Cooking: Menu Planning and Week-Long Meal Prep

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The following is written specifically to help out loved ones dealing with chronic illness and caretaking.  I can’t be there to help in person, so this is my offer of Virgo planning and kitchen witchery in action to assist, at least I hope, in reducing some of the stress of menu planning.  Also, this is to ensure that both the disabled and the caretaker are feeding their bodies nutrients that will help health and maintain health respectively.  It can be such a strain to add yet another task (like taking over cooking) to the caretaker’s responsibilities, on top of all of the other duties both in home (e.g. cleaning) and outside the home (e.g. work, medical appts.) when the person with the disability can no longer cook for the household.

As someone dealing with chronic illnesses and occasional loss of mobility, these are things I’ve been practicing in anticipation of times when I simply run out of spoons, or should I need surgery, have to be laid up for a week or more without anyone other than my daughter to help me through the day.

Nevertheless, these planning tips can be used by anyone who needs to reduce the amount of work they spend across the week getting simple meals together.  Please note that these suggestions are frequently gluten free and sometimes even dairy free; pending allergy testing, I might not be able to eat gluten anymore in the near future.

(I apologize in advance if the formatting doesn’t work in Word Press.)

PLANNING AND PREP THE QUADRUPLE VIRGO WAY

(An example of how to organize your time while prepping meals.)

  1. The most important thing anyone can do for their health and for their budget is to make meal plans.  Deciding a week’s worth of meals (or two weeks, or a month) in advance ensures that one has the right foods available, a healthy mix of vegetables, nutrients, et al, and reduces the likelihood of overspending on foods you don’t need, or aren’t worth what you’re paying (fast food, pre-packaged frozen meals, etc.).  Planning for all your meals even makes getting lunch to work easier.  (If you can afford to eat out now and then, leaving a night open and here or there for dining out can also make the week’s worth of cooking and meal-planning seem less daunting.  It’s like getting a reward for all your hard work!  I certainly enjoy getting a break from cooking now and then.)
  2. Dedicating one or two hours each Sunday for a week’s worth of food prep can seriously lighten the load the rest of the week.  Having a plan of attack can make preparing several days of meals take very little time.  Since I’m looking at potentially  eating gluten-free soon, I see that the best starches to have prepped and ready are rice, rice noodles, and potatoes.  The rest is all in having protein sources, veggies, and sauces available to use or heat in just a few minutes.

