take me by the hand and tell me, "This is what normal people buy at the grocery store. This is how people go to the store on Sunday and decide what they're going to eat each night of the week. This is how people eat when they're not in crisis mode."

My friends who had less chaotic households know how to prepare dinner from leftovers and kitchen staples. They know how to throw together an evening meal that will sustain them, even if they're really busy and don't feel like following a fancy recipe.

This feels less like needing nutritional advice or learning how to prepare gourmet meals and more like remedial life-skills training.

Is there a resource out there for adult children of mentally ill parents who want to learn the bare-bones basics of eating to sustain life?
posted by freshwater_pr0n to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
take it slow. lots of people have challenges with this, regardless of how they grew up. why not just try to cook one big healthy meal a week - a pot of chili or something, and put small portions in ziploc bags to be frozen or eaten later in the week. eventually you can work your way up to a schedule for cooking more often. lots of supermarket cooking magazines have articles on "ten easy meals for $30" or "cooking for a month with three basic recipes" designed to help cooks plan the day-in, day-out basic meals - pick up a handful next time you're at the store.
posted by judith at 9:10 PM on July 9, 2006

I don't know if there is resources out there but I think this really involves a healthy dollup of planning and a nicely stocked pantry. With the former you are setting out a plan for the week and knowing what you need to buy at the store. Wandering aimlessly at the store tring to decide what to make wastes time plus it gives you ample time to buy lots of other stuff that you might not need. Only you can do the planning because you know your work and life schedule. Only you will know what nights will allow you to cook a long complicated meal and what nights you need the at home, good-for-you equivilent of fast food.

The pantry will help you because frankly plans change or you have leftovers that you need to transform. Keeping some pastas and canned foods among other things lets you do more with the food you already have. There have been some pantry AskMe's in the past that were really good.

As for some recipes, I really partial to anything that I can cook in a 8.5"x11" pan. That usually gets lots of leftovers. Lasagna, Bourbon chicken being a few examples. Come winter, a good pot of chilli will treat you right for days at a time. another favorite of mine is good, tasty meatloaf (and if you mother butchered this staple like mine did, find a good recipe because it really is yummy and you can do all sorts of different things with the leftovers).
posted by mmascolino at 9:17 PM on July 9, 2006

In terms of shopping, our house does one large trip a week (usually Sunday), & several smaller trips during the week to get fruits/vegitables/milk. We figure out the schedule for the week on Sunday, before we go shopping - when each person is going to cook, what they need, etc. Sometimes, if there's extra time, someone will make a large batch of a salad or soup or something similar on Sunday afternoon/evening, to keep through the week to have around for breakfast/lunch.

The key is, though, have a plan, & have a backup plan if you're busy. The backup plan can be 'pasta with tomato sauce and ground beef,' which is fast and easy to make, and relatively healthy as long as you're not eating it every night. So, you shop for the backup as well.

Another great plan is to cook rice any time you have free time. Rice usually takes ~ 20-30 minutes to cook (depending on a lot of things, including the type of rice), and will keep for 3-5 days in a fridge well. Get brown rice for the added nutritional bonus (other options are cous-cous & barley). Once you have leftover rice, you can put whatever else you have around over it, or eat it plain. Its a bit on the carby side, but if its brown, still relatively healthy. Splashing a bit of soy sauce will help a lot.

Frying up small cubes of tofu along with the rice is also a decent option. I don't know how long they'll last off-hand, but frying some tofu with soy sauce & oil doesn't take very long at all, and will at least last as long as the rice. This'll give you protein, & is something a bit more substantial.

Cashews & other nuts (unsalted) are also a classic fallback for a quick healthy fat source in a pinch. Cashews can be added to a huge, huge amount of foods and still taste good.

Hope that helps.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:55 PM on July 9, 2006

Don't try to tackle the entire week to start. Break up the week into blocks. For example, decide you're eating dinner at home on Days 1, 3 and 5. Plan a shopping trip for just those three meals. Once you get the hang of it, you can easily expand.
posted by frogan at 10:07 PM on July 9, 2006

I started being able to plan meals with consistency by making (writing down) a weekly menu and then making a shopping list off the menu.

