Weekly Plan & Recap: Nov 16 – 22

This was it. The kind of week the Plan was made for. Dave had events. I started a new job and produced two events in the evenings. We knew it was going to be trying.

Last Sunday, we kicked into high gear. We took a look at the number of meals we needed–18 lunches and dinners from Sunday night to Thursday night–and the number of nights we had time to cook–just one, Sunday. We weren’t just advance planning this week, we were advance cooking, and then portioning out the dishes into the 18 individual meals we’ll need. We didn’t expect to eat according to the plan, that is, only eating the Asian dish on Monday, Mexican on Wednesday, and so on, but we did look to our themes to choose the four dishes that we’ll rotate through for the week.

The cooking turned out to be pretty painless; the eating however, was a doozy. Since I’m writing this one with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll review the recipes within the plan.

MONDAY – Asian Night: Pineapple Curry Fried Rice

This is a great dish, adapted from The New Best Recipe‘s fried rice by adding a tablespoon of curry powder. Fried rice is also generally pretty easy to make, so long as you start with cold rice. We try to make the rice the day before, but the morning of works fine, too.

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite meals. The distinct, warm flavor of the curried rice is punctuated by the bright pineapple, and the blend of textures is just right. Fried rice is a great “eat for a week” dish, too, as it holds its flavor well and reheats easily.

TUESDAY – Mediterranean Night: Chicken with Couscous, Chickpeas, and Apricots

A Best Skillet Recipes dish consisting of lightly breaded and sauteed chicken cutlets over a bed of seasoned couscous with chickpeas and dried apricots. Verdict: Good, though not excellent. Couscous cooks so quickly that it’s hard to imbue it with much more than its natural flavor, which is why I typically like it as a side dish for heavily seasoned or rich proteins and vegetables, when the blandness can be a relief. This recipe though just lacked oomph and seemed sort of unbalanced – the apricots had great texture, but contributed to an overall sweetness that cried out for a heat that was nowhere to be found. The dish desperately needed harissa or warming spices. Frying the chickpeas in toasted spices or adding spice to the chicken breading could have added the missing element.

WEDNESDAY – Mexican Night: Slow Cooker Mexican Quinoa

Yikes. Not. A. Keeper. I hate to malign the original recipe too much since I did make some changes, but this is not a recipe I’ll be trying again. The basic idea is to combine quinoa, broth, beans, and vegetables in the slow cooker with the goal of a dense, casserole-consistency dish. My grave error was adding to the mix some tomatoes that were about to turn; the additional liquid completely threw off the proportions. Instead of a casserole, we ended up with slop: squishy, wet, overcooked quinoa porridge. The seasoning was good, but honestly, it was hard to choke this down for two lunches this week. Blech. Thinking about it now, I just can’t imagine how cooking quinoa for two-and-half-hours with any degree of liquid is going to turn out well, though I could imagine the concept working if you tried it in the oven, arroz con pollo style, or on the stove top using a paellera.

THURSDAY – American Classics Night: Lasagna

Freezer lasagna that is.  Sweet Jesus, this was hard to get through. As Dave put it, lasagna is something you want to eat like once every six months, not four times in a week so that you can get finish off the pan. This was a vegetarian lasagna with eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, a style I like well enough, but don’t rave about even when it’s fresh. I tried to make it more palatable by putting fresh arugula on top of each serving, and that did help, but it wasn’t enough to keep this from feeling like a slog.

FRIDAY – Wild Card

Shrimp burger at the Holloway, where have you been all my life??

SATURDAY – Friend/Family Night

Celebrating my new job with the fam!

SUNDAY – Elaborate

Momma’s gonna get her cooking on.

THE RECAP:

To do a quick goals check-in, I’ll say that we did nail our budget this week and admittedly, I didn’t have much anxiety about deciding what to eat (just about eating it!). On the other hand, as if my distress weren’t totally apparent from the descriptions of Wednesday and Thursday, this was a less than satisfying week from an enjoyment perspective. Cycling through the M – Th foods for ten meals (Sunday dinner through Friday lunch) was too much, especially when two of the meals were just not very good. That’s the dark side of pre-planning and cooking: when a dish goes awry, you’re stuck with it, and a LOT of it, too.

