On an internet which is positively overrun with advice on meal-planning, in which meal-planning is held up as one of the best ways to reduce food waste, this post feels somewhat confessional, almost as though I should be whispering the words.
Of course, since I can’t figure out how to change the font size on WordPress, my “regular voice” will have to do.
Here goes: I suck at meal-planning.
I wish this was an over-statement, but I’m afraid it’s not.
Now, my suckiness at this endeavour is not for lack of trying. There’ve been numerous occasions on which I’ve hauled out the cookbooks, searched for the tried-and-true as well as the new, slotted meals (or leftovers) in for every day of the week, shopped for the whole kit and caboodle, and enthusiastically hauled it all home. I even — completely uncharacteristically — bought into the thinking that a catchy magnetized notepad could somehow magically turn me from a non-list-making-planner into a list-making-planner:
Despite the fact that I love the theory behind meal-planning — the über-organization which ensures you’ll never again aimlessly wander the aisles at the supermarket, the promise that you’ll never again look at the clock and see the hour hand creeping up to 5 and think Oh crap, what the hell am I cooking for supper? — the actual execution of the plan seems to be where I falter.
Now, perhaps this is a problem unique to me; perhaps I’m just one of those rare people who, upon seeing a list, feels not calm and organized, but rather, pressured. And perhaps this is also just me, but it seems that whenever I have managed to plan an entire week’s worth of meals the propensity was to bite off more than I could chew, to get carried away by enthusiasm and completely over-estimate how willing/able my future self was going to be to be cooking that specific meal four or five days hence. The end result in my kitchen? More food waste than ever before.
Does my failure in the meal-planning department mean I’m floundering every night at 5 o’clock, dashing to the corner store, and then throwing hot pockets into the microwave? No, not at all. Ever since our year without processed food, I’ve been cooking — from scratch — nearly every supper my family consumes.
What seems to work best for me is to do my weekly-ish grocery shopping with one or two suppers in mind at the most. Then, the rest of the grocery shopping is for staples. Rather than having a firm plan set in place, in which I feel I have to cook a certain meal, I prefer instead to take a considered approach: what could I cook tonight?
Practically, this means knowing that I have the ingredients on hand for any of a number of different recipes, and ensuring my pantry, fridge, and freezer are stocked with things I know we use regularly, items such as lentils, beans, pasta, rice, and quinoa, and that I have all the basic vegetables available, such as onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, tomatoes, and spinach, as well as all the basic spices.
In order to make this work, I tend to take a minimalistic KISS (keep it simple stupid) approach. I have about two dozen recipes that I regularly rotate through, and while they’re not the bland meat-and-potatoes I grew up with, they’re also not supremely exotic concoctions with rare spices or sauces I will buy once and never use again. More importantly, they’re also not recipes which call for ingredients which are only good for that specific recipe.
This gives me a lot of flexibility: it means that if I’m not using the cauliflower to make Indian Lentil Cauliflower Soup from the Oh She Glows cookbook, I can use it to make Winter Vegetable Soup with Butternut Squash and Cauliflower or creamy cauliflower sauce to serve with pasta, or I can simply cook it (steamed or microwaved) and it’s a nutritious, if plain-jane, vegetable. Similarly, if I’m not using the butternut squash in the aforementioned soup recipe, I can use it to make Vegetarian Stew with Quinoa, Butternut Squash and Coconut Milk. If the broccoli isn’t used in a stir-fry, I’ll simply steam it and serve it as our veggie. Potatoes can either be used to make Kale, Potato and Cannellini Bean Soup or Lentil Soup with Coriander and Cumin, or they can be cooked and mashed as the topping for a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, or cut up and roasted as home-made fries.
I think one of the most important keys in reducing food waste is to be realistic. If you’re a meal-planner extraordinaire and are successfully making use of all the food you’re buying at the grocery store, then that’s great! I take my hat off to you, and truthfully, I wish I could be more like you! (Because who doesn’t want to be both an organized person and a great cook?). But if you’re meal-planning and are struggling each and every time to execute the planned meals before the food goes bad, perhaps you too would benefit from taking a step back and trying a more minimalistic KISS approach to meals. While I have no doubt that formal meal-planning works wonders for many people, it does seem to me that it is a bit of a “one-size fits all” approach which may in fact be causing more stress and more food waste in those of us who keep trying — and despite our best intentions — keep failing.
(Of course, I do have to acknowledge the possibility that I may be entirely alone in this! Am I?)
Next up: how I use the freezer (sorry, Rita 😦 ) to reduce food waste and to keep staples on hand.