Sunday, January 19, 2014

Coastie Kitchen (How I Meal Plan)

Sometimes, as a mama, I really miss "the girl I used to be."  It's easy to mourn those irretrievable days, particularly when I come across old clothes in the closer: the shirt I paid a fortune for in Oxford because I was sick of my limited wardrobe, the coat that kept me warm during my first Coast Guard football game (in which I fell in love with a handsome running back), and the heels that are absolutely mangled from tramping the brick sidewalks at my alma mater and last job. Wait, where am I going with this?

Oh yeah, but there are some things about that old girl I don't plan in ever revisiting. Namely: Food. 
I grew up with a much different style of cooking than what we eat now, although I still revisit the old favorites. But at least my mom tried to keep me healthy. Left to my own devices, I was a wreck. We can partly, PARTLY blame that on cafeteria food. I can still hear the clatter of those pastel plates (what WAS that material they were made out of??) hitting the stainless steel track and sliding it's way to the cashier. A sweet older woman we all called "Muffin" or "Cupcake"... something like that. 
My tray usually had a ham and cheese hoagie with lettuce and mayo and a bottle if water. Unless it was Friday, in which I'd treat myself to a Coke. And when I wasn't feeling the hoagie, I'd get a pack of NipChee. You know- creamy cheese, whole grain cracker, super healthy. Just enough to sustain me through the afternoon until field hockey when I'd pull out my favorite TastyCake fudge brownies with nuts to enjoy right before two grueling hours of hockey practice. Energy food, I tell ya!

When I went away to college I thought I'd be all grown up and visit the salad bar. So I'd grab a bowl, fill it up with cauliflower, and then dump a pile of salt on my plate to dip it in (learned that one from my dad).  My beverages consisted of cranberry juice for breakfast, iced tea for lunch, and a Coke for dinner.  One day this boy I had a crush on sent me a Coast Guard Academy water bottle.  So I started filling it up, carrying it around to all my classes, and maybe drinking four sips throughout the day.

Chef Lia sautéing some vegetables to go with her Lemon Parsley Salmon.
While in England I basically lived off tea and digestives, lots of tea and digestives.  And bread from the co-op around the corner that always went on clearance on Tuesday nights around 11:00pm.  My Welsh roommate taught me how to take a piece of toast and dump a can of beans on top for a really well-rounded meal.

Fast forward to my married days and Jon likes to tell the story about how the first meal I made for him was hot dogs.  I sincerely do not recall.  But it was probably true.  I had never even heard of meal planning.  My idea of grocery shopping was to buy what sounded good and what was on sale, bring it home, and then try to figure out what to make.  Not to mention my new husband wasn't even home the majority of our first year.  And when it comes to cooking for one ... well, let's just say I brought the beans over toast tradition to American soil.

By our second year of marriage Jon was "home" more but often working night shifts.  So dinner was typically a solo affair.  We did start to improve and some of my most vivid memories of the Beach House were grilling up loads and loads of chicken on Sunday afternoons, and then eating grilled chicken salads for dinner the rest of the week.  Whoever lived in the house before us had a subscription to Kraft Foods magazine (where just about every recipe featured a bottle of Kraft dressing), and that's when I really started to think about recipes and planning.  It may have also had to do with the fact that I had a massive one-year-old on my hands who could out-eat me any meal!

I started to get more serious about grocery shopping on a budget and noticed that actually thinking ahead about what we were going to eat saved us a bunch of money!  By the time we left Virginia Beach I had started filling a notebook with weekly menu plans.  After a year of living in Southern Maryland I was on my second notebook.  Not only did it make grocery shopping easier, but now that I had a complete written history of our families eating habits, planning ahead wasn't so difficult.  I think the most frustrating part of menu planning for me is the inspiration (keep in mind the number of months these past 6 years that I've dealt with morning sickness!).  Sometimes when I just don't feel like thinking about what we're going to eat this week, I recycle a plan from the year before.


So, by the time we celebrated our fifth anniversary, I had discovered the art of meal planning.  But it wasn't until after Julia was born that I figured out the science.  It was then that I subscribed to The Fresh 20, a company committed to budget-friendly, 20-ingredient recipes.  As a subscriber, I received a weekly meal plan complete with grocery list and cooking instructions.  I love to learn by doing, and after a few months I started to catch on.

