Sunday, January 22, 2012

Meal planning and preparation

People often say to me, "You must spend all your time cooking!" And while I do spend a lot more time in the kitchen than the average U.S. citizen (partly because of all the dishes I have to wash!), I have many ways of making this style of eating practical and manageable. Let me share some of my tips and recommendations with you:

Rule #1 --> PLAN AHEAD!
This is the cardinal rule of successful meal planning. Get yourself a nice spiral-bound hardcover notebook that's a pleasure to write in (as well as a really good pen!) and start setting aside about an hour each week when you can think about the coming week's meals, and what your schedule is going to be like. I like to make a list of meal components (i.e. soup or muffins), snacks, and treats on one page, with the actual tasks I need to complete on the opposite page. Sometimes I make notes in my iPhone, but it's always nicer when I have time for the notebook method. Then I assign the tasks that need to be done to specific days of the week in my iPhone app (I have one called Put Things Off which works great for this). I keep my shopping list in an iPhone app as well -- but rest assured a notebook works just as well, or a list that you keep posted on the fridge. Be sure to write neatly so you can quickly and easily reference your list -- it's no good if you can't read what you wrote because you dashed it off so quickly!

Here are my lists for this week -- meal components on the left, tasks on the right (notice how detailed the tasks listed are, down to reminders to cook extra bacon over the weekend to use in Hugo's potato salad):

Rule #2 --> PREP AHEAD!
All that great planning won't do you any good if you don't follow it up with some serious meal prep ahead of time. Find a few time slots where you can take a couple of hours (or longer) to really prepare for the week. If possible, this should be a time when you are alone and uninterrupted! I use the time I have to myself on weekends when Hugo takes Oliver to the playground, or out to play in the snow, or for a walk, etc. This usually gives me 2-3 hours once or twice to devote to cooking some things in advance (while wearing Weston in the wrap). The goal is to have snacks, treats, and meal components ready and waiting so you can throw together meals, or pack lunches to go without too much hassle. (I'll show you below what I prep ahead so you can see this in action.)

I don't do everything on the weekend, though. I make chicken broth during the week at least once (8-10 quarts each time) since we go through a LOT of it. [I use it to braise meat, as the base for soup, and just to drink. I like to plan a soup or stew that Hugo will take as part of his work lunches, and I generally make that serve as dinner one night over the weekend or on a Monday night, along with these coconut flour biscuits (I omit the honey and use slightly more coconut flour).] Yogurt and kefir I also make during the week; usually yogurt is made once (4 quarts at a time) and kefir three times (about 3 cups at a time). Most of the other items I make over the weekend.

Rule #3 --> KEEP IT SIMPLE
You may have noticed that I haven't said anything about actually planning out what each and every meal will be. That's because I don't. And once you're adept at planning and prepping ahead, you won't need to either (though at first it would probably be a very good idea).

When we get our delivery of farm-fresh foods (pastured meats, eggs, raw dairy) we stock up for the entire month, which means that #1) our chest freezer really comes in handy!, and #2) we pretty much always have a sizable supply of frozen meats on hand (steaks, pork chops & ribs, stew meat, ground beef, chicken liver, whole roasting chickens, hot dogs, beef tongue, bacon, etc.). Our dinners consist for the most part of meat + vegetable, so each morning I just decide what I feel like making that night and get it out to thaw on the counter (unless it's a chicken, which needs to thaw overnight). The vegetable portion of the meal will generally be baked acorn squash with butter, or frozen veggies (see below), also with butter, or sometimes a salad. I make baked potatoes or yams a few times a week for Hugo when we have steaks or chops (and always bake a few extras to chop up and fry in bacon fat for him for weekend brunch!). By basing meals around a meat and a vegetable (always with fermented veggies, usually sauerkraut or pickles alongside) we keep things very simple. If you only shop for a week's ingredients at a time then you will need to plan things out more carefully so that you are sure to have enough in the freezer.

Here are a few other "rules" to follow and things to keep in mind:

1) Decide it's worthwhile --> because it is! Eating home-cooked food made using the best nutrient-dense ingredients from local grass-based organic farms is the single most important step in keeping your family healthy. To state this very simplistically, you can either spend time cooking good food, or you can spend time being sick and taking care of sick kids. In the distant past people spent probably the majority of their time hunting, growing, skinning, cleaning, cooking, preserving, harvesting, and storing their food -- we have the luxury of just having to cook it!

