The Agonies, the Ecstasies and the Efficiencies of Menu Planning
by Elise Nussbaum
The decision to cook at home is not always an easy or evident one, despite the many thousands of Internet commenters who inform you that lentils are always cheaper than — and morally superior to — Big Macs. Small inconveniences and larger questions of food access and kitchen comfort can snowball until preparing your own meals can seem like an insurmountable task.
Once you’ve decided to cook more of your meals at home, or at least determined to start thinking about it, you realize that the project is far from a no-brainer. It’s tempting to discount the role that mental energy, creativity and familiarity with the kitchen play in cooking, framing it instead as a simple question of time. However, an hour or two per week, scheduled at your convenience, can make a world of difference when you ask that age-old question that never stays answered very long: What’s for dinner?
The question is best addressed in advance. The most helpful habit I’ve gotten into is menu planning. When it’s my turn to cook, I derive great comfort from having a battle plan for every night of the week, and knowing that we have all the ingredients on hand. On Sunday morning, I sit down with a few cookbooks and write down anything that sounds appealing. (Breakfast is generally cereal, and lunch is leftovers, so dinner is the only concern at this point.) I write down all the ingredients, add the staples we’re running low on, then arrange the list geographically by supermarket aisle, which makes shopping much faster.
If your main motivation for home cooking is to save money, the next step is to set a budget. How much are you spending on food now, both in- and outside the home? What is a reasonable budget, given your tastes (organic? conventional? artisanal? boxed?) and the availability of food near you? As you start grocery shopping more often, hang onto your receipts and look them over, so you get an idea of how much things cost. This will help you to estimate how much you’ll spend on groceries before you even leave the house. I would suggest making a game of seeing how close your estimate comes to the final bill, but that’s a little nerdy even for me, so I won’t. If you do this, don’t let on that it came from me — I have never gotten a minor thrill from guessing the exact dollar amount, because that would be weird, right?
Even after years of cooking for myself and my husband, there are still lessons to be learned and tips to pick up every week, in the supermarket as well as in the kitchen. Our grocery budget is $300 per month, which might seem lavish or ascetic, depending on your own circumstances. Let’s see how that breaks down on a weekly basis.
(Note: linked recipes are not necessarily my recipes. But they should give you an idea or two.)
Week 1 — $66.10
• Sunday — ziti with broccoli pesto and vegan sausage
• Monday — black beans and rice
• Tuesday — ricotta gnocchi with broccoli pesto
• Wednesday — ziti with tomato sauce and vegan sausage
• Thursday — leftovers
• Friday — ricotta pancakes with cantaloupe and vegan sausage fried in maple syrup
• Saturday — potato & sweet potato pancakes with homemade apple chutney
Supermarket tip: even though the supermarket posts informative signs in each aisle, for some reason management gets very tetchy if you take pictures of them. If you don’t want to be treated like a potential terrorist, ask at the courtesy counter for a list.
Friday/Saturday tip: After you’ve written down five or six meal ideas, let the ingredients dictate how the rest of the week is going to play out. Maybe you’ve realized that you’re going to be left with half a bunch of parsley at the end of the week — think about making tabbouleh salad. Mozzarella? Grilled cheese sandwiches. Ricotta and tomato sauce? Baked ziti.
Breakfast for dinner tip: You know you want to.
Week 2 — $55.81
• Sunday — grilled cheese with broccoli
• Monday — pasta salad
• Tuesday — leftovers
• Wednesday — matzoh brei with braised cabbage
• Thursday — stuffed tomatoes
• Friday — fusilli with roasted red pepper sauce
• Saturday — noodles with ginger-peanut sauce
Cabbage tip: Cabbage has a reputation for being cheap only because a head of cabbage is massive and dense. There is just no way a one-, two- or three-person household is going to eat enough cabbage at once to make it cost-effective. Fortunately, it freezes exceptionally well. Chop up the entire head and throw it in the freezer — et voilà! You’ve basically met your cabbage needs for the next year.
Leftovers tip: Leftovers are the best thing to come home to after a long day (unless it’s your partner’s night to cook). They are also the best thing to bring for lunch. Give yourself a break by planning a dinner of leftovers, and make sure to plan something easily scalable for earlier in the week. (Good: soup. Bad: grilled cheese.)
Snack tip: Include snacks in your meal budget. A bag of chips that you dip into for a salty fix throughout the week, freezer pops to mitigate the oppressive catastrophic climate change heat, baby carrots to crunch on as you cook — this is food that serves a purpose, and it’s way cheaper in the supermarket than elsewhere. Allow yourself treats.
Week 3 — $73.32
• Sunday — curried couscous with veggie burger
• Monday — linguine with lemon cream sauce
• Tuesday — quesadillas with watermelon salad
• Wednesday — bread salad
• Thursday — leftovers
• Friday — otsu noodles
• Saturday — broccoli rabe sandwiches
English muffin tip: Before putting them in your basket, make sure your package of English muffins isn’t covered in blue-green mold, because when it’s 96 degrees out and the supermarket is a 10-minute walk away, and you’re starving, you will not bring them back to the supermarket to get your $1.50 back.
Caper tip: Next to lemons, capers are the most underrated ingredient. (The most overrated is, of course, saffron. What gives?) Briny and adorable, capers take everything you love about olives and fold it into a much cuter package. They’re also surprisingly cheap and keep forever, so keep some on hand for use in just about any Italian dish.
Produce tip: Some vegetables don’t like to be refrigerated but also can’t be left to their own devices for too long (I’m looking at you, tomatoes). Prepare these dishes closer to the shopping date, leaving the hardier veg (broccoli, potatoes, onions) for Friday or Saturday.
Week 4 — $75.79
• Sunday — coconut black beans and rice
• Monday — cucumber & yogurt soup with veggie burger
• Tuesday — coconut curry noodles
• Wednesday — Greek-style macaroni salad
• Thursday — leftovers
• Friday — Greek salad with veggie burger
• Saturday — risotto with peas and dill
Mix & match tip: It’s not exactly fusion cuisine, but if your regular meals are starting to bore you, try making them with ingredients and/or seasoning from a different region. Adding coconut milk, curry and mango to black beans, or making pasta salad with feta cheese, olives and sun-dried tomatoes can bring a whole new dimension to an over-familiar dish.
Mint tip: Remember what I said about the odds of using an entire bunch of parsley without planning for it? Unless you’re throwing a Kentucky Derby party, that goes double for mint. Whenever you come across a recipe that features a little-used herb, consider switching it out with another herb you’ve got on hand or plan to buy for another recipe. That’s one fewer bag of black sludge deliquescing behind the ketchup.
Olive oil tip: If you’re not picky about the brand, you can usually find a bottle that is on sale for 50 percent off. If you’re using it to sauté onions (you are), you don’t need extra-virgin cold-pressed, anyway.
It wasn’t until I laid out my whole system that I realized how many moving parts are involved in a well-oiled dinner routine, but as you begin to plan out your meals, you’ll grow to appreciate the time and money it saves you throughout the week. Whether you follow recipes to the letter or throw ingredients in the pot with Bittman-esque abandon, menu planning is an excellent way to give the food you eat the consideration it deserves.
Elise Nussbaum lives in Jersey City with a husband and a cat. She is currently blogging her closet at dressopotamia.blogspot.com.