Hungry? It’s going to be cold and inclement the next few days, so howzabout some soup? Try this: Chile Chicken Verde with optional Chicken Stock Cash Out
It’s been a while since last I wrote. Not for a lack of topics, but more for a lack of focus, somewhat a lack of time, and frankly, a lack of laptop that works consistently. My poor little MacBook Pro that was shiny and nubile in 2007 is now shuffling along with a tennis-ball-assisted walker, occasionally choosing to not wake up, occasionally losing stuff, occasionally crapping its pants. And yet, I cannot bring myself to ask for a new one because I’m cheap and until this one is dead in the ground I’ll ride this geriatric pony into the sunset. But, I digress.
Cooking. There has been so much cooking. So very, very much cooking. Enough cooking to make me line up to heartily agree with this article. Not charming, sexy cooking like they do on TV shows where you take one bite, do an exaggerated eye roll, and mumble around your mouthful about how it’s SOOO GOOOOOD! at which point you take a cunning tray of food onto your trendy deck populated with trendy people all sipping trendy wine and blithering about how sharing food with friends is, like, the best thing EVER. No, I was doing straight up nutritionally dense production line style cooking, and let me tell you, that takes a lot of sexy out of the process. Fortunately, it didn’t take good flavors out. At least, I don’t think it did. I learned so much about making a single plan that could be tweaked for stricter Paleo, or Auto Immune Protocol, or loosened up for the joy of a brief cheat meal. I also learned that I really don’t want to lose whole chunks of my life in the kitchen cooking for others, but would much rather spend that energy teaching others planning and prepping skills.
Most people know how to cook. It’s not a testament to the quality of their cooking, so much as it is an acknowledgment that most people can boil water and cut themselves with a dull blade, given the opportunity.
Where most people struggle (myself included) is in the planning and prep phase of the cooking process. All of those cunning books advertising the 10, 15, or 30 minute meals? They are LIARS. Propagators of the worst myths in modern homemaking. Most times they a) fail to represent the amount of time required to prep for the actual cooking of the recipe and, b) assume everyone can efficiently mince an onion and know what “sauté” means. Let’s be honest: Sauté is a euphemism for “high heat and a pound of lard” and nothing but awesome can come from that combo, amiright? But, back to the subject of planning.
January is the most exhilaratingly evil month of the calendar year (after February because of Valentine’s Day, and March and November because of the time change, and April because of taxes) because that’s when a huge portion of the developed world “recommit to a healthy lifestyle.” They crowd our gyms, our produce departments, our running trails, and feed our sense of superiority for not being “that guy.” Instead of feeling territorial and judgmental we really ought to be their greatest champions and cheerleaders. Instead of grumbling because a de-conditioned ass clown forced us to slow down or move over or (god forbid!) share equipment, we should be doling out the high fives like rappers throwing around benjis in a strip joint. They are doing what we did at one point: Getting off our butts and getting moving. They are trying, heaven bless them, they are trying. So, it is with this spirit of giving towards my fellow man that I offer my approach to menu planning, grocery budgeting, and getting every last possible mile out of your effort. I don’t assert myself as being the best at the efficiency game, but my process works pretty well for my little microcosm, and it may resonate with enough to be helpful. Also, it’s possible to get too efficient. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s possible. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, when I am diligently efficient in one area usually another area of my responsibilities buffet suffers (*cough*MOPPING*cough). But, again, I digress.
Phase 1: The Plan
And, just like the Russians, a budget conscious person should not saunter any where near a grocery provider without a plan. It’s the same principle as going to the store hungry: DON’T DO IT. Without a plan, it’s easy to wander the aisles making plan-less choices, buying food at random, and getting home and wondering why the heck the grocery budget is always red lining. A plan constitutes three (3) basic parts:
The Menu – a piece of paper onto which is written a list of food items to be consumed over the course of the day. My menu typically covers the most common meals of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other menus may only require breakfast and lunch or just dinner or just taquitos. It just depends. I know my weeks well enough in advance to know when I need to schedule a crock pot meal versus when I can put more effort into the meal process, and I use this intel to optimize my menu plan.
My menus typically are connected by ingredients to maximize both the mileage of those ingredients and also to minimize food waste as much as possible. When I make my menu I consider the broader implications of my recipe choices as they relate to other meals. If I’m buying spinach solely to use in a quiche (that’s an egg pie if you weren’t sure) then I’ll make sure to plan spinach into another meal to ensure that any available/extra spinach is used. If I’m cooking bacon I’ll save the drippings to use as an optional fat content instead of butter or oils. If I’m grilling a london broil steak there is a guarantee that steak caesar salad is for lunch the next day. Get the idea?