2) Make it enjoyable --> for me this means having public radio or music to listen to easily in the kitchen. It also means buying the best ingredients, using only glass jars for storing items in the pantry, having the kitchen equipment and pots I need, and taking the time I need to do things right.

3) Consider increasing your food budget --> we spend a large percentage of our disposable income on food, and I consider it money well spent! If it's an option for your family, see where you can make some adjustments in other areas so you can get really good meats, eggs, dairy, and locally-sourced or organic produce. In my experience, you can either spend money on good food or on health care -- and I much prefer the former!

4) Take some shortcuts --> One of my favorite shortcuts is using organic frozen veggies. I keep a stock of spinach, broccoli florets, petite peas, and chopped green beans in my freezer so I can pull some out at any time and cook it up in a few minutes in a small pot with butter, salt, pepper, and sometimes a little water. I don't worry too much about whether these veggies are less nutritious because frozen; after all, the bulk of our nutrition is coming from high-quality animal foods (meats, eggs, raw dairy) which are all produced organically and from animals raised on grass grown in fertile soil, which is the best way to get the most easily-absorbed forms of all the nutrients your body needs (and no, this doesn't mean we don't eat fruits and veggies and nuts, but with the quality of soil declining dramatically on the large commercial organic farms, most produce just isn't as nutritious as it used to be). Mainly frozen peas (or baked acorn squash) are what I choose for a quick meal accompaniment because my diet is very low in carbs overall and I need some carbs with dinner.

My other favorite shortcut is ordering from Fresh Direct which I do every other week or sometimes weekly when our local farmers' market isn't on, mainly for organic produce and some seafood. Yes, this means spending about $10.00 on delivery charges and tip, but if it saves me hauling two young children to the grocery store, then hauling them plus groceries home again it's worth it! If it makes sense where you live to take advantage of a service like this so you can spend more time cooking then do it. Your time is valuable and you need to spend it wisely.

Now to show you how this all plays out in a given week.

This week I have planned the following meal components:

For Hugo to take to work (Oliver and I will share the starred* foods)
-breakfast quiche* (egg & cheese, no crust)
-banana muffins* (made with coconut flour--will be trying this recipe this time)
-yogurt with bananas or blueberries (frozen) & granola
-leftover cashew-crusted chicken patties with homemade BBQ sauce
-potato salad with green peppers, olive oil & bacon
-hard-cooked eggs with mustard-mayo
-baked ham slices*
-refried beans with homemade creme fraiche (left over from weekend brunch--kept hot in a good thermos)
-chicken soup* (kept hot in a thermos)

For our lunches at home (Oliver and me)
-leftover beef tongue from this past week
-frozen tiny shrimp with lemon & butter (already peeled, these cook up in just a few minutes)
-leftover chicken soup
-baked ham slices
-cashew crackers with leftover pate from this past week
-cashew crackers with salmon salad

For snacks
-raw cottage cheese with oranges
-fresh pineapple
-beef summer sausage
-a variety of raw hard cheeses
-organic apples
-salted pistachios
-chicken broth (I have a big mug of this with chopped scallions and cilantro before bed)

For desserts after meals (mainly for Oliver)
-leftover butternut squash custard
-leftover raisin cake (I make this using sunflower seeds)
-bananas with raw cream
-blueberries with creme fraiche
-chocolate cookies made with coconut flour (mainly for Hugo; I don't bother with the cookie press)

-lettuce, for salads
-salad dressing
-chopped scallions & tomatoes to saute in butter and serve with scrambled eggs (for me)

By the end of this weekend I will have accomplished the following:
-made potato salad
-made quiche
-chopped tomatoes, scallions, and oranges
-thawed milk for making yogurt and kefir, and for Hugo to drink this week
-made refried beans (from beans soaked on Friday and cooked on Saturday)
-made salad dressing
-thawed blueberries
-made banana muffins (we easily go through 12 weekly)

I have lots of things already made and left over from this past week (many of these things were made/done late in the week, on Thursday or Friday -- I love getting a hard start!):
-lettuce leaves, washed and chopped
-cilantro, washed and dried, roots discarded
-cashew crackers
-cut up pineapple
-chicken patties from Friday night
-butternut squash custard
-raisin cake (a tiny bit left)
-beef tongue (one serving left)
-chicken broth
-coconut-olive mayo
-chocolate cookies (made with coconut flour)

Later this week I will bake a small pastured ham and boil some eggs for Hugo's Thursday and Friday lunches. Monday I will make chicken soup and salmon salad, and Tuesday I will make yogurt and a batch of kefir.

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