It’s the beginning of the year, full of all sorts of resolutions to lose weight and eat better. And plenty of advice. One common theme is planning your meals, which generally start “once a week, make a plan, shop with a list, blah, blah, blah.” This worked great for my family when I was a kid. We lived 30 miles from a real grocery store. There were no farmers markets. Our weekly schedule was pretty routine (not to say I had a boring childhood). Also when I was a kid, we didn’t have 20 or 30 places between work or school (or sports) begging you with big neon lights to stop and get something tasty to eat. No McDonalds. No Olive Garden. No Starbucks.
But this doesn’t work for me now: shopping at the local at the farmers market (plus 2 or 3 other stores to get what I want) plus travel schedules that aren’t predictable. A big lunch out and you’re not hungry or you swam 2500 meters and you’re starving. Not to mention an aversion to actually sitting down and making a plan!
But that doesn’t mean you give into the neon lights. You can eat better and cheaper at home AND tailor it to what is happening that day. It takes a little work, yes, but possible. Here is what works for me:
1. Plan to not plan: Keep a reasonably stocked pantry. This does not mean be prepared for the big one. It means keeping some dry grains and pasta on hand. Onions and garlic. Eggs. Meat products in the freezer (small portions, vacuum packed). A few cans of beans and tuna. Some bread or tortillas. A chunk of cheese or two. From this (and a few fresh vegetables) there are an infinite number of possibilities.
2. Plan your day: I don’t try to envision Thursday’s dinner on Sunday, but to try to think of dinner by lunch time on Thursday. Plan parts of the day: When I worked in an office, I took my lunch (and this was resulted in the first 5 pounds I lost). It means knowing some 5 minute options when you get home hungry at 7pm. On Saturday, don’t leave the house at 11am to run 3 hours of errands without eating lunch first.
3. Keep everyone involved. There are 3 parts to meals at home: shopping, cooking, cleaning. Share the tasks. If at lunch you decide roast chicken would be great for dinner, also decide who it’s most convenient for to stop at the market and pick one up. (As a side note, I have learned large pieces of meat languish in my freezer, as I seem incapable of remembering 2 days ahead to let thaw). I’m convinced the toughest part of “cooking for one” isn’t cooking. It’s having to shop plus clean in addition to cooking.
4. Get a routine. I like to make pizza, and it’s a great way to use up bits and pieces of cheese, or an odd vegetable. But I need to get blob (my starter) out first thing in the morning. So we are in the habit of having pizza on Friday. Back in my Intel days, we used to have fish or steaks on Fridays… It was the one day I didn’t have meetings with Asia (at 5pm), so I would stop at AJ’s (local upscale grocery) and buy something that looked good to throw on the grill, plus maybe a vegetable if I didn’t have anything left from the previous weekend. Yeah, and a bottle of wine.
5. Plan for leftovers. One trick to getting meals on the table quickly it to start with food that was already cooked. Grilled chicken and leftover rice (plus cheese and a tomato or cabbage and hot sauce) can become a burrito. Flake leftover fish, add some chopped onions, celery, dill add a bit of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice for a sandwich. Use leftover pasta to make a frittata. It can mean popping what you had a night or two ago into the microwave. Learn what you like leftover, learn what you can freeze. And learn what you don’t: I can’t explain why, but we don’t like leftover stir fry. I won’t reheat fish. Steamed or sautéed broccoli gets nasty. Soup and stews are about the best thing to reheat. Many are even better the next day. Here is one of my recent favorites… it reheats well, and it freezes well (I put one serving in a 1 quart Ziploc baggie, press out the air and freeze. To cook, I thaw a bit under hot water – at least enough to break it up, even better to leave in hot water for 10 minutes or so until thawed, put in the serving bowl and nuke until hot).
Vegetable Bean Stew (with or without Sausage)
Make it soup by using more water or broth.
1 lb beans (any kind). Or lentils.
1-2 tablespoons olive oil.
1-2 slices of bacon (optional, good if you don’t use sausage)
1 large onion, chopped
1 or 2 carrots, sliced (optional)
1 or 2 celery stalks, sliced. If you have them.
2 cloves of garlic
Pinch of red pepper flakes. Or Chipotle flakes. Or more. Or Fresh chiles.
1 quart chicken broth (optional)
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cubed
1 package of cooked chicken sausage, sliced (optional)
1 bunch of greens (kale, mustard, chard), stalks removed, chopped (or baby spinach)
Herbs, lemon juice, salt, pepper, hot sauce to taste.
Rinse the beans in a colander, then put into a large pot and cover (by a couple of inches) with water. They should soak at least 6 hours, but not more than 10 or so. If you need to soak faster, bring the water to a boil then turn off the heat and let sit for an hour. Drain and rinse the beans. Note: lentils don’t need to be soaked.
In the same large pot, heat the oil. Sauté the bacon if using. Add onion, carrots, celery, garlic, chili. When onions are translucent (5 minutes or so), add beans, broth, and another cup or 2 of water. Or just use all water (5-6 cups). Beans should be covered by a ½ inch or so. Cook for 1 – 1 1/2 hours, or until just barely cooked (they should still have a little bite, but not crunch). Lentils only need 20-30 minutes. Add the squash and sausage. Add more water if it’s too thick. If you don’t use sausage, add a good ½ teaspoon of salt. Cook for another 20 minutes or so until the squash is done. Add chopped greens. Kale or mustard greens need to cook 5 to 10 minutes; baby spinach is done as soon as you have stirred it in. Taste – add salt, maybe a squirt of lemon juice, herbs, some pepper, maybe some hot sauce as desired. Sometimes I will serve with a dollop of yogurt (especially if meat-less), or some cheese.