Not Menu Planners

There’s been lots of buzz about menu planning on all the cool, frugal blogs. A bit of rebellion has been on my list for ages. But, when Gina at Clutterpunk started despairing her own troubles with the concept, I was finally spurred into action.

My friends, without judgement or malice, I have to say that there are two kinds of cooks in the world—menu planners and not menu planners. There is surely nothing wrong with menu planning, in fact it is a useful tool for many of the righteous homemaker babes I so admire. Whatever helps you get a thrifty, nutritious yet savory dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time, I’m all for.

But, for any of you out there who are thinking, like Gina did, how many extra hours the menu planning will take and isn’t there any other way, I feel compelled to assure you—there is!

I have been cooking every day of my life since I was seventeen (that adds up to 16 years btw). It might be a little hard to suss out exactly how I don’t menu plan, because I suspect it’s all wrapped up in my essential Way of Cooking. This might get involved.

One of the things I really wanted to do when I first started this blog was try to share for anyone new to revolutionary housewifery, just how to be a home cook. I’ve never seen a cookbook on the subject. No one ever really talks about it. I guess everybody figures it out in their own way eventually, but many of us did not grow up in a home with a home cook, and it seems unnecessary that we should all have to reinvent the wheel.

Home cookery for the revolutionary housewife is only partly about knowing how to cook. The rest is a balancing act. Between being frugal and upholding your values, between cooking healthy and cooking delicious, between respecting your families preferences and keeping the diet varied and inspired. The skills you need are far beyond the scope of how to poach an egg and make a béchamel sauce. You truly are conducting the economy, social structure and artistry of your home. Although housewifery involves plenty of other work, food is central. We eat three times a day (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s five), and keeping up with all that home-cooked food is a complex endeavor.

But, back to not menu planning. I’ve been trying to dissect my Way to figure out what exactly it is that allows me to cook efficiently and with almost no waste without ever planning dinner beyond 24 hours in advance (and usually not until I start to feel hungry). I think it might have something to do with being an Alaskan. People in any rural place are completely used to not having a store around the corner. There are three important principles that I’ve picked out so far. Stocking up, doing without and thinking creatively.

Like all rural people, I always have a large stockpile of food. Whenever some natural disaster sparks the media to advise people to keep 2 weeks of food on hand, Alaskans look at one another with disbelief. Any Alaskan worth their salt always has at least two months of food in the pantry, and probably could survive for a full year if all hell really broke loose. I am not exaggerating.

Even though I’ve lived within walking or quick driving distance of a store for all but five years of my life, I still grew up with this principle in action, and have even far surpassed the stockpiling of my childhood.

I am a hoarder.

When you have all your staples on hand, you don’t need to plan out at the start of the week what exactly you’re going to cook in order to do your grocery shopping. Instead you keep a list, mental or tangible, of what you’re low on to get next trip to the store.

You can’t keep everything you might ever want in your cupboard at all times, so this must necessarily be followed by the principles of Doing Without and the subsequent Thinking Creatively.

This is a catch 22. On the one hand, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. On the other hand, I can successfully cook a hundred different and distinct meals out of the same 12 ingredients*. I can (and have!) substituted fish for chicken, cabbage for eggplant, carrots for red pepper and onions for almost anything.

[*Here’s my top twelve: potatoes, pasta, meat, fish, onions, canned tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, lentils, butter, cheese, eggs.]

Leaving something out of a recipe is straightforward. But bringing in a new ingredient instead takes a certain kind of culinary courage. Fight back the cultural taboos that tell you what does and does not go together! Experiment! Tasting of many different cultures’ cuisines will help. Ever had B’stilla? It’s a Moroccan “pie” that rocked my worldview. Phyllo dough layered with: shredded chicken spiced with sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom; ground almonds and powdered sugar; and scrambled eggs.

Sounds horrid, but I have never seen anyone biting into their first B’stilla exhibit anything but wide eyed, ecstatic marvel.

So, play around. Occasionally you’ll make a dud, and your husband will quietly raise his eyebrows across the table and politely refuse seconds. Once in a great while you might even have to throw food away. But far more often, you will be shocked with delight.

When it’s time to make dinner, I don’t consult a menu plan (though as I said, nothing against ’em. We all find our own way), I consult my fridge. I have a mental list of staples on hand, and as I peruse what needs using up from the fridge, I make test combinations in my head.

