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Archive for the ‘Epic Meal Planning’ Category

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There is at least one day every June when this is what dinner looks like.

When I started meal planning, I over-planned. I was trying to follow the advice of the existing meal planning wisdom that was available at the time, and it was not written for single people. I was convinced I needed to cook something every night. I was also convinced that I needed to go to the store every week, because that’s what every book I read on the subject advised regarding keeping the pantry stocked. At the time, I was working three part-time teaching jobs in three different counties, so the intention of going to the store every week died quickly. That’s also how my drive-in habit started, because the thought of still having to come home and cook after teaching five classes and being on the road for a collective three or four hours was not appealing.

After complaining to my mother about the difficulties of trying to make this square peg plan fit into the round hole of my life, I was slightly offended when she started laughing. She asked why I was making my life harder than it needed to be. She reminded me that I was the sole decision-maker of my household, and I could therefore decide what to eat and how often I wanted to cook. She also reminded me that I love cereal and sandwiches and that sometimes they make perfectly respectable suppers.

These simple reminders revolutionized my whole thought process about food. They taught me to be flexible.

Flexibility is the ultimate key to a solid meal plan. Many of us associate food with some kind of memory or longing. Most of us make dining choices emotionally at least part of the time. Otherwise, we would only eat what is perfectly good and healthy for us, and we would only eat it at sensible times and in sensible amounts. We also wouldn’t enjoy our meals as much, and I like to enjoy as many aspects of life as possible.

So rather than propose that you rid your plan of flexibility, I say embrace it. Have an idea of what you want to do, but don’t get too upset if your calendar doesn’t exactly reflect your reality. Mine seldom does, and the months with the most change are usually the months that I remember the most fondly.

 

 

I hope you have enjoyed reading my strategies for Epic Meal Planning this month. I am hoping to make the book – which will include my personal recipes and ways to expand or contract the tips to adjust them to your lifestyle – a reality by February. If you would like to keep up with its progress (as well as the progress of future projects), you can sign up for my newsletter here. My first newsletter will go out on Monday, so you can be a part of my inaugural group!

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Merely a cute cup display, or future tiny herb garden?

Yesterday, we talked about self-awareness and the limits that might impose as part of the wrap-up of our Epic Meal Planning journey. Today, we’re reviewing the theme of being aware of the space you have available and finding ways to maximize its usefulness.

I have always wanted to have a garden. I like digging in the dirt, and I like the feeling of accomplishment when I plant something that produces something pretty and/or useful. I have yet to have a backyard of my own where a proper garden would be feasible.

I am not easily daunted, though.

One of my former roommates gave me a green onion plant (i.e., green onion cuttings in a cup of water – dirt optional) one summer. I nurtured it on my sunny windowsill, and I didn’t buy green onions for six months. It only stopped producing because I went away for a week at Christmas and left the temperature of the apartment low enough that it got too chilled to survive.

This little experiment taught me that my space doesn’t have to be my ultimate ideal in order to be useful. And neither does yours.

I can grow enough onions and herbs for me with nothing but a windowsill. And now that I have a small patio, I can start expand into a small container garden next spring. Maybe I’ll grow tomatoes. Maybe I’ll even grow a lemon tree. That will cut down on the grocery list a little.

What are some things you can do to stretch your own space into working better for you?

 

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning Strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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Making my own extracts? Yes. Making my own chili paste? Don’t be ridiculous.

I have a picture in my head of the life I want to have someday, and it looks a little different from the life that I do have. I love my life now, but I also have plans for the future.

In this future life, I have a real pantry and a large freezer. I use storage space so well that I perpetually have enough food in the house that I could eat for two months without going to the store for anything other than the occasional egg or coffee run. And really, if I’m describing the life I want, it’s more likely that I’ll be trading produce from my garden for eggs from the neighbor’s chickens. In this life, I’m making a decent living as a writer so that I have a more flexible schedule, allowing me to plan some other time than my precious, heavily guarded weekends to break out the canning equipment to squirrel away enough tomato sauce, jam, and beans to last the whole year long.

Back in my current reality, however, this is not (yet) feasible.

I can store a few things. I use the space I have efficiently by buying mostly real food instead of processed foods. I can freeze pesto in cubes for a quick sauce because a little goes a long way, and a little is what I have room to store. But tomato sauce is something I have to make every time I want it, because it doesn’t store so compactly.

