The Dutch oven, the workhorse of our kitchen.

I love to cook. Like, twice a week and on Sundays. The rest of the time, it’s mostly an way to remind myself of what life was like before children. Slower. Tidier. Cheaper.

Recognizing that maintaining my love of cooking requires me feel less hassled by the fact that this family must be fed every single day, we’ve moved to a not-a-meal-plan system.  Meal planning that requires me to make decisions about what we are going to eat a week in advance simply don’t work for us. Like most families, we’re busy and flexible. Sometimes someone has an evening meeting. Some semesters, a parent is going one night a week teaching; in the summer, it might be two. Girl Scouts meets once or twice a month from 6-7, right over our usual dinner time. We want friends to join us at the last minute, or we forgot about the school’s spaghetti supper until the day of.

And my biggest complaint: meal planning is one more thing to plan.

So instead of a system that locks us into particular meals, we wanted a system that:

  1. Lets us mostly work with what we have, which is what is one sale, rather than telling us what to buy. See below for our list of things we always or almost always buy–the things that make up our pantry, fridge, and freezer staples.
  2. Lets us change our mind on any given night, so that we can eat leftovers, go out, order in, try out a new recipe they saw online that day, or eat a bowl of cereal if that’s what we want. To allow for the fact that we’re going to make some bad nutritional decisions sometimes, all meals have to have vegetables (or sometimes on quiche night a fruit salad), and all of them have to be mostly plant-based.
  3. Allows who cooks to change over the course of the week so that everyone over 4 feet tall can make at least one of the week’s meals.
  4. Includes at least one healthy food that each person likes, so we can tell a child who is suddenly averse to tomatoes that he can eat his pasta sauceless and enjoy as many green beans as he likes.

The final rule for our family not-a-meal-plan is that we can drop any night we want (except COTR night, which insures that we aren’t wasting food). If it’s chili night and we want quiche, we can. The point is that if we get stuck not being able to make a decision  (which is often the hardest part), we have a not-a-meal-plan to help us.

The Foxhole Not-a-Meal-Plan

COTR Night

Which night do you take the garbage to the curb? That’s what we call COTR Night (pronounced like Ry Cooder’s surname. We do try to refrain from saying “COTR Night” in front of company.) That’s the night we Clean Out The Refrigerator. This night anchors our week, because by this night, anything that isn’t looking a limp gets eaten that night. Meals that help you COTR are quiche and egg casseroles (for cheeses and vegetables on the edge), grain bowls or winter salads (for vegetables you can roast in fun spice mixes), and soups (for those vegetables, plus any small amounts of meat leftover from other meals).

Image result for ry cooder

I’m Ry Cooder, and I approve this not-a-meal-plan. 

Meatful Thursdays

Which day does your grocery store discount meat? It’s often Wednesdays, since cuts that aren’t moving might not make it to Saturday, when more shoppers come in. For us,  Thursdays meals are organized around what is on sale. We tend toward a few different cuts: beef stew cubes for beef vegetable soup, various cuts of beef for roast beef (cooked in the slowcooker or Dutch oven with onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes), beef or pork turned into barbecue sandwiches, pork or sausage added to potatoes and sauerkraut. This is also a day when one the parents can be home mid-day to turn on the Crock-Pot.

Note that we still eat a fair number of vegetarian and vegan meals. We just plan when we eat meat so in the most affordable way possible.

Chopped: The Pantry Version

We also aim for a once-a-month pantry audit. Sometimes things end up in the pantry that just don’t make sense. (I said to buy “chilis,” but someone buys a can of beans in chili sauce. I convince myself I’m going to love lentils this time but bring them home and can’t persuade myself to actually cook them.) These inspire our Chopped nights. No, no one is allowed to make dinner out of stinky tofu, finger limes, smoked pork tails, and raspberry Toaster Strudels. Instead, a child works with a parent to make a meal out of what we have, working with flavor profiles we know that our family likes. Yes, this means a lot of variations of chili (because we have a lot of beans), grain bowls (Why did I buy millet?), and curry (because we almost always have coconut milk).

Spice Rack Review

Our spice cabinet is usually pretty well-stocked, but it’s easy to fall into the same choices again and again. Schedule

Freeze Frame! 

Just as we regularly COTR and host Chopped: The Pantry Version, we deliberately examine the contents of the freezer at least once per month. This usually means a meal of fish and some frozen vegetable, plus rice or a grain, potatoes or sweet potatoes, or egg noodles.

Who do we have the pleasure of serving this evening?

What nights are people gone? Are there meal that that person hates that the rest of us like? Those are the nights for that blue cheese and onion pizza and tuna mac.

