We eat at home for most meals, most days. We’re eating out less than once a week. I’m proud of how well we’re staying on track with this– it has really become a way of life.

I thought it might be interesting to post our “staples,” especially now that we’ve found a great source for local, ethically raised chicken, pork, beef, and turkey.

Food we generally have on hand:

  • Meat
    • Chicken breasts (2lbs/week)
    • Pork breakfast sausage (0.5lb/week)
    • Pork chops (3-4 chops/week)
    • Ground Turkey (2lbs/week)
    • Something novel (sausage, steak, etc, every once in a while)
    • Fish (salmon or whatever is on sale, ~4 fillets/week)
    • Turkey or Ham Lunchmeat (1lb/week)
    • Frozen venison (roasts and ground)
  • Vegetables
    • Red onions
    • Small yellow onions
    • Spinach
    • Broccoli
    • Sweet potatoes or Yams
    • Bell Peppers
    • Mushrooms
    • Garlic
    • Small red potatoes
    • Frozen corn
    • Frozen peas
  • Fruits
    • Apples (usually Granny Smith)
    • Bananas
    • Lemons
    • Something novel (recently cantaloupe and mangoes)
    • Tomatoes
    • Avacados
    • Juice concentrate
  • Dairy
    • 1% milk (1qt/week)
    • Soy milk (I get it for free but don’t use it that often)
    • Sour cream
    • Shredded cheddar or Mexican blend
    • Shredded mozzerella
    • Grated or shredded parmesan
    • Sliced or block cheese for sandwiches
    • Half and half
    • Eggs (1 doz/week)
    • Butter (~1lb/week)
    • Breyer’s Chocolate Ice Cream (our terrible addiction)
  • Pantry
    • Peanut butter
    • Jelly
    • Red Beans
    • Black Beans
    • Tuna
    • Diced tomatoes
    • Tomato paste
    • Coconut milk
  • Grains
    • Pasta (generally Barilla Plus spaghetti, but also elbows, egg noodles and various others)
    • Rice (Brown rice and Jasmine or Basmati. Tilda rice if I’m splurging.)
    • Couscous
    • Quinoa
    • Homemade bread OR Store-bought bread or rolls
    • Tortillas
    • Pre-made pie crusts
    • Breadcrumbs (I recently bought a big cannister of these after admitting to myself that I was never going to make my own)
  • Baking
    • White Flour
    • Whole Wheat Flour
    • Sugar
    • Brown Sugar
    • Baking Soda
    • Baking Powder
    • Salt (Kosher and Regular)
    • Cornmeal
    • Cocoa
    • Yeast
    • Honey
  • Sundries
    • Spices (We use cumin, garlic salt, and the Italian herbs most often)
    • Curry paste
    • BBQ sauce (Chris is partial to Johnny Harris which we stock up on when we visit Savannah)
    • Cholula
    • Salsa
    • Olive Oil
    • Canola Oil
    • Balsamic Vinegar
    • Pickles
    • Condiments (Three different kinds of mustard…)
    • Soy sauce
    • Kalamata Olives
    • Pecans, Cashews, Almonds, Pepitas, Sunflower seeds, Ground Flax (Okay, I bought the ground flax months ago and haven’t even opened it yet… but someday I’ll want it!)
Did I miss anything you find essential for your everyday cooking?

Much as I try to be super organized and full of planning, whether its in my teaching, my kitchen, my housework, or any other area of my life… I’m reminded EVERY SINGLE TIME that planning is not for me. I am an improviser, and the seat of my pants has wings.

So I’ll just describe some of the good things I’ve done recently in this effort and not discuss the fact that my meal planning did not last past week one.

I made some fantastic salmon cakes- two batches, actually. The first batch used this Easy Salmon Cakes recipe from Eating Well and was made with some probably-questionable Costco Kirkland brand canned salmon, a bunch of fresh farmer’s market parsley, and some crushed Special K cereal as the bread crumbs. Batch number two of salmon cakes was made with definitely wild Alaskan canned salmon, crushed pecans, and sweet potatoes. The recipe came from Mothering magazine, but is sadly not accessible online. It was roughly: two sweet potatoes, unpeeled, cubed, boiled, and mashed, two cans salmon, two eggs, some cornmeal, parsley, rosemary, and some optional shallots and scallions. It also called for ground flaxseed (which I didn’t have then, but do now!), so I subbed in some ground pecans. Pan-fried and packed with nutrients.

