Some Fall Tweaks to Our Meal Planning Strategy

Snacky Supper
The snacking plate: my favorite kind of simple supper.

Happy fall! School has been back in session for about a week here, and I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of R being a first grader.  We’re slowly adjusting to the new schedule, although the whole homework routine hasn’t really started up proper as of yet.

Maybe because of the transition into more set routines and cooler weather, or September generally feeling like a fresh start kind of month, I’ve been giving some thought to our current meal rotation. (More on the specifics of that in a later post.) I would say I am generally happy with it, but I am noticing a few things I would like to work on that could make things even better.

My happy place is generally when things don’t necessarily get made as scheduled, but there are enough items floating around for a quick, nutritious meal.  For example, this past week there were leftovers from shrimp tacos and vegan Alfredo sauce in the fridge, and a pork roast in the slow cooker that became pulled pork for company.  Meals and snacks for days!

There are a few sticky spots lately:

  • The big one: When to prep and prepare ingredients. A meal preparation day never seems to stick for me.  It is not often what I want to do when the kiddo goes to bed, or on a Sunday afternoon. However, if I don’t spend some time in advance, I feel like I use more time than I would like preparing meals on a daily basis, whereas a weekly longer session could cut down on incidentals.  Working from home is fantastic for being able to take a few minutes to move things along and start dinner earlier.  But it also makes it easier for my day to get hijacked with chopping and prepping.
  • Neglecting to think about breakfast, lunch, and snacks for myself and my family. Still.  Getting better, but still.
  • Lack of serendipitous leftovers. Something I hadn’t really considered is that often I will plan a meal with purposeful leftovers, so that the next night is literally no work. Which is fantastic – but with snacks and lunches often being a question mark, having that extra food available for those times would make sense. Which would mean preparing a new meal more often throughout the week. Hmm…
  • Neglecting pantry ingredients. I am often not sure what’s actually in there, which brings us to…
  • Cluttered pantry and freezers. Enough said, really. They are never going to be perfect, but it frustrates me when I cannot find what I am looking for.

Over the next few weeks, I plan on trying out some tweaks:

The biggest one is probably letting go of any pretense that meal prep and planning can or should be a certain way.  We (and especially women) are exposed to many cultural narratives of what feeding our families is ‘supposed’ to look like. That is a whole other topic, but the main point is, life happens! Many times it just is what it is, and if we and our families are basically fed, that is a win.

(As a side note, I really enjoyed this article from The Kitchn last week on how meal dynamics change in different seasons of life.)

Taking leftovers into account more often and adjusting accordingly, AND plan for very simple meals.  For example, it’s okay for every Sunday to be scrambled eggs and toast and smoothies (this worked great for us this winter after family skating, which took us well into the evening). I tend to be good at throwing things like this together last minute, but I would like to plan for them more.

Toying around with a weekly ingredient prep session.  A few years back, I used a meal planning service that actually was fantastic, except it did not work long term as I discovered that constant variety was not really working great for us (who knew?).  But, one helpful habit I took away from it was preparing ingredients well in advance, including sauces, marinades, breadings, etc. that would survive for a day or two in the fridge or on the counter. This actually took very little time for the most part, and made a huge difference to getting a meal on the table.  I am going to think about how to approach this so I stick to it consistently.

Cleaning out and tidying up my pantry and freezer.  Yes, this is obvious, but I really avoid it.  However, the time it would take to make this happen and be able to find things properly will probably save me a lot of time in the long run.

I will report back!

What about you? Are there any meal planning hacks or kitchen tweaks that have made your life easier?  I would love to hear them.

Link Love: 3 Recipes We’ve Been Enjoying this Summer

Three Summer Recipes

Although summer has officially ended, the days are growing shorter and there is a definite chill in the air, I just cannot be sad about the arrive of fall, my favorite season. It is not too late to soak up as much fun and outside time as we can, and now that I have (mostly) gotten the hang of grilling, I intend to enjoy it as long as possible! Our family has been enjoying these easy recipes all summer long, but they are great any time of year.

Cilantro Lime Grilled Shrimp

Cilantro Lime Grilled Shrimp

In keeping with my goal of mastering learning to properly use the barbecue this summer, shrimp were the first thing I tackled. They are extremely easy and quick to cook, and the great thing about shrimp on the grill is that it can literally be done five minutes before you would like to eat.

This marinade from Closet Cooking is tangy, fresh and summery. The first time I made it, I did not have fresh cilantro on hand and used a paste instead – it was still fantastic. Some lime zest as well as juice is awesome, too!

These skewers would be a great appetizer at a barbecue or other get-together and are particularly good with coconut rice. And they are a delicious accompaniment to a summery salad, like this one. But perhaps my favorite thing about this recipe is that you can pair it with just about anything and throw together a meal in no time.

Cilantro Lime Grilled Shrimp

Recipe notes:

  • Don’t forget to soak your wooden skewers in water at least half an hour ahead of time to avoid burning.

