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Archive for the ‘Epic Meal Planning’ Category

Everything is fine

Yep. I feel that. I miss you, sunny, happy mug of yore.

This is the third time I’ve started this post. The laptop I’m using has that annoying button between the G, H, and B. I’m sure there’s some noble reason it’s there, like some accessibility purpose, but it is the BANE OF MY EXISTENCE. Twice I have typed out this post. Twice, a subtle breeze from my finger has blown over said button as I was typing in its vicinity, which was clearly its cue to erase everything immediately. And WordPress helpfully saves the very last draft…which was nothing. *sigh* So now I’m typing in Word, where I can save properly on my own terms, and we’ll see how it goes. Third time’s the charm? Who really knows if you’ll ever read this.

This experience perfectly sums up my life right now. It’s nice that I’m able to type to you on an actual keyboard in the comfort of my home office. I’ll be musing over that fondly, and then suddenly…blank page like I didn’t do anything at all and have to either quit or start all over.

[Sometimes I quit. It’s okay. You can quit some things sometimes.]

I figure I’m feeling this way because *gestures broadly* but also because I’ve been making some positive changes, and some of the habits I already had established don’t know what to do with that. For example, I’m usually pretty up for cooking any given night. But lately, on a lot of nights, it’s cereal and probably also ice cream while bingeing Revenge (I’m on the Justin-Hartley-shirtless-punching-a-speedbag episode. 10/10, highly recommend, and you’re welcome), and I may eat the cereal dry out of the box because bowls are too much work and they refuse to clean themselves (rude).

So here are some food hacks that I’ve found helpful in keeping me from eating four boxes of cereal a week (problematic because you know I do not buy the sensible, healthy kind) and maybe you will find them helpful, too.

  1. Big batch meals. Specifically, I’m really into pasta skillets these days. My favorite is a cheeseburger skillet that I base loosely on this Budget Bytes recipe (you can sub black beans if you don’t have/eat meat, but add garlic and a little chili powder if you do. You know what? Add garlic and chili powder anyway. Garlic and chili powder and whatever other spices you use on your homemade hamburgers are delicious.) You can turn anything into a one-pot skillet meal. Tacos. Pizza. Egg rolls. Options abound. And it makes a lot that you can tuck away in your fridge (or freezer) in serving-size, microwaveable containers for nights when you would rather snack on a handful of gravel than cook something for real.
  2. Soups. Normally, I don’t feel the urge for soup unless temps are at least down to the 60s outside. But this is 2020. Up is down. Dr. Pepper is scarce in Texas. I eat soup in summer. My current favorite is the red lentil soup from Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup. Lots of onions, red lentils, garlic, turmeric, cumin, nigella seeds (I didn’t have any but subbed by going a little heavy on the cumin and adding some freshly ground black pepper, and that was fine), broth. Let it simmer for a half hour while you crisp up even more onions (like…crisp, crisp. Crunchy crisp) to use as a garnish. Simple and also amazing. And it makes a ton. I suppose that makes soup another example of a big batch meal and thus better suited for the first category, but this is not the time to point that out, reader. We’ve gone too far to go back now. It’s done. The point is written. Let’s move on.
  3. Enchiladas. My very favorite way to make enchiladas is to pretend I have a family to feed and order a big pan of them to pick up curbside at Milpa, which I can then graze on for days. As an added bonus, I grab a couple of their specialty frozen margaritas – one for me, one for my imaginary partner who graciously insists I drink them both. But if I’m at home and not wanting to leave but also not wanting to prep and then roll a pan of enchiladas, I use a hack I learned from my friend Michelle (*waves*). Frozen taquitos, enchilada sauce, and cheese. My favorite combo is currently the chicken taquitos, tomatillo salsa, and an abrasively sharp white cheddar. Layer it in a pan and bake it. That’s it. If I’m feeling some extra don’t-wannas, I just throw a few frozen taquitos on a plate and cover them in sauce and cheese and microwave it. Takes two minutes. Little soggy if you get too liberal with the sauce, but a margarita made with frozen limeade (or your juice of choice) and a healthy pour of tequila and triple sec will make you not care about that at all.

There are other ideas, but I feel like I’ve given you sufficient insight into my current state. Feel free to drop more food hacks in the comments. Or recommend your favorite cereal combos (because you mix them up, right? DO IT.). Or a cocktail you think I should try (note: if “muddle” or some similar high-maintenance nonsense is in the instructions, I’m gonna go ahead and look forward to trying that for the first time at your house in the future. Thanks in advance for the invitation.).