The Recipes – if you are a recipe follower, you need these lined up and ready to go. When I’m following a recipe I’ll write the book and page number next to the menu item, or note that it’s bookmarked on one of our handheld devices. Anything that requires a recipe should be part of your prep process described below. There’s nothing worse than getting home to cook that super fab looking recipe only to find out you were supposed to have marinated that piece of fish for the last 12 hours, or that it takes 45 minutes for the cauliflower to sweat. Those are the moments when it becomes hugely tempting to give up and order pizza, but with the right prep to match the plan these incidents are greatly reduced.
The Grocery List – Duh, right? Without a list at the store it’s almost impossible to remember everything that’s needed for the forthcoming week’s menu, and multiple trips back to the store impact both the budget and the plan in unhelpful chocolatey ways. My grocery lists fit nicely onto a standard 8.5″x11″ piece of paper and are organized by categories:
Organizing my list this way allows for two things: First, I get through the grocery store quicker because I’m not pacing back and forth across its length as I go item by item down my list; Second, it allows me to hand my list to my spouse and send him to the store with reasonable expectation of having everything necessary come home, even if he adds several packages of beef jerky and an assortment of hot sauces to the bill. Fifthly and lastly, it keeps me out of the middle of the store where all the prepackaged garbage lays in wait to wreck my clean eating prospects.
Phase 2: The Prep
Prep work is what truly separates the successful from the slightly less successful. If you can knuckle in and do the prep work your week of cooking will significantly simplify. Based on my menu, I will chop the produce necessary for each meal and bag it up into ziplock bags, label it for the day of the week, and BOOM. That 10 minute meal that looked so awesome? Yeah, NOW it’s a 10 minute meal.
Salads take work. Salads are a PITA, as the kids say these days. If salads take too much work they don’t get done. And, I have yet to meet a person who finds their zen putting together a dinner salad each night. My salads have five (5) general ingredients: greens, onion, bell pepper, cucumber, radish, and tomatoes. If you chop lettuce too early it rusts, and while it’s still fine to eat it looks like ass and no one wants an ass salad. Cucumbers can become ookey thanks to that lovely seeded center. Radishes dry up and become dull when cut. So, now what? I store my greens in ziplock bags lined with paper towels to help control humidity. That gives me a couple of extra days of life. Cucumbers I cut lengthwise into quarters and cut out the seeds, and then chop into salad sized pieces, most often using the kitchen mandolin, and store in a plastic container. Bell peppers I cut/chop into a plastic container, and radishes get chopped and added to a container of cold water where they don’t dry out and get sad. Now when it’s salad time it’s just a matter of pulling out my mini buffet of produce and putting it all together.
If the meat I need is not currently in the freezer and gets bought fresh at the store, I will immediately freeze it – unless I’m using it within the next 24 hours. Why, you ask? Because life happens. And, although I may have planned a lovely sweet potato pork chop skillet for Wednesday doesn’t mean that something might not happen to delay that menu item and potentially render the meat spoiled by exceeding its expiration dates. Save the money, save the hassle. Vegetables are cheaper to waste than meat, although wasting either is not ideal.
Prep work allows you the opportunity to get ahead. While you’re already chopping all these veggies and portioning out meat, now is a good time to put together some crock pot meal kits and jam them into the freezer for that inevitable moment when you either run out of food or don’t have time time to cook that evening. Thaw those kits the night before and start them cooking in the morning!
My big prep day tends to be on Sunday afternoons. That’s my big 4-6 hour day of prepping and pre-cooking so that I’m not spending much more than an hour or less in the kitchen during the evening meal. It doesn’t work every single time flawlessly – this isn’t one of those absurd life hacks that you see on BuzzFeed – it’s a process that takes practice, and commitment, and willingness.
Phase 3: The Performance
With a plan and prep work phases complete, this opens up the week to not be overwhelmed with cooking chores because if we were all honest with each other it’s not the cooking that everyone hates: it’s the cleaning up afterwards. Maybe there’s a few weirdos who look at it inversely but I’m pretty sure they don’t read this blog.
This is just a highlights version of the bigger conversation. With all these diet challenges and nutrition challenges and “new you” challenges I see everyone start out super pumped, running down to Whole Foods and buying up a list of “recommended foods” for the same price as a car payment, coming home, toasting their last bottle of wine before things “get serious tomorrow.” Then, they get up, look in the fridge full of food that has no plan, their shoulders slump with Frustrative Intense Nourishment Block Syndrome (F-IN-BS), and they slink off to Torchy’s for a taco and decide to “get serious tomorrow.” You CAN do this! You CAN succeed with changing your eating! You CAN! Start with a plan, start practicing with prep, and start seeing how it works for your meal times and tweak accordingly. If this topic is at all piquing your interest let me know and I’ll write up more detailed, um, details and we’ll make this a “thing” for January. February is reserved for celebrating The Spouse’s birthday and complaining about Valentine’s Day.