Monday: baked chicken breast with salad and baked potato.
Tuesday: Grilled sirloin steaks with green beans.

Shopping list:
4 chicken breasts, two potatoes, green beans, two steaks, plenty of salad contents, etc for the rest of the week.

That helped me a lot in figuring out how to be normal.

Now, my partner and I have very different eating habits so I've moved away from that style a lot (but because of that foundation that it built for me I can move away from it without getting overwhelmed and confused). Now I use a to-do list widget on my google homepage for a semi-shopping list and rank the foods I need in priority (like, right now I'm out of peanut butter, salad greens, and walnuts and I eat all of those every day and they're perishable so they're high priority).

We always have plenty of pasta and decent jarred tomato sauce in the pantry should we fall lazy.
posted by birdie birdington at 10:11 PM on July 9, 2006

The only way I've been able to do this is pick one culinary tradition and more or less stick to it, with the exception of fancy dinners.

I learned to cook studying Italian cooking, and it's pretty easy to pick the staples for it: Olive oil, butter, parmesan, pasta, canned tomatoes, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, boullion cubes. Anchovies, olives, red pepper flakes/pepperoncino, fresh vegetables on more propserous weeks. With all those things in your pantry, you've got the basic ingredients for pretty much anything (and you can make 6-10 dishes just with those elements).

One of the problems I've found with eclectic "American" approaches is that you're faced with so many choices of what to cook, you can end up having buy 20 new things for
one dish, rather than basing all your dishes off the same few ingredients.

I would pick the tradition you're most comfortable with, and figure out what those basic elements of it are, and stock up on those for a few weeks. When I know that I have "the basics" at home, it's much easier to be confident picking up random stuff that appeals at the supermarket and trying to make a meal of it.

You can, of course, branch out once you're more comfortable. But I think it helps to restrict yourself a bit at first.
posted by occhiblu at 10:26 PM on July 9, 2006 [2 favorites]

One of the things that my girlfriend and I have found that we really like are the frozen bags of vegetables from the grocery store. Get the "veggie medley" or "stir fry mix" bag - they usually have peas, broccoli, water chestnuts, carrots (admittedly, most have too many carrots - carrots are the peanuts of the mixed vegetable world) - and you just saute them in a pan for 5 minutes or so and they're ready to go. Cook some chicken breasts and rice, add some prefab stir fry sauce, and you've got a passable stir fry.

My mom is a food scientist and she is really good at knowing how to cook great, cheap, fast meals. Sure, I'd rather not eat frozen veggies (I live for fresh cooked broccoli), and I'd probably rather not eat a bottled sauce (making your own is so much more fun), but a lot of times, the quick substitutes are more practical than you may think that they'd be.
posted by rossination at 10:38 PM on July 9, 2006

You can make your own frozen vegetables as well- bell peppers are good for this. Judicious use of frozen vegetables is one if the key things I've learned from my mother, who has been cooking for five for nearly 20 years. Stock up on what you like, and you can add some healthy stuff to simple premade sauce and meat dishes.
posted by MadamM at 10:46 PM on July 9, 2006

Don't buy junk foods. Buy only the healthy ingredients. When you go to cook your options will be focused more on what your head seeks. Make sure it is easy to make too. Are you cooking for yourself? If so, easy and fast become paramount. Most people do not want to spend tons of time cooking solely for themselves, at least not every day. If you focus on healthy ingredients that can be prepared quickly you can achieve your goal. That would mean lots of fresh and frozen vegetables, low fat cheeses, complex carbs, low fat meats and proteins. Plan a few meals in advance to ease the stress at meal time. For each meal think protein source (meat typically, but cheese or other sources can be used), a vegetable ( or more), and a starch (rice, pasta, potato etc.).

A current fave fast meal now:

- one large low carb tortilla on a plate with a paper towel or napkin underneath (to absorb moisture)
- frozen corn, black beans, edamame and/or other veggie filling, or some left over chicken or meat
- low fat cheese
- chopped jalapeno to taste (optional)
- some salsa taken from a jar by fork to reduce liquid

assemble the tortilla on top of the paper towel, and the other ingredients on top (the salsa can be added after cooking to avoid getting the tortilla too moist) and then microwave until the filling is hot - 1 to 3 minutes depending upon volume and whether anything was frozen. Then wrap and eat. It works with some scrambled eggs too (use one yolk and toss the rest if you are chasing fat and cholesterol).