We did have a pretty major deviation from the plan in that we broke down and ordered a pizza on Wednesday night – we were just exhausted, the couscous was finished, and we knew if we ate fried rice we’d have nothing but quinoa gunk and lasagna for the rest of the week. The next time we have a week this intense, I’m going to build a night of takeout or a couple lunches out into the plan. The sanity is worth the money.

Another thing this week illustrated is that a crazy week is not the time to try to hero up and clean out the freezer (the lasagna) or try a very new dish from an untested source (the quinoa). When there’s such little room for error, it’s better to rely on tried-and-true recipes.  Finally, I was reminded that when I’m really pushing myself, I shouldn’t jettison the goals of being healthy and frugal, but I should think about pushing enjoyment higher on the priority list. I find it far easier to stay focused during a busy time when food feels like a source of joy, not more work to get through.

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The Best Laid Plans

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley, 
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

-Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”

I’m a perfectionist, a trait that bends toward professional success but personal angst. When making plans that involve others, I’ve found a path toward equanimity and realism. I can adjust course when things go awry and don’t get too bent out of shape when I need to shift my expectations. But in my personal life, planning can quickly become a source of stress. If I don’t live up to the expectations of a budget or a plan I laid out for myself, my instinct is to dwell on everything that went wrong and how I let myself down. I lose sight of everything that went right, even when the win column far outnumbers the loss.

For a long time, I tried to break this cycle by over-correcting; I barely planned anything in my own life beyond just day-to-day maintenance of my calendar. Avoiding the problem delivered moderate success, I reduced my stress and experienced no major consequences, well, save for the obvious consequence that food decisions could still trigger a flash flood of stress. With this new effort, I’m striving for a more balanced approach.

Case in point, this week my Tuesday plan went pretty far afield. Dave and I spent his morning off just hanging out instead of cooking or going to the store, and then on my way home from working out that night, I was exhausted. Quite seriously–I was having a little trouble walking because my legs were so tired. I knew as I drove home that going to the store was a bridge too far. I started reformulating my plan. We had a leftover chicken breast from our (awesome) chicken salads on Monday night, we had kale, we had a lemon. I got home and found half a box of pasta. Done.

One of the big lessons reinforced by my midstream correction was that a well-stocked pantry can make your life a lot easier, particularly when it’s filled with things that cook very quickly, and that cooking enough for leftovers increases your flexibility. The other takeaway (and now I’m talking right to myself), is that when planning, it’s important to keep the goals in mind. My greatest goal in undertaking a meal plan is to reduce my anxiety about food, and thus my overall stress level. My goal is NOT to prove that I can stick to the letter of what I wrote in my notebook on Sunday. Seeing that written out, my internal reaction is, “Um, duh…” but it’s remarkable how the patterns in our brains can conspire against us. The perfectionist voice inside tells me that if you’re not going to be dead letter perfect at something, you probably should give up. It’s why my efforts at planning for my personal life have been stymied for so long. Luckily, I continue to assemble an arsenal of tools to tell that voice to cool it, and just let me enjoy my dinner.

Weekly Plan: Nov 9 – 15

This week’s Night of the Week Plan highlights its essential loose-tight, go with the flow nature. We have packed evenings this week – Monday is the only night we’re both home all evening, and Dave even has a meeting over Skype before dinner! We’re relying heavily on non-recipes this week and drawing on the pantry to make simple meals.

MONDAY – Asian Night: Grilled Chicken Salad

A no-recipe night. I marinated two chicken breasts that had been in the freezer with a combo of soy sauce, olive oil, a little rice wine vinegar, chili-garlic paste (yes, you need some), and dijon mustard, and then Dave grilled them on our Smokey Joe tiny barbecue grill.

While the chicken cooked, I made a quick dressing, tore up some kale and mixed greens, and fried very thin strips of onions. I topped the salads with sliced chicken, fried onions, soy nuts, and green onion. All in all, our active prep time was about 20 minutes.

A word on salad dressings: you can of course follow a recipe (this was my starting point tonight), but a simple vinaigrette just involves oil, acid, something sweet, like honey, and salt and pepper.

TUESDAY – Mediterranean Night: Lemony Kale + Spicy Chickpeas 

I’m on my own while Dave has an evening event, so I’m going very simple and exactly to my taste. After I get home from working out, I’ll do a quick, 10 minute or less saute of kale with lemon juice and olive oil. In a separate pan, I’ll toast some dry harissa seasoning, add oil, and then warm chickpeas, finally serving both over a bed of couscous.

