How’s your grocery planning and weekly shopping coming along? Victories? Dramas? Difficulties?
Elisa from Bo Bee Sah left a comment a few days ago, saying, “I’m so incredibly glad that I found you when I did! We, as a family, were ready for this change. Meal planning is very new to me, but so far it’s been absolutely fantastic!! I love that I can reach into the fridge and put together several meals, chock full of veggies, too!” It’s great to hear it’s going so well for Elisa—speak up and let us all know how it’s going for you, as well. If it’s going well, tell us what you’ve found. If you’re struggling, let us help you brainstorm.
It can be easy to get stuck or overwhelmed when you are trying to write down your meal plan for the week–especially when you’re new at it or when you’re feeling tired or worn-out. As you’re sitting with your blank meal plan sheet, your mind can also go blank, you can find yourself thinking only of entirely inappropriate meals (for the season, for your lifestyle, for your week’s energy level), or you can find yourself thinking only of rich, unhealthy foods that you don’t want to form the staples of your diet. Here are some solutions for your potential troubles.
If you find yourself getting off the meal plan you’ve created, leaving you with lots of food going bad in the fridge, you may need to take a closer look at the energy level your meal plans for various days are requiring of you. If you are generally tired lately, if you or a loved one has been suffering from an illness, if your job is overloading you, etc., there is no shame in specifically planning easy meals (even for every meal for the week!). The keys are to make sure those meals are mostly healthy and are satisfying for you.
If you find yourself running over with leftovers, assign one day a week to be your leftover day, when you and your family eat those foods instead of creating new meals. If you tend to find yourself with leftover ingredients, this great website lets you search for recipes that include the ingredients you have and exclude various categories of ingredients (gluten, meat-based, etc.) that you can’t eat or prefer not to eat. You can also often use up your odds and ends of vegetables and fruits by making a salad, a pureed soup, a vegetable plate, or a loaf (meat, soy, or nut) that includes some or all of those ingredients. You can also simmer many types of leftover veggies (except the bitter ones) in water to make vegetable broths that you can freeze for later. Homemade broths and stocks have awesome flavor.
If you are stuck while you’re trying to make your meal plan, fill in your meal plan with the meal days and names (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack), fill out your to-do line on the various days using your family’s calendars, and then try one or more of these suggestions:
- Look through what you have in your refrigerator, freezer, pantry, or incoming CSA order—or think about fruits, vegetables, grains, or proteins you’ve always wanted to try but never have. Before you try to come up with meals, assign a featured food you’d like to use on a given day. (Examples: Monday–Dinner: Chickpeas; Tuesday–Dinner: Butternut squash.) Then go back and fill in with meal ideas that you come up with when you see the featured meal item. Search Google, your favorite food blogs, or your favorite food websites for recipes that use that food if nothing comes to mind.
- If you are trying to save money, assign different expense amounts to different meals, and go from there. (Examples: Monday–Dinner: Cheap; Tuesday–Dinner: Moderate.) Then, using your own knowledge about which foods are at which price level and/or utilizing some creative searches, come up with meals that fit those levels. (Hint: It’s generally easier to make inexpensive meals if they are simple. The fabulous Mark Bittman put a list of 10-minute summer meals on the NYT website last July; you can find it here. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, few of those foods are going to be seasonally appropriate now, but they are definitely inspiring.)
- Review your previous weeks’ meal plans, or the meal plans that you saved this time last year (if you were planning and saving then), to glean ideas for the various meals you’re planning this week. Warning: Serving the same thing every single week can put you or your family in a rut—it can make you bored with your meals so that you seek new flavors in unhealthy snacks you throw in during the day or so that you overeat trying to get to a point of enjoyment. For those with food allergies, eating the same thing week after week may contribute to the development of new allergies from overexposure to foods. It’s good to keep pulling your favorite back in, but it’s also good to experiment with new ideas over time.
- Consider your to-do list, and label the various meals with the amount of energy you’re guessing you’ll have. (Examples: Monday–To Do: Work out from 5:30 to 6:30. Dinner: Easy. Tuesday: To Do: Take day off from work. Dinner: Indulgent.) Then consider which of your (or your family’s) favorite meals fit those categories, dig through magazines or cookbooks, and add in recipes that fit your expected energy level.
- Label the different meals with the names of various ethnic cooking styles that you love or that you have wanted to try. (Examples: Monday—Dinner: Thai; Tuesday—Dinner: Italian.) This type of planning can require the use of additional spices for your cooking; if that’s the case and you’re trying to keep cost and waste down, it will be easier on your budget if you have a health foods store that sells spices from bulk bins. You can purchase just what you need from the bulk bins—avoiding a whole bottle of a spice when your recipe may just call for a teaspoon. If you live in an area without bulk bins for spices, you could buy them online in small amounts (though there’s a large amount of packaging waste, over time, that way), or you could call an adventurous friend or relative to say, “Hey, I’m going to buy some Chinese five-spice powder because I found a recipe that sounds great, but I don’t need the whole jar. Want to split one?” (Check here for more ideas on how to solve this dilemma.) But even if you initially have to buy whole jars of several spices, many spices are used in multiple cuisines, and you will find some spices that you just adore. To check out the meal plans of two bloggers who regularly include inspired food from around the world, visit Book of Yum and Fresh Ginger.
