I first began cooking seven years ago. Largely because my Carrot and I had dreams of becoming vegetable farmers. I thought that being a good cook was a kind of prerequisite for becoming a farmer. Or at least that’s what I told myself when I avoided studying to play in the kitchen.
In those early years, I leaned heavily on meats, carbs and dairy to make our food taste good. I did exactly what I told my CSA members not to do. I ran away from the veggies instead of embracing them. I too shied away from fennel. I ran from chard and beets. I buried them in cheese or pasta until their flavor was completely subdued.
A few years later I moved into a much more elaborate phase of cooking. I spent hours in the kitchen learning how to make vegetables sing. I was determined. I made delicious meals that had six sauces and used half the bowls in my kitchen. It was a great time to be eating at our house but it was in a word: exhausting. It took up all my energy and I wasn’t left with any time to read or write or do all the other things that light up my life. It was delicious, but it wasn’t quite worth it.
Then last summer I really began to find my rhythm. I fell in love with vegetables in a way I’d never experienced. I could cook without it taking three hours. I knew how to keep things relatively simple. But something was still wrong. I was spending too much time in the kitchen not because I was choosing time-consuming recipes, but because I lacked any forethought, mindfulness or efficiency.
We ate a different fantastic meal every night of the week, usually made in a massive quantities. Suddenly we found ourselves with piles and piles of leftovers alongside unused vegetables and grocery items. I would be so excited about all the potential vegetables at home, that I’d grocery shop with ten meals in mind. Before I knew it I’d be hauling home eight bags of groceries even though we had a fridge full of everything we already needed to make an excellent meal. Again, it was an absolutely delicious summer. I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned so much about food and flavors! But it was also stressful as I constantly tried to stay ahead of the fridge I wouldn’t allow to get empty. I was becoming wasteful with food, time, and money.
We’re currently going through another transition in our household. As you may know, we bought a home back in July. We’re focused on paying ahead on our mortgage and investing in our farm. We’re watching our budget more closely and trying to be smarter. Meanwhile, I’m focused on diving full force into my career (and by that I of course mean my three careers). I’ve picked up some consulting jobs to expand my non-profit skill set. I’m attending more lobbying and policy meetings on farm and agricultural issues in Wisconsin because I want to be a more thoughtful and well-informed farmer who is (hopefully if I’m lucky) a pillar for change in my local food system. I’m writing all the time, most recently moving my Farmer Voices column at Edible Madison online into a regular monthly feature and planning the return of Farm Crush Friday (stay tuned!) while also exploring lots of other freelance opportunities.
Financials and time are more limited than ever. Spending a fortune on food and hours thumbing through recipes just wasn’t working. I needed a new strategy. I needed to apply the intentionality and mindfulness to cooking that I was working to apply to the rest of my life (hurray for 2017 life goals that stick!).
So what I have been doing is probably something most real adults had figured out way before us. It is called meal planning and you guys, it has changed my life.
My strategy is simple. Keep a giant list of things I want to make on the fridge. Every time I read a blog or flip through a cookbook or magazine and find something that looks delicious I scribble it down on the list. I throw on old family favorites when one of us gets a craving (this French Onion Soup is the most often requested winter meal in our household) and jot down my own recipe ideas when I have them (roasted sweet potato and lentil salad with pickled cauliflower for example). It’s a long list, probably always ranging between 20-30 items long.
Then every Thursday night, I dive deep into the list. I think about what we have on hand (we’re lucky to have a seemingly never-ending supply of pork from my parents and venison in our freezer) and balance it with things I can buy that will be used in two or three consecutive meals. I look at how fun (aka unhealthy) some things are and balance it with a vegetable side that can easily be scaled up and eaten with three heartier mains or tossed with greens to make a lunchtime salad. I choose some recipes that take a little longer and some that are guaranteed thirty-minutes-to-the-table masterpieces. I even try to balance colors a bit as I look at my list of dinner ideas in an attempt to keep things bright and playful. I make sure at least a couple meals will make great at-work, microwave-only leftovers. We don’t assign meals to any particular day of the week so that when we get home and have a craving, we don’t feel too limited.
I select seven meals each week and make a grocery list quickly, skipping ingredients I know are expensive and not essential. I only buy groceries for the seven meals we have planned (with the exception of a bar of salted dark chocolate here and some 5/$5 avocados there). If we know we’re going to eat out one night or be out of town, we only buy for six meals. If we come up short, ordering pizza is a-okay. If we see the leftover containers piling up, we take a break from the meal plan and only eat leftovers for a couple days. We front-load our cooking over the weekend as much as we can since weeknights can get so crazy.
So far it’s damn effective. We throw away almost nothing. The kitchen is still an exceptionally fun place– possibly more than before. There’s never a question of what’s for dinner or need for last-minute runs to the grocery store (I hate these). And so far, we’re still able to buy high quality products from our favorite local co-op because we’re spending 30% less monthly than before.
And guess what, you all win too! Because it means I have way more variety in my kitchen and with the challenge of not letting any ingredient go bad, there’s also more experimentation. Like last night’s dinner. A croque madame (classic French open-face breakfast sandwich situation) made with leftover cranberry sauce and a shaved fennel and apple salad (see below). Plus, on weeks when I’m already babbling at you about other things and have my act together, I’ll share my meal plan for the week so you too can be inspired!
February 19th Meal Plan:
- Build-your-own Poké Bowls (rice, tuna, avocado, pickled cucumbers, scallions, cilantro and honey-gochujang sauce)
- Croque Madame (essentially this recipe with a mix of havarti, cheddar and parmesan cheese and the cranberry mustard relish from this recipe) + Shaved Apple & Fennel Salad (below)
- Cabbage Patch Soup (essentially this though my mom’s is way better and I’ll share it with you sometime soon)
- Braised Beef Short Ribs over Polenta + Leftover Salad
- Roasted Cauliflower Quesadillas
- MOSES Organic Farming Conference (Friday & Saturday)
Hope you all enjoy!
Lots of love from this farming gal,
P.S. Above are some random pictures from all my hikes outside over the past two weeks because this February is beautiful (and also super unsettling, but for now let’s just focus on the beautiful).
SHAVED APPLE & FENNEL SALAD:
This recipe is simplest with a mandoline. If you don’t have one, just practice your knife skills making the thinnest slices you can.
Takes 15 minutes
1 granny smith apple
1 large fennel bulb
Apple maple vinaigrette (below)
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 cup halved walnuts, toasted
- Cut unpeeled apple into 1/8-inch thick slices (with a mandoline or fancy knife skills). I sliced one side until I reached the core and then continued on another side and continued all the way around the apple until only core remained. This yielded slightly different size pieces, but it didn’t seem to matter much.
- Cut the stems and base off your fennel so that you are only left with the bulb. Cut it in half lengthwise and remove the core (it will be in the middle and kind of triangular; it will be much harder than the rest of the fennel and pretty obviously inedible). Cut each half into 1/8-inch thick slices (again mandoline is preferred but fancy knife skills will work too).
- Throw apple and fennel into a medium bowl. Toss with half of the vinaigrette and red pepper flakes. Taste and add more vinaigrette according to your preference (I used it all). Add toasted walnuts and serve at room temperature or cold.
- Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Whisk vigorously until well-combined and slightly opaque in color (this means it’s emulsified!).
- Taste and adjust seasonings to your preference. Don’t forget that the apple will add quite a bit of tartness and sweetness to the overall salad.