October 16, 2010

More About Menu Planning

After my recent "Menu Planning" post (http://jeffreyandjulicook.blogspot.com/2010/10/menu-planning.htm), Juli asked me some questions about the thought process that goes into my selections. Since she thought my answers were interesting, I though just maybe some of the readers would also find them interesting. If not, worry not, as this one isn't long and my next post will be more directly cooking-related.

As I've said before, most of the time we cook meals five of the seven nights of the week (Thursday through Monday), plus Saturday lunch and the occasional batch of cookies or other such extra cooking we fit in here and there. Usually by Tuesday I'll have a pretty good idea of at least a couple of the recipes I want to make for the week, based on things I've been reading and wanting to try, or based on weather (nice weather makes me want to grill, whereas a cool Saturday morning often inspires me to cook up a pot of chili or soup), or based my wanting to make something we've not had in awhile or which Juli has stated she'd like. This weekend, for example, I knew I wanted to take another shot at thin crust pizza, and that I also wanted to make General Tso's Chicken, as that particular recipe had been on my menu plan a couple times in recent weeks, only to get bumped off by circumstances. With those two dishes decided on, that helped lead me to some other decisions. The General Tso's called for some other sort of Chinese dish, and would require vegetables to round things out nutritionally. Since the General's Chicken is pretty hearty and flavorful, I decided to go light with the rest of the meal, and since I'd recently been reading soup recipes and had found a Hot and Sour Soup recipe I wanted to try, I tossed that on the list. Still not much in the way of vegetables, though, and not particularly colorful, either, so I decided to round things out with a quick and simple broccoli stir-fry (in addition to the rice). Since making three dishes requires a bit of time, I figured my Chinese feast would fit in best for Saturday lunch.

Once I've got a few things figured out, I consider what other main ingredients and cuisines I might want to work with for the week. Much as I love pizza, one meal of pizza a week is enough (I did make extra pizza dough with last night's pizza, but more on that another time), and it would be good to have some other cuisines represented instead of doing more Chinese or Italian. Indian is almost always a given, so I figured I'd make a couple Indian dishes on one of the weekend evenings. Since I already had a chicken recipe selected, I selected a pork recipe and a vegetarian side for the Indian meal. Looking in the pantry and noticing a few cans of black-eyed peas helped me decide on the side dish.

I also knew that the weather was supposed to be nice this weekend, but perhaps rainy on Monday evening, so I figured I'd grill something for Sunday dinner. I had some lamb in the freezer and hadn't yet selected a lamb recipe, so I decided to do lamb kabobs for Sunday. Grilled veggies of some sort was a natural, and since tomato goes well with lamb, I decided I'd grill up some thick-sliced tomatoes while one could still find reasonably good tomatoes in the store. I considered making some couscous to round things out, but Juli had requested I make up another batch of some hummus I'd made awhile back, so I decided to go with hummus and pita bread instead, and since pita and tomato was approaching gyro territory, that gave me one last idea: I could make up a batch of the yogurt-dill sauce I often make with lamb and we could have that, the grilled chunks of lamb and the grilled tomatoes on some of the pita bread, in addition to using it for dipping in the hummus.

Looking over the recipe I'd decided to use for the thin crust pizza, I noted the dough had to be made the night before. Since we get home so late on Wednesdays, that eliminated pizza as a Thursday recipe, so I figured I'd make the dough on Thursday night and have pizza on Friday. That called for something fairly easy for Thursday dinner, and since we didn't have a shrimp dish yet, I decided to make the shrimp curry recipe I'd been designing for Thursday dinner.

That left me with just Monday unplanned. I didn't want anything too complex or time-consuming for a Monday night, so "fast, and preferably one dish" seemed the way to go. Fortuitously, on Tuesday we got something in the mail that gave me an idea. My subscription to Cook's Country magazine came with a free copy of America's Test Kitchen 30-Minute Suppers, and that had finally arrived. The dish featured on the cover - Pasta with Butternut Squash, Spinach and Prosciutto - looked absolutely delicious, and a quick look at the recipe itself sold me on that for Monday's dinner.

America's Test Kitchen 30-minute Suppers (96 Tear-Out Recipe Cards)

Menu in hand, I was then able to come up with a grocery list, so that when we got home on Thursday, I was ready to start cooking for the week. As I write this, I'm half-way through the week's cooking, more or less. So far all is going as planned, and soon I'll start thinking about next week's cooking.


