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?