Tips & Tricks

Meal Planning Tips and Tricks

I never dreamed I would one day become a meal planner.

For years and years, planning meals sounded achingly dull to me, and also pointless: I just kept a well-stocked pantry and fridge, and spontaneity was my middle name. In truth, I did formulate a plan for the fresh stuff I bought, but it was a fluid, unwritten one that was often altered or nixed when something came up, or I changed my mind, or I was short on time, or we felt like eating out.

And then, I had a kid.

I stuck to the same non-system for months, until I eventually realized it was no longer working for me. Rather than enjoying the delicious freedom of improvised cooking, as I had since my early twenties, I was feeling stressed trying to find time for meal preparation between work and child, and worst of all frustrated that I always seemed to be in a rush, cooking basic things that required no forethought and gave me no sense of accomplishment.

My cook’s soul was shriveling up, and meal planning was the obvious solution. A few months later, I am a much happier and more serene cook. I don’t plan our meals in writing every week — sometimes the mental plan is enough for me to wing it — but doing so regularly enough has helped me regain a sense of peace and control in the kitchen.

How I Do It

First of all, I only plan for meals I take with Maxence — my lunches are either simply assembled at home or eaten out — and in my household, breakfasts, desserts, and snacks can be trusted to happen satisfyingly without the need for planning.

I draw up my meal plan on Mondays, after I uncover the contents of my weekly vegetable delivery, and I also take into account:

  • A quick inventory of pantry or freezer items that I feel like (or need) using, plus leftover ingredients or dishes from the previous week (say, a container of homemade stock, some pesto, a few scraps of dough…),
  • The current list of things I’m inspired to cook,
  • A rough schedule for the upcoming week, to know when we’ll be eating in or out or having guests over, on which nights I’ll have time to cook, etc.

I give it a think, look through my recipe collections online and offline, do some research as needed for extra information or inspiration, and come up with:

  • A list of dishes and the days on which I plan to cook them, factoring in leftovers nights and wildcard meals (see below), and outlining what part(s) of those menus should work for our two-year-old,
  • A list of advance prep steps that can or should be done the day before (cleaning vegetables, soaking chickpeas, mixing the dough for a pizza or quiche crust, taking an item out of the freezer to thaw…),
  • A shopping list of missing ingredients, with the days I’ll be needing them so I know when to go to which shop.

This gives me a clear picture of what I need to do and when, so I can squeeze prep steps wherever they most readily fit in my schedule.

Read on for more on the 9 benefits and 7 “Yes, buts” of meal planning.

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How To Make the Most of Your Cookbook Collection

Notice how English titles are printed in reverse direction from French titles. It's good for stretching your neck when browsing.

Notice how English titles are printed in reverse direction from French titles. It's good for stretching your neck when browsing.

I’m sure your cookbook shelves are just as heavily laden as mine, and if I were to ask you how often you cook from them you might look away, embarrassed, and try to change the subject. Especially if your spouse, who regularly comments on the extent of your collection, is within earshot.

It’s not that you don’t want to cook from all these books; you do. It’s just that it’s impossible to remember what’s in them, and however well built their indexes (or indices), it would be pretty cumbersome to look up “Brussels sprouts” in every single one of them when you come home from the greenmarket on a chilly but sunny Saturday morning in March.

It does seem a shame to let so much knowledge and inspiration go untapped, and here are a few ways to avoid that:

  • Sticky-tab appealing recipes, and regularly leaf through your collection to refresh your memory.
  • In each of your cookbooks, list all the recipes you want to try, with page number, on a piece of paper. Place that custom-made index in the front of the book for quick reference. (This also serves as a good decision tool to see whether you should really keep that book.)
  • Take photos of (or scan, but that’s more time-consuming) recipes you want to try, and keep the image files, renamed with the recipe title, in a dedicated folder on your computer.
  • Keep a running list of dishes you most want to try on your computer or in a notebook, referencing the cookbooks they come from.
  • Pick a different cookbook every month or so, and challenge yourself to cook X number of recipes from it (make X realistic) before moving on to the next.
  • Use the Eat Your Books service.

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How To Transport Your Knives

When I went out and got my knives sharpened recently, I had to solve the question of how to transport them safely, and my intuitive idea was to roll them up in a kitchen towel.