First of all, it was all seasonal cooking.  I learned to save money by only purchasing products that were in season.  Second, recipes with like ingredients were used in the same week.  So instead of having one recipe call for 2 cups of broccoli and having the rest of the head rot in the back of the fridge,  you'd include two broccoli recipes in the same week.  Or, you'd buy one onion and stretch it across two or three meals.  In addition, the plans would often have you cook up a large quantity of meat (although when I first started it didn't seem like a very large quantity) early in the week for one meal, and then use about half of that meat later in the week for another meal.  And I don't mean having tacos twice.  For instance, pot roast on Monday, and then using that beef for a spicy noodle bake on Thursday.  Despite having the same protein cooked the exact same way, the recipes were entirely different.

I realize that this is intuitive for many of you but for me, it was pure genius.  I didn't renew our subscription though, simply because I wanted to incorporate more of our family favorite recipes in my meal planning.  I still have the plans from my first year as well as The Fresh 20 cookbook , and I highly recommend it for anyone who is just starting out or who doesn't have much time.  But for me, I wanted to take what I had learned and make it my own.

After several years of planning on paper, I figured it was time to enter the new millennium.  After my job ended in 2012, I found I really missed concrete activities, i.e. spreadsheets.  Try as I may, kids don't translate well to spreadsheets.  But meal planning, now that should work.

The actual planning page.
But there's more to the spreadsheet than just the meal planning page.

The basic meal rotation I try to use, but often don't.
 But I wanted to take it even further.  Several years before, back in my couponing days, I started compiling a list of "rock-bottom prices."  This is, the lowest amount I've paid for something (where, when and how).  That way I know whether or not a current price is a "good deal."  I don't use this so much anymore, but it's still handy for those few items that we are incredibly loyal to -- like my husband's super-expensive, hard-to-find razors.  Or my favorite yogurt that nothing I've ever made can compare to.  Or that ridiculous toothpaste that kids like (and only like).  You get the drift.


In addition, I also have a page that lists local (Annapolis area) produce by season.  That way I can plan meals around what will (most likely) be the least expensive fresh produce at that time.  


The last page is my budget.  I purposely left out numbers here.  But I do most of my shopping at Aldi (cheap, but limited selection) and Safeway (expensive, but better selection).  I do some bulk shopping at Sam's Club (which I don't like but Costco isn't close enough) and, of course, my beloved Target.  (I also do some bulk shopping through Amazon but not enough to include it here).  This way I can track my weekly grocery expenses and see how I'm doing in staying under budget for the month.


But let's get back to the real purpose of this spreadsheet, the meal planning.  Page two is a list of every recipe we eat and want to eat.  The arrows at the top of each column allow me to filter for what I'm specifically looking for.  The first column is the name of the recipe.  The second column is the source.  If it's online, I use the link.  If it's from a recipe book, I Google it and use that link instead.  If it's an old family recipe from my personal collection, I just put "Recipe Box" under source.  The third column is the category.  For me, this is chicken, beef, meatless, fish, breakfast, snacks, etc.  This way I can sort by category and make sure we're having a good variety in our menu.  


The next column is the season.  I had big plans for this but never got around to actually assigning a season to each and every recipe.  Ideally, if it contained brussel sprouts it would be a "winter" recipe.  Fresh salsa would be "summer."  Acorn squash would be "fall."  You get the idea. The next column is the cooking method.  Stovetop, oven, slow-cooker, grill, no-cooking ...  This is helpful if I'm trying to avoid oven recipes in July.  Or if I know it's going to be a busy day and I only want a slow-cooker recipe.



All the rest of the columns are ingredients, or at least the main ones (I didn't include pantry staples like salt, vinegar, flour, etc.).  This is the crux of the spreadsheet.  In theory, I can type in an ingredient in the top right corner of Excel and bring up all the recipes that contain that ingredient.  So for instance, I'm making a recipe that calls for half a head of cabbage.  Rather than waste the other half, I'm going to intentionally plan a second recipe that week that utilizes cabbage.

