We have talked about our menu planning before (and how we’ve used different methods throughout our lives based on time and money considerations), but I thought I’d give a bit of an update since we cycle through cookbooks and we’ve gone through some new ones since we last posted.
First off, let me tell you about and our constraints.
We go grocery shopping once a week on Saturday morning, but are currently doing the actual ordering groceries on Thursday for curbside pick-up. So we have to have our grocery list for the next week ready by Thursday. We can add or subtract after that point, but it’s a little bit of a hassle so we try to avoid it. Every other week DH can stop in at the other grocery store during DC1’s violin lesson (which is virtual every other week), but usually zie just gets fancy cheese there.
We both work and no longer have the time for lengthy unpredictably long cook-times. We need things that are quick and easy and don’t take three hours when we think they’re going to take 20 minutes. (We can do longer things on weekends, but our “weekend meal” is a lot like many people’s “weekday dinner.”)
No red food dye or caramel color (DC2 is allergic) and no yeast extract (it gives me terrible headaches). DC2 hates *the idea* of mushrooms and both kids dislike fresh tomatoes. DC1 has unpredictable dislikes so we’ve taken to largely ignoring hir complaining, other than tomatoes. We don’t make separate meals for the kids, but we do let them eat leftovers or fruit etc. after they’ve tried dinner if they decide they don’t like it.
I’m totally ok with pre-prepared frozen food so long as it seems reasonably healthy.
I like having variety and there hasn’t been much movement in restaurants around town (that is, we keep getting boring duplicates of the same kind of brunch place, same kind of chicken tenders place etc.) since about a year before the pandemic started. Which means food variety must come through what we make.
That said, the children have been agitating for more of the easy stuff that we’ve made forever and never use a recipe for. Your spaghetti, macaroni and cheese (with tuna and peas at our house), or White people Taco night meals. And those are easy and fast and great week night dinners. The list in the middle is a pretty new addition and there are still more things to add (just now while writing a previous paragraph I remembered I should put omeletes/scrambled eggs on the list!). (Since then we have also added grilled cheese, avocado toast, and chili.)
The left is the grocery list for the week. The middle is the list of foods that are super easy to make that the kids have indicated they want more of. The right is our menu plan with dark lines indicating where a week ends (note that these lines move if we don’t exactly follow the plan). Note also Penzey’s magnet and Jetpens sticky-note tape impulse purchase. *Disclaimer– I don’t eat lamb. Anything that says “lamb” we substitute with beef.
Let me talk about cookbooks. We just finished going through a bunch and I’d like to give them brief descriptions.
Cookbooks we recently finished:
Pizza by Williams Sonoma was a great week-night book and nobody here minded having pizza or calzones once a week.
Quick and Easy Korean Cooking was as advertised and got us hooked on gochujang. There are still some things we never made because we don’t have the ingredients, but pretty much everything we did make was quick, easy, and ranged from “good” to “excellent” in our notes. (I love writing in cookbooks. Do you write in cookbooks? I figure if I’m going to splatter food on them, writing isn’t a big deal!)
My First Cookbook (“1st” in the notes above) is DC2’s book, but the savory dishes in it were surprisingly varied and good. And, of course, quick and easy. You may recall how this book has changed how we make French Toast forever. There’s some desserts left that we didn’t make, but we’ve finished all the savory dishes so it’s off the rotation.
Jerusalem by Ottolenghi. This is NOT a quick and easy book. It was on our weekly rotation while DH was unemployed and we would make maybe a dish every two weeks on a weekend after we both started working again. Everything in it is excellent, but you can’t really predict how much effort anything will be. We’ve often been surprised both directions compared to our reading of the text. It’s also really veggie forward, which is great if you’re trying to get more vegetables in your diet.
Home Baking: We’d actually already done almost all the savory meal type dishes from here a while ago, but it came back out when we realized we could substitute capers for anchovies. As you can see on the above notes, those recipes were really weekend recipes, not weeknight.