They know how to throw together an evening meal that will sustain them, even if they're really busy and don't feel like following a fancy recipe.

Stop cooking with recipes. Think of them as ideas for what to do rather than rulebooks (except when baking cakes, cookies and other chemistry projects). Do your own thing. In a short while you will make these recipes without consulting a recipe book etc. Learning comes by doing. Doing by yourself, rather than following by rote, promotes faster learning.
posted by caddis at 11:01 PM on July 9, 2006

You don't have to prepare three meals a day, five or six days a week. You have to prepare one a day, five or six days a week.

Breakfast can be easy; keep some staples in the house. I like papaya and almond butter; cottage cheese or yogurt, the old standby cereal and milk, a dozen eggs and some sliced cheese for omelets...breakfast can take as little or as much time as you want. There's nothing wrong with a bowl of whole-grain cereal and milk. Eggs are also easy and good.

Anytime you make dinner, make a double recipe (or, if you're a single person, a half-recipe (most recipes are for two to six people...just check the number of servings it makes)). Eat one fresh. Wrap the other up for lunch. Two meals for the price of one. If you don't feel like messing around with halving recipes, just make a whole one and chuck the leftovers in the freezer in individual serving containers; then you've got a whole bunch of lunches available. (I recommend labeling stuff in the freezer with what and when you made can get messy in there.)

I hate shopping so I try to go no more than once a week. Then the "spoil times" of meats plan my meals for me: fish on shopping day, chicken the one or two days after, then pork, then beef, then frozen fish or frozen shrimp. That's a week of meals right there. And since you know what meat you're having, it's easy to get together a list of a favorite recipes for each meat and then just shop for those.

You can do a LOT with a plain baked chicken--roast chicken with some sauteed veggies one day, then tortilla pockets/burritoes with the cooked meat, then make stock out of the bones (cover with water, boil, strain, chill), soup with any other leftover meat...etc. Lentil soup with chicken meat is great.

Be proud of yourself! You may think all of your friends know how to put together meals but I assure you that most people don't have a clue how to boil water...nor do they care. You're taking good care of yourself, and even if you don't cook a couple days a week what? And even if you totally screw up a meal (yes, it will happen), you order pizza or make some pasta. No big deal; try again tomorrow. Have fun with it! Even if you try an food experiment and it turns out learned something doesn't work. :)

Good luck!
posted by fuzzbean at 11:37 PM on July 9, 2006

You need to figure out meal plans that reuse basic ingredients.

For example:

Shopping list
4 chicken breasts
2 lbs lean hamburger
1/2 lb of ham from the deli
1 loaf of whole wheat bread
6 eggs
Barbecue sauce
1 can of low sodium mushroom soup
3 potatoes
3 tomatoes
Cheddar cheese
1 can of tuna
1 small container of sour cream

Day One
Bake 4 chicken breasts
Bake 3 potatoes (microwave is okay)
Slice up and freeze one chicken breast.
Slice up 2 other chicken breasts and put in fridge.
Slice up a tomato.

Ham sandwich for lunch
Eat 1 chicken breast with a baked potato and sour cream and sliced tomato.

Day 2
Mix chicken breast with mayo and turn into a chicken salad sandwich for lunch.
For dinner, spoon salsa and cheese over a chicken breast. Serve with sour cream, if you like. Fry up a sliced up potato.

Day 3
Lunch: ham sandwich
Scramble some eggs, ham, and the last potato (diced) with cheese. Serve with toast and salad.

Day 4
Fried egg sandwich for lunch.
Saute 2 lb of hamburger. Drain.
Mix half of hamburger with a taco mix package. Serve with tortillas, salad, cheese, sour cream and salsa.
Put 3/4 of the remaining hamburger in the freezer.
Put 1/4 (what's left over) in the fridge.

Day 5
Lunch: Put some cooked hamburger and barbecue sauce in a bun. Serve with salad.
Tacos again!

Day 6
Tuna sandwich for lunch
Dinner: reheat hamburger and mix with canned mushroom soup. Serve over pasta with sour cream -- easy stroganoff. Put leftovers in fridge.