    • Invest in a good set of glass containers.  We have a mix of small containers of varying shapes, as well as a set of larger bowl-like containers.  This makes storing individual meals and smaller portions of ingredients on hand a breeze, and you’re not risking leeching toxins from plastic into your food.  The larger containers are for the starches.
    • Start by prepping brown rice*.  As with any rice, the secret to getting it just right is to let it sit in the pot with its water–without heat–for 15 minutes.  Set a timer.  If you prefer white rice, the general rule of thumb is 1c. of rice to 2.25c. of water.  With brown rice, it is 1c. of rice to 2.5c. of water.  Depending on the size of your family and how much rice you like to eat in a meal, I’d start with anywhere from 2c. of brown rice/5c. of water to 5c. of brown rice/7.5c. of water.
    • Once the rice is sitting pretty, rinse and pierce several potatoes (your choice on favorite type, size), and place on a bottom rack in the oven.  (I suppose pre-heating  the oven to 375F/190C is the first start.)  You’re only going to cook these three-quarters of their usual cook time (e.g. for a large “baker” or russet, one hour is usually enough to cook it fully, so put it in for 45 minutes instead).
    • Get out two large baking dishes, add a bit of olive oil to each.  In the first, place numerous pieces of boneless chicken (breasts, thighs, whatever you prefer; I like a mix of skinless breasts and thighs).  I don’t boil chicken because boiled chicken has high levels of sulfur (makes me sick, just like chicken eggs), whereas roasted or grilled chicken has none.  Season the way you like best, but keep it flexible for multiple sauces or dishes.  Most of my meals include salt, garlic, and thyme, so I put those on any chicken when I cook them.  Add chili powder, paprika, lemon or lime juice, etc. depending on what you like to eat most often.  If you prefer grilling, skip this step for now, and grill the chicken later.  The goal is to have cooked chicken, chopped into cubes or chunks, on hand whenever you need them.  If you don’t eat poultry or any meat, I’ll put tofu** tips below.
    • For the second baking dish, chop up favorite root vegetables: potatoes, carrots, turnips, jicama, beets, rutabaga, garlic cloves, onions, yams, etc.  Whatever you like and are able to get at your local grocery or farmers’ market (or your yard–even better!).  If you like bell peppers or even hot peppers, cut thick slices and add to this mixture.  Toss with a little bit of olive oil, and place in the baking dish.  As much as I love roasted squash, it only keeps a couple of days.  If you can afford the space, add a pie dish full of cut and oiled zucchini or other squash to the pie plate.  It’s better, though, to keep it fresh and available.
    • Your timer is either about to go off, or already has.  Turn the heat to high on your rice pot.  If you’re still chopping the root veggies and peppers, finish up.  You’ve got the time.  Set the timer for ten minutes either way.
    • As soon as the veggies and chicken are ready, pop them into the oven on the top rack.  Move on to the next set of vegetables to chop.
    • Now you’re going to focus on the veggies you’ll keep in the fridge pre-cut and ready for any quick meal.  Things that keep well are bell peppers (about 3-4 days), sliced carrots (about 3 days), broccoli and cauliflower (about a week), cabbage (3-5 days, and still edible for 7), zucchini (3-4 days), and kale or chard (3-5 days). Some veggies don’t need to be cut and will keep for up to two weeks without incident like sugar snap peas and baby spinach.  As an extra treat, thick-sliced mushrooms last well in paper bags, and can be added to fresh-food meals as well as sauteed in a pan for hot meals.  Prepping these includes cutting those which need to be cut, and placing them each into containers based on lasting time.   Leave heads of lettuce in tact, they’ll last longer if you pull off what you need when you need it.
    • Your second timer should go off during this chopping process.  This is just to remind you to see if the water is boiling.  If you’re making a big pot of rice, it’s going to take longer.
    • Here’s the fun “pick your story” portion of this: If it’s not boiling, set another ten minute timer, finish up any veggie prep.
    • If it is boiling (and you’d likely notice while chopping), you need to grab a stirring spoon, turn the heat to Low, and stir for one minute.  (I stir clockwise several times, giving it a counterclockwise stir once in a while.)  Cover the rice, and set a timer for 20 minutes for white rice, 35 minutes for brown rice.  It might not finish in that amount of time, or it might overcook depending on altitude and how quickly you turned down the heat.  It will continue to bubble even with the heat on low.  (Follow this step once your rice’s water starts to boil.)
    • The moment your rice is ready, give the chicken and vegetables a quick check.  If the water boiled after only ten minutes, then the potatoes only need another 25 minutes (set your timer for this), the chicken and root veggies will likely still need another 30-35.  If the water boiled after twenty minutes, then set your time for 15 minutes for the potatoes.
    • Sit down, breathe.  (Unless you’ve chosen to add a few other items–mentioned below–to your week’s mix.)
    • When the timer goes off, remove the potatoes quickly, but carefully.  Use tongs or oven mitts, or if you set them on a baking sheet, pull it out at once, and let cool on a trivet or rack.  Reset the timer for the chicken and root veggies (about another 10-15 minutes), unless they look ready as well.
    • Fill a second pot with water, and get it boiling.  Open packages of rice pasta (either thin or thick, whatever you like best, just remember, thinner noodles take less time to cook and can be added to salads as well as the base for a meal) and wait.
    • When the timer goes off, check the rice for excess water at the bottom by pushing the rice aside a little.  If there is little to no water left, turn off the heat and move pot off of hot burner.  Remove root veggies and set out to cool.  Check chicken.  You absolutely want this fully cooked if you’re planning to eat it across the week.  If still pink in places, let cook another 10-15 minutes.
    • Add rice pasta to water once it boils.  Follow package instructions, but generally thing noodles take about 4-5 minutes to cook, and 10-12 minutes for the wider noodle.  Strain and rinse.
    • Once all these basic foods are done cooking and have had a chance to cool a bit, you can start packing them up.  Some things need to sit out longer to cool than others (lids tend to pop up, and the excess moisture build-up can shorten shelf time in fridge).  In the large bowls store your rice and rice pasta.  Potatoes can be kept in a baking dish and lightly covered, wrapped up in foil (if you’re ok with aluminum foil on your food, wrap them before baking, it’ll save you time later), or kept in a paper sack with some paper towels or wax paper on the bottom.
    • roasted vegetables go into a separate container as is; chicken will need to be chopped once cooled enough to touch, and then placed in another container.
    • It may seem as though you’re using a lot of fridge space for containers, but since you’ll be using up most of your week’s groceries in one big hurrah, you’ll only have things like lettuce, dairy products, condiments, and sauces or left overs taking up the rest of the space.  Creative stacking (yay, Tetris!) can leave at least one entire shelf for fresh non-prepped foods for your use.  Even tiny fridges like the one my loved ones have.