My starting point when I want a very simple meal is to cook a vegetable, protein, and a starch. Having only two of the three feels less complete, and somewhat unsatisfying, so I often rely on quick-cooking starch options like couscous (5 minutes start to finish) or Asian noodles like soba or udon.

WEDNESDAY – Mexican Night: Tortilla Bake

On Tuesday morning, Dave’s going to make some sort of tortilla-lasagna. We’ll look up a starting point recipe in the morning, but we have many of the ingredients for this kind of a dish on hand and can get the others at the small market around the corner, so we can leave the details to the day-of. The plan is to bake it off Tuesday morning and reheat individually Wednesday night, when I have some theatre commitments.

THURSDAY – American Classics Night: Turkey Meatloaf and Wild Rice

We’ll luckily be together on Thursday night, but we have an evening engagement. So we need something we both like, but that is fast to pull together after work. My tiny turkey meatloafs from last week will come out of the freezer in the morning, and we’ll pop some wild rice into the rice cooker as soon as Dave gets home.

Rice cookers are a gift from the universe. I think mine cost $20 at Target some six years ago, an investment that I’m sure has worked out to pennies per use. We use ours to make rice, lentils, quinoa, and barley, and while maybe that’s not the “correct” way to do it, I don’t care and no one can stop me because I love my rice cooker and it’s amazing.

FRIDAY – Wild Card: Leftovers

I’m pretty sure we’ll have some leftovers by Friday, which makes for such a nice, low-key way to ease into the weekend. I notice in theatre it’s often tougher to sell a Friday night show than a Saturday night, likely because people are so zonked from their work week.

SATURDAY/SUNDAY – Elaborate/Friend Nights

These are TBD right now, which feels right because we have so few commitments this weekend (huzzah!). We’ve definitely got our eyes on the NOPI cookbook…

The Week in Review

At the end of the week, it’s fitting to take stock (food pun) of how the Plan went in the days previous. Teriyaki bowls were conceptually a winner, though I would choose a different teriyaki recipe next time. The recipe I tried this week (link in previous post), produced a sauce far too thick and somewhat cloying, though it delivered satisfying chicken. My stir fry accompaniment, picture below, was excellent. The key is to be unafraid to cook the vegetables for different amounts of time. Bok choy stems go first, then broccoli and carrots, and, finally, bok choy leaves. Staggering the veg takes no extra time whatsoever, but it’s a step I neglected for far too long.

Teriyaki Bowl Vegetables
Teriyaki Bowl Vegetables

We subbed some pre-made chipotle-flavored vegetarian crumbles for the tempeh on Mexican night. In theory, I like this move; I’m not above using a pre-made ingredient to speed things along. However I found the crumbles disgusting from a textural perspective: soft, spongy, wet. We’re trying to eat less meat, for both health and sustainability reasons, and this product was not a good ambassador of the meat-lite lifestyle. When done right, an omnivore eating vegetarian or vegan cuisine shouldn’t even notice that a meal lacks meat. Sadly, with the crummy crumbles, I was wishing I had a mouth full of ground beef with every bite. Next time, I’m going all black beans if I want a taco salad to be meatless. Black beans are the BEST. If I figure out the brand of the meat substitute, I will update it here.

Our Lentils and Chard with Salmon from The Best Skillet Recipes was a huge hit, as per usual. It also uses the technique of separating and pre-cooking the stems from a leafy green! This may be where we picked that up…Anyway, this cookbook seems like an underused resource in our house. We’re going to delve deeper in the coming weeks.

For the uninitiated, “The Best…” books are from America’s Test Kitchen, who are also the minds behind Cooks Illustrated magazine. They do extensive recipe testing and focus on explaining why a recipe works and why they chose specific ingredients and methods. In my mind this approach seems geared toward the more advanced home cook, who could then make educated guesses with recipe modifications or apply techniques to other dishes. At the same time, I imagine that having detailed justification could also help inspire confidence in a new cook (or the skeptic!).