Day 7
Tuna sandwich again (leftovers)
Dinner is the remainder of the beef stroganoff.

(Sorry, I'm making this up on the fly, but I hope you get the idea.)
posted by acoutu at 11:39 PM on July 9, 2006

There seems to be more to your question than meal preparation. I would start by writing down what you are eating now, when and why. Does the company you keep at meal times, or lack thereof, influence you? Were you hungry? How much variety do you need? Some people require more variety than others, some can eat the same things daily. Some people go to the store every day, some once a week. Some won't eat leftovers. This is all normal. Think about what is holding you back and some solutions.

Then write down a schedule of what you think you should be eating. The more scheduled your daily activities are, the easier it is to eat regularly. If this is not the case for you, find a way to schedule meals. There were some good examples above as to how to make a menu and convert it to a shopping list. Making a menu will help you to see that it's right until you can feel it in your body. Changing your diet is a big adjustment, ask anyone who has tried to lose weight. It is much more work to eat right than not, for everyone. This is a good thing you are doing for yourself!
posted by kgn2507 at 12:00 AM on July 10, 2006

Do you like to cook? Do you like your kitchen? Do you like to shop?

If the answer to any of these questions is "No." then I'm afraid no amount of motivational exercise is going to help. The good news is, you can learn to like cooking. And you can fix your kitchen. You can even, maybe, (so people tell me) learn to like shopping (but that's the part I like least).

I ask because, in your post, you say you are a "great cook," but you never say you like to cook. If you don't like to cook, being good at it isn't much help in getting yourself to do it. On the other hand, if you like to cook, you miss not doing it for several days. There is a pleasure, almost therapeutic, in coming home at the end of a day, and going through the ritual of making dinner, that brings a day to its proper close, and warms your home, and eases you into evening. If you don't like this, and look forward to the ritual, you don't like cooking, or you don't like taking care of yourself. So, I ask again, do you like to cook? If not, there's your trouble, and you need to think about that, or figure out how to live, not liking to cook.

If you do, generally, like to cook, but are out of the habit of it, maybe the problem is related to my other initial questions, and we'll get to them in a minute. But maybe you're just having trouble with establishing a ritual. Try easing into making dinner, by making yourself a drink. Doesn't have to be alcoholic, although I like to vary things with the season. Summertime, I might make a dry Rob Roy for starters, whereas in spring or fall, I might have a beer, or a vermouth and soda, or even a cup of tea. Just something to drink, that's good, and poured out of the container it came in. Don't snack, don't nibble, just make your drink, drink it while you get things lined up to start making dinner, and then sit down and finish your drink, and turn on some news or music. Then, start dinner.

Whatever you do, find a set of rituals that work for you, and stick to them. That's what ritual is for.

Turning now to my other initial questions, if you don't like your kitchen, fix it. Seriously. Some good advice, some of it by me, in above linked AskMe threads you should check out. Buy kitchen equipment that suits your cooking style, and your hands (many women have small, weak hands, and do better with food processors than knives, etc. Buy what works for you.) Put your equipment and dishes where you and guests can work with them easily. Eliminate decorative clutter, and maximize counter space. Etc. Etc.

Finally, as to shopping. In my experience, you are either a list making, coupon clipping eagle eyed comparison shopper, or you're an impulse buyer who knows what they like in a grocery store...:-) If you are the former, let your organization drive and inform your shopping. I used to eschew lists, but I live 2 blocks (in 3 different directions) from 3 different big chain grocery stores -- no big deal for me to pop down to the store any time I've forgotten something, and I can get meat one place and produce another, with very little trouble. Your situation might not be as convenient. Adapt as necessary.

But in the last months, I've become a list maker. Making real grocery lists, and sticking to them has help me shop more effectively, and with less effort and time. I plan meals better, and rarely don't have needed ingredients on hand when it is time to cook. I spend less, and my cupboards stay more organized.
posted by paulsc at 12:03 AM on July 10, 2006

The best answer for me was to start on the Low GI diet - not because the diet is nessesarily all that great, but because it tells you what to eat, when and in what quantities.

