Capsule Meal Planning

I started struggling with meal planning after getting married and needing to adjust my regular meals to John’s preferences. Having a baby and moving to a new country ballooned the issue to the point where I could no longer ignored it. Not only did I lose the luxury of focusing all my attention on preparing dinner in the evenings but I also lost my favorite frozen/packaged foods for quick, “emergency” meals. As much as I love food and healthy eating, meal planning became an unwanted chore. All too often, I opened the pantry or fridge searching for direction on what to cook for dinner that evening. I felt like I was scrambling to get food together and then often was disappointed by the results. It’s not that I lacked inspiration; I had a huge list of recipes to try. It’s just that new recipes required additional time for shopping and following new instructions, so I ended up relying heavily on my favorites. Unfortunately, my favorites list was only 5 or 6 dishes deep, and we would quickly tire of these recipes.

Other times, the week would start out great, I had a plan for all the new meals we would try and the groceries to cook them. But after several days of following through, I would be tired of cooking or uninspired. Attempting so many new recipes exhausted me, I did not like the uncertainty surrounding it’s newness – would it taste good, did I chop the vegetables small enough, would the cook times be accurate in our generally fast-cooking oven, will there really be enough leftovers for lunch. We would end up getting takeaway food at the last minute, and I hated when we had to resort to restaurant food instead of planning and getting something we were really excited to eat. By Saturday I would vow that next week would be better, and I would be more prepared. Sometimes I did manage to make it through a week without succumbing to takeaway, but it felt like such a battle. After a few months of this exhausting cycle, I decided that I needed to invest time and become intentional with meal planning.

In order to properly plan for the week, I had to be honest with myself about what worked for my family. I thought about the characteristics of a good meal for us, and asked myself these questions:

  • What recipes do I keep coming back to?
  • What foods are our staples (always on hand) and our mains (significant part of the meal, bought each week for a recipe)?
  • How can I work the staples and mains into multiple dishes in the same week without getting bored?
  • What foods do we avoid?
  • How many meals do I want to make each week?
  • What is the maximum time I am willing to spend on making dinner on a normal night?
  • When do I want to prep food?
  • How much time do I want to devote to cleaning the kitchen?

I realize that for me to cook five or more nights a week, the meals need to be simple, healthy, with relatively few ingredients. Dinner needs to be assembled and cooked in less than 90 minutes. In addition, I prefer dinners to be large enough to have leftovers for lunch. If I can make enough of one dish so I don’t have to cook the following day, we are okay with one day of repeats. We are pretty active on the weekends, so it is ideal to have some grab-and-go type food ready. I do not want to spend most of Sunday preparing and cooking food; however, I can spend a few hours that evening prepping for the week. Lastly, John and I hate cleaning the kitchen, so I try to use as few dishes as possible during the preparation process.

None of these statements alone were a revelation; however, all of them combined helped me sift through all of my inspiration and pinpoint only those recipes that would actually work for us. Since I love food blogs and food photography, a big part of my process was acknowledging that I could still read those blogs without feeling obligated to make anything. Now I know that if I take the time to chop up six vegetables and herbs to prepare awesome tabboleuh, we will not have anything else to eat for dinner, and if there are no leftovers we will mostly likely be lunch-less as well. However, drooling over the vibrant photographs is not off-limits, this time just cannot be considered research for next week’s recipes. I slowly began trying new recipes and including the ones that meet our criteria into a seasonal capsule of recipes.

I now cook from this capsule of 18 meals for the fall and winter. All of these recipes are easily prepared, and meet my other criteria. I love having a written list of recipes and ingredients that I can refer to throughout the week and month as I think about what we are going to eat. After creating our ideal meal plan, I actually spend way less time thinking about food and more time enjoying other activities. I still experiment with new recipes, but I find that limiting to once a week works best for me. I am interested to see how my thoughts change over the coming months, and am excited to put together a new spread for the spring/summer.

Sweet Potato Quinoa Casserole

Tex-Mex is hands down the cuisine that John and I miss the most since moving to Sydney. We love the spectrum of spicy peppers to refreshing, crisp veggies. On the less healthy side, we love the cheese drenched, tender meat in corn or flour tortillas; we also can’t get enough of the rainbow of peppers, onions, cilantro, and avocado. I didn’t realize it until we left, but we probably ate frozen Trader Joe’s Chicken Tamalitos once week, and loaded nachos were in heavy rotation as well. His parents would send us several jars of El Fenix salsa for almost every occasion – best gift ever, but of course the handmade flour tortillas topped the list for presents from Texas.

We are still trying to find a good Mexican restaurant in Sydney, and I don’t want to spend the time or money trying to source those flavors we crave. My heart hurts when I go to the ethnic aisle and see three bags of tortilla chips and one variety of salsa for twice the price we are used to paying (to be fair, most things are twice the price we are used to). This sweet potato quinoa casserole by Eating Bird Food eases our cravings a bit and provides a good amount of leftovers for lunches. It is very versatile and I add or substitute ingredients based on my pantry at the moment.

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This was actually one of the first new recipes I attempted in Australia and the initial trial ended in a complete failure for multiple reasons, none of which were recipe related. The biggest problem was cooking an ethnic-inspired dish while in a country that is literally the farthest place in the world from the cuisine in question. I had problems finding the ingredients, and then when I did they were so much more expensive than in the States ($2.30 for a can of black beans, really?). Spending so much money on the ingredients added the pressure of having dinner taste better than if we had just eaten out for the same price. Onto the preparation: I cut the sweet potato into large pieces instead of the dice recommended; however, the knife in the rental was impossibly dull and I hacked at that sweet potato for a long time as it was. There was also the issue of the stove labels being completely wore off so I had no idea where to put dial for temperature or setting (there is no “On” switch, you have to choose a setting). I ended up choosing the middle of both dials for no reason other than 350 F seemed middle of the road. It also could have been dehydrator because that casserole baked a solid 2 1/2 hours, but still was underdone. We finally gave up on having tender cooked sweet potatoes and just gnawed on the partially raw chunks. All in all, it was cheesy and a bit burnt on the top with raw vegetables that I spent the better part of an hour trying to cut up. I was very dissapointed with the results, but also knew that the flavors were all there. The preparation and cooking were the only things that held me back.

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I have since made this casserole several times successfully. It does require a bit of prep time to cook the quinoa and chop vegetables, although now I have my knives and cutting a sweet potato is no longer such an arduous task. Salsa prices make me cry so I usually substitute a can of tomatoes and a tablespoon of chopped jarred jalapeños. I also use regular chili powder and salt instead of the packets she suggests; I don’t think McCormick’s exists in Australia. Overall, I find the casserole to be very versatile and filling. It definitely earned its place as one of my key meals for the fall and winter.

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