When the guy at the shop handed them back to me to take home a week later, I was pleased to hear him say that this was the best method. I also noticed his fold was a lot neater than mine, so I thought I would share it with you.

Naturally, if you’re a traveling cook who has to carry knives around frequently*, it might make sense to buy a special carrying case such as this knife roll, but if you’re only transporting them a few times a year to cook at a friend’s house or to get your blades sharpened, you can definitely save the money and use a simple kitchen towel.

The trick, as you’ll see in the animation below, is to pick one of your thicker kitchen towels, and to fold it so that the tips of the blades push against a double layer of fabric, so they won’t just slice through.

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How To Open A Pomegranate (In 4 Easy Steps)

When I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I met up with my long-time friend and fellow blogger Elise, who very kindly showed up with homemade chocolate biscotti, and a few pieces of fruit from her garden.

Among them was a pomegranate, and I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. To a Parisian kid, pomegranates (grenades in French) are super exotic, the kind of fruit that must grow in some faraway tropical forest with multicolored birds and monkeys flying around, the kind of fruit that should also (once the kid is all grown up and environmentally conscious) be eaten in moderation because of the carbon footprint.

Pomegranate juice is a gorgeous ruby pink color, yes, but do you want it polka-dotting your clothes?

Yet I adore pomegranates. I love biting into their little seeds bursting with tart juice, and I love sprinkling them on stewed vegetables and on salads, especially the raw kale salad with avocado and cilantro that I made a few times in San Francisco.

So I received this local pomegranate with great joy, and as I was about to cut it open and harvest the seeds — standing at Heidi‘s beautiful marble counter — I thought I’d take a few quick pictures to share the technique with you in case you’re new to this whole pomegranate opening thing.

(I have only just heard about this wooden-spoon whacking technique, and will have to try that next time, though I have yet to be convinced it saves that much time. Also: the violence of it!)

0. Before you begin, put on an apron and roll up your sleeves; pomegranate juice is a gorgeous ruby pink color, yes, but do you want it polka-dotting your clothes?

Pomegranate

1. Using a sharp knife, cut a slice off the top and the bottom of the fruit, just to uncover the seeds. Make four vertical cuts all around the fruit, cutting through the rind just until you reach the seeds but not slicing into them.

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Why Does Food Stick To My Knife? (And How To Make It Stop.)

One of the reasons why I love to cook is one I have in common with people who knit: it is involving enough to keep your mind off world peace issues, but leaves enough mental space that you can wander, hold imaginary conversations, turn sentences around in your mind (everyone does that, right?), and generally putter about in the coziness of your own head.

Prepping vegetables launches me into such inner monologues, and in recent months they have been dominated by this nagging question: why does food stick to my knife, and how do I make it stop?

You know the phenomenon, I’m sure, but let me describe it for you: whenever I slice something (say, an onion or a zucchini), the pieces I’ve just cut tend to stick to the right side of the blade (I’m right-handed), so that when I’m cutting the next slice, the pieces that are stuck on there get pushed up and off by the new slice, and fall either to the right of my blade (unruly, but fine), or tumble off the cutting board and possibly onto the floor (messy), or fall to the left side of my blade, in which case I’m likely to cut into them again moments later (extra annoying).

After composing an imaginary email in my head over a few zucchini-slicing sessions (I eat a lot of zucchini), I finally sat down and wrote to Peter Hertzmann, the spectacularly knowledgeable creator of the à la carte website and associated blog, cooking instructor, and author of the must-own Knife Skills Illustrated, of which he kindly offered me a copy when we met in San Francisco a few years ago (more details about the book)*. And naturally Peter had answers, which I’m sharing below, mixed in with a few more tips I gathered in my research.

So, why does food stick to my knife?

The main reason is surface tension, a physical phenomenon that makes the surface of liquids resist an external force. In this case, it means that foods with a high water content (and many vegetables are more than 90% water) create slices with a moist surface that clings to the flat of the blade.

And how do I make it stop?

You could decide to subsist on low-water foods — I’m sure a diet of beef jerky and rice crackers will do you a world of good — or you could adopt one or more of these three strategies:

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