On sticking to the plan

You'd think the meal-planning habit would start in the doldrums of winter, or when you were stuck in a rut of cooking the same things all the time.  Mine came at the height of the summer rush.  It was most likely mid-August, when the counters were overflowing with tomatoes, and the refrigerator drawer was packed with zucchini, and a walk through the backyard caused minor heart palpitations.  It was the time of year when a preserving project might take up most of the after-work hours, and when dinner time approached a helpless feeling arose.

I'd throw "tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers" into the Epicurious search engine, and three thousand recipes would come up.  I'd stare at the screen, oohing at the possibilities, and 20 minutes later remained hungrier but no more decisive, and the temptation to bail out and eat a tomato sandwich, or worse, order take-out, would creep in.  It was the summer glut panic.  I needed to focus.

So we sat down, me and my spouse who had witnessed several cooking meltdowns over the last week, and brainstormed a meal plan.  How about fajitas with peppers and fresh salsa?  Lets put that down for Tuesday.  Obviously the counter is screaming Italian food, we'll make a eggplant pasta dish Wednesday.  Thursday?  How about we grill a bunch of veggies and have pitas and hummus, middle eastern style?  PIZZA FRIDAY was born, where we could throw all the ingredients together and use up the leftover tomato sauce from canning earlier in the week.

Thus began our template-style of dinner planning.  We had a rough theme for each day of the week, including one leftover day (Mondays), assuming low-energy and high chances of good things in the fridge.  Weekends themselves were a little more free-form, with more time allotted for a bigger project, indulging a random craving, or choosing to eat dinner out rather than defaulting to it.

And it worked! Just narrowing down the options meant I was wasting a lot less time, and having a plan percolating in the back of my head during the day made meal preparation much smoother.  It turns out that sticking to the plan after getting home late was a lot faster and less stressful than staring at the inside of a loaded (or empty) refrigerator.  And even bailouts were less dramatic:  maybe I had grand plans for Eggplant Parmesan, but after a hard day reverted to throwing all the ingredients in a skillet and pouring it over a bowl of pasta.

Also we wasted less food.  Our weekly brainstorming session would take into account things coming in the garden or getting old in the freezer.  The coordinating grocery list would just require the parts for specific meals, no more throwing things in the cart because it looked potentially useful.  Leftover bits from earlier nights worked their way into usefulness much more easily when I knew what was coming up, and just knowing how old something was in the fridge was HUGE.  (Beans? Oh yeah, those are from Tuesday, I'll throw them into the chili tonight). As we got more coordinated, we were able to dovetail our plans more easily: a roasted chicken over the weekend would be earmarked for enchiladas, a tub of sliced peppers and half an onion could be saved out for a super easy pizza prep.


Like just about everything I write about here, there is no one-size-fits-all method that works for everyone. Now that we're in much more of a groove, we're less rigid about following the actual template and spend all of 15 minutes jotting down a weekly menu and grocery list based around what's in season and what we're in the mood for.  But still, as the August glut creeps back this year, I'm glad we have a structure in place when the harvest starts taking over my counters.

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