This first post is going to be about meal planning. What I hope will be a brief (for me) introduction to planning meals which are easy to prepare, that also reduce waste, environmental impact, and cost without having to eat the same thing every night.
This might seem obvious, but to someone whose diet consists largely of takeout or prepared foods, the first step to meal planning is to learn what you like. A couple of years ago, when I first started learning how to cook, the only thing I could ever think to make was a replication of the errant things I ate at restaurants or that came out of a box. Obviously, many of the ingredients didn’t go together, and I wasted a lot of food. I also got bored with those options, and as a result, returned to a diet largely consisting of takeout and boxed foods.
I have become a strong believer in the “cultural diet”, where your diet is comprised of foods from predominantly one culture. The reason I think this is an appropriate and easy way to eat is this: a cultural diet comes about for a reason; the diet consists of foodstuffs available to that particular area, and in combinations that extract the most nutrition from the resources available. Basically, cultural cuisine is interchangeable and relies on what’s abundant. If you live in a semi-temperate climate, you can largely have free choice in the cultural cuisine you choose, and even with dietary restrictions, like eating a mostly vegan diet as I do, knowing what cuisine you like can help you form a base for your meal planning.
Well, what I did was look to the places I went out to eat, the boxed food I ate, what cuisine did it fall under? Was there a trend? For me, there was, it was Mexican food. So I decided to pursue Mexican cooking, and suddenly many doors opened up for me.
This, of course, does not mean that I only eat Mexican food, what it means is that my diet largely consists of Mexican food because pinto beans, black beans, brown rice, tomatoes, peppers – all of these things that I like and keep on hand – are interchangeable in most Mexican dishes. You can put essentially the same things together, with various spice combinations and it’s something completely different. So, sticking primarily to a favored cuisine can be seen as the lazy person’s way of getting optimal nutrition with the least amount of effort and resources.
Once you determine what you like (and what you don’t like, but this also comes with time and experience), you should determine what your protein base is going to be. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, will it be beans and rice? Tofu? Tempeh or seitan? Can those items be found locally or from a bulk cooperative? If you are an omnivore, will this be fish? Red meat? Poultry? A combination? Again, are these things that can be locally or sustainably sourced?
You can use your preferred cultural cuisine and protein base as a good starting point for finding a battery of recipes that you (and your family) like.
When looking for recipes, look for ones with interchangeable ingredients, detailed instructions, and familiar terminology, this leads to more clarity in the kitchen (it also helps to make sure you have suitable equipment). At first, look for basic recipes, and have some sort of back up. You have to convince yourself that it’s alright not to like something, or this process will be torture for you. Have a frozen pizza or a takeout place on speed dial in case things don’t work out. If you tolerate food you do not like, you will never enjoy eating sustainably, and what’s the point of eating if you don’t enjoy your food? Mere survival? Psh! I’m not satisfied with that. Don’t worry about the additional waste this might produce. It’s only temporary, and there are ways of making food waste less of a source of guilt that I’ll touch on in a later post.
I don’t recommend inundating yourself with tons of new recipes all at once, unless you are really ambitious. It took me almost a year to become a vegetarian, and it has taken Brett and me five years to get to the point we are, so this is a process. And recipes don’t work out, ideas don’t go according to plan, it happens. We tried 1-3 new recipes a week and had a back up plan of very tried and true foods in case of failure, even if they are processed foods, you have to start where you are. Over time, some of those recipes will become integrated into your “routine”. Once you have a large enough battery of recipes, begin to look at staple ingredients. What is used most often in all your recipes? Is this something you could feasibly have access to year round? If not, this should be placed into your “seasonal” routine.
So how do you plan meals that don’t involve unnecessary waste? Well, you must be willing to innovate, working with what you have and what’s available. Once you’ve gathered an arsenal of knowledge and experience, keep a mental (or literal) inventory of what you have on hand when you go to the farmer’s market or grocery store and find ingredients that you use often, but are seasonal or non-perishable. Bring them home, assess your new “inventory” and work from there.
