Wednesday, January 31, 2018

In My Kitchen: Planning and Listing

New in my kitchen this month: my resolve to label things as I store them in the freezer. For this, I bought freezer tape!

In the past, I didn't label these containers, and just had to guess what the contents were. Now I know. Freezer tape rules!
This gets me to a topic that I've been wondering about: how do people decide what's for dinner? Sometimes my own "planning" is just to pull out one of those boxes. With my new labels, I have a better idea of what to expect when I warm up the contents!

Reading blogs and online kitchen advice inspired me to examine the way I figure out what we're having for meals. Mostly I prepare food from scratch using what's on hand -- but starting at the last minute. Meals include breakfast, almost daily lunch, and dinner every night: we eat in most of the time. Sure, I sometimes identify recipes that I've been meaning to try, and buy the ingredients and get my act together for experiments. But not every day. Mostly I don't know what we are going to eat until we are almost ready to set the table. I'm beginning to think this is eccentric.

Elaborate meal-planning advice like this abounds on sites like this example at and lots of blogs,
but I never do anything like a weekly plan. 
In particular, I can't believe the suggestions I see about printing out complicated shopping-list templates and laboriously filling them out by hand. It's 2018 and most people carry a smart phone with great listing capabilities with them all the time. For the last few years, thanks to Evelyn's example, I've been using the iPhone for my shopping list.
Screen shot of iPhone
Reminder app.

Milk low? Oatmeal used up? Cereal boxes mostly down to dust? (Yes, we eat boxed cereal -- sorry, not sorry.) Only one stick of butter left in the freezer? Peanut butter or jam jars almost scraped clean? Spice jars emptied? Exotic recipe requires chicken, eggplant, okra, and small hot peppers, as in the exotic stew I made earlier this week? Craving cookies or ice cream? When we need things, they go on the iPhone Reminder app.

The iPhone list is shared, so when my husband uses up an item he can add it to the very same list with his iPhone. And if he does the shopping, he can automatically check off the items and my iPhone knows it too. I guess it's in the cloud. Over time this list has also come to include specifications of unusual light bulb types, furnace filter size, battery requirements, and other stuff that's so easy to lose track of -- when things run out, they just get checked back on the list. True, there's no way to sort the list, which rearranges itself mysteriously as things are checked off and put back on, but I've gotten used to this challenge. However, I digress.

Let's get back to the original question, What's for dinner? Around 5 PM most days, I ask myself what I feel like eating, and what I feel like cooking. (Obviously if we have invited guests, I'll already have things well in hand by 5 PM -- I mean days when it's just the two of us.)

Dinner depends on these questions and answers:
  • Is anything approaching its final use-up-by-now date on the store packaging? Obviously, the presence of 2-day-old meat or ready-to-wilt lettuce is an overwhelming factor in what we'll eat.
  • No urgent choices? Well, what's in the freezer? When I cook meatballs or stew I usually make extra for the freezer. I buy frozen salmon in packages from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. I foil wrap Costco lamb chops or steaks in dinner-sized quantities and freeze them. I rely on frozen peas and corn or canned red, white, or black beans to add to many dishes. Recently, as I noted, I've been doing better with labels so there aren't quite as many mystery dinners.
  • Another question: did we have a large or a small lunch? What was it?  If we had egg salad for lunch, we aren't having omelets for dinner. If we had hot dogs or chili for lunch maybe a lighter salad would be good for dinner. And so on. Other side of the coin: if I do know what's for dinner, that helps me decide about lunch.
  • Above all: do I feel lazy or ambitious? Always a good question, which is a reason to keep nice bread in the freezer and sliced cheese, deli meat, or leftover roast in the fridge, ingredients for a quick soup or tuna for salad in the pantry, and salad vegetables ready to use. Yes, I keep boxed soup on the shelf, but usually add veggies when I make it. Yes, I use salsa out of a jar. No, I don't make my own tortillas. I'm not a fanatic about from-scratch cooking, just prefer it.
My lettuce storage box: empty right now because I'm
waiting for the lettuce supply to be safer.
A note on salad: recent publicity about the contamination of romaine lettuce with e-coli has been a real challenge, since I usually buy leaf lettuce, wash it in advance, and store it in a purpose-made crisper box to make salad prep less of an obstacle. I also sometimes cut up veggies in advance, to facilitate last-minute prep. We have salad for lunch or dinner just about every day, so this is an important issue.

I don't use bagged lettuce, but I understand why busier people do use it. I detest bottled salad dressings, but don't mind if I'm offered a salad where someone else used them -- I love using oil, vinegar, and mustard or making a yogurt-based salad dressing. So having ingredients ready to make a salad is one of my best planning devices.

    A few more new toys in my January kitchen

    My new kitchen torch -- which I've documented in two posts
     this month -- has now been joined by ramekins for crème brûlée.
    The torch (upper right) is shown the caramelizing sugar topping.
Shiny flakes of caramelized sugar on top of smooth crème pâtissière!

Why am I interested in meal planning?