I have a piece of paper that tells me that today I'll have bran flakes and milk for breakfast, some dried figs at 10, salmon sandwiches for lunch, hot chocolate at 4, chicken fajitas at 6-8 and a bowl of jelly/jello at 8-10.

The regularity of it works for me, and I know the way it's laid out works for a lot of people with eating disorders, which in a weird way I guess is the same thing - my eating disorder is forgetting to eat.

If you want more details, email me. I might even have the fortnight's menu in a doc file somewhere. email address is in my profile.
posted by twine42 at 4:50 AM on July 10, 2006

One of the things that a lot of diet plans recommend lately is to NOT eat 3 meals a day - instead focus on eating small portions of what you're hungry for at snack intervals and stop when you're full. If it's the idea of 3 square meals you crave, if it doesn't work with your lifestyle or eating habits it might not be entirely necessary anyway. On the other hand, if what you want is tv-sitcom type "normal" routine (which I find not so normal anyway, growing up for me dinnertime varied from 4pm to 9pm and could involve anything from making a sandwich for yourself to eating a huge meal with 8+ family members and friends showing up at scattered times)..

I generally go to a variety of stores during the week (whatever I'm near that day) and pick up anything on sale. 3 packs of chicken for $10? It can be frozen. Corn on the cob is cheap? The peppers look really fresh? I know what I'll be eating. Then I come home and go to Google and search "chicken peppers recipe" and voila. Whatever I have all the ingredients for is what I make. (Bonus: lots of recipe sites now let you change the proportion of ingredients for making less than the original portions.) I keep a supply of all the common spices I see show up routinely in the kinds of cooking I like best, and try to leave some basic extras lying around (a bottle of white wine, butter and some frozen veggies in the freezer, lots of garlic gloves or a jar of pre-crushed garlic, a few tomatoes, etc) in the fridge to make sure I'm not stuck when it comes to a recipe.

Maybe my method is a bit slapdash, but I've gotten to try tons of recipes I never would have looked at before just based on what the seasonal veggies or sale meats are and what kind of recipes they fit into, and by keeping a supply of normal ingredients lying around I only very rarely have to make a last minute run to the grocery to find some random ingredient. When I'm feeling especially prepared I check out a lot of similar recipes the night before and decide what my staple ingredients for the week are going to be - right now it's zucchini everything. I really enjoy cooking, and when I don't feel up to it I see nothing wrong with going to pick up some take-out meals as long as they're healthy.

One thing I've had drilled into my head is to USE SEASONAL INGREDIENTS - it's cheaper, gives you some variety, and doesn't require driving all over the place to find stuff that isn't in season. If spinach and lettuce are around, it's time for salads, etc. Tomatoes, make sauce and freeze it - there's nothing better than having stuff already finished hiding in the freezer. If I'm making soup, I make an extra pot of broth and save it for a few weeks or months down the line. It's definitely cheaper to make more at once and either keep eating it or freeze it for later.
posted by muscatlove at 5:13 AM on July 10, 2006

Try How To Cook Without A Book. It teaches techniques and gives you options for ingredients. It also has a list of ingredients to keep on-hand in the pantry, freezer, and fridge. It will absolutely address the "This is what normal people eat and buy" question.
This is the book for you.

I keep a grocery list in Excel and I print it out about once a month. I put it on the fridge, and circle what we run out of as we run out of it so I can get more the next time I grab the list for a shopping trip.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 5:32 AM on July 10, 2006

I feel like there are two things that are maybe going on here. (1) is the "everyone but me has rudimentary cooking skills" thing, which I can assure you is totally not true. I am about a year out of college and I am still figuring out this whole concept of "you can cook things without a recipe? you're allowed to do that? and you won't die?" Everyone else has had really good advice for this, and my experience is that, with practice, cooking, and the concept of doing it wrong, becomes less scary.

But I get the impression there is also (2) which is "my parents were not able to model life skills for me and I am having difficulty acquiring them because the very concept is alien to my childhood." All I can suggest here is find your own models. I spent a summer living (and shopping) with two friends-who-can-cook, which was great for my shopping skills; I still make desperate phone calls. "I don't have any food! It's too late to go shopping! What do I do?" Or ask one of their moms to model the behavior for you. Moms love doing things like that. Seriously. Just tell them you're having some difficulty adjusting to the concept of cooking on your own, you're not particularly close to your own mother, and you need some Mom Shopping Tips. I think, from my own experiences and from talking with friends who also have mentally ill parents, that finding other people to model the behavior your parents couldn't handle is really helpful. The concept of having to figure everything out on your own is overwhelming and being able to say, "Okay, I am just going to do things like X does them, because I know she is doing them right," makes you feel like you have a framework to build on.