If the missing person is a parent, we may have a Short Order Cook night. One child wants a fried egg sandwich and the other wants blueberry pancakes? As long as we’re working in the same area of the kitchen (one frying pan) or from the same ingredient list (one child wants pasta with red sauce and the other wants pesto, but they get the same noodles), this works fine. We often pair it with a Reading Dinner night, which is just as lovely as it sounds–low music and books at the table.

Another version of this involves just Mr. Prickles and Lamb at home. Then we can have a Catch-as-Catch-Can night. If you can make it and clean it up, you can eat it.

So, what are we eating now? I’ll add our not-a-meal plan for each month as it arises. Again, keep in mind that we don’t stick to this plan rigidly (except for COTR night), but it gives us an answer when we are arguing, listless, or indecisive.

February 2018

Sun Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat
1

Manager’s special soup or stew

2

Rice and beans

3

Salad or grainbowl

4

Manager’s special roast

5

Thai curry and rice

6

COTR Night

7

Boy Scouts Night: Pasta or pierogies

8

Girl Scout Night: Catch as Catch Can

9

freezer meat,

pantry starch,

freezer vegetable

10

Salad or grainbowl

11

Manager’s special

 

12

Catchall Quiche

12

COTR Night

14

Boy Scouts Night:

Hot sandwiches and soup or salad

15

Manager’s special crockpot meal

16

rice and beans

17

Salad or grainbowl

18

Egg casserole with fruit

19

Indian curry night

20

COTR Night

21

Boy Scouts Night:

Chili

22

Girl Scout night: Catch as Catch Can

23

Reading dinner/Short order cook

24

Salad or grainbowl

25

Baked pasta (manicotti or lasagna) and salad

26

Baked potatoes

27

COTR Night

28

Spice rack review night

January 2018

Sun Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat
1

Pork and sauerkraut, homemade apple rings

2

Chicken dip and crudités

3

Boy Scouts Night:

Egg sandwiches and fruit salad

4

Manager’s special +

Try-a-new vegetable night

5

Red beans and rice

6

Baked potato bar

7

Baked oatmeal, fruit salad

8

Thai curry and rice

9

COTR Night

10

Boy Scouts Night: Pasta or pierogis and green vegetable

11

Girl Scout Night: Catch as Catch Can

12

freezer meat,

pantry starch,

freezer vegetable

13

Salad or grainbowl

14

Manager’s special

 

15

Catchall Quiche

16

COTR Night

17

Boy Scouts Night:

Hot sandwiches and soup or salad

18

Manager’s special crockpot meal

19

Spice Rack Review night

20

Clay Center meatballs, buttered noodles, and Brussel sprouts

21

Egg casserole with fruit

22

Indian curry night

23

COTR Night

24

Boy Scouts Night:

Chili

25

Manager’s special: beef stew/posole/

chicken noodle soup

26

Reading dinner/Short order cook

27

Salad or grainbowl

28

Baked pasta (manicotti or lasagna) and salad

29

BBQ + sweet potatoes

30

COTR Night

31

Boy Scout Night:

Vegetable soup + crackers

Our Staples

Freezer

  • vegetables for soups: corn, carrots, peas, green beans beans
  • vegetables for cooking: edamame, mukimame
  • salmon, tilapia, whitefish
  • cherries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries
  • Rhodes rolls for homemade bierocks
  • pierogies

Pantry

  • white, whole wheat white, whole wheat flour
  • that flour I thought I’d use to make some funky bread but haven’t
  • sugar, brown sugar (dark and light)
  • vegetable shortening
  • all manner of beans, dried and canned
  • red lentils, green lentils
  • that whole grain I thought we should try
  • short-, medium-, and long-grain rice
  • jasmine, basmati, and black rice
  • some highly processed food I don’t remember buying
  • lots of oils, lots of vinegars
  • oatmeal, both rolled and quick cooking
  • dried fruits, including golden raisins
  • pickles, pickled beets (for red beet eggs and also because they are delicious)
  • sweet potatoes of all varieties
  • Yukon gold potatoes
  • small red, yellow, white, and purple potatoes
  • Vidalia onions

Refrigerator

  • milk, butter, and cheese, cheese, cheese (always white cheddar for breakfast sandwiches and quiches, always mozzarella, mostly always Swiss, sometimes Gouda or Munster, and usually something fancy because we love cheese)
  • eggs (in quantities of 18, at least, because we eat a lot of them)
  • spinach, kale, and another green
  • green onions
  • apples
  • carrots, celery, radishes for snacking
  • Brussel sprouts, asparagus, sometimes green beans
  • miso
  • kimchi, pickles, pickled eggs, olives
  • Worcester sauce, liquid smoke, jarred garlic (so I’m never out), tube of anchovy paste, tube of lemongrass, tube of ginger, blue cheese and ranch dressings (because we love buffalo dip and buffalo wing pizza)
  • plain yogurt
  • In the summer (and unrefrigerated): corn on the cob, cucumbers, tomatoes