  1. I carefully research and plan my meals weekly, too. My final day off is when I do a lot of cooking. I like to prepare a big meal that day as my dinner, but also to carry over for the next two days. After that's completed, I'll cook a hearty stew/soup to have for work the next few days, too. Then, before the evening is up, I'll make a baked good for myself (and co-workers).

    So, I research and plan out 2-3 meals per week(including the baked good). The rest of the week, it varies. Last week, I made a quick bowl of pasta with tomatoes, arugula, and goat cheese. Another night, I assembled a platter of sardines, roast peppers, cheese, crackers, and olives. Another day, I had an egg with potatoes-- simple, easy, and filling. Another week, I made a batch of jambalaya to carry me over until the end of the work-week.

    It took me three months, but I *finally* have a system of cooking/menu-planning that works beautifully. I live on my own, so I get my 'feeding people' fix when I bring a baked good to work (most) Tuesdays. :-)

  2. I think it's neat that you share your baking with coworkers, Lena. Occasionally I'll do the same, as when one of my coworkers suffered a painful loss in the recent past (I brought her cookies), but I can't do that often because I work in a big office. I just wish we had pot lucks more often where I work.

    I'm amazed at how much more I look forward to lunch these days than I used to, because with all the cooking we do, we have a fair bit of leftovers much of the time. Sometimes we just keep them in the fridge to take for lunches, as with yesterday's General Tso's Chicken. That had enough leftovers for three lunches. Juli and I each took one to work today, leaving one for one of us to take tomorrow, or the next day if we don't want to chow through all of that one right away.

    Other times we put the leftovers directly in the freezer. We do that especially if we know the dish will freeze well. The lasagna I made a few weeks ago made a bunch of lunches, for example. Toss in a bit of bread, or maybe a piece of fruit, and it's good to go.

    We've been doing enough cooking to have a good backstock of frozen meals in the refrigerator, such that if I wish, I can have something different for each of the eight meals (lunch Sun-Fri + dinner Tues and Wed) I eat at work. One day might be Kenyan Chicken Curry, the next lasagna, the next ham and bean soup, and so on.

  3. I love freezing meals, too. I didn't have much luck freezing baked ziti, though. The pasta was cooked just how I like it (slightly al dente) and the dish itself was wonderful...then I froze it and I just didn't like how it defrosted when I had it a week or so after the fact (I just didn't like the texture of it at all-- I let it defrost completely before reheating it in a little pot over low heat). Since then, I leave pasta dishes in the fridge and try to eat them within a few days of making 'em.

    Rice dishes, on the other hand, defrost beautifully for me. (As do soups/stews, which I love!)

    Thanks for bringing up lasagna, by the way-- I'm definitely going to try to find a good eggplant one for this coming week.


    Since I live alone and away from family, bringing baked goods to work is a great way to still enjoy baking and never have to worry about any of it going to waste. I'm having a sort of unspoken baking war with a co-worker, too, which has been interesting.

  4. Hi Lena, Juli here. When I take a frozen pasta dish like lasagna to work, 9 times out of 10, I'll just microwave it in the frozen state. This takes about 5 minutes (I stir it a bit halfway through to break up remaining ice crystals) in the office microwave, and produces quite good results, I think.

    I love the idea of a baking war! What kinds of things have you made for the "battles"? ;)

  5. Well, therein lies the problem. My apartment came without a microwave and I still haven't purchased one (yet I've found more than enough time to buy a Smokey Joe grill - go figure!) :-) Thankfully, there are plenty of microwaves at my job, so I'll keep that in mind when I make the baked ziti again.


    On my end, I've brought in a standard coffee cake, a NY-style blueberry crumb cake, a pound cake, and a pumpkin-chocolate chip loaf. So far so good. I made gingerbread a couple weeks ago, but the result didn't pass my personal taste test, so it stayed home (I think I'm too much of a perfectionist when it comes to kitchen results). Thanks for asking!

  6. That baking all sounds excellent... especially the blueberry crumb cake and pumpkin-chocolate chip loaf.

    We've got some pumpkin recipes coming up in the next little bit, so who knows, maybe we'll end up giving you some ammunition in the baking war. :)