Menu Planning for the Rest of Us

I've discussed before what my method of menu planning is. It hasn't changed much with it just being the two of us agin, except that if we don't do it, there's no one to suffer but ourselves!

The basics boil down to:

  • Know what you have in the fridge.
  • Know what's in season/on sale.
  • Know your schedule and be reasonable about what you can accomplish.
  • Make the most of the time you spend cooking. 
With our more-limited freezer space, I find we now focus less on freezing heat & eat foods, and more on having versatile ingredients on hand to make a variety of meals fairly quickly. Instead of making a pan of broccoli mac to put right into the oven, using freezer space for noodles that could otherwise be dry storage and ingredients that can only be used for one possible meal, we have pre-roasted chicken shredded and frozen in meal-size packages just waiting to be casserole, tacos, a pre-made pasta salad for lunches, and more. We buy foods and store them with this idea in mind. 

I already find some menu items troublesome because it's so easy for the amount of food to get away from us or for the effort to do something to not seem worth it for just the two of us (like, meatballs). A friend of mine is living by herself, working and going to school, and committed to the same kinds of whole foods, conservation, self-reliance, reasonable preparedness that we strive for. In helping her brainstorm menu planning ideas, it occurred to me how different our needs are, and how that impacts things like meal choices and food prep. 

We can't plan more than a week in advance. The nature of the restaurant industry is, there's no such thing as a set schedule, or a monthly schedule. People try, but it only works in very precise situations. We're lucky if the schedule that starts on Monday comes out the Friday evening before. However, her schedule comes out a month at a time, with a week and change to spare before it starts! Plenty of time to plan ahead. 

I started looking at menu items again as one of four possibilities:
  • Cook a batch where you can freeze the leftovers in meal-sizes (such as a batch of chili; or risotto which could be used as a side for any number of proteins later, or as a vegetarian main course). 
  • Make-ahead options that can be used in part for tonight, and a few frozen to be finished later (such as serving-size lasagnas in mini casserole dishes; prep four, bake one now, freeze three for future dinners). 
  • Prep-ahead things that won't freeze, but will keep for a few days to be munched through the week (such as a lentil-kale salad that can be lunch for a couple of days or a side dish for dinner; or all the fixings for sandwiches so they can be assembled right before a work shift, on demand, etc.).
  • Cook Just Enough meals that won't really reheat well at all (such as stir fry or spaghetti--but maybe components can be part of prepping ahead, like using the same pot of water to make spaghetti for tonight, and pasta for salad for the week). 
With the ability to look a month ahead, I'd AT LEAST go as far as mapping out my month to know when I need to carve out time for food prep days (likely the last day off before a stretch of work days, especially if that includes a sleep schedule shift to accommodate) and when I need to be pulling something from the freezer to eat (work nights, project deadlines, midterms...). If each recipe serves 4-6 people and each day off work includes cooking a meal that will freeze for later meals, that's covering 3-5 future dinners in the same amount of time it takes to cook one. Even if I don't pick what menu items each of those will be until I see the ad papers with what's on sale for that week, at least it means not starting from a blank slate every single Sunday. 

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