OMG.  I’m starving.  What’s for dinner?!?

Does this describe your approach to meal-planning?  How's that working for you?

If it is working for you, read no further.  If there's room for improvement, then stick around. 

I used to do my weekly grocery shopping with a list, dutifully find the items, check them off my list and go home.  After putting it all away, I would start to put a meal together.  Argh!  What was I thinking?  Nothing went together enough to actually make a coherent meal.  Because of this, food would languish in the fridge, longing for compatible food friends, until they quietly perished in the deepest recesses.

I clearly needed better organization.  I'm a thrifty homemaker and really hate throwing food away.  It goes against my every fiber.  So how did I fix this?  Read on.

I am a weekly shopper.  I know not all of you are, but this system will work whether you shop before every meal or once a week.

I take a quick inventory of my fridge, freezer and pantry.  What needs to used ASAP, what staple am I low on, what did I buy on sale last week that I shoved in the freezer?  I am now ready to plan my menu for the week.

Next I go on the Oliver's website to look at the weekly and REV ads.  Being that thrifty housewife, I'm always looking for ways to save cash.  Sometimes I don't see ad items that I want to base a meal around but often I do.  I start to create my game plan.  What is my game plan, you ask?  Why, thanks for asking!

I usually spend one afternoon of my weekend cooking for the entire week.  I am too tired to go home after work and think about cooking a meal.  So, with two people in my household, I roughly figure on 24 entrees per week, for lunches and dinners, made up of 3-4 distinct menu items.  In our household, there are no “leftovers.”  Instead, we have “portions” of each entree.  So if I roast a chicken, I figure on six servings and plan and cook enough sides for those six servings.  If I roast bbq'd ribs, the same thing.  If you have an aversion to eating the same thing several times in the same week, this might not work for you.  But many people eat the same thing for weeks and months on end, so HELLO.  It's only for this week!  Next week, it will be a whole new array of delicious menu items!  BTW, I don't freeze these entrees – nearly all prepared food will last a week in your fridge.

I do occasionally sauté or finish some part of a meal on the night we actually want it, for example, a fish entree.  But if the rest of the meal is already prepped, it takes less time than ordering a meal in a restaurant.  I'll pull it from the freezer or purchase it the day I am planning to cook it, go home and slap it in a pan while pouring a glass of wine or cocktail. 

On my cooking day, I make a prep list.  If I need chopped onions for all of my menu items, I'll chop them once and separate them into the recipe requirements.  If I wash salad greens, I spin them dry (I'm pretty anal about getting them really dry since they last longer), pack them into a big ziploc bag with a cloth towel to absorb any remaining moisture.  I often cut up carrots, jicama and celery to add crunch to my lunch and to have a low-impact option for snacking.  Those get packed in water in the fridge and last all week.

I create a sequence of steps and try to maximize my oven time.  I wash dishes as I go and view my mounting larder with satisfaction.  If I roast a tri-tip or chicken, I cut the whole thing and store it sliced.  I refer to that as “making the mess once.”  Why wash the cutting board 4-5 times for the same thing? 

While prepping, I stash carrot, celery and onion trimmings in a bag I keep in the freezer for my next batch of chicken stock.  When I'm done roasting a chicken, I add the pan drippings and chicken frame to that bag along with the parts I pulled from the chicken before roasting.  When I have used up all of my containers of stock in the freezer, it's time to start the next batch.  Why pay $3 or $4 bucks a carton for stock when you can make it from stuff you would just throw away instead?

I write these weekly menus on small yellow legal pads, with all produce items in a column on the right, everything else on the left, with my menu for the week at the bottom.  During the week, when I run out of something, I'll start next week's shopping list.  Over the many years I have used this system, I have kept the notepads.  I now have a stack of them and refer to them when I need menu inspiration.  It's fun to look back at some weeks when it's obvious I had a new cookbook that totally inspired me or to come across a Thanksgiving or party menu.  Seasonal foods also show up in the weekly menus. Slow winter braises like oxtail ragout with pasta or hearty winter soups gradually yield to springtime asparagus salads, summertime veggie quiches or complex composed salads.  Fall heralds soulful dishes like roasted butternut squash stuffed with caramelized onion couscous or exuberant heirloom tomato and burrata salads.

Some weeks, the menu is really ambitious; other weeks will be the opposite.  It is a reflection of what else is going on in our lives. 

Something like Rocky chicken hot dogs with canned baked beans with a side of fresh sauerkraut will mean 6 servings of something I didn't do anything to except plan, buy and heat.  Vicolo organic cornmeal pizza crusts are another menu staple.  I usually either have a 2-pack of the crusts in my freezer or have pizzas that I built on them stashed in the freezer.  They are an excellent thing to run out odds and ends on, from pesto or tomato sauce, small bits of cheese left from some other dish, steamed veggies, etc.  We frequently end our workweek with one, enjoyed with a beer while relaxing on the back deck.

Giving up an entire afternoon of a “day off” can sometimes be drag, but I'll tell you, on the other six days and nights of the week, it is SO AWESOME to plate up an entree that is better than most restaurants' food, pop it in the microwave or oven, and put my feet up.  Give it a try – it might be the solution to one of life's ongoing questions – what the #*?*# is for dinner?!?

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