As you can tell, this is a lot of work.  It took a lot of time to set up initially and it continues to be a work in progress.  So over Christmas break I decided to revisit a website/app I had tried previously - PepperPlate.  You have to input all your recipes into your account, but it automatically recognizes "big name" websites like food.com, allrecipes.com, food52.com, etc.  If it doesn't recognize it, you can open a window right on your desktop to copy and paste the ingredients and instructions.  And if it's not a recipe from the internet you can manually enter the information.  I like that I can create my own categories (like seasons or what kind of meal) and then can filter my search results by those categories when I'm ready to plan.  And of course, I can easily search by recipe name or ingredient.

Can you tell we're having guests on Saturday??
And the planner is built right in. I find a recipe I like, and I can send it to my calendar and choose whether it's for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  Or I can already have my planner up and just start typing the name of a recipe directly in a specific day.  Once I get my week's meals planned out, I can add each day to my shopping list and it automatically creates a grocery list of the ingredients I need to make all those recipes.

Finally, and quite possibly my favorite aspect, it's also an app for my iPhone.  So I can do all this while sitting and nursing the baby.

I think that's enough chatter for now.  Time to get to meal planning!  If you need some inspiration (I always do), below are some recipes that we enjoyed at the beginning of this year.

Blackberry Oatmeal and Flaxseed Muffin with Green Monster Smoothie.
Breakfast
Blueberry Oatmeal and Flaxseed Muffins
I love muffins and these were so hearty.  Crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside!  We used blackberries instead because they've been on sale at Aldi.  And also because the blueberries I bought were gone within a few minutes of returning from the grocery store.  I'm big on oatmeal right now.  I took a hit from the stomach flu and, while I've regained my milk supply and have been able to keep up with Joci's demand, I'm always looking for ways to keep up with my growing girl!  Oatmeal is a galactogogue.  In other words, it promotes lactation.  (And now all the non-breastfeeding folks who read this blog are going to think of that when they eat oatmeal.)

Cinnamon Date and Walnut Baked Oatmeal
More oatmeal, of course!  We love baked oatmeal in this house!  I decided to switch things up from our usual recipe.  This was okay, but judging from the fact that there's still leftovers in my freezer two weeks later, not as good as our normal dish so I doubt I'll be making it again.

Lunch
We don't usually eat such "involved" lunches, but Jon has been home a lot between his two surgeries and holiday vacation.  When he's home I try to make a decent midday meal.

Fried Couscous
This is a favorite.  It freezes well which makes it even more convenient for a quick lunch.  I made a huge batch of this before going into labor with Joci and just seeing it brings up memories of that exciting evening!

Raw Kale Salad with Lentils and Sweet Apricot Vinaigrette
I had a random jar of apricot preserves in my pantry that I had bought to use for Christmas cookies, um, last year.  I decided it needed a new purpose.  You guys, this was so good.  Jon packed the leftovers for work the next day and got a lot of inquisitive looks from his Coastie co-workers.

I've mastered homemade Peanut Butter in the blender.  Only one ingredient: peanuts.
Lighter Thai Inspired Chicken Wraps
New family favorite, we've had this twice this month.  Every few months I cook down a chicken, shred the meat and use the bones and scraps to make chicken stock for the freezer.  We used the leftover chicken for these amazing wraps.

White Bean Tuna Salad
A great source of protein for a breastfeeding mama and a weight-lifting daddy.  The kids, on the other hand, were not feeling it!

Green Monster Smoothie
A regular in our rotation.  This isn't the exact recipe I use, because it really depends on what I have in the fridge.  Either way, it's how I get my kids to eat green veggies!

Dinner
My husband calls me the "breastfeeding browser." I spent a lot of Christmas break in a dark room with a hungry/sleepy baby.  So I used this time to seek out new recipes online to try in the new year.  (Unfortunately, the result of which was reaching my phone's data limit less than halfway through the month, oops!)  Below are some of the new dishes I sacrificed my precious data time to find.

Butternut Squash Stuffed Shells with Lemon Sage Brown Butter
Jon LOVED these.  I thought they were good but a little dry.  Typically baked shells have a sauce and these didn't, except for the brown butter sage that you drizzle on at the end (that I had to make twice because "browning" butter is a bit more of a challenge with four kids in the house!).  I'd make it again, but only on a day when I don't have a lot going on.  It was a tad labor intensive!