In summary, maybe what you need truly is someone to take you by the hand and say, "This is what normal people buy at the grocery store. This is how people go to the store on Sunday and decide what they're going to eat each night of the week. This is how people eat when they're not in crisis mode." It's awkward to ask that, so maybe you just want to follow along and see how they do it ("because I don't feel like going to the store by myself today, X!") but it is totally okay to need that and I think it is pretty normal for someone who has/had mentally ill parents. I don't know of any specific resources for situations like this, but exploit your friends; that's what they're there for.
posted by posadnitsa at 5:48 AM on July 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I like the book What To Cook When You Think There's Nothing in the House To Eat. The author talks about stocking a pantry and there are plenty of interesting recipes. Not all of them are winners (ok, yuck, sardines?) but it has helped to open my mind to possibilities when I can't get to the store.
posted by cabingirl at 6:57 AM on July 10, 2006

I just wanted to chime in to say that I had gone through a couple years of striving to do what you're doing - having a perfectly organized grocery shopping & mealtime routine (along with perfectly organized housework, exercise, hobby, etc routines). I thought that this was "normal" and that *everyone else* had their shit together but me.

What I did was to start polling my friends on what they eat for different meals (and also their housework & other routines). Very few people I know prepare each of their meals from scratch each day. There is no such thing as "normal" and very few people are truly organized and "together" with regards to their daily routines.

For example..."normal" breakfasts can range from: Nothing, Just some coffee, cereal with milk, fruit & cottage cheese, scrambled eggs & toast, a bagel with cream cheese, a banana and a granola bar, some yogurt, etc.

"Normal" Lunches seem to range from: Salad bar salads, leftovers from home, frozen meals (a la Lean Cuisine, or similar products), sandwiches (turkey, pb & j, ham & cheese, tuna salad, etc), or take-out.

"Normal" Dinners are tricky...and these tend to be the main meal that people really do a lot of cooking for. A lot of 20-somethings I know stick with things that are easy - pasta & sauce, macaroni & cheese, grilled chicken breasts and some sort of rice, etc. I also have friends who eat cereal for dinner, or some popcorn and fruit, or crackers & cheese, or whatever else they're in the mood for. And let's not forget the frozen pizza, delivery pizza, Chinese food takeout group.

So...I guess what I'm trying to say is to not be so hard on yourself. It sounds like you feel a little lost, like you don't know how to get your life routines in order. The important thing is to realize that MOST people don't have their shit together. If you work full time and have other responsibilities, and you don't just LOOOOVE to cook, it might not be feasible to cook meals from scratch 7 nights a week. At the supermarket, look for convenience foods that are somewhat nutritious (my staples are Annie's Whole Wheat macaroni & cheese, frozen vegetables, bagged salads, etc). Pick a couple of recipes each week to plan to prepare, and start from there.

It's really difficult, and often discouraging, to try & go from not cooking at all to making everything you eat from scratch.
posted by tastybrains at 7:10 AM on July 10, 2006

I'm also a disorganised shopper who much prefers to eat food that I've made "from ingredients" than store-bought stuff. I find a freezer really helps here. With lots of rice and pasta in the cupboard and a huge number of empty margarine pots (they stack, unlike ziplock bags) I can live quite happily on things I've cooked earlier. I do eat a lot of sauce+stodge based meals (pasta + tomato + kidney beans, rice + curry, potato + chilli, etc.) but at least I cook them all myself. I make a lot of soups as well - I like soup and it's a tasty healthy snack.

So the key for me is a freezer and some boxes. On the nights I feel like cooking I make a huge curry/pasta sauce/risotto/stew and freeze the leftovers. Every now and then I notice that I've been eating more from the freezer than I put in, and I make a concerted effort to "stock it up" again over a weekend.