Cooking from traditions around the world offers you the ability to explore what is often (or can be created as) healthy foods that are so interesting in your mouth that you’re satiated with less of the food. (My theory: we don’t just crave foods like Doritos because of the high-pitched crunch or the fat in them, though those are both appealing. We also crave them because they’re very flavorful—in societies where our food isn’t often seasoned well.) Cooking from the world’s various ethnicities can also be really inexpensive. Especially for people cooking on food restrictions, cooking from ethnicities where those restricted foods aren’t part of the general eating habits can be a real boon.
One of my recent discoveries from Indian food is dosas. Dosas are South Indian savory crepes made from lentil flour, rice flour, water, salt, and levener. That’s it! (No eggs, no soy! A crepe-like flavor and texture–yum!) If you have several hours and want to be authentic, you can make them from scratch, but for a quick, inexpensive option, you can also buy powdered dosa mix (with no chemical ingredients) at an Indian or multi-ethnic-minority grocery store, or you can buy them online. (Note to those of us who are gluten-free: rava dosas or rava dosai generally means that there’s wheat in the dosas. But you should always check ingredients and always ask at Indian restaurants, as some dosas that don’t have ‘rava’ on them still have wheat as an ingredient.) A box of dosa mix from the Indian grocery store that makes 8-11 dosas cost me $0.79. Yes, that’s 79 cents—less than 10 cents a serving.
You can see a video on how to make dosas from a batter on YouTube. (When you buy a mix, make the batter, and then start with the video instructions. It takes about four minutes from start to finish to make dosas from a mix.) You can eat dosas plain or fill them with any savory food you like—Indian or otherwise.
Here are a few other Indian (or American-ized version of Indian) dishes that we enjoy. All of these recipes serve about five people and are free of gluten, casein, tomatoes, soy, nuts, and eggs:
Pureed Lentil Dal
Dal is one of my husband’s favorite foods.
2 cups red lentils (Using another color is okay, though it may vary the cooking time a bit)
2 Tablespoons ghee (clarified butter–the casein has been removed)
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons (or so) powdered ginger
6 cups vegetable broth
3 Tablespoons curry powder (or less depending on your powder)
salt and pepper
Dunk your lentils in a couple of inches of water, picking off any non-lentil bits that may pop up from the lentil pile.
Drain the lentils well.
Heat the butter in a skillet on med-high. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, and ginger, and stir around for a minute. Add the drained lentils and stir together. Add the vegetable broth and curry powder; heat to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or until lentils are very soft. (You can cook dal as long as an hour or more.) Use an immersion blender in the pot to puree and fluff your lentils. (Alternately, pour the lentil mixture into the blender and do it there.) Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cauliflower Pakoras (Indian Fritters)
1.5 cups garbanzo flour (chickpea)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ghee, melted, or vegetable oil
1″ piece of ginger root, frozen (easier to deal with frozen), peeled, and grated on the large side of a grater
1 to 3 poblano peppers (or hot peppers if you are so inclined), chopped
1 Tablespoon ground coriander
2 Tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoons pepper
1/2 c.-2/3 cups water
2 teaspoons dried onion flakes
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
vegetable oil or ghee for deep frying
one head of cauliflower, chopped into florets
additional salt for serving
Wash, chop, and grate the necessary ingredients. Combine chickpea flour, salt, 2 tsp. of softened ghee (or veg. oil), ginger, peppers, coriander, fresh cilantro, chili powder, pepper, and 1/2 cup water in a food processor that has been fitted with metal blade. Cover and process until smooth. If needed, add a little more water; batter should be smooth and a little thicker than heavy cream. Set aside for 15-25 minutes.
Now beat by hand with a wire whisk for 2 minutes and check for consistency—too thin and it will spatter, too thick and the vegetables won’t cook well. Adjust with a little more flour or a little more water. Finally, whisk in the dried onion flakes and baking powder.
In a wok or deep fryer, heat 2-3″ of oil or ghee to 350 F. (med. or one click above med. on most stoves).
tir cauliflower into batter. Scoop out by 1/4 c. into hot oil. Fry until golden brown, turning to fry evenly. Don’t worry if your pakoras break into pieces while you are cooking them. Carefully remove with slotted spoon and place on paper towels/dish rag to drain oil.
When you have finished the first batch, blow on one to cool it, and then try it. Add more spices to the batter if you think the one you are trying is not flavorful enough. Sprinkle the cooked ones with a bit more salt.
You can keep these warm in a pre-heated 200-degree F oven while you fry the rest.
Bangan ka Bhurta (Indian Eggplant)
4 teaspoons ghee or peanut oil
2 med. onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 teaspoon cumin (or to taste)
1 teaspoon chili powder (or to taste)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 Tablespoons cilantro, chopped
Chop the cilantro and the onion. Set aside (separately).
Preheat the oven broiler. Place eggplants in a roasting pan, and broil 7-10 minutes, turning occasionally, until about 1/2 the skin is scorched black.
Place eggplants in microwave safe dish. Cook 5 minutes on High in the microwave, or until tender. Cool enough to handle, and remove skin, leaving some scorched bits. Cut into thick slices.
Heat ghee in a skillet over medium heat, stir in the onion, and cook until tender. Mix in eggplant. Add seasonings to taste. (Unless you know you like it spicy, work your way up to more spice as you cook, stopping when you have reached your comfort level.) Continue cooking 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft, somewhat mushed together, and tasty.
(And now that I’ve written today’s post, my husband is craving Indian food. . . .)
This post is support for Step Two in the Year of Self-Care—a series of 26 bi-weekly steps toward better self-care in 2009. Please share your questions and thoughts in the comments section of each step’s posts.
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