Taco Chicken Bowls
I haven't been making much Mexican food in the lsat year because Chipotle was one of our favorite post-church lunch stops.  But about halfway through the year we switched churches and Chipotle is no longer on the way home, nor is it even open since we get out of church earlier.  In addition, my goal is to cut back on eating-out this year (so hard for this girl who appreciates ANY opportunity to take a break from cooking and cleaning dishes!).  So I have to find a new way to satisfy my Mexican cravings.  We have an awesome collection of copycat Chipotle recipes that we like to use when we have company, but it's a lot of work for just a regular dinner.  This one hit the spot for less money and effort.  In addition, I find my kids eat better when we have a "make your own" meal.

Greek Marinated Chicken
This was soooo delicious.  I was skeptical of the yogurt, but mmmm, just mmmm.  Oddly, I have no idea what we ate with it.  I'm sure that was good too.

Slow Cooker Sesame Chicken
I found out Uncle Jared, Aunt Kylee, and Miss Mary were coming for dinner and football less than 24 hours before they arrived.  I wasn't up to taking 4 kids to the grocery store in the snow so I planned around what we had on hand.  And this is what came of it.  This was really delicious and I loved that it used honey instead of sugar.  For our special dessert we had ...

Snow Day Cake
Garbanzo Bean Chocolate Cake
AKA Snow Day Cake, because it was snowing outside.  I love this cake, I've made it several times before.  Not because we're gluten free or anything, but simply because I like to serve it and THEN tell people the secret ingredient.  I make the entire thing in my blender, so easy clean-up.  And a dessert that's high in protein?  Need I say more.

Making pasta.

She's so cute I didn't have the heart to tell her she was cranking the wrong direction ...
Italian Wonderpot
This has been all over Pinterest for a while now.  I got a pasta maker for Christmas and was just dying to try it out.  So this is what I planned for later in the week.  This is also the dish I was in the middle of making when the stomach flu HIT.  So I don't have good memories of this meal.  Also, my husband doesn't like cooked tomatoes.  Neither do I really, unless they're pulverized into sauce.  The kids ate the noodles (they helped make them by the way!) and my main objective was to feed my recovering family the homemade chicken stock in the base.  I probably won't make this again, though, simply because it's hard to enjoy a meal you once threw up.

Spinach, Mushroom, Feta Crustless Quiche
My favorite part of eating quiche is the crust.  My least favorite part of making quiche is the crust.  It's just too much work.  So I thought this would be a good alternative for a weeknight meal.  Jon really liked it.  He said it was his favorite quiche to date.  I wasn't as big a fan.  I missed the crust.  The kids did just fine, eggs are usually a safe bet.  And well, protein.

In case you're wondering why I make a big deal about the whole protein thing.  I tell my kids its brain food.  That's how I get them to eat pretty much anything.  And amazingly, Jack typically informs me he feels smarter after dinner.  It's all in how you sell it folks!

Peanut Butter Granola Bars
Snacks
Peanut Butter Granola Bars
These were so stinkin' good.  A lot of work.  I've never worked with dates before this week.  I had a few leftover from the baked oatmeal, but not enough for these.  So I substituted golden raisins for the rest.  We were also low on peanut butter as well as almond butter, so I combined all I could find in the pantry and there was just enough to make the granola bars.  But the chocolate.  That's the clincher.  Currently, my "secret chocolate stash" consists of a container of peanut butter cups in the back of the fridge.  This is a much healthier and heartier combination of my two favorites.  And the oatmeal, galactogogues baby!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Smoothie
My husband keeps making comments about how I'm wasting away to nothing.  This is the part of my baby-raising where I struggle to maintain my own health while also being the sole provider of my 6 month old's nutrition.  Enter, the weight-gain smoothie.  This bad boy consists of over 500 calories!  So it could be a meal replacement, or a mid-meal snack.  Which is what I like to do.  My new naptime routine is to chug a bottle of water ...

This ...
Follow it up with one of these smoothies...

... plus this ...
And chase it down with a cup of Mother's Milk Tea.

... plus this ...
Joci appreciates the results so much she dreams about it, and then wakes me up at 3am for seconds.

... equals this!
And since this blog post is entirely too long, and  I'm anticipating meeting up with "Smiles" here in a few short hours, I really should call it a night.  Happy meal planning!

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