If you want to go down this route, here are a few things that are fairly easy to cook and freeze well: veggie curry; chilli (both veggie and meat chilli are fine frozen); tomato based pasta sauces; ratatouille; dhal (lentil curry); any old stew recipe. Pop by the shop for something fresh (a lettuce or something) on the way home and you're sorted.
posted by handee at 7:40 AM on July 10, 2006

I have a friend who is a pastry chef, who has a toddler and a job and therefore a hectic schedule, who makes herself a weekly menu every Sunday. She plans every meal, on paper, and makes a grocery list from that.

That would drive me crazy but might work for you. If nothing else, doing it for a few weeks might give you the structure to figure out how much planning you really need to do.

What I do is buy random ingredients that work in pastas, plus a roast, because that's what I make: the roast provides one meal (generally on the weekend when I have more time) and its leftovers provide lots of lunches (I premake a week's worth of lunches for my husband and I to take to work), and otherwise, well, pasta is quick and easy and does not require a recipe. I get a couple of different kinds of sauces (I am lazy and use pre-made sauce even though I know how to make my own) and some bags of frozen vegetables and just throw it together when I need to make a meal.

When I lived alone, I just had a crazy cooking day on Sundays. I would invite a friend over, and we'd plan a menu by email ahead of time and go grocery shopping Sunday morning and then spend the day listening to music and gossiping while we cooked. Then we'd divvy everything up into single-serving containers and split them. We typically made two or three dishes, so we'd have some variety. That gave us enough food for the week (both lunches and dinners) and through the week all we had to do was microwave them.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:05 AM on July 10, 2006

Let me be the millionth vote here for planning ahead - whether you choose to plan a full week's worth of meals or a few days at a time. My husband and I used to throw out a lot of spoiled food and make a lot of trips to the store for one or two things. Then in 2005, we came up with the crazy idea of seeing if we could cook something different for dinner every night (mostly because we were kind of cooking the same ten things over and over again). You know what? Planning and shopping all at once for five meals a week for two people turned out to be a lot less work than planning and cooking on the fly.

My advice is to cook with a friend, like joannemerriam suggests, or start with 2-3 meals a week if you're cooking for yourself. Choose a larger baked dish or stew that will serve as lunch leftovers, something quicker like a stirfry (you can prep the ingredients in the morning or the night before so they're ready when it's time to make dinner), and another dish you're interested in learning that doesn't look too complex, or require you to add a lot of new ingredients to your kitchen - build up slowly. Then, add a few lunch-type things to your shopping list (what would you like to eat with your leftovers? Fruit? Yogurt? Granola bars?) and staples like milk and bread - and you're pretty much done.

I recommend the following sources for recipes: Fine Cooking magazine (really a misnomer - should be Uncomplicated, Tasty Food Which Won't Require a Trip to a Specialty Grocery Store), (my sister-in-law selects only recipes with their highest rating when searching, and it seems to work), and using Google to link up ingredients you have to find recipes which can use them - add the word "recipe" and use quotes judiciously. I also add terms like "best recipe" or "world's best" and have gotten good returns.

Have fun!
posted by deliriouscool at 10:49 AM on July 10, 2006

First, understand that this is a skill you can acquire. It may take some practice, but you can do it, and you may learn to enjoy the challenge. I get a small but genuine satisfaction from using the last bits of this and that to create a delicious meal seemingly from nowhere. It's like alchemy!

In a recent thread, chickietworks gave a brief and very sensible description of planning a few days' menus around a central perishable ingredient, and how to combine shelf-stable and non-perishable ingredients with fresh produce to create markedly different flavors.

In a not-so-recent thread, Miko got some great advice on using up a whole chicken without getting tired of, you know, chicken. Even if you don't particularly like chicken, or you don't eat meat, this is a good example. Whatever you've bought, think of new ways to present it.

The Food Network's Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller centers around the idea of overlapping recipes and ingredients for several meals. I haven't made any of her recipes, but you might find the general techniques and, as you say, the modelling of the basic skill, useful.

