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 our schedule varies. 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 three times 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:
- 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.
- 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, most meals have to have vegetables (or sometimes on quiche night a fruit salad), and most of them have to be mostly plant-based.
- Allows who cooks to change over the course of the week so that everyone over 4 feet tall can make at least some meals.
- 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
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).
I’m Ry Cooder, and I approve this not-a-meal-plan.
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. A regular peek in there shows me that it’s time to use that paprika–so mushroom stroganoff is on the menu!
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.
As we clean up leftovers each night, we put anything soup-worthy into a gallon freezer bag. If we have a large amount of something leftover (say, two entire ears of corn), they can go into their own bag, but, otherwise, celery, onions, carrots, peas, green beans, and okra, plus any leftover rosemary or basil or other fresh herbs go into a single freezer bag. When it gets about halfway full, these form the base of a vegetable or beef vegetable soup. Don’t add cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage etc.), which can be great in soup but make everything near them taste like they do. And don’t freeze potatoes, which turn mealy in texture.
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 or 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.
- Whatever Soup vegetables
- vegetables for cooking: edamame, mukimame
- salmon, tilapia, whitefish
- cherries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries
- Rhodes rolls for homemade bierocks because I can’t make yeast bread myself for some reason. I live with some curse that kills yeast whenever I touch it
- 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, despite the fact that I hate them
- 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, white onions, and yellow onions
- canned pumpkin for muffins
- canned pineapple for baked pineapple
- canned tuna
- canned chicken for buffalo chicken dip
- 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–50+ per week)
- spinach, kale, or another green
- green onions
- carrots, celery, radishes for snacking
- Brussel sprouts, asparagus, sometimes green beans
- kimchi, pickles, pickled eggs, olives, pickled onions, pickled peppers
- 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