I will lead off with an example from our household: This week, I have left over cabbage, egg roll wrappers, refried beans, some “aging” brown rice, and pesto. When we went to the market we got our CSA, which included many staple items we usually use, we also picked up some additional staple items that were available from the farmer’s market. After consulting our “tested and approved” recipes, and the ones I've created or found that we want to try, we came up with the following meal plan, which includes something different everyday of the week and a very small list for the grocery store. We will be having eggrolls with Leng’s Green Beans and Tomatoes (we have leftover eggroll wrappers and cabbage, we got shiitake mushrooms and carrots at the farmer’s market, and got collard greens, green beans and tomatoes in our CSA share); Black Bean Quesadillas (we bought 25 lbs of bulk organic black beans awhile back which we'll cook up a large batch of and eat on throughout the week, we got sweet corn and peppers at the farmer’s market, and we already had salsa and tortillas at home); Pesto Sandwiches with Roasted Beets and Sautéed Beet Greens (I had some leftover pesto and spinach, got tomatoes and beets in our CSA, and bought a petite loaf of bread from the grocery store); Black Bean Burgers (we will have cooked black beans, aging rice, frozen burger buns that need to be used, Matzoh meal that needs to be used, spinach that needs to be used, and we got tomatoes and sweet corn from the farmer’s market); Black Bean and Potato Tacos (black beans from home, we got potatoes in our CSA and more from the market, we got peppers and tomatoes from the market, and will need to buy some black olives); Black Bean, Corn, and Chile Quesadillas (black beans from home, zucchini from our CSA, corn, jalapeno peppers, and bell peppers we got from the farmer’s market; and finally, Roasted Potato and Black Bean Quesadillas (black beans from home, potatoes from CSA, yellow squash from our CSA, and the rest of sweet corn from farmer’s market).
This meal plan will utilize all perishable items we have in the apartment and only require us to buy the following from the “regular” grocery store: a petite loaf of bread, whole wheat bagels, sriracha hot sauce, almond milk, a lime, black olives, and taco shells. Some of this stuff will last beyond this week. We’ve already paid for our CSA (I will explain that in the next post), we spent $22 at the farmer’s market (you will see our load in the Garden Update that I will be posting soon), and $16 at the grocery store, granted we still have to get the lime, olives, and taco shells, but I can’t imagine that costing too much. Point is, with a little bit of planning and effort we are going to eat seven different, mostly local meals, for around $50.
I have to say here – it is important to be honest with yourself about your cooking style. If you do not like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, accept that and seek out – or better yet create – recipes that are simple but tasty and nutritious. If you or your family don’t like a certain food, healthy or not, don’t eat it! We seek these lifestyle changes for good and altruistic reasons, but we should also be able to enjoy the change as well. I like to view learning to cook new things as a positive challenge that I can tackle. I think about it like this: Sure, I don’t know how to do that now, but a few years ago I couldn’t do this and now it’s second nature. Be confident in yourself - that is important.
My advice doesn’t provide a lot of specifics, I know. I simply advocate a cultural diet that is looked at holistically – it will be easier, and often less wasteful that way. Learn the cuisine, the flavor combinations, the interchangeable ingredients, and find ways to source them, as locally as possible. Learn how to work with what you have on hand and what is available and keep it simple, always be willing to innovate while accepting and preparing for failure. Simple meals are easy to prepare, and are often the best ones. I don’t go to the farmer’s market and buy random items that I’ve never had before. Most of my “experimental” foods are often a result of unexpected items in our CSA, some we like (beets and collard greens), some we don’t (radishes). I pretty much stick to the items that are staples in the cuisine of my choosing: Mexican. This means a lot of beans, rice, tomatoes, chilies, corn, potatoes, and tortillas for a vegetarian, but I love these things.
And I stick to my meal plan, this I can’t stress enough, if you have things planned in ways that utilize all you have on hand, and then decide to go out to eat, food will be wasted. It is hard if you are in the habit of eating takeout all the time, but stick with it (perhaps join Chile’s challenge and make that what you “quit”). If friends suggest going out to eat, suggest they come over for a meal at your place, show off your cooking skills, spend some quality time with those you care about in a setting that doesn’t require spending a lot of money. Once you get out of the habit of eating out every night, you can start to view it as a luxury, to be done as a treat every once in awhile. And who knows, maybe you can start a new, perhaps more rewarding tradition with your friends.
'Til next time.