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My plans are often quite colorful

It’s hard to feel lucky when my food choices only make me feel like napping. Making good choices that fuel my body and that I actually enjoy eating is an important component of my overall well being.

One thing I’m pretty successful at doing is bringing food to work with me most days. I have my meal planning system to thank for this. Even when I don’t do it exactly as I mapped it out in another 31 days series three years ago, I still use most of the tools I have put in place to make sure that I am eating well.

One of the main points of my meal planning series was that a system that does not fit practically into your own life is not going to work, no matter how beautifully it works for anyone else. Many of us have at least a minor chasm between our ideal and our real. So there are opportunities to tweak it. As for me and my house, we employ a lot of shortcuts:

  • While I believe in my heart that dried beans, soaked and slow cooked to perfection, are far superior, I also believe in keeping canned beans for days when I have no slow-cooked beans but want to add them to a meal.
  • While I understand that chicken is not hard to make, I also understand that a rotisserie chicken from the deli or even canned chicken is even easier.
  • While I get the concept of buying a larger size for economy’s sake, I only buy milk in pints, because I only occasionally use it in sauces, and the larger size is in no way economical if I have to pour most of it down the drain after it’s gone sour.

I also know that my life is busy. Ultimately, I might feel luckier/more at peace if I had more time to breathe and slow cook those beans or a whole weekend afternoon to meal prep for the week. That’s the ideal. But the reality is that right now I have two jobs and a fairly active social life, and I like all of it (or at least I like the payoff of doing all of it), so I’m not really looking to ditch large portions of my schedule at this moment. So I also need quick options that I can assemble from start to finish in 20 minutes or less so that I don’t drive through Taco Cabana every night:

  •  Fruit, cheese, crackers, raw veggies, and maybe salami or prosciutto for an impromptu antipasti plate
  • Eggs for a quick frittata or a protein addition on top of rice, pasta, or potatoes
  • A selection of frozen vegetables – no chopping, quick steam
  • Frozen meal-in-a-bag (Bertolli’s is my favorite)

What are some of the ways you get the fuel you need to make it through your day?

 

I’m writing about practical ways of creating luck this month.

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THE BEST DAY!!!

New Year’s Day is easily one of my top ten favorite days of the year. Maybe even top five. I love setting new goals or revising old ones. I love – if even for just a day – looking forward and being intentionally cheerful about what the year might bring. I looooove breaking in my new planner – saying my official goodbye and thank you to last year’s calendar with its scuffs and battle scars and breaking out the shiny new one.

My word for the year is “core.” I have a pretty strong sense of what is important to me and what traits I want to cultivate the most, but this year is devoted to saying those things out loud (or at least on the internet). I am going to talk more about this later this week, but by the end of the year, I want to see a marked improvement in how my core values shape my goals, commitments, and strength.

I have listed a lot of goals and dreams for the year in my 52 Lists journal, and I won’t bog you down with all of them. But here are the key ones:

  1. Read 100 books. That’s just two a week with a couple of weeks off. That’s how much I read when I am reading consistently. Reading grounds and calms me. I fall out of the habit when I over-commit to other things that leave me drained and stressed, so ideally this goal will help me do more reading and less stressing this year.
  2. Make some of these books really long ones. Specifically, I want to read Don Quixote, Infinite Jest, and Anna Karenina.
  3. Finish the first draft of Fishbowl. My hard deadline for this is June 15, so the year’s end may even find me in revision mode. But the first step is just to finish.
  4. Finish Epic Meal Planning edits. Possibly even publish?
  5. Continue learning Spanish and read at least one book in Spanish (with minimal dictionary usage) by the end of the year.
  6. Take a solitary writing retreat. Criteria: 1) outside Denton, 2) two days minimum, and 3) no Internet.
  7. Go to a coffee shop or wine bar at least once a month. Write more about coffee shops.
  8. Build up my emergency fund and get back in the habit of paying off credit cards fully every month. I’ve lapsed a little, and I don’t like it.
  9. Financial/health combo goal – actually use my gym membership regularly or cancel it. Paying for something I don’t use is ridiculous. So is being sedentary.
  10. Try at least one new recipe a month. My meal planning is in a rut. I need new ideas. Feel free to post your favorites in the comments section.

What do you want your 2018 to look like?

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Carb-load, you say? Don’t mind if I do.*

*Warning: eating this much pasta at once might come closer to inspiring you to lie on the couch rather than replenishing you. There’s a difference between fueling and outright gluttony.