I have time to make some things from scratch. Vanilla and other extracts are better when you make them yourself, and they’re super easy. You basically pop a vanilla bean in a bottle of vodka and wait a few weeks. Limoncello – almost as easy. But as often as I eat roasted peppers, I don’t have the time to keep up with it roasting them on my own. I always end up buying the jars (or the paste in tubes).

I love baking my own bread. It’s way less expensive and so much tastier than anything I can buy at the grocery store. But I also live in Texas, which means at least half the year, an hour of bread-baking is followed by either three hours of sweating while I wait for the apartment to cool back down or keeping the apartment so tundra-esque that I have to take out a personal loan to pay my electric bill. So I compromise and splurge a little on bakery bread (and bonus – support a local business in the process) during those months.

Part of planning well is self-awareness. It’s recognizing that while you may want to milk your own goat and make your own cheese, you live in an apartment. Recognize your limits. Look for ways to stretch them, but accept those you can’t.

 

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click here to see the master list.

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I love farmers markets that hand out “what the heck to do with this thing you just bought” instructions.

Hello. My name is Suzanne, and I’m a recipe hoarder.

In addition to my trusty meal staples box, I have a little over a hundred cookbooks. I have many food-centric Pinterest boards, and I have a file of recipes that I’ve torn out of magazines, scribbled down at potlucks, or printed from an email. In fact, some of my meal staple cards just have a list of ingredients (for shopping purposes) and where to find the instructions – a website, the specific Pinterest board, or a book name and page number. It used to be the author’s name and page number, but “Nigella” doesn’t help you when you own every cookbook she’s written.

My favorite recipes – many of which you will ultimately find in the Epic Meal Planning book – are my own. They fall into two categories that I call old flames and new loves.

The old flames are mostly family recipes that I have tweaked (and in some cases, altered so completely that the only thing they have in common with the original is the name) to fit my tastes. They generally involve more vegetables, less meat, less (or different) dairy, and more spice.

The new loves are recipes that were born out of an excess of an ingredient. For example, one Thanksgiving, I bought tons of coconut for candy-making and then arrived at the farm to discover that Mom had also bought tons of coconut. So I had a lot left over. Unlike the pickle incident, however, this was a happy accident, because I love coconut. That December was full of coconut waffles and curry. I’m not generally a fan of rice pudding, but when it’s made with homemade coconut milk, you will need to get your own, because that whole pan is mine. Coconut (two kinds – sweetened and unsweetened) is now on my staples list.

But as much as I hoard recipes and as much as I like to sit down and read a cookbook like it’s a novel, I don’t actually use recipes in my day-to-day cooking. I might make something I need a recipe for once or twice a month, and I seldom follow the recipe exactly. Part of the reason for this is because I have made my favorites enough that I could make them in my sleep. But mainly it’s because I learned to cook before I learned to use cooking instructions, and I think this gave me a better understanding of how food chemistry actually works, which ultimately allows me to try new things and still feed myself whether I have specific guidelines or not.

If you are just learning to cook or are unsure of yourself in the kitchen, this is the process I recommend. Ignore the recipes and start out learning basic skills. If you can’t bring yourself to ignore recipes altogether, get some giant like Bittman’s How to Cook Everything or Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab, the likes of which don’t just have recipes but also teach you what all those ingredients and instructions mean and why they work together in that particular way.

For those of you who are more seasoned cooks, your task for the day is to experiment. Take a recipe and swap an ingredient out for something comparable. You may discover a new favorite.

Whether you’re finding new loves or rekindling old flames, learning to be flexible in the kitchen can infuse new life into your meal plan. Even better – it will ensure that you are never at the mercy of an ingredient list.

 

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning Strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

 

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Evidence of successful meal-times

[We interrupt this series to inform you that, due to an overdue vacation and the subsequent earned laziness that requires, the last five days of Epic Meal Planning will be finished this week.]

For some of you, a meal planning system that is as detailed as this one probably seems unnecessary. Some of you might tend to operate better in broad themes rather than itemized, color-coded minutiae.

Today is for you.