Having said that, I'll admit that I rarely plan ahead consciously; I just know that I have staples in my fridge and pantry, so I can use up perishables in a variety of ways. When I serve roasted vegetables, I cook extra: onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter or summer squash, asparagus, carrots, mushrooms. Then I have the leftovers on hand for a delicious vegetarian sandwich, or to throw into a quick frittata or omelet, or to serve with hummus in a pita, or to dice and toss into soup, or to chill in dressing and throw on baby greens with nuts and cheese for a filling salad, or... You get the idea. Be patient with yourself as you're learning, and notice what staples you always like to have on hand. You'll have fun!
posted by Elsa at 11:41 AM on July 10, 2006

I have not read all the responses so I don't know if this was mentioned..
It does cost but they have sample menus that include 6 different meals with a shopping list.
posted by nimsey lou at 3:15 PM on July 10, 2006

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions - thank you!
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:59 PM on July 10, 2006

Even people from "normal" families have to figure this stuff out for themselves when they are living on their own for the first time. Don't beat yourself up for not automatically knowing how to do this!

Here's a case study, because it sounded like that might be part of what you're after.

I'm vegetarian and am content to eat more or less the same thing week after week. For me, the key to the whole "care and feeding of self" thing is to make it so that I don't need to think about it too much. Lots of people get joy from thinking a lot about their food, and I do that sometimes. But most of the time I would rather be thinking about other things, and if I have to make a big decision about what to eat every day it drives me nuts. So, if any of that sounds like you, here's what I have found works for me:

I eat the same thing for breakfast every day: orange juice, milk and whole-grain cereal. I'm not a morning person, so it's good for me not to have to make any decisions in the morning!

For lunch, I have some kind of sandwich on whole grain bread. (PB and J; cheese, lettuce, tomato, fake sandwich meat; hummus and tomato.) I'm usually out of the house mid-day, so I buy lunch out probably 3 days a week.

For dinner, I have a small repetoire of simple dinner dishes that I can throw together without looking at a recipe, and each week I stock up the pantry so that I can choose on the fly which of them to make. Roughly these are:
- pasta with tomato sauce from scratch and veggies
- pasta with cheesy sauce from scratch, with veggies and fake sausage
- black beans and rice
- veggie chili with fake ground beef
- omelets with veggies, cheese, fake meats
- Thai stir-fry with marinated tofu and veggies, over rice noodles
- curry-from-a-jar with marinated tofu and veggies, over rice
- risotto, with various veggies

(Notice that almost all of these recipes begin with: sautee onions and garlic in some olive oil. Once you've gotten that far, the kitchen starts to smell like dinner, and you will have more motivation to finish the job! Plus notice that most of these dishes allow you to add whatever's on hand, and to be as creative or boring as you want.)

So the basics that I always have on hand are: milk, oj, cereal, whole grain bread, peanut butter, fake sandwich meat, canned chick peas and tahini for making hummus, pasta, olive oil, butter, onions, garlic, canned whole tomatoes, block cheddar cheese, canned black beans, white rice, canned kidney beans, fake ground beef, eggs, fake sausage, tofu, soy sauce, rice noodles, jarred curry, arborio rice, block parmiggiano reggiano cheese, and whatever veggies look good (usually peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, green onions; sometimes asparagus, string beans, mushrooms or acorn squash)

I also generally get: packaged salad greens, feta cheese, and nuts, so I can have a salad quickly and easily. Boxed macaroni, canned soup, frozen pizza, frozen veggie burgers. Yogurt. Fruit jam. Apples, which keep well and are good for lunch or for cutting into chunks and adding to several of my staple dishes.

When making a shopping list, I just list the staple items I have run out of. Then, in addition, I can get whatever seems fresh or tempting in the grocery store, and plan a special meal around that... but I don't have to, because the basics are covered. I don't have to decide in advance what I will make on which day, but I never have the feeling of "there's nothing at all to eat in the house."

It took me several years of living on my own to figure this framework out, though. Maybe try to figure out what your "basic" few dishes are -- the ones you like well enough to eat regularly, and which you can make with very little thought -- as a framework to start with?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:30 PM on July 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Second Saving Dinner. I've been subscribing off and on for a a couple of years. The recipes are easy, nutritious and tasty. The cost is less than $1 per week. After a while, you'll be able to plan and cook your meals for the week on your own, if you want.
posted by Skychief at 10:03 PM on July 11, 2006

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