Our current batch of cookbooks:
Nadiya: This is Nadiya Hussain’s (of great British Bakeoff fame) weeknight cookbook called, “Time to Eat.” It is definitely a cookbook for a time-pressed home cook and she even starts with the assumption that if it’s easier you’ll want to make a double batch and freeze half, or make a double batch of part of the meal and use the excess for a different meal. I got it because I tried the recipe for Kiwi salad from it and it was AMAZEBALLS so I figured I should get the entire cookbook. And it has been really great and the kids have loved pretty much everything in it. Lots of familiar but also different options.
Insta: Instant Pot: Fast and Easy by Urvashi Pirtre. We got this cookbook because we finished the amazing Indian Instant Pot cookbook and were excited to try another instapot book by the same author (this was after trying and giving up on another Instant Pot cookbook that was boring and not particularly quick or easy). She really gets using the technology not as a gimmick but as a way to make food faster and easier. Also it’s all very tasty and the kids even like her lentil dishes. If you’re just getting one, I’d recommend the Indian one, but if you want more variety (or more meat) Fast and Easy is great.
CC: Cooks Country– this is a “quick and easy” cooking magazine subscription that we get about once every two months from Cooks Illustrated (we used to get their main magazine which wasn’t quick and easy instead, but then we had a second kid…). Back in the day it was only New American and eventually we got tired of it and cancelled, but we re-upped sometime after DC2 was born when they switched to mostly American Fusion. They have about 8 recipe cards in the middle of each that have been pretty reliably quick and easy meals, and none of the other recipes are too onerous. So far they’re mostly pretty good. We don’t go through every single recipe in each magazine, but when we get the magazine we ask both kids to go through the back (where almost all the issue’s meals are pictured) and circle the recipes they’d like to eat. Once we’ve gone through those we shelve it and move to the next magazine. We’re about 8 months behind at this point, I think.
Simple by Ottolenghi. While “Simple” is definitely misleading (he has a 6 part definition of “simple” many parts of which really aren’t), it is more simple than Jerusalem. And everything we have made has been like eating at a really good restaurant. I feel like I’m pre-pandemic in the city at a trendy new fusion lunch place that prides itself on farm fresh meals and sells lots of different kinds of salads and toasts. Or at one of the many hummus plus places in the SF South Bay area. Everything is just a little more special than what you’re expecting. We mostly leave stuff from this book to the weekend because we never know how long anything is going to take. The kids, have, unfortunately, started disliking tahini from too many Ottonlenghi dishes.
Mexican: Quick and Easy Mexican Cooking by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee. It’s by the same author as Quick and Easy Korean, but isn’t as good. (Why is a Korean-American writing a Mexican cookbook? Her parents owned a bodega!) The recipes are good and they’re more varied than the American-Mexican foods that we make without recipes and they’re less fatty than our “authentic” Tex Mex cookbook and quicker and easier than our ginormous bible of Latin American food (there’s a mole recipe in there that takes over a day, fills up a good portion of your freezer, and is orgasmic), so we’ll likely keep cycling through it at the rate of one recipe a week.
So how do I get that list on the right?
On Saturday after the week’s groceries have come, I count up 7 meals on the list, that’s this week’s meals that we should have ingredients for, I put a line after that, and then count add up enough meals so that there are an additional 7 after that line. Any ingredients we need for those 7 meals are put on the left-most list for next week’s grocery run.
Sometimes other folks add to the list– you can see where DH decided he wanted stuffed pizza (#ChicagoPizza). And also berebere peanuts, though that’s more a reminder to him and not an actual meal. Sometimes there’s a little overflow one week for whatever reason, and those meals get pushed off to the next week. Sometimes I feel like procrastinating during the week and do some of the menu planning early. It’s very flexible.
To get the next week’s meals, I take my pile of five cookbooks and I go through the book systematically.
Nadiya’s book is split up into Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner sections, so for hers, I start at the beginning and just go through on receipt per week (we did skip some breakfasts for being too sweet to make a good dinner, though the kids did LOVE having her cheesecake croissants one weekend). We’re currently partway through lunches.