If I decide to throw a wrench in my plan by making six dozen cookies on Sunday to share with the office on Monday, I need a plan I can reference to decide quickly if that means I need to make extra time to go to the store that week for more supplies. Otherwise, I get stuck that next Saturday wanting to make biscuits without any butter or flour. Another reason I need a daily plan? When I just eat whatever sounds good, my diet looks like cookies and biscuits (and onion rings…and patty melts…), and that’s how we gain a hundred pounds, which I’m not interested in doing. To make healthy choices on a day-to-day basis, I need to be more intentionally mindful.

You, however, might already have going to the market as part of your weekly schedule. You might enjoy the freedom of eating whatever sounds good that day. You might have picky eaters whose palates refuse to follow a calendar. You might have lots of storage space and a well-honed staples list, and that’s really all that you need to feed yourself and your family well.

At its core, all meal planning is about anticipating needs. There is no best way to do this. Clarification – the best way to meal plan varies wildly from person to person. The best way to plan is the way that works. And that might look different for you than it does for me.

My hope for this month is not that you will try to fit your life into my plan. My hope is that you will take what is helpful and leave the rest behind. If you get discouraged while you are trying this plan, it is likely that you are trying to force something that doesn’t work for you and your needs.

If this happens, go back to the basics. Go back to your staples, and live by that list for a while. This series is presented in a 31-day time frame, but as I have mentioned before, it takes most people longer to create a system that is helpful to them. Take your time.

 

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 days – click to see the master list.

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This year, I threw my first annual Hemingway party. The food was simple and good – like Hemingway’s prose – and the party was alcohol-laden – like Hemingway himself.

Yesterday, we talked about the benefits of planning ahead when you have traditions that you like to celebrate every year. Today, we are going to talk about the importance of having a way to find, share, and save ideas that will make your planning easier.

For me, that way is Pinterest.

I wrote a miniature love note to Pinterest last month, but I want to talk more about it this month. It’s one of my favorite planning tools. I currently have 97 boards, and many of them are categories of recipes that I have tried or that I want to try. This is what keeps my recipe cards down to one box instead of twenty. It also is what helps me plan a party months before it happens.

Some of my traditions have their own boards. I like to have at least one theme party a year, and the Let Me Entertain You board has some great ideas about simple ways to do that. After I finish editing Epic Meal Planning, I’m going to revisit Feast, which will be about Easter specifically, but also celebrations and party planning tips (and three course meals with champagne cocktails) in general. The day after Thanksgiving, my family makes candy, and every once in a while I like to throw something new in the mix.  The year that Maggie and I had a cookie weekend and a pie weekend, both followed by omg-come-eat-all-these-things parties, I collected a lot of recipes that I still use and will revive the next time said parties happen.

Epic Meal Planning also has its own specific board, and I pin recipes and tips to it (as well as all this month’s posts). So if you like what you have been reading here and want to read deeper  or want to see alternatives to the various steps we’ve covered, I try to find at least one alternative method for everything we’ve done. I like to create my own spice list and pantry list, for example, but I’ve been cooking for 20+ years. If you haven’t, that may have been overwhelming to you, so there are pins on this board that give you solid starting lists.

What are your favorite ways to organize your planning tips and ideas?

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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My traditions involve rampant serving platter usage.

When I get my new calendar every year, the first thing I do is mark off my personal traditions. Any time I can foresee feeding or planning food outings for a group of people starts getting dreamed about in January. The parties go on the calendar, and I start planning menus.

Planning menus this far in advance, particularly if you are short of budget, can be a lifesaver. You can start buying things in January for a party in July (assuming they won’t go bad before then *cough*tequila*cough*) so that the party isn’t a burden on your pocketbook and you can enjoy it without eating Ramen noodles the rest of the month (unless you want to. Live your life.).

You can also plan your timeline better if you go ahead and get it on the calendar before everything sneaks up on you. For meals that tend to be big productions, it’s not enough to have the meal itself on the calendar; you also need to plan time to cook. You can even start weeks in advance to make the portions of the menu that can keep for that long. Cookie weekend (tl;dr version – we made multiple dozens of 13 different cookies and then had people come over to eat them and to bring buckets to take some of their favorites to go) would have been less exhausting if we had made some basic doughs – like the shortbread – in advance. I’ve got cookie weekend on the calendar already this year, though, so I’m going to shoot for 20 different cookies. Because I can.

The task for today is to start shopping for next year’s calendar/food planner. If you already have next year’s calendar (my people!), go ahead and plot party days and traditions. You can plot in pencil if you want. But get them on there.

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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