Meal Planning 101: On Cooking with Limited Time and Energy, plus a Menu of Meals

A couple of entries ago, I shared with you all my maniacal approach to finding co-curricular fulfillment and how my body failed to keep up. After a much-needed therapy session, I had hoped that I would easily be able to drop an activity or two, or at least dampen my must-approach-everything-with-100-percent-intensity modus operandi. No dice. I tend to feel like there is no point to doing anything if I’m not giving it my all, or producing at high levels. In any case, it is clearly (and frustratingly) going to take me a long time to figure out why my drive seems to be so dogmatic, unforgiving and cruel. In the meantime, however, I need to make more time for myself, but how do I do that? I refuse to drop my Italian tutoring sessions. I shouldn’t give up my volunteer work. I will always make room for my husband and my dog. Spending more time with my friends/chosen family is generative and important. And at this point, I need to strengthen my body so that it can better withstand stress, so I won’t be canceling my gym membership anytime soon.

I mentioned to my therapist that I have been cooking an average of 2-3 hours per day for the last two months, and that more than half of every week’s meals were brand new dishes and experiments. I also articulated that I feel a building internal pressure around cooking (because I need to measure personal achievement) and this blog (because I need external validation for my personal achievements). Though I continue to experience a great deal of joy when I cook and eat, I’ve found myself getting grumpier in the kitchen. I HATE being grumpy when I’m around food. So, I decided that I would try to forcibly de-escalate my growing personal expectations around cooking. And I’m doing this by setting parameters. This week, I will spend no more than an average of 45-minutes/day cooking our meals. 

I know I may be in the minority when I say this, but planning is awesome. If you spend a little bit of time intentionally crafting your week’s meals, particularly when you know you’ll be frenzied and busy, I promise it will really help you save both time and energy. Here are some of the things to consider.

Note, I’ve added gifs to make this more exciting. 

Prepare stock items when you have some free time and stick that shit in the freezer.

I can’t tell you how amazing it is to open the freezer and see an arsenal of useful homemade goods, like tomato sauce, chicken or vegetable broth, ragu, dough, or dumpling skins. In the fall and winter, I’m very frequently cooking soups, stews, and risotto, so I always make sure to have some broth in hand. Actually, making broth is one of my most favorite things to do. Since it takes a few hours, I’ll usually position myself in front of the TV and occasionally return to the kitchen to skim off some fat. This process forces me to relax, which is something I desperately need help doing. In any case, several of this week’s dishes require chicken broth (split pea soup, garlic rice, farro). If it’s already made, the amount of time I’m spending preparing and cooking decreases a lot. A lot a lot.

Choose dishes that utilize a crock pot.

I used to think crock pots were for cheaters, but I was wrong – they are simply amazing. If you don’t have one, ask for one for the holidays, or treat yo’self. They’re only like $30.

Because things are being consistently slow-cooked or braised, there is really no need to check on your dish, and usually you can just plop all your ingredients in at once, cover the lid, and call it a day. I don’t know about other people, but I feel comfortable leaving the appliance unattended, especially if the setting is on “low.” This means you can make something overnight, or cook your delicious meal while you’re at work. I did once make the grave mistake of making slow-cooker ragu overnight. The smells were so amazing and distracting, that sleep did not come so easy. This week, I’ll be using the crock pot for split pea soup.

Choose meals/dishes you know so well that you no longer need to use a recipe.

Whenever I make something new, my brain is tired from the experience, even if it only takes 30 minutes to prepare and cook. Perhaps it’s because I’m some mutated form of a perfectionist, but there is something kind of exhausting about quadruple-checking ingredients and instructions when I’m already sort of spent from the day. If I don’t need a recipe, it usually means a dish is relatively simple (even if I’ve made a beef bourguignon dozens of times, I cannot for the life of me remember how much of everything to use). These are always pretty good go-to meals when you have limited time and energy. This week, for example, I’ve included these dishes that I can cook easily, quickly, and from memory: (1) penne w/ cauliflower, bacon, and peas; (2) Korean pan-fried fish fillets (jeon); and (3) farfalle w/ smashed broccoli and garlic.

Pick dishes that require fewer ingredients.

Last weekend, I cooked the best stew I’ve ever made (lamb tagine), but it took forever, and I used about a zillion spices. It was totally worth it, but this is not the sort of thing I’m about to make when I’m stressed and have little time/energy. This week, I chose entrees and side dishes that are simple so I don’t have to think about much. For example, the Korean fried fish fillets require a white fish, salt, flour, and egg, and the side requires chopped bok choy, garlic, water, salt, and white pepper. One of the pastas has bacon, cauliflower, and peas, and the other entree simply has boiled broccoli, garlic, anchovies, and olive oil. Obviously, if you’re using fewer ingredients, than you’ll have less shit to prepare and cook. SCIENCE.

On days when you have a little more time and energy, prepare and/or pre-cook your side dishes.

When I’m feeling especially drained, I get annoyed when I have to split my energy/time between cooking an entree and side dishes. So, sometimes it is really helpful to pre-cook certain side dishes. For example, one can cook a bunch of rice, store it in the fridge, and reheat the amount you need for each meal (the refrigerator life of cooked rice is usually between 4-6 days). You can do the same thing with blanched vegetables (though it’s always good to look up the refrigerator life of different cooked vegetables). I also find that on some days, I love chopping vegetables. I usually take advantage of those spurts, look at my meal schedule, and chop up items for use the next few days.

When cooking your dinners, make enough so you can have leftovers for lunch. 

I am really not a morning (or evening) person. Is it possible to be an afternoon person? That sounds super lame. In any case, I don’t like to spend time doing anything in the morning before work – I can barely get myself to take a shower and chug a cup of coffee. All this to say: I despise preparing lunch for myself in the AM. For me, it is a billion percent better to pack dinner leftovers and just shove some filled tupperware into my purse.

So, with all this in mind, here is the menu for the week:

Menu of Meals: Week of November 9, 2015

  • Monday
    • D: Korean pan-fried white fish (jeon) with jasmine rice and garlic bok choy
  • Tuesday
    • L: Leftover fish jeon
    • D: Hainanese chicken with garlic rice and spicy cucumber salad
  • Wednesday
    • L: Leftover chicken and rice
    • D: Farfalle w. smashed broccoli and garlic
  • Thursday
    • L: Leftover farfalle
    • D: Split pea soup w/ baguette and salad
  • Friday
    • L: Leftover split pea soup and bread
    • D: Chicken fried rice and sugar snap peas
  • Saturday
    • L: Leftover fried rice
    • D: Penne w/ cauliflower, peas, and bacon and sautéed garlic swiss chard
  • Sunday
    • L: Leftover penne
    • D: Freekah or farro salad with roasted kale and cabbage and fried egg

Coming Up…Five Cooking Tools I Cannot Live Without, plus a Poll for What Recipe to Share Next