Both very yummy, especially with a creamy sauce like half yogurt/half mayo + lemon juice and herbs (parsley and/or dill).

One of my favorite quick lunches has been to layer the following ingredients: cooked brown rice, fresh spinach, previously cooked and seasoned black beans, and cheddar cheese. I heat this up until everything is warm and melty (I use my convection toaster oven, but the microwave works well, too). The spinach water moistens the rice and wilts so it’s easy to mix. Very yummy, simple, and healthy- and a good way to use up burrito leftovers from the night before.

Cooked down the seasons’ last tomatoes and used the sauce to make lasagna with ground turkey. Used my Foley food mill to really crush up the tomatoes after boiling them, then added a little can of tomato paste to thicken it up, plus olive oil, various salts and spices, and fresh herbs from the garden. All of this slow-cooked overnight and turned out well.

Made a decadent macaroni and cheese from this recipe at Moms Who Think. That was the sort of dish that had me licking the saucepan. I felt guilty about it for the rest of the night. 😛

Chris made a few steaks on the grill to help me with my iron levels, which were a little low on my last round of blood work. The leftovers were incorporated into a spinach salad with hard-boiled egg, as well as a steak-and-egg breakfast.

One of my recent babysitting barters was for a homemade enchilada bake- layers of tortillas, rice, black beans, and cheese in a red taco sauce. That was delicious and lasted a long while as leftovers.

And now I think I’m going to throw some frozen strawberries into the blender with some cream-top yogurt and surprise Chris, who’s been working hard downstairs to defeat space pirates.

Is it wrong that the first day of the challenge was a trip out to eat sushi? Or that the next three nights were eating other people’s home cooking? Nahh.. I did do SOME of my own cooking. 😛

156 Cheap, Healthy Recipes for Ten Common Leftover Herbs gave me this idea for using up my bunch of parsley: Curried Chickpeas and Black Beans. I extended the simmer time into “just forget about it on the stove until you feel hungry” territory. I’ve always found that canned chickpeas don’t get soft enough for my liking unless they’re on the heat for a long time. This was a double batch recipe, too, so I had plenty of leftovers. And it turned out YUMMY over some basmati rice.

I had some success with finding relatively inexpensive meat at Whole Foods, too. Chicken thighs (one of the most inexpensive meats out there anyway), were on sale when you bought at least three pounds. Now, I’m going blindly on the principle that the meat at WF will have some advantages over what I would get at a regular store, but even if it didn’t… well, the price is right, and the man of the house gets frowny if there isn’t meat for dinner more often than not. I usually just throw ’em in a pan with salt and pepper, but tomorrow I’m going to use them to make some Chicken Pot Pie in Under an Hour. If it turns out well, I’ll have to transcribe the recipe here from the photocopy of Cook’s Illustrated I have (that magazine is great, but has nothing online for free).

I also got some great organic grown-in-PA apples and can’t wait to turn them into apple butter and apple based desserts. And next weekend I’m going apple picking, so I’ll have even more, and they’ll be even more local! Plus I’ll be getting exercise picking them, so that just can’t be beat.

Finally, an inquiry: Since I am with-child and without-job, I get these nifty WIC food benefits (yay, Socialism), which includes, among other things, 6 gallons of milk per month. Now, I’ll drink a gallon or two of milk in a month, but that still leaves me with a crazy surplus. Obviously, I should be making yogurt, but I’m not sure where to start on that adventure. Is there a book or site or simple recipe you like? Do I need any special equipment? Once I’ve made yogurt, what should I do with the other three gallons of milk?

As I mentioned in my last post, I want to get better about meal planning. I meal planned two Sundays ago, spent last Sunday on a train to be away for a week, and here it is Sunday again. So if I want to have any semblance of routine, I better reflect, refine, and reiterate today.

Using the subgoals I came up with two weeks ago, I whipped up two Google Docs: one is a comprehensive list of dinner dishes and common dinner ingredients and the other is a weekly plan, detailing not only what dish will be for dinner that night, but what needs to be done on any given day to prepare for dinner (like thawing or prepping dough).

