Alternate title: Eating Down the House. (Because menus are key to using up what you have. If you don’t have a well-stocked pantry, build one — and then eat it down.)
First, assess the food you have. (2-4 minutes)
As you stare and think, and think and stare, constantly ask yourself: what can I make with this? The more specific your ideas, the easier your planning.
Open the cupboard doors. Notice that there’s pasta and brown rice. An excessive amount of crackers. Walnuts from two years ago that are probably rancid. An abundance of chickpeas and cornstarch. A squash that’s going moldy. Molasses and chicken broth and three bottles of barbecue sauce. One box of shredded wheat, tortilla chips, plenty of peanut butter and mayo, coffee, some black olives and canned beans. Don’t forget to look under the counter in the backhall (greening potatoes) or in the downstairs bedroom (eating apples that are going soft).
Peer into the fridge. Notice the many containers of fresh ricotta, the jars of milk, the eggs. There’s a partial jar of salsa, sourdough discard, random bits of cheese, celery and carrots, 1 yellow pepper, lemons, and ginger. In the freezer compartment: maseca flour, frozen bananas, a half pound of bacon, Korean meatballs that no one liked, two partial containers of wine berries, spinach and sausage filling for a quiche, pepperoni, vanilla ice cream, pie crumbs.
Put on shoes and walk down to the basement. One by one, throw open the freezers: the fruit and veg (and everything else) freezer, the meat freezer, the upright freezer. Dig around, lifting and touching and reading labels, making sure you see everything, not just the things sitting on top. Note the quarts of buttermilk, cheeses and butters, the red raspberries, grape puree, sour and sweet cherries, strawberries. The big container of Italian wedding soup (minus the meatballs), sourdough bread, bags of corn, store peas (tiny are always best), cranberries and rhubarb, bagels. Remind yourself to USE THE BEEF, and there’s still some wedges of pesto torte from two summers ago, cubed ham, Italian sausage, pulled pork from Magpie, lots of pincho sauce. Affectionately pat the bags of raisins and coconut, scan the jars and boxes of pureed squash, strawberry jam, sangria mix, pumpkin pie filling. Glance at the canning on the shelf. They’re dwindling nicely, but the apricots catch your eye — haven’t used any of those yet this winter. And there’s grape syrup and loads of tomato sauce. No more applesauce, though. Dang. Don’t forget about the mostly-empty barn freezer (cider, wedding soups, extra beef) and barn fridge (whipped cream from the wedding, bum cheeses, yogurt, milk, baking apples).
Go back upstairs and REMIND YOURSELF NOT TO BUY GROCERIES FOR A YEAR.
Second, assess the week. (2 minutes)
This step is two-fold. 1) On a piece of paper, or on the door of your fridge (with a dry erase marker), write down the next five-seven days, and 2) Look at your calendar schedule. Notice which days you’ll be gone, or super busy, or have company. Make notes of the food plans you already have, like “birthday supper” or “small group dinner” or “popcorn movie night” or “out with friends” or “working late”. Days you know you’ll be rushed, plan to make a crock pot meal, or eat leftovers. Don’t forget to consider the weather: if it’s going to be sunny and warm, consider grilled steaks or hot dogs; if there’s a blizzard, make soup. Taking a minute to feel your days in advance makes your menu planning that much more realistic and effective.
Pro-tip: post the menu front and center. Look at it at least six times a day.
Third, build your menu. (5-8 minutes)
This is where it gets overwhelming, so here are three tricks to help streamline options.
Trick 1: Classify the meals. You can do this however you like, but I tend to think of carbs (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes) and/or protein (beef, chicken, eggs, cheese). The most important thing, though, is to remember what you have AND USE IT.
Trick 2: Piggyback the meals. One day’s leftovers become the next day’s star ingredient. For example, if Monday night is baked potatoes, corn, and steamed broccoli, the next night is fried potatoes (with the leftover baked potatoes), and maybe some scrambled eggs and fried halloumi, or whatever. Wednesday’s rice and beans turns into Thursday’s stirfry (with the leftover rice from the day before and Monday’s leftover steamed broccoli); add the pulled pork from the freezer, some grated ginger, carrots and onions, etc. Friday is pizza, perhaps, or you could make a chili with the leftover beans from Wednesday’s meal.
Trick 3: Consider your appliances. It sounds weird, but remind yourself of the tools you have — oven, rice maker, immersion blender, fondue pot, Dutch oven, crock pot, ice cream freezer, food processor, instant pot, grill — and the kinds of food you might use them for. This jumpstarts creativity and helps to get you out of a meal rut.
Fourth, fill in the gaps. (2 minutes)
Suppers are just one-third of the meals; you gotta think about breakfasts and snacks, too. While you’re in food-prep mode, jot down some things you want to make and/or use up in the menu margins: ricotta pancakes, oatmeal with canned peaches, grilled cheese, smoothies, peanut butter apples. Having a bunch of ideas in reserve prevents you from feeling adrift at mealtimes, and it provides quick to-do tasks (make granola, cream some butter for cookies) when you’re feeling bored or fuzzy in the head or starving hungry.
Fifth, push through. (1 minute)
Chances are, by this point the ideas are coming thick and fast. Make a weekend menu, and carry on into the next week if you have extra ideas.
Total Time: 12-16 minutes, once a week. WASN’T THAT EASY?
- As the week unfolds, you may discover you have more leftovers (or less) than you anticipated, or someone gets sick, or you go out with friends. Cross things off, swap days, make additions. No menu is fixed in stone.
- Don’t rush to the store when you run out of a standby, like white rice. Instead, switch to the brown. Or cook with pasta and bread for a few days. If you run out of pasta, switch to potatoes. Or make your own pasta because that’s why you have all those bags of semolina, after all.
- Holding back some store-bought goodies, like chips and boxed cereals and bottled drinks, creates a feeling of abundance, helps lengthen the times between trips to the store, and gives you something to draw on in moments of true desperation.
- Fresh veggies are fairly cheap and add considerable excitement. A bunch of green onions, some kale, a couple lemons, a red pepper, a cabbage: small things that go a long way!
- When you think you simply have to go shopping right this minute, wait a day or two. Pull out that random hunk of meat from the freezer. Make a batch of bread. Pop some popcorn. OR, just get the bare necessities — milk, butter, onions — and try to go another week. Necessity is the mother of invention.
*I’m not being sexist. She asked.