Me: “Oh, right, that smoked salmon’s getting old. Better make something with it. Ummm…. Salmon cakes? Too much work, I’m tired. Macaroni and cheesenfishnpeas? Na, we just had that. Hmmm… alfredo? Too rich, I’m not in the mood. Well, there is that half can of corn. Something Tex-Mex sounds good. No tortillas though. Cornbread and….? What if I put the fish in the cornbread? Hmmm…. That’s weird. But… I like it. And the corn, and some cheese? Maybe with half an onion chopped up? Say, that sounds pretty good! I’ve got a little a chunk of lime, I’ll make some Mexican slaw to go with it.


How do you manage the daily dinner routine?

15 thoughts on “Not Menu Planners

  1. i like recipes. we go shopping once every coupla days because we live a few blocks from the store, and i like to walk or bike down there alone or with the baby because (get this) I LOVE GROCERY SHOPPING. so much. so we go often. and i just pick up staple-y stuff (eggs, milk) and then the stuff i need for a yummy recipe (i have a huge, haphazardly random file of internet recipes) and then voila – food! to eat! the only on-hand staple-y stuff i keep at all times are pasta and baking stuff.
    thanks fer the free compost bin tip over at AdventuresFromTheMotherLand. we have a super huge *bear* problem in our town, so i’m getting the city sanctioned bear-proof container.

    1. wow, bears! i thought that only happened in alaska. we’ve had bears in our neighborhood in cordova, but they never got in my compost. not that yours won’t! our “neighborhood bears” never grew up enough to be real balsy town bears. or maybe in the fecund land of fishy trash, they just never had reason to eat my boring ole compost…

  2. I think I cook exactly as you have just described yourself, although I don’t think I could have put it so well! The beginning of the week starts with the basics and I work my way down the shelves of the fridge, until it gets to Friday and its looking a little more frugal, (sometimes a little flaccid) and creative. But I like a challenge to make something delicious out of a whole lot of not much.

  3. I kind of ‘idea plan’ i have a few meals i think i’ll cook that week or a style i am going to go for (ex. a few asiatic meals mean i need coconut milk and cilantro on hand; indian meals mean i need turmeric, curry leaves and potatoes on hand; and italian meals mean i need basil, tomatoes and cheese on hand) the rest is up to our moods, what we’ve had for lunch and how much energy i have for dinner. it works for us and leaves room for creativity.

  4. Well, CJ you have done it again…another Alaskan way of thinking but down on paper. We have always lived out and do so again, but this time only about 30 miles to the store. Just made a medical run to Juneau and with that a COSTCO run to buy the basics…flour, sugar, butter, oil, canned milk and whatnot, all those items that this time have to last me a whole year until the next medical run. I makes my heart feel good that the larder is fun and the freezers still have lamb (it is getting old but still good), deer, fish and vegetables that I froze last year while we were moving. I can’t imagine living any other way..and the list is always on the fridge for those things that I only have used off the shelf or only have one of. Still manage to go to the store weekly but for fresh stuff…and the garden is just starting and will be small this year, but we will enjoy that bounty too. I, like you, make the recipe fit what we have. Sometimes it comes out interesting but usually pretty good. We so enjoy your column. AlaskaMarge

  5. Hi there CJ! Loving your posts on revolutionary housewifery. You really hit the nail on the head when it comes to rural dwellers and disaster preparedness! Your top 12 list is great- an interesting way of looking at the staples that we rely on. You’ve got me thinking about what would be on my own list….

  6. Loved this post as it articulated some of the things I’ve found a struggle with the strict meal planning thing, and why I’ve reverted to chaos! Albeit a less wasteful chaos now… Anyway there’s a post up my sleeve on that one.

  7. I’m a little late chiming in… just found your blog and I really like it! Anyway, I just wanted to say I cook JUST like you do… and I’ve always felt like I SHOULD follow recipes and plan meals… I just don’t have time. Thanks for reminding me to give myself credit because our food is usually yummy (although, someone needs to tell that to my 6 year old and 4 year old… but that’s another story).

    1. welcome! i have so far been blessed with a pretty good eater. but hey, she’s not quite three yet, she’s got plenty of time to realize my cooking is disgusting.

  8. Continuing on my little two years late catchup blight crush … All I have to say, and I said this out loud a moment ago is: …and you cook like me.

    1. hello there, looks like you’re sifting the archives, in backwards order? welcome! nice to meet you ms. syren.

  9. Loving your blog, which I think I found at NW Edible Life… This blog post sort of explains how I do meals – and I think my ‘healthy list’ and ‘not as healthy list’ need revising in view of recent reading. (When did food get so complicated!?) We live a 10 minute walk from the fish quay at North Shields and I can see you have loads to teach me about fish. Growing up in Oklahoma, fish seem kind of ‘icky’ to me and I’m determined to get past the squeamishness to enjoy this very healthy food.

    Looking forward to reading bunches more of your blog! Thanks so much for sharing it.

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