Cook’s Country isn’t really organized at all, so I just go from top to bottom from the pictures on the back of the magazine, though I’ll often skip things and come back depending on our ingredients needs (for example, that fennel, potatoes, and sausages recipe got put on there before other recipes because we had a bunch of leftover gold potatoes from a previous recipe, btw, if you haven’t tried roasted fennel, it is a REVELATION)
The rest of the cookbooks are broken by category, like raw veggies/cooked veggies/chicken/etc. For these we go one chapter at a time, so a salad the first week, a cooked veggie dish the next, chicken the week after that. Occasionally I will skip a meal or a chapter and come back if, for example, we’ve already got a lentils dish for the week and don’t need another (ex. cooked veggie lentil stew from Simple and lentil stew from Insta, I skip the second lentil stew and do a different stew or a chicken dish from Insta instead). I try to have exactly one seafood dish each week and at least one dish with meat (since I have kids and am too lazy to make sure they’re getting the right veggies for a completely vegetarian diet), but not too many with the same kind of meat. But generally I will pick up whatever book is on top of the pile, see what the last recipe on the list was, then go to the next recipe we haven’t made yet. Then the next book, and so on. After I’m done, there will be five new recipes on the page. Since it’s the school year, we’ll often eat pre-made freezer meals like lasagna or frozen pizza, so “freezer” reminds me to check the freezer. I’ve also started adding one meal from the middle list to each week. And that’s 7!
Of course, we do eat more than 7 meals/week because we usually also have lunches on weekends (for a total of 9). We generally do have a couple extra meals that either don’t make it to the list or are added after my 7 are done. Getting take-out is often spontaneous and doesn’t show up on the list (sometimes it does, but mostly not). DH and I usually have leftovers for lunches during the week. Occasionally we’ll have too many leftovers and have them for a dinner as well.
This other pile of cookbooks that we keep in the kitchen are for things like desserts (DC2 has decided that hir easy cookbooks are too easy and zie only wants to make things out of that enormous Gourmet book now– last week’s vanilla cupcakes turned the kitchen into a DISASTER area, but weren’t really any better than easier vanilla cupcakes), books that are waiting in the wings to be the next “quick and easy” book that we try after we finish one of the current five (if they’re not good enough, we may get rid of them), and books that are there because we needed to reference something and haven’t put it back yet (The Old Fashioned Cookbook– where we got a quick vanilla frosting after the first frosting failed after 2 hours of work and umpteen separated eggs).
So, to sum:
- Take 1-7 cookbooks known to be quick, easy, and good (maybe one for weekends that is more risky in terms of time)
- Go through them systematically (generally pulling one from each chapter for each dinner, skipping and coming back in a later week to things that duplicate other recipes for the week too much)
- List the ingredients you need for each on the grocery list
- Put a line for the week after you have 7
When we get home, we usually start at the top of the list and see if we feel like making and eating the first thing listed. If not, we go to the next thing. One slight deviation from this method is when we have fresh food that is best at the beginning of the week– that’s why the jicama salad is crossed off before the lentils and rice meal. I will also often look at the list after dinner to see if there’s anything requiring me to defrost meat from the freezer and if so, stick that in the fridge before we go to bed. (But we only defrost chicken breasts in the microwave.)
What I like about this method is that it allows for a lot of variety and novelty without forcing me to think too much or to be wedded to some sort of strict list. I just pick the first thing unless I don’t like the first thing and then go to the second instead. We’re currently doing it with 5 cookbooks because we didn’t really want to eat pizza 7 days a week or to keep the instapot clean and dry every single day, but you could easily just take the Nadiya cookbook and go through it from start to finish. If it’s just you or you and a partner at home, you can use this exact method with just Help! My apartment has a kitchen!, which was the first cookbook we used this menu planning method with all by itself.
I leave you with a picture of the rest of our cookbooks.:
Do you menu plan? How do you menu plan? Do you own cookbooks? What are your favorite quick and easy meals? How often do you grocery shop? Any questions about any of our cookbooks?