For the first document, let’s call it Possible Dinners, I just thought about what we already eat, what we eat when we’re out, and what we’d like to eat. I have this document and I have my actual wooden recipe box, I have the cookbooks I own and the cookbooks I can get out of the library.

Challah Loaves

The possibilities really are endless. Despite this fact, I have only 22 things on my list. I figure I can add more as it proves to be feasible. I also made a list of our most commonly used ingredients in three categories: Starches, Proteins, and Vegetables. With any meal I make, I try to have something from each list. Some foods do double duty: Beans are both vegetables and protein, and sweet potatoes are both starches and vegetables.

Let’s call the second document The Weekly Plan. Here’s what went into that:

  • Check contents of fridge. Is there anything that MUST GO this week?
  • Check grocery store sales (Giant Eagle’s online circular).
  • Think about Challenge Subgoals: Bread, Fish, Meatless, New, Double Batch
  • Choose seven dinners using ingredients and goals from above.
  • Add any tasks created by those dinners to the days of the week.
  • Make a shopping list for ingredients not on hand.

So that worked pretty well for me. Here’s what I ended up with as my plan:

USE UP: Spinach
PREP: Saturday- Thaw chicken breasts, Wednesday- make challah dough

Sunday – Chicken & Black Bean Quesadillas
Monday – Home Cooked @ Bun’s House (I babysit in barter for meals)
Tuesday – Baked Dijon Salmon (Make before volunteering, cook after)
Wednesday – Roast Chicken with Sweet Potatoes
Thursday – Turkey Burgers with Olives & Feta on Challah
Friday – Mchicha (Spinach Peanut Coconut Curry from Tanzania)
Saturday – New Double Batch Chicken and Broccoli Quiche (Using the Basic Quiche template)

This was a very nice plan, and I got all the ingredients I needed when I went shopping. Now as far as execution goes… my grandparents came to visit that week on Tuesday, and they wanted to go out to dinner Tuesday and Wednesday night while they were here. I made turkey burgers and baked challah bread for them, and that turned out well. I didn’t get around to making the salmon until last night. I did roast the chicken, and now I have a chicken carcass to freeze for making chicken broth later. I made Mchicha and had enough for lunches. I didn’t make the Quiche.

Making Turkey Burgers

For this coming week, all I know so far is that I want to make Biscuits from scratch (and freeze dough for later), try a new recipe using Tilapia, use up the chicken sausage in the fridge and the zucchini from the garden, and maybe try my hand at a vegetarian chickpea curry. Apples, celery, and carrots are on sale this week. Chicken Pot Pie with Biscuit Topping? Maybe make an apple pie? Or applesauce?

But for now, my better half is threatening to go back to playing spaceships instead of cuddling with me on the couch while we watch X-Files. So now it is time for me to stop blogging and focus on snuggle time. Ta!

Today I’m going to ramp up for October 1st by doing some basic meal planning, which I’m hoping will be the organizational framework that will allow me to succeed in this challenge. I’ve been thinking about meal planning for a while, but it’s been a hard thing for this seat-of-her-pants gal to implement. I’m just going to remind myself that my first hurdle in sensible meals- shopping from a list that I remember to take to the grocery store- has been conquered for a year or two now, so it’s really past time to move on to a new growth experience in this area.

Before I post about the fun of meal planning, though, I’m going to post a little bit about my general background and goals with this challenge. I’ll save the actual meal plan as a separate post. So… here’s my preliminaries. Enjoy.

My Background: Boons and Obstacles

I’m aided by the fact that we don’t have a microwave. While I have found it easy in the past to heat up leftovers or make a quick frozen dish, it’s actually perversely satisfying to have to cook something over flames in a metal pot or wait 10 minutes for a frozen veggie burger to cook in the counter-top convection toaster oven. While the jury is still out about whether microwave cooking is inherently dangerous, it’s pretty clear that most microwave convenience foods are nutritionally bankrupt.

I don’t buy junk. There’s no soda, no frozen pizzas, no high fructose corn syrup, and no hydrogenated oils in this house. Our eating is already pretty honest, and we’re not going to have to change our buying habits very much. If you, dear reader, ARE someone who buys junk, I strongly recommend that you read Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Not only is this book a very quick read, it’s very concise and simple to put into practice. It would be the first book I’d recommend to anyone wanting to change their eating habits.

