Thursday, January 27, 2011

Planning a menu, part 1

Why make a menu plan? Well, if you're anything like me and you head over to the grocery store without any specific ideas (aka, a list), you end up coming home with snacks, some veggies, maybe some meat and a gallon of milk. And then they sit in the refrigerator while we go out to dinner because I have no idea what to make.

I've been cooking for myself for close to 20 years now and think the only recipe I have completely memorized is Broccoli and Garlic Penne. And that's because the ingredients are broccoli, garlic and penne pasta. OK, plus salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese. But I always have those on hand so they don't really count.

So unless you're some mastermind with a treasure trove of recipes memorized, I think you can agree with me that making a plan is a very good thing. Now we just have to figure out how to do it. There are as many ways to make a menu as there are cooks. I'm not going to tell you my way is the only way; it's just what works for me. Here's what I do.

  1. I start by looking at my/our schedule for the upcoming week and figure out how many meals I will need. Typically, I shoot for 5 meals, knowing that my fresh veggie supply will have to be replenished after that many days. And also realizing that despite my best attempts, there will possibly be a restaurant or take-out dinner somewhere in there.
  2. Decide the different types of meals I want to make. For me, this means one soup/salad dinner, one or two chicken meals, a beef night, pork and hopefully something vegetarian. The last one's an ongoing struggle for me as my husband's tastes run to more meat and potatoes fare, but I'm working on it.
  3. And speaking of my husband (let's call him Bob - because that's his name), if he's going to be out of town for work, I'll be sure to plan dinners that I wouldn't normally make and will look forward to cooking. It's hard enough to motivate myself to cook for two and in the past, going solo usually meant I treated myself to some take-out. But to be honest, I tended to find myself catching up on some trash TV and before I knew it, it was 7pm, if not later. And my local take-out options? Not so great.

  4. Next up? This part varies week to week, depending on my mood and energy level. I have a growing collection of cookbooks, I subscribe to a few cooking magazines and I read far too many cooking blogs. I also have recipe software (MasterCook Deluxe, to be exact) and although it came with its own collection of recipes, I've never used any of them. Instead, I use the program to import recipes from the web or wherever else I find them. It's not the best software, but it keeps everything in one place and it saves me from printing recipes. So, to make this long story short, depending on what I feel like, I go through my cookbooks, search online and/or sometimes just scroll through my handy-dandy MasterCook for ideas.
  5. Once I've found recipes that sound appealing, I do a double-check to make sure they're something I can pull off within my time constraints. If I want to make something more time consuming (like 2 1/2 hour Carbonnade a la Flamande), I'll plan to make it over the weekend, when I have more flexibility.

  6. Ooh, and don't forget side dishes! This is where I typically fall short. It's great when I can combine them in the same pan as the main course, like a roasted chicken. But that doesn't work for everything so I usually end up with something simple on the side. Steamed or roasted vegetables, basic green salad and sometimes a rice or grain.
  7. Finally, after a quick check of my cupboards, freezer and refrigerator to check on ingredients, I put everything on a list to take to the grocery store. And that's it!

OK, so I might have lost a few of you back there on number 4. I realize not everyone's as crazy as I am about hunting down recipes. I promise Part 2 will offer a more stream-lined solution. And in the meantime, see if you can guess what I'm making in that picture at the top. I know no one's coming here to see more pictures of empty pots and pans!

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