WHAT TO DO WITH IT

Ok.  So now you’ve got the necessary foods to have on hand to make many different meals***.  However, unless you live alone and/or like your food bland, you’ll probably find that you need a little more prep work for the week.  Here are some things you can make to spice things up:

  1. Make your sauces ahead of time.  I only have some basic, intellectual understanding of canning, so I won’t go into it, but if you can set aside a couple of days each year (early summer, late summer) for canning, I say go for it!  Having a full pantry of jarred foods that you canned yourself will keep the flavors of the summer bounty inspiring you all through the cold months.  If you don’t can, or aren’t willing/able to (I fall into this category), then making a few sauces ahead of time for the week can greatly reduce even that stress.  Do this either with the spare burners while other foods cook, or during the cooling time.  Here are some sauces you can make and keep in the fridge for the week.  Remember to change things up, so you don’t get bored, and I recommend making two to three sauces ahead of time for the week.  They can be frozen and reheated at a later time (store in smaller portions so you can take what you need and not waste it), or in salad dressing bottles to pour out when needed.
    • Marinara
    • Thai Peanut Sauce or curries
    • Vietnamese fish sauce (for noodle salads)
    • Indian butter sauces or curries
    • tzaziki (cucumber/yogurt sauce)
    • favorite salad dressing (my daughter likes a mix of olive oil, wheat-free soy sauce, and lime juice)
  2. Also good are soups and saucy stews to have on hand.  Soups can be reheated across the week, and stews (goulash, coq au vin, beef burgundy) can either be eaten with bread, or used as the sauce over pasta or rice, thus making both good dinner food and good quick lunches.  Chili is another favorite that lasts, and if you don’t care for spices, I’ll post a mild alternative vodka chili recipe later.  I recommend that you make a soup, stew, or chili as a follow-up to your prep work.  If you only have one big stew pot, not to worry, just empty your rice into its appropriate container, rinse the pot a little, and use the pot both for browning any meat or veggies, and for the cooking process.  In a matter of a few hours, you’ll have a whole week of cooking finished, and will only need to throw things together and heat them up quickly later.

COLLABORATIVE MENU PLANNING

Some quick notes on ways to plan a menu, and then I’ll cover what to do with all these prepped foods.

Planning a menu seems like a daunting task, but if you’re weird like me, you probably already have a list somewhere (or a menu planning book) filled with meals you’ve made and like making.  If you don’t, have a family brainstorming session, and write down stuff you like to cook, what’s easy to cook, and stuff you like to eat often.  Consider the ingredients you’ll have on hand from your once-a-week prep work.  Then you have two different decisions to make: the span of your menu planning (a week, two weeks, a month), and whether you prefer to schedule each meal for each day based on known events in your lives (e.g. work, an upcoming party, etc.) or just have a list of potential meals to be eaten when you feel like it.  With this kind of a plan, it might be good to save one night a week (if you can afford to) for eating out, or cooking one really amazing meal (not a soup, stew, or chili) that’s special.  Making a Lebanese lemon-garlic chicken with saffron rice (using pre-cooked rice from my pre-prep), cauliflower, feta, and yogurt sauce is one of my favorite ways of giving us a special meal even when I’m not feeling well enough to do anything elaborate.

THE CORE FOODS & HOW TO USE THEM

Ok, now you’ve got the plan, and you’ve prepped a week’s worth of food.  What can you do with it?

Rice pasta comes in varying styles now.  If you’re strictly an thin, Asian rice noodle lover, fantastic! You’re going to have a great time with curried sauces and fish sauces, and the like.  If you can get your hands on the Italian-styled rice pastas, these make great sauce-soakers across the week, and can be paired with any of your prepped veggies on hand.  (I’ve started keeping more cherry and tiny heirloom tomatoes around to reduce cutting and clean-up time and preserve the foods longer; they can be added to sauces about to be heated or salads about to be eaten.)  Asian rice noodles are great in Vietnamese noodle salads, and take little more than throwing prepped ingredients into a bowl and adding the pre-made fish sauce.  No heating!