Weekly Plan: Nov 2 – 8

Let’s get things started! I’ll start simple. This is our actual plan for the week in my wonderful Muji weekly planner…You can see how we used our themes to build a plan down the left hand side of the page, and our ingredients are listed on the right hand side. Yeah, it’s not exactly cute, but it gets the job done.

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I thought for a moment this wasn’t a good week to start with because we have my mom’s birthday dinner tomorrow and so aren’t doing Mediterranean Night, but it’s actually a great illustration of a point. Tools are only meant to be useful, not to shame you into using them a certain way. I mean, you wouldn’t let a hammer make you feel less-than.

Here are the details on how we used the NWP this week:

MONDAY – Asian Night: Teriyaki Chicken Bowls

Yesterday I decided I really wanted an almost fast-food style teriyaki bowl so I scouted a slow cooker teriyaki recipe through Pinterest on a blog called Gimme Some Oven. I had to go to the store this morning to pick up a few little ingredients and the vegetables for the bowl. More on our bowl strategy soon – it’s a game changer. So this night includes:

  • Chicken & sauce from recipe
  • Bok choy, broccoli, carrots
  • White rice (sooo luxurious)

I started the slow cooker in the AM before I went out to do a site visit. Tonight, the veg prep + cook and rice should took about 20-30 minutes. Dave did dishes as I cooked, which was a really nice encouragement!

TUESDAY – Mom’s birthday

Normally this would be Mediterranean Night, but we’re skipping it for some birthday fun times. Woot!

WEDNESDAY – Mexican: Tempeh Taco Salad

Dave is up to bat for this one. We’re looking at a chopped salad with taco seasoning tempeh. I have no idea how to cook this or truly what it is, but I do know it is a vegetarian protein option and I am game to try it if he’ll cook it. He has to stay late at work for a load-in, but luckily that means he’ll go in late, too, so he’ll go to the store on Wednesday for the fresh elements. You can see the list on the photo above. He’ll do all the chopping and cook the tempeh in the AM, then when both of us get home from stuff late we’ll just throw it together in a bowl. Before Wednesday, I’m going to fill in the Th/F ingredient lists and see if he’ll get those, too.

THURSDAY – American Classics: Turkey Meatloaf

Dave’ll be at an event, so I’m flying solo. The plus side of that is that if I make a full batch of something, I can freeze everything I don’t eat. I’m going to make muffin-tin turkey meatloafs. Haven’t found a recipe yet, but I’ll do that before Wednesday so Dave can get the ingredients.

FRIDAY – Friend Night: Salmon and Lentils, then a night out

And by that I mean we’re seeing some friends, but we’re also going to make a salmon-lentils-chard dish from the Cooks Illustrated New Best Recipe cookbook before we go out. I will grab those ingredients Friday during the day.

SATURDAY – Wild Card

I have a gig, so we’re planning ahead that I’ll grab something between rehearsal in the afternoon and the performance in the evening. Dave is on his own!

SUNDAY – Elaborate

We just got our hands on NOPI: The Cookbook, the latest from London chef Yotam Ottolenghi. This guy is out of control. His cookbooks are gorgeous and filled with unbelievable, modern recipes drawing on the many culinary traditions that meet in Israel, where he’s originally from. This book is co-written with Ramael Scully, the head chef at NOPI, who comes from Malaysia by way of Australian fine dining, so there’s a strong South Asian influence. We’ve yet to pick a recipe (will update later in the week), but it will definitely involve the better part of the late afternoon and evening to prep. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is certainly going to be epic.

The Plan

The Night of the Week Plan was created just with the needs of my husband and me in mind, but we think it might be useful to others, especially other couples where both people work. It’d also be great for roommates who want to collaborate on a meal plan.

The NWP is actually built on a management theory: Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties. In Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, they noticed that successful businesses stick to core values but leave the details up to individuals. Likewise here, we have a core set of goals, but a number of ways to achieve them.

The thing about the NWP is that is endlessly adaptable. This is a blog about how to develop a flexible system that provides just enough structure to keep your life more balanced. It’s not a diet, it’s not a regimen, it’s not set in stone. You could do the NWP with all Trader Joe’s frozen food if you wanted, or with a homemade, multi-course dinner every night. You do YOU.

Set some goals and parameters. Before we got started, we had some goals in mind.

