I hear it’s wise to start a new, hectic stage of life—such as going back to school—by paring down other parts of your life and doing less. Wise, shmize. Culinary school starts in a week, so hey! Time to start another new project. Why not accept a fellow food blogger’s challenge for October, during which I eat no processed foods? Sure! Check out Andrew’s site to see more about his inspiring idea and his working definition of unprocessed foods.
Anyway, having thrown wisdom to the wind with the busy life and the projects, I believe eating healthy is possible during busy times, especially with a good plan. Although I’m not a natural planner, through trial and error I’ve developed a good menu-planning method. If you’re also considering an “Unprocessed October” or any health-centered focus, but you feel too busy to fit it in, check out the following tactic for having your life and eating right, too.
How to Make a Menu Plan
Step 1: Make an idea bank
This tool, though it took a little time to create, is essential to successful and fast menu planning for me. Without it, I stare into space blankly and doodle in the margins. It’s a lot like Potluck Amnesia and it’s not pretty. An idea bank is key.
In your idea bank, list all of your “keepers”: tried-and true-recipes and meals that people in your household enjoy. Include a range from really easy to more challenging meals. If it’s a recipe you don’t have memorized, write the location (and page number, if needed) of the recipe to save time later. You can plan to make other dishes besides your keepers, but remembering what you know in the first place saves you oodles of time.
Categorize: I separate the dishes by main protein source: fish, beans, beef, etc. because I want to make sure that there is at least one “vegetarian” and one or two “fish” days per week in our carnivorous household. I also have a category with non-specific protein, called General Ideas. This category includes pizza, sandwiches, Indian curries, etc., to remind myself to include those, too. Finally, I have a category called Side Dishes, which also comes in handy.
Step 2: Pre-prepare your calendar
Do this for a week or month and consider your real life. Using Google Calendar is really helpful, if it's up your (family's) alley. We've liked it.
Weird days: Fill in dates that would affect your mealtime(s), such visitors, meetings, etc. and make sure your meal reflects these unusual days.
Find the open days: Mentally identify less-busy days for more involved dishes, for grocery shopping, or to do some make-ahead prep. For example, if you’re trying to incorporate more salad into your meals, on a Sunday you can chop a bunch of carrots, or wash and crisp your greens so they’ll be ready to go for the next couple of days (I’m not above a bag-o-greens, though).
Also on those less-busy days, plan to make double recipes and freeze one for a busier night a few weeks later.
Step 3: Plan your meals in a logical order
...with ingredient efficiency in mind. For example, Monday, roasted chicken. Tuesday, chicken enchiladas (using leftover chicken from night before. I’ll make those enchiladas after dinner on Monday, because that’s an easier night for me).
As you start to fill in days, include “leftover nights.” Menus look so appealing with different meals every night, but in reality this can’t work if you don’t plan for buffer/reality nights when you have to catch up with your leftovers. Wasting food is depressing, expensive, and generally bad for your karma. I have been there too many times. It hurts.
Group a couple meals in a row that you won’t mind eating together as leftovers. You can get creative with it: We’ll have dahl (Indian lentil soup) on a Friday, then fish tacos on a Saturday. Though completely different cuisines, they have a distinct common flavor—cumin. So Sunday on leftover night I’ll make a batch of roasted cauliflower with cumin to go with the leftovers.
If the idea of leftovers gets too boring for you, such as a dauntingly large pot of stew, you can freeze what you didn’t eat and put it back in your menu plan(!) for 2 or 3 weeks in the future so it doesn’t get lost in the freezer and become an ice-crystal science project to clean later. Google calendar is great for future-frozen-meal-remembering.
Step 5: Put the plan into action
As you start living out the reality of your menu, you may encounter the whole life-getting-in-the-way-of-your-plans thing. Just skip that meal day(s) and put it somewhere else in your calendar. I always make digital calendars so I can shuffle, shift, and adjust with the tides of life activity.
Will a sort-of watertight menu plan help us eat unprocessed food this October? I'm hoping it will. If something doesn't work, I'll change it. I'll keep you posted about the triumphs, flops, and adjustments. Either way, by the end of it I'll have something that "works" because that will be what happened. I’ll probably use the after-the-fact menu as a launching pad for next year’s Unprocessed October. Talk about a healthy time saver.