One thing I love about having a regular running practice is that I don’t necessarily monitor what I eat, but I end up eating better anyway. I tend to cut out soda, because running (walking…hiking…breathing) on days that I’ve had a Dr. Pepper is so much harder. I had a Cherry Coke today, and I thought that little hill back to the office was going to kill me. I am also not a fan of running when I’ve had a lot of dairy-intense food, regardless of how many pills I’ve taken to corral the lactose. I tend to stop doing things that make me feel extra exhausted or nauseated.

I also more readily notice food that gives me more energy. I eat pasta more often than usual, but instead of the ratio of pasta-to-vegetable pictured above, it reverses. Veggies become the stars of the dish. I tend to eat more fruit, and I tend to eat more eggs.

I have tried to follow several recommended diet plans for runners in the past. These are not bad plans. Most of them tell you to eat real food and stop eating junk, which is good advice for anyone, really. My focus would wane, though, after about the first couple of weeks (i.e., after the first round of groceries disappeared). I also found I had to tweak most plans too much to make them work for me. So I made my own plan. Running is probably what taught me to meal plan effectively.

What are your go-to snacks/meals when you are increasing your activity level?

 

I’m spending 31 days running wild. 

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My Instagram is cute. My house is not always cute. Sometimes, parts of my house look like this. It’s okay…ish. It could be better. I like it when it’s better.

My schedule has changed recently, so things are falling through the cracks. Things that I’m usually pretty good at, like keeping up with my meal planning calendar and laundry. It’s been a long time since the table beside the couch looked like the picture above. I can’t say that I’ve missed that.

I recently lamented to friends that I was disappointed with how my year of wild is going. As someone who is mostly organized but is also a little fond of and prone to chaos, I was looking forward to wild really shaking my year up. A still life of cups and glasses was not the chaos I had in mind. On the surface, wild hasn’t stirred around much. My life is just as un-wild as it ever has been.

Or so it would seem.

One facet of wild that I am particularly interested in cultivating is freedom. Freedom from shoulds. Freedom from lifeless traditions. Freedom from good advice that doesn’t particularly work for me in practice.

In this way, this year has been super wild, and my progress on my resolutions shows it. I am farther along toward my goals this year than I was at this time last year. Who knew that, instead of just saying, “I do what I want!” while still bending over backwards to fulfill obligations that aren’t really mine to fulfill, intentionally embracing saying no in order to cling to what fulfills me would result in getting what I want done?

Everyone, you say? Literally everyone knew that? Okay. That’s fair.

Anyway, I apologize to wild for being disappointed. Although…don’t go anywhere, wild. We’re not done here.

Perhaps it doesn’t look wild to me because I use structure, but I think this is a misunderstanding of the term. Sometimes I expect wild to be loose and flowy, but then I watch an animal stalk its prey (and by animal, I do mean my mom’s barn cats). Wild definitely requires a certain measure of focus for survival.

So this week, I begin testing a new time management structure. I was inspired by Sarah Bessey’s best practices post. The ones that really stick out to me are actually writing when I have made time to write, setting boundaries but writing them in pencil, and fill your well (because if I’m not reading or eating right or staying active, everything else goes awry). I have added a second job writing SEO content, so it makes sense that my schedule could not continue as it was without something important taking the hit. I imagine it will take a few weeks of tweaking, but I’m confident that it will work.

For those who want to put a little structure in their schedule, it’s pretty simple. I started by making a list of priorities. For me, I thought about what I would need in order to consider myself as having my life together. Keep in mind that I am single and childless and that, for the most part, I operate on a pretty low supply of give-a-damns when it comes to other people telling me what my life should be. If this does not describe you, you’re going to have to concentrate a little more to get past the voices that want to shout over you. When you are listing your priorities, your opinion is the one that matters the most.

[Aside – this is not advice to shut out other people altogether. If you are in a committed relationship and you want to remain in it, you might want to list it as a priority. Please don’t ever use “I’m focusing on me right now” as an excuse to be an inattentive asshole. If you want to break up, just break up. Don’t be passive and shady about it. /psa]

After I had my list of priorities, I divided them into daily, weekly, and monthly lists. I listed each one as specific tasks to complete. For example, for my body weight, I need to drink 100 ounces of water a day to stay hydrated, so that’s what I listed as one of my daily health goals. Decide what you can reasonably do, and quantify each goal on your list. Once you have these lists, document them. I keep a goals calendar, but you can keep up with them in whatever way works for you. It helps you chart your progress.

What process do you use to meet goals?

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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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