Slow Cooker Greek Chicken Pitas

Greek Chicken Pitas

Raise Healthy Eaters is one of my favorite sites to visit for practical, research-based advice on feeding children, and it is also a great source of easy, family-friendly recipes, this one being no exception.

I have been regularly making this yummy chicken pita dish since getting my slow cooker last year. The slow cooker is a great way to infuse flavor and tenderness into otherwise bland and dry chicken breasts, which I often find difficult to cook to my liking. And the addition of broth, herbs and lemon juice give this shredded chicken amazing flavor. I have often made it on its own to have on hand for things like wraps, salad and pizza.

Slow Cooker Greek Chicken Pitas

Additionally, the accompaniments for this recipe (tomato, onion and feta mixture, tzatziki) come together very quickly and are great for using up summer produce. This is a fun meal to serve family-style where everyone can add their own toppings.

I love Greek flavors and these pitas feel like a real treat without being too heavy, plus the slow cooker takes care of the chicken with no need for the oven. Perfect for summer! One of my favorite ways to enjoy this recipe is to skip the pita or bun and serve the chicken and toppings over spinach or other greens. I have also served this to company several times with rave reviews and it is kiddo-approved. (Not by my kiddo yet, although she is happy to dig into the hummus and pita bread!)

Flourless Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Blondies

blondies2

This is not a ‘summer’ recipe as such, but I’ve made these blondies several times in the past few weeks, and am officially hooked. As a disclaimer, I am all for regular brownies and blondies as part of a ‘healthy’ lifestyle in all their gooey, sugary glory. That said, I do love finding ways to incorporate more wholesome ingredients into baked goods, since there are lots of ways to add moisture, richness and body besides flour, butter and oil. It is also nice to have an arsenal of recipes that are less treat and more snack.

Bottom line: These blondies are good. Chick peas do not immediately spring to mind when thinking of wholesome baking substitutes, largely because they have a relatively dry texture. And I admit that although I love to experiment with beans in baking, I may not have tried these on my own. But after trying some made by a friend of mine I was sold.

The chick peas work surprisingly well! They blend up in the food processor with peanut butter to a hummus-like consistency, and essentially it is hummus with maple syrup added for sweetness. (I have used PB as a tahini substitute in hummus many times, as I am much more likely to have it on hand.) I like the chewy, dense texture of these, and they are especially good chilled.

Flourless PB Choc Chip Blondies

What I especially love about using ingredients like these is that you get a satisfying snack that does not leave you lethargic ten minutes later. The kiddo also loves to help make these and gives them two thumbs up.

Some notes:

  • I used vegan chocolate chips, specifically Enjoy Life Mini Chips, which were great.
  • I did not use the coconut sugar called for and just added a splash of extra maple syrup. These were sweet enough for me, but judge according to your own preferences.
  • Although the recipe states 1 and 1/2 cups of chick peas or one can, my cans yield 2 full cups, and I use the whole thing.

What are some of your favorite summer recipes?

Meal Idea: Chopped Salad Bar

Chopped Salad Bar

A few years back, we frequently visited Halifax where my in-laws lived at the time. One of my favorite spots to visit was Pete’s Frootique (now known as Pete’s Fine Foods), a British-based grocer that specializes in all kinds of delicious treats.

Although the highlights were fresh produce and the chance to browse British chocolate imports, one of my favorite areas was the chopped salad bar, where you could make a meal out of an endless selection of greens, veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds and any number of fun add-ins.

At the time, I started using this concept at home too. It was great to prepare a bunch of salad components in advance on a Sunday and use them for lunch at work throughout the week. I love salads, but they can get old pretty fast, and I discovered that I like greens like spinach much better chopped up finely and mixed more fully with other ingredients.

Recently we’ve been in a bit of a vegetable rut, and I’ve brought this back. Creating a little salad bar is fun because it breathes new life into what can sometimes be a dull side, and allows you to customize your salad with your favorite items. It doesn’t hurt that it is visually appealing and fun for kids, either. (The kiddo may not eat 90% of what is in the salad bar, but she is very intrigued by the concept. Small victories.)

The picture above shows basically what was available in my fridge and pantry at the time, but like other awesome bar-type meals (think tacos) the possibilities are pretty much endless. Other items I like to use include:

  • Diced avocado
  • Crumbled blue or feta cheese
  • Toasted nuts
  • Banana pepper slices
  • Fruits such as apple slices, grapes, berries and raisins
  • Diced bell peppers and cucumbers
  • Protein such as grilled chicken, salmon and beans
  • Cooked grains like quinoa or brown rice
  • Any leftovers from previous meals waiting to be used up

The salad bar would be fantastic for a barbeque or other event where you are hosting several people, as guests can customize their own salads and you can prepare most ingredients well in advance. I often include a basic vinaigrette on the side but you could include a few different dressing options for more of a crowd. (Toasted croutons out of leftover bread would also be a nice addition, and no one would complain about some crumbled bacon).

I couldn’t resist including this, either.

 How do you customize your salads?

