Meal planning is one of the tools that I use frequently to streamline our dinner plans. I find that if I plan at least 3 of the dinners we will have for the week we not only eat earlier, but we eat less takeout, and we spend less time and money at the grocery store. I do my best to slant our meals to be vegetable heavy, and keep our meals influenced by seasonal produce. That being said, I am not a “totally local” or completely “non-gmo” cook or eater. In the winter, my vegetables come from the local supermarket or, if I’m feeling ambitious, the indoor market near my office. Because I love cooking, and food, these expeditions to farm stands and green grocers in the greater Boston area are like field trips for me, but as our family grows the convenience of the major chain down the street from our house is not lost on me. I do what I can to keep it local, but I am not killing myself. And if I really want zucchini in January, I’m not one to turn my nose up at that grown God knows where squash, (except for in the case of tomatoes…they never taste right in the middle of winter…unless you roast them)
It can be difficult to strike the appropriate balance between seasonal eating and meal planning. A good deal of what you find on the internet pushes you towards casseroles and frozen bags of slow cooker meals you can prep months in advance. Those dishes are useful to have access to, but on a regular basis my goal is to plan in a much more short-term style. I follow a (very) loose formula that helps me make decisions once I see what looks good at the market, or what is on sale at the store.
I strive to have a plan for weekday breakfast, it's usually as simple as “buy yogurt and granola”, or “ensure there is toasting bread (something sliced and whole grain at our house) and peanut butter”. If there isn’t anything quick available, I am likely to go without and then fold at 9:30 to a breakfast sandwich that will sit like a rock until suddenly at 3pm it evaporates and I’m ravenous and I make another impulse decision that ruins my appetite for the rest of the day.
As far as dinners. I’m happy if I get a plan for 3 executed, but I’m even more thrilled if I get more than that done. If I’m thinking about my week ahead, I try to incorporate the following:
· Something that makes a big batch, like a pot of soup, or a big roast that can be used either for lunches or in a dinner later in the week. Soup or chili is a popular favorite but a large roasted chicken can also be transformed into a few sandwiches or salads later in the week.
· Something that requires minimal effort – I’m a huge fan of sheet pan dinners, I usually plan for one a week. That way, when I get home from work, I know that all I have to do is wash a few vegetables and fire up the oven and we can be eating within 30-45 minutes. I haven’t made one yet we haven’t repeated, a lot. They are flexible and open to a lot of variation. You can easily swap butternut for sweet potatoes, or asparagus for broccoli, no harm, no foul.
· A make ahead meal – arguably, soup and chili or a slow cooker pulled pork can fall into this category easily, but what I am usually planning is a grain bowl, or a big salad. We are also fans of stuffed sweet potatoes. I can make the components or toppings when I have time, over the weekend or on a day when I’m not commuting during peak traffic and then we can reheat and have dinner quickly. This also works for days when we are short for lunch materials.
· Tacos or Lettuce Wraps and / or Pizza I just plan to have one or the other every week, because we love them.
· Three words: Breakfast For Dinner. Everyone likes it and it has the added benefit of being as complicated as a strata and salad, or as simple as pancakes – we like to make them savory ala David Tanis.
This week’s plan looks like this:
· Summer Vegetable Minestrone with Broccoli Toast
· Falafel Bowls with Israeli Couscous & Marinated Kale
· Heirloom Tomato & Sausage Strata, Leftover Kale Salad
· Portobello Tacos with Green Tomato Salsa
Below is my riff on the Kitchn's recipe for Crispy Baked Falafel. This is a highly forgiving recipe that can be put together in stages (which is perfect for anyone with an infant at home!) and you can either make the mix and keep it refrigerated so you can make crispy falafels on demand, or bake off a whole pan so that you can shovel them into your mouth when you get 10 minutes of blissful nap time. I like them in a grain bowl with some kale I marinate in lemon juice, and whatever grain I may have leftover in the fridge. Extra points if on Sunday I think to do that while I'm making these!
Make Ahead Falafel Patties
2 15-ounce cans low sodium chickpeas, drained.
1/2 medium red onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/4 cup loosely packed parsley
1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro
2 tablespoons olive oil
zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup all-purpose flour, (for a gluten free option, I use ground oatmeal. Just pulse in the food processor until you get a consistency of flour)
Preheat the oven to 375°F: Spray a baking sheet with a thin layer of olive oil.
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor, except baking soda and flour
Run the food processor, or pulse until the chickpeas are chopped and all the ingredients are mixed. Taste for seasoning here. If you have not achieved the herby green color and flavor you are looking for, now is the time to add more parsley and cilantro.
Combine the baking powder and flour, and sprinkle it over the mixture, still in the bowl of your food processor.
Run the food processor, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until the mixture forms a ball when you squeeze it in your hand. consistency here can vary, I make mine pretty smooth, because i like flat, crunchy patties but you can leave it chunkier if you prefer.
Refrigerate the mixture for 1 hour or up to a few days, covered.
Roll the mix into balls with lightly oiled hands. Push the balls down onto your sheet pan (surface area = crunch). spray the tops with more olive oil, and bake 15 minutes, then flip and bake 5-10 minutes more.
Do you plan meals or make things ahead? What are your favorite tricks?