We wanted to:

  • Eat at home most nights
  • Stick to a grocery and eating out budget
  • Eat reasonably healthy, with not too much meat
  • Avoid making choices about dinner at the end of the day

Your goals might be the same, they might be different. Maybe you have some go-to eating out places that fit your budget and make your body happy. Maybe you have dietary restrictions or want to incorporate a specific health-related goal (in line with a doctor’s rec’s). Our plan is very dinner-focused, with leftovers and simple stuff like turkey sandwiches filling in the gaps for lunches, but maybe you want to plan breakfast and lunch, too. Have at it! Those parts of our day were pretty chill, so we didn’t include them in our goals. It’s also worth mentioning that though we both work, there are many days when one of us does have time to cook after we get home, or can cook in the morning before a late call time.

Pick your themes. The first (only?) prep step is to assign themes to nights of the week that guide your meal planning. We knew we would not stick to a plan if there were no choice involved – for example, if every Monday were Tuna Casserole, every Tuesday, Spaghetti. This isn’t a camp cafeteria. We needed to make our themes sufficiently broad so that we had a lot of options at different levels of complexity, some dishes that could come together in under an hour, or even a half-hour, some that could be all made from stuff in the freezer and pantry, some that were fancy and fun. We tried to think of dishes that one of us knew how to make without consulting a cookbook (even you, non-cook, I know you’ve got one or two!), as well as ones that could be doubled and frozen – that’s huge. You can see where our current themes are below.

You’ll notice that during the week we went with themes tied to a certain part of the world, though surely you could do types of protein (Fish Night, Tofu Night) or whatever other basis you like. There’s some wacky stuff going on during the weekends – it’s actually a fully flexible trio of Nights (Friend Night, Elaborate Night, and Wild Card Night) that can be rearranged as needed, because who knows what’s going to happen? I suppose you could do that during the week, too, but Monday – Thursday was where our problems were and we needed to lock that shit down.

Make a plan. We plan Monday to Sunday, so that we can do a shopping trip together on Sunday. I have a perfect $1.50 weekly planner from Muji that I use exclusively for our meal planning. On Saturday or Sunday morning, we look at our calendars for the coming week – checking in about the week to come has actually been an unintended but lovely benefit of the NWP! – and we pick meals and assign cooking duties. We also talk about the ingredients we need for all of the meals, and when we’ll be able go grocery shopping if we need something perishable mid-week. Sometimes we’ll have a midweek social engagement that includes dinner; if so, we just skip that night. Remember, the NWP serves you, not the other way around! We also think about the weekend to come and assign those nights, because usually we’ll have a pretty good sense of what’s upcoming.

Without further ado, this is our current Night of the Week Plan:

MONDAY – Asian Night

Yes, that’s ridiculously broad. It’s by design. This category covers everything from Indian to Japanese to Chinese to “inspired by” dishes that involve ingredients like ginger, garlic, rice, soba noodles, and soy. These are often vegetarian dishes for us.

TUESDAY – Mediterranean Night (Formerly Pasta Night)

We’ve only been at this a couple months and we’ve already made a Tuesday change from Pasta, which got too repetitive for me. Mediterranean Night can feature the cuisine of any country that touches the eponymous sea–we eat a lot of Italian and Middle Eastern food, the latter mostly inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s stellar series of cookbooks. Tomatoes, chickpeas, chicken, couscous (cooks in 5 minutes!) all make regular appearances here.

WEDNESDAY – Mexican Night

I can’t say we strive for authenticity, but since we live in LA, we are exposed to a lot of delicious Mexican food. When left to my own devices, it is my preferred cuisine.

THURSDAY – American Classics Night

We’re still working this one out, partially because Thursdays are an incredibly common night for events. Of course defining an “American Classic” is an impossible term, but generally we mean comfort food.

THE WEEKEND – Friend Night, Elaborate Night, Wild Card Night

Friend Night

One night per weekend is for having dinner with friends or family. My parents and brother live nearby, so usually one night per weekend we’re hanging out with them. This could be an at-home night, in which case we choose a meal ahead of time, or going out, if we’re in a good spot on our budget for the month.

Elaborate Night

We try to make one night per weekend a night to try a new recipe or take on something more complex and mutli-step.

Wild Card Night

On Wild Card Night, anything goes! This tends to be Friday nights for us and it usually takes one of two forms. If we have leftovers from the week, we just heat them up. If not, then we go out.