5 Meal Planning Tips That Work for Our Family

grocery_list

As much as I enjoy food and cooking, and playing around with new recipes and ingredients, planning for meal times can be a bit of a pain. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out what might be good for a whole week’s worth of food, but there is nothing worse than the feeling of coming up towards 5 PM and still having no plan. It’s true that having kids often makes things more complicated, but if I’m honest trying to figure out dinner when we were child-free at the end of a long work day was no picnic either.

I’ve tried out a number of methods in an attempt to streamline meal planning: planning for an entire week and even an entire month, using a meal planning service, and other things that have been moderately successful. I have come to the conclusion (at long last) that there really is no set solution that will work all the time; it depends on what is going on in our lives in a given week or month. This seems obvious but it is sometimes hard to remember! And setting up an elaborate plan that is not realistic just makes me feel bad when I cannot keep up with it.

For me, the key definitely seems to be low key = less stress. The following are some tips for meal planning that have helped us keep it relatively painless.

1. Shut Off the Noise

There are a lot of tools out there to help us plan meals, including meal planning services, recipe websites and blogs, sites like Pinterest, and about a gazillion amazing cookbooks (rough estimate). When you need some fresh inspiration, they are great to use.

However, I find that I can quickly get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information available to me. When I am trying to figure out what to eat for the week, I do not want to take the time to comb through masses of recipes – I want to decide quickly and move on. In this situation, it works better for me to try and stick to some basics that we know we enjoy (see below!) and to choose from what I already have available to me, such as a well-used cook book or a recipe online I’ve used many times. And just pick something. I can always change my mind if inspiration strikes, but if it doesn’t at least we already have a plan.

2. Compile a Recipe List

About a year ago I sat down and wrote out as many meal and snack ideas or recipes that I could think of that we have relatively often or just occasionally. I typed it up and left spaces to jot in other items as I thought of them. It includes everything from basics like omelets to once-in-a-while meals like lasagna. Stored in a recipe binder in the kitchen, this has been a great resource to turn to when I am stuck for ideas. Often, when thinking a week or so ahead, I can pull a few ideas out of this list and maybe pad them with a new recipe I would like to try. This does not need to be a time-consuming project; jotting some ideas down on scrap paper and sticking it on the fridge or somewhere you can easily access it will work just as well.

3. Shop More, Not Less

Although it makes sense to do a main run for groceries about once a week or so, I’ve found that I inevitably leave something off the list, or I need to go back to the store again later in the week to pick up things like fresh produce or milk. Or, I change my mind about a meal or it doesn’t work out for some reason, and the ingredients go to waste. I’ve discovered over time that planning for a few days at a time, and maybe a very flexible plan for the week, seems to work more than a rigid schedule.

This would not work for everyone. However, in the season of life we are in right now, a trip to the store can double as an outing for myself and my daughter, who loves to people watch and plop apples into a grocery bag. And planning for the second trip makes it seem less rushed than having to run out again last minute when my set menu plan changes.

4. Include Breakfast, Lunch and Snacks in Meal Planning

This is standard meal planning advice for a reason, but it tripped me up for a long time (and still does occasionally).

When you think about what to have for dinner each night, you also need to think about what lunches will be. What will I get for my daughter and myself at snack time? How about breakfast? What will I grab partway through nap time to snack on? When I think of only dinner it is much easier to run out of basics like cereal, bread for toasting or smoothie ingredients. A lot of these ingredients keep well – like oats, cereal and frozen fruit – but thinking about it a little beforehand will remind me to check I still have them on hand. Additionally, thinking about them ahead of time means I am more likely to plan for some variety.

5. Make a Grocery ‘Cheat Sheet’

This is literally what it sounds like, and was my husband’s suggestion when we were going through a period where both days with our daughter and work were crazier than usual. Basically, this is a list of grocery items for when you find yourself in a hectic time with work and/or kids, someone gets sick or another emergency arises, or you simply just cannot stand the thought of cooking (it happens to the best of us). Include items to prepare simple meals that will get you through at least of couple of days.

My list includes things like pre-prepared fruit salad, eggs, hummus, bread, cereal, cheese, fish and a quick-cooking veggie, and ingredients for particular sandwiches or salads that we like. You can also include whatever pre-packaged or frozen food you may occasionally have. Think about things you and other members of your household might like to snack on or have for breakfast as well as dinner and include those.

The point of the list is not to have to put any major thought into it; you can hand it off to a spouse or partner or go shopping yourself and come back with an emergency stash. You will know that from the items on the list you can come up with at least a few basic meals.

There is nothing wrong with getting some take-out either. But having a cheat sheet helps keep this as an occasional treat, solves the problem of what to have for dinner, and can get me through an additional day or two when I have more time or energy for planning meals. (Again, in keeping with #2, coming up with a cheat sheet does not have to be an elaborate affair. Scribbled on the back of a junk mail envelope and stuck on the fridge is just fine, or typed in an electronic device like your phone.)

What meal planning strategies work for you?