How many times have you stood in front of a wide open refrigerator wondering what’s for dinner? You’ve already scavenged your pantry, completely unpacked your freezer and are now hoping to make something out of the odds and ends in your fridge. Anything will do, you just don’t want to go to the grocery store or succumb to ordering a pizza.
I’m often asked what basic pantry ingredients should be kept on hand in one’s kitchen and the ingredients in this recipe should all be on that list. A pantry that has been thoughtfully stocked is, in my opinion, the best way to eat healthy. For let’s face it, every one of us is more likely to cook for ourselves if we have everything we need at our fingertips.
For the past couple of years, I’ve volunteered at my local YWCA teaching monthly “Cooking Healthy on a Budget” classes for the Women in Transition program. Like the name of the classes suggests, the goal is to give these women some tips on how to cook healthy meals on a limited budget, but it goes further than that. At the end of last year, I led grocery store tours for these women to show them how eating right (and economically) starts with meal planning and a well-stocked pantry.
Most of us could use a little help on the meal planning front, so I’ve decided to include the tips I shared with them here. I think you’ll find that a little work on the front end will save you a lot of time and money when it comes to grocery shopping. It will also make cooking more enjoyable and make you healthier.
1. First, plan your meals for the week. Sit down and on a piece of paper write down what you would like to eat each morning for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Add in a few healthy snacks as well such as fruit or yogurt.
2. Review your menus and see if any items will overlap. For example, dinner one night might be shrimp with tomatoes over pasta. Can you save a little shrimp to put on a salad for lunch the next day? Maybe you plan on roasting a chicken on Sunday night. Can it be shredded and used to make soup or turned into a chicken salad? You don’t want to eat the same thing every day, but you do want to consider how your meals go together and how different ingredients will be used. Your goal is to have an empty refrigerator a week from now indicating that nothing has gone to waste.
3. Perhaps, you’ve never attempted to cook a week’s worth of meals before. If this is the case, pace yourself. For this week, maybe your goal is to make four nights worth of dinners. For breakfast, keep it simple with oatmeal and for lunch, plan on leftovers from dinner the night before or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a piece of fruit. Whatever you do, don’t overdo it. The goal in this exercise is to give you the time to cook for yourself and it should be enjoyable.
4. With your meal plan finalized, now pull together your shopping list. Go through each day and make a comprehensive list of what you will need for the week ahead. Hopefully you already have some basic pantry ingredients on hand, but if not add these to the list. If you don’t have a well-stocked kitchen, this first trip may be a bit more expensive, but once you pantry is stocked your grocery bill will fall.
5. Review your shopping list and see if it seems reasonable. If your list has 40 things on it, you may want to reconsider what you are planning to cook and simplify things a bit. Instead of a different vegetable every night think about how you can use one vegetable over several meals.
6. Once you have your shopping list, make a copy of it and your meal plan for the week. This is your test run. As you go through the week, make notes about what did or didn’t work with your meal plan. Did you end up buying way too much lettuce? Were you too tired to cook every night and found yourself wanting simpler options? Adjust your meal plan and grocery list accordingly and try it again.
7. Even after a second run, you may still need to make changes – this is normal. After a couple of weeks however, you should have a good meal plan and a good grocery store list to go along with it. Make several copies of your grocery list so you always have a copy on hand and make a note of those ingredients that you consider staples. These staple ingredients should encompass enough ingredients that you can pull together a healthy meal (like this lentil soup) without leaving the house.
8. Now’s the fun part. Get to work on another week of meals. No one wants to eat the same thing week after week, so try to make this one completely different from your last meal plan. Test this meal plan just like you did the first one until you have another week of meals and a grocery store list to accompany it. Perhaps two weeks of meal plans with grocery lists is all you need, but you could certainly keep going. I personally like to have a month’s worth of meal plans to keep things interesting and try to vary my meal plans by season.
Once you have two or more meal plans, you’ll find that you have a lot more time for other things. You won’t find yourself having to make a new shopping list every week and you’ll save time by not having to run to the store because you forgot an ingredient. You’ll also find that it is not so hard to prepare a meal for yourself when you have all the ingredients in your refrigerator. Happy cooking!
What’s for Dinner Lentil Soup – Printer Friendly Recipe
This soup is a great example of how having the right ingredients on hand can make a delicious and healthy dinner. While completely optional, a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, some crumbled bacon and some chopped chives make this soup truly outstanding.
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 large or 2 small celery stalks, trimmed and finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 large cloves)
1 heaping tablespoon minced ginger, peeled before chopping
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup French green lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine
1 bay leaf
6 cups homemade or store-bought vegetable or chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Optional garnish: a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, crumbled bacon, minced chives
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the finely chopped, carrots, celery, and onion and cook until just beginning to soften, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste and lentils.
Add the vermouth and bay leaf and let it simmer for 5 minutes to cook off the alcohol. Add the vegetable stock to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 40 minutes or until the lentils are tender.
Carefully puree the soup in batches in a blender (never fill a blender more than half full with hot liquid) and return the pureed soup to the pot. Season as needed with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve hot with the optional garnishes, if desired.