Two groups of food bloggers gave me the idea to write about meal planning and organization, and I will be sharing this post with them:

Sherry at the blog Sherry's Pickings hosts a monthly blogging event called "In My Kitchen." Bloggers from around the world write posts about new food products and gadgets in their kitchens, and link their posts on Sherry's blog. A number of these bloggers have been participating in this event for a long time. Meal planning is an occasional topic of their posts, as well as related subjects like how to preserve what's growing in their gardens. It's fun to see what these bloggers are cooking each month because some of them are in the Northern Hemisphere like me, and others are in Australia and other places and thus using fruits and vegetables of a totally different season.

"Beth Fish" is the pseudonym of an editor and writer who blogs at Beth Fish Reads. Each Saturday she reviews cookbooks or writes about her own food-related activities and also hosts "Weekend Cooking" where a group of bloggers link to their posts about food or about anything they consider related to food. She's written quite a few reviews of books that discuss how to plan meals, shop, and organize your cooking life, and the bloggers in the group also return to the subject from time to time. They've thus made me aware of a number of questions on how to organize.


Kitchen Riffs said...

Yup, we have one of those list thingies our our phones too. We usually go to the grocery store together, and often split up and get different things. And we can eliminate them from the list and we can both see what's going on in real time, so if I'm getting butter and I see my wife has already gotten cat food, I know I don't need to. Anyway, I need to start using freezer tape! I usually have a pretty good idea of what's in the freezer, but I've gotten fooled. We always take a daily walk, and shortly before we do it we'll discuss dinner -- in case we need to walk to the grocery store and pick something up. I've never planned daily menus -- how will I know what I feel like eating a week in advance? :-)

Shari from GoodFoodWeek said...

Yum - some great things in your kitchen this month.

Beth F said...

For all of my adult life until about 3 years ago, I cooked like you and had no issues or stress of what to make for dinner. I liked winging it, and I was excellent at cooking that way. Then I started meal planning. For several reasons: I had a million recipes and techniques I wanted to try but never could because I didn't have the ingredients on hand. I wanted to be more sensible about our food bills. I wanted to waste less food. My husband became semi-retired and was willing to help in the kitchen but he needs recipes. Now I plan our dinners most weeks. I've tweaked my method so it allows flexibility and mood cooking. I may go back to winging it, but for now I'm enjoying making my way through all those recipes.

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

I do prepare dinner almost every night. Usually have a homemde protein rich bean or lentil soup, always a salad and then we are fairly simple in a choice of maybe an omelette, some type of cheese, my husband will eat sardines, some avocado on the salad etc. When I grocery shop, I pick from the vegetables and salad that is in season and looks goo. I guess I never plan in advance unless I'm having guests. Never really thought about it.. Good post - thanks

Debra Eliotseats said...

Winter is pretty hectic for us and I have the best of intentions. I was a little on the fence about continuing with Blue Apron but will continue through the winter months every other week just for the convenience of not having to shop and not having to plan. I wish I could be better organized to shop thoroughly for the whole week.

Sherry M said...

Hi Mae
I’m afraid I’m terribly slack when it comes to meal planning. I wing it and then have to rush down the shop to get ingredients for dinner:). Have fun with your blow torch 🔦 and thanks so much for joining in this month. Cheers S.

Laurie C said...

I do meal plans for myself when I want to try a new recipe or make something again since I only cook dinner maybe once a week. Hubby usually makes dinner for us both, and I work till 9 two nights a week. I LOVE the idea of the shopping list on the phone, because we still are old-school with a list on the fridge, but would need to convince hubby to go back to using a smartphone. He loves his flip phone.

Jeanie said...

This is a super interesting post for me, Mae. I'm not much of a meal planner. I plan "big" meals (holidays and such) and I more or less plan Sunday dinner but I'm not a huge make-and-freeze person, apart from pesto and I really should eat that up now because it HAS been there awhile. I always have the emergency pasta supplies but for the most part I'm almost like a European shopper, since the store is so close to me -- at least when it comes to main dish. I need to think about this one!

Kim Bultman said...

Mae, you did a marvelous job torching the tops of your creme brulee's! I also loved your oval ramekins and well organized freezer. (Remind me to get freezer tape...) I still write out my grocery list by hand because I organize it by "aisle" to get in and out of the grocery store quickly.

As for meal planning, it's pretty much a matter of opening the fridge or freezer in the morning and peering at the contents until something pops into my head. :) Sometimes I write out a menu (of sorts) with a week's worth of meal "ideas" based on what's on hand or what needs to be used up, but I don't assign them to any specific day. If all else fails, I ask my hubby what he feels like eating for dinner!

francesca said...

Interesting questions you raise Mae. I also cook everything from scratch and so organisational questions are paramount. It's easier now that we are retired. We have a bit of a set routine- there will be pizza once a week and fish at least once a week. after that, one pasta, one stir fry, and then things get random. I keep a large pantry as we live in the country and can't go to the shops on whim for some ingredient. My garden tends to inspire me to cook. Seasonality is my answer.

Shaheen said...

I do a little food planning over the weekend, make lunch and dinner for three working days, but come Thursday - I fizzle out. Please do use your blow torch a lot more, I have only used mine once and then put it away. I need t make more effort using it.

Kari said...

I love your organisation! It does make a big difference to being able to find and use things.