Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Weekend Meal Planning - Creating All your Meals for the Week in One Day

The key to eating healthy home made food when you have a busy schedule is planning.  Sitting down on the weekend and spending 20 minutes planning your meals for the week, and then doing as much cooking and preparation as you can on Saturday or Sunday will save you hours of planning and cooking for the rest of the week.  This method has lots of other unintended benefits as well, and the more you develop a routine the more you will see those benefits: less waste, less stress, less expense, more healthy diet.

For some time now, Courtney and I have tried to make a weekly menu before going shopping, starting ingredients that are already in the fridge or pantry.  We  write this list on a white board in the kitchen, and then write in the date that leftovers were made.  Since instituting this simple process, I think we take out the trash about 1/2 as often.  Here is what our whiteboard often looks like

Our Home Kitchen Menu

If you can avoid prepackaged meals and refrain from eating out for convenience sake (I love eating out, but only when I choose to treat myself), you can save a lot of money while gaining more control over your diet.  If you try to plan and cook a meal every night, however, you can quickly become overwhelmed and throw in the towel.

When we decided to do the October: Unprocessed challenge last month, we realized that with our busy schedules we were not going to be able to cook most week nights.  Eating out is expensive, but eating healthy and unprocessed foods out is phenomenally expensive.  In order to meet the challenge and maintain our savings (what little we have) Courtney and I turned our kitchen into a high efficiency food production facility every Sunday last month, and generally produced enough food in one day to last all week (that is why several of the menu items above have the same date by them).  Spending several hours doing intensive cooking is also significantly more efficient in terms of waste and energy.  For example, one Sunday, I made a frittata and Courtney cooked cornbread and pumpkin muffins, all at the same time.  The oven only heats up once, and there was one temperature change half way though, but over all we had 6 meals worth of food with one meals worth of oven time.

You may think that it would take more energy to refrigerate and freeze all that food, but in fact the opposite is true.  The more full your fridge or freezer is, the more efficient it will be.  Your fridge works hardest when you open the door, because all of the air it has cooled down escapes, and warm air rushes in.  The more stuff you have in the fridge, the less warm air can fill the space.  Also, the cold food will help to cool the air, so the actual heat pump doesn't have to work quite as hard.

Our menu over the past few weeks has been pretty extravagant, but our costs and time commitment have been relatively low.  We have been eating even less meat, and we feel free to experiment with more ambitious recipes and ideas (this week we plan on making kimchi).  One of the keys is making things which are not any more work when scaled up in volume, like soups stews and sauces.  The first week we did this, I made a tomato sauce from scratch.  A portion was sweetened and turned into pizza sauce that day, the rest was frozen and used variously as the base for enchilada sauce, a pasta sauce, and to make lasagna.

Homemade Tomato Sauce and Pizza with bell pepper and lobster mushrooms
For the rest of the week, Courtney and I are happy to come home and simply reheat our delicious and nutritious food, to wake up and grab left overs on the way out the door.  We find we spend less on groceries, since we tend to buy fewer items that can be used for several recipes, and that means less food spoils as well.

We have greatly enjoyed our Sunday cooking days, and hope that it will provide good practice for the extra work that a growing family will (eventually) bring.  Also, we are hosting a (very tiny) Thanksgiving here in Eugene for the first time, and our Sunday cooking experiments should serve as good practice for coordinating a large group meal.
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