So I have those two things going for me, but I have a couple of problem areas to address as well. First of all, I’m kind of lazy when it comes to cooking. I don’t really like the idea of spending all day in the kitchen, and I avoid recipes that seem overly complicated or require multiple steps or long cooking times. I start thinking about dinner when I start to get hungry for dinner, and it’s very hard to get motivated to cook when I’m not hungry. I’m hoping that meal planning and whatever reward I derive from that will be the ongoing motivation to get past this obstacle.

Finally, I’m also boring. Thankfully, I’m okay with eating the same foods all the time, as is the other person I cook for, but wouldn’t it be lovely (I think, wistfully), if I could cook all sorts of different… things? I’m always impressed when my friends post fancy delicious-looking meals that they’ve prepared themselves, and I certainly feel a swell of pride on the rare occasion that I do such posting myself. It would certainly be nourishing to my ego if I could expand my repertoire.

The Grand Plan and My Sub-Goals

I want to include in my weekly planning 7 dinner meals, making enough that I’ll have leftovers for lunches during the week. Even though I’m shooting for 7, I’m just not going to turn down the opportunity to eat out once in a while.

I’m not bothering with breakfast planning as we eat the same things every day and any tweaking I do there will be minimal. Though, I would like to try my hand at making my own English muffins so as to actually use the muffin forms I bought months ago. And give bagel-making another try (the first two attempts were tasty, but fraught with difficulty, culminating in funny, hard little mutant bagels). This leads in to my first sub-goal for the challenge:

I will bake a bread product once a week. I generally use the no-knead approach and recipes from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, but I own a bread maker as well and have enjoyed using that, too. Recently I’ve fallen off the bread-making bandwagon (except for a recent banana bread), and I’d like to climb back on. With this goal I want to expand my baking prowess to include the aforementioned breakfast breads, as well as muffins, biscuits, pizza crusts, and flat breads. I know that I can bake for the future, too, which leads me to my next sub-goal.

I will make a freezer-friendly double meal once a week. I know that this challenge will only get more hectic as time goes on, and pulling meals out of the freezer will help prevent the temptation to backslide. The likely candidates for cryogenic preservation will be casseroles, chili, stews, pies, and breads, but I’m open to further suggestions. Someday I’d actually like to fill the chest freezer in the basement.

I will make a new recipe once a week, or focus on tweaking and reflecting on an existing recipe to hone my general cooking skills. Ideally, this will be my opportunity to learn new techniques, become more familiar with flavors, and develop the understanding of cooking that will allow for more daring improvisation. I’m hoping this sub-goal will also let me learn to recreate recipes from around the world.

I will incorporate local and organic products into my meal plans each week. I’m going to focus initially on the list of best to worst offenders for produce with pesticides as reported by the Environmental Working Group. I’ve been very impressed with the produce selection at Whole Foods, so I’m going to try to get out there more often for my organic produce. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) has a great website for Southwestern PA that highlights the farmer’s markets around the Pittsburgh area where I live. Slow Food Pittsburgh is another resource I’ll investigate, especially their laptop butcher program. I’ve been meaning to improve our carnivorous choices around here. I’ll also be following YumPittsburgh, a Penn State sponsored blog striving to keep consumers in touch with local producers.

I will keep it frugal. I will use my own herbs and vegetables where possible, and take advantage of loss leaders at my local markets. I’ll be combing the circulars for good deals and as always, keeping in mind cheap healthy foods.

I will eat a meatless dinner once a week and a fish dinner once a week. I have to get better at cooking fish. I have one recipe that works, and that’s just not cutting it. I have plenty of vegetarian recipes to choose from.

Ramp-Up Wrap Up

So that’s where I’m coming from. I’ve looked around online at various meal-planning sites and services, but nothing stands out to me as being a silver bullet for my own personal goals. I like the idea of starting with a list of meals that you enjoy, so that’s my first step. I’ll give you a run-down on the whole process when I’m done, but in the mean time, I’m off to spend some quality time with Google Documents, doing a basic plan for next week.