Rice is incredibly versatile.  It can be used for every meal if you choose.  You can use left over rice to make saffron rice, fried rice (I blanch carrots and toss in frozen peas and tofu and in ten minutes, we’re eating fried rice for breakfast), mixed with sauces and stews, add it to soups, stir fried with veggies, or made into desserts like rice pudding or sticky rice with coconut milk.

The potatoes, when most of the way cooked, can be cut in half and  thrown into a toaster oven, conventional oven, or even microwave (although they get soggy here), with butter, chili, cheese, or a favored stew.  They can also be cut up and pan-fried quickly, hollowed out and made into mashed potatoes (and skins can then be baked with toppings to make a nice treat), or just warmed and eaten with sauteed veggies.

The chicken or tofu can be added to any foods where you want it, either hot or cold, including salads, curries, and pastas.

The roasted veggies are useful both cold and hot, mixed with the other ingredients you have on hand.  They can be thrown into a skillet with one of your prepped sauces, and then added to pasta or rice, or can be served with chicken and potatoes.

The fresh, cut vegetables are for use in salads, on rice, or sauteed and added to your hot meals.

By doing the planning and prep, almost all of your meals should be on hand and ready to throw together in under ten minutes.  Any sauteeing might take up to fifteen minutes, but for a busy parent, a disabled individual, or the caretaker, this allows for quick brekkie, a fast late-evening dinner, and the ingredients necessary for an easy to prepare lunch for both at home individuals and those that need to take a lunch to work.  (If you are eating meals outside the home, I’m a huge fan of the To-Go Ware product line.  My daughter and I just received a pair of three-tiered tiffin sets including carrying bags and utensils.  They make brown bagging look like a sad and wasteful way of eating on the go.  However, small glass containers, especially for a simple one-container meal, are usually plenty.)

EXTRAS

Oh!  A few more things you might consider having on hand, or utilizing as a change in the routine: beans (canned or pre-cooked during prep), quinoa (an incredibly versatile grain, try it in tabouleh instead of cous-cous, or mix it with beans and fresh veggies and herbs to make a tasty salad), and nuts and seeds.  In fact, you should definitely have sesame seeds in bulk and one or two of your favorite nuts in an opaque jar near the other foods for easy protein additions.

Remember, beans and rice eaten together equal a complete protein!

Also good: roasting gloves or whole bulbs of garlic, and adding the roasted garlic to meals, or mixing with butter to make a delicious spread.

During warmer months or in warmer climates, you may wish to remove potatoes and roasted veggies, and make instead, a big pot of chickpeas in one, and a big pot of pinto, black, kidney, or white beans in another.  You can use most of the chickpeas to make a week’s worth of hummus (add sun-dried tomato, roasted bell pepper, or roasted garlic to change the flavor), and save a small amount to add to salads and Indian dishes.  You can also store bags of frozen fruit and make fruit smoothies for breakfast to help keep you cool through the day.

Whatever meals work best for you, consider those in your planning, but when it comes to trying to eat healthy, keep to a small budget, and reduce the amount of time spent each day on cooking, these tips should help ease some of the burden.  At least, that’s what they’re intended to do.  Try out the tips for a week or two, and then adjust as it works best for your household.

NOTES

* Why brown rice?  While it may take a little longer to cook than white, it still retains its bran, which means better digestion, and more fiber in your diet.  It’s also tastier, IMNSHO.

** Tofu tips: There are two ways I prepare tofu, both start with slicing the extra-firm tofu into cubes.  The easy way is to lay the cubes into a single layer of a skillet (already hot with olive oil), season to taste (I use wheat-free soy sauce, garlic powder, and chili powder).  Cook on medium to medium-high heat, until at least two opposing sides have cooked for five minutes each, and/or the edges of each piece are slightly browned.  The harder way, but great for grilling on skewers, is to lay the tofu out in a baking dish in a single layer, freeze for one-two hours, remove and defrost.  Then lay a cloth over it, and then put a weight on the cloth to absorb excess water.  Then you season or marinade for a couple of hours.  Add to your skewers with sliced veggies and grill.

*** I intend to write up recipes across the next few weeks that are mentioned here, and update this page with links.  If you don’t see one you want to try out right away, let me know, and I’ll type one up as quick as I can and post it.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Cooking: Menu Planning and Week-Long Meal Prep « Willow and Birch

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