Recently, my lovely lady She-Ra posted on Facebook about how we saved so much cash at the grocery store and how we also saved so many calories in our meal planning. This garnered a lot of interested parties, people asking her what her secret is, are we extreme couponers, do we dumpster dive, what the heck are you talking about and have you seen “Breaking Dawn” yet? Point is, at this stage in our lives, with our budgeting and counting of fat grams, we had to come up with a solution to the dinner and money crisis. It's not that its really a 'crisis', per se, but there have been a few nights where we stare at each other after a long day and ask “What the heck do you wanna do for dinner?” I'm sure you've been there. You're probably there right now. If you have kids, double plus crisis.
We actually came up with the meal planning solution on the eve of a rather bad thing. I was relieved of my duties as kitchen manager for a busy mom and pop bar and grill and am currently (as I type this, hopefully for not long) unemployed. I mean, they canned me over the phone, the day before the Super Bowl. I mean, who does that? Well, it was a sketchy endeavor from the get go and, luckily due to said budgeting and savings, we're okay for a while. It's just that...I like working. Makes reading and writing all the more precious. When you can do something that you love all day, it kind of makes it a bit less special. I love tater tots but I don't eat them everyday. Do I? Wait. Yeah. No, I don't.
In any case, the point is She-Ra and I both love to cook and eat. But we don't always have time for it. Or do we? Actually, we really do and when we began to map out our meals and set a goal and budget for ourselves, we found out that if we're smart about it, cooking amazing and healthy meals can be quite easy. You just gotta know how and what to cook. And I know a lot of folks out there don't like to do either, even though they watch Paula Deen make her whipped cream and bacon turd dumplings on the Food Network and be all “Oh yeah, I could totally make that” as they shovel another handful of cool ranch Doritos into their face and pop in a microwave lasagne for dinner.
Wait. I actually like microwave lasagne. What am I saying here?
Anyway, I know that if you're reading this that you yourself and hopefully your family enjoys cooking and preparing good to eat and good for you savory meals. Right? Yeah. Because your awesome. But if you seem to be having a bit of trouble making it all work, with what you have in your bank account, in your pantry, whats on sale at the Piggly Wiggly, whats dying in the veggie crisper and getting frost bite in your freezer, then maybe what we have come up with will help you on your road to culinary success.
Okay. Here's what we do.
#1 : Get some real cookbooks
Now, I'm not talking about any of those Food Network rip-off books with recipes loaded with crap your waistline doesn't need or celebrity chef how to books with ingredients you'll never use again or have never heard of before. Yes, it's fine to try to decode a Richard Bayless recipe once in a while to make a super fancy south of the border dish, but we're talking day to day stuff here kids. The French Laundry Cookbook is incredible but how many times do you use foie gras on a weekly basis? Yeah. Uh huh. That's what I thought.
For real, there are so many healthy eating cookbooks out there that aren't connected to a fad diet or emaciated celebrity. Heck, some even come with a weekly meal planner so you don't even have to think about anything except the preparation. I think Rachael Ray does something like that. Doesn't she? She probably does.
Just do a bit of research and you'll come up with a smorgasbord of options. One series of cookbooks we love are the “Cook This, Not That” ones. Basically, these handy little gems, put out by the editors of Men's Health magazine, compare popular options at chain restaurants and give you a better, healthier and cheaper version of the dish. For example, at Applebee's you can get a Southwest Jalapeno Burger for $10 that is 1,110 calories, 70 grams of fat (24 saturated and 3 trans) and 2,100 mg of sodium. Sure I bet it tastes fine but...are you kidding me? That's disgusting. The recipe in Cook This, Not That chops 750 calories off, is a fraction of the fat and sodium and saves you almost eight bucks. And, the best part is, it's freakin' delicious. Now, who wouldn't want to save fat and calories and a few bucks? Plus it's fun to cook and if you have a partner or family to get involved, even better.
#2 : Plan your weekly menu.
Get together with everyone and see what looks good on the pages or websites. Sure tacos, pasta and hot dogs all sound good, but do they share a common ingredient? This is where the budgeting comes in. Try to find 7 meals that at least share a few items. For example, the steak salad we made calls for some chipotle peppers, so does a chicken tenders recipe, and the BBQ sauce for our southwest pizza calls for some in the sauce with some honey and the honey can also be used in the glaze used for the pork chops and also the chicken tenders, etc etc. You see. Buy a bunch of cilantro and it can be used in tacos, Thai dishes, that southwest pizza I mentioned. So on and so forth. A red onion goes a long way, as does good leafy lettuce, garlic, a bottle of hot sauce (like how can you not live without Frank's red Hot or Sriracha?), a block of good cheese and, of course, bacon. Even vegans like bacon. I actually have a recipe for vegan bacon. No really. It's pretty good.
And of course you know eggs can go a long way. Not only to be scrambled or poached, those guys can act as a binder for coating a chicken, a base for your favorite souffle or a topper to a steaming hot bowl of pho. Always keep eggs in the fridge. Unless, of course, you just happen to be a vegan. Then you're screwed.
By the way, you need to get to like brussels sprouts. Don't like them? Put them in a gratin or casserole or, even better a slaw. That's right my little dumpling, those things are mini cabbages and taste amazing shredded and tossed in dressing. Give it a try. No really. Trust me here...
#3 : Shop smart.
When She-Ra and I go out for a serious grocery shopping run, you better believe we hit at least three or four markets. Yeah, yeah, I get the whole “well, you're just wasting gas and that's like money down the drain and blah blah blah...” but in this day and age markets, at least where I have lived in the past, oh, thirty years, have all been in at least a cozy 5 mile radius. We know the butcher and deli guys at Albertsons so we'll stop in there and get some meat. Then its off to Sunflower for organic and slightly exotic produce. Food City for anything Mexican. Safeway for basics. Trader Joes for nick knacks. Total Wine for booze. You get the idea. We know where the best deals are and we go to them when it's time to stock the fridge and pantry. Sure we go to high end and hippie markets now and then for the absolute best of the best when we want it and can afford it, but, again, we're talking about the everyday survival kit here, not an anniversary, a birthday or the season finale of “Real Housewives of Belt Montana”. Those deserve a trip to the land of Kobe beef and radicchio picked from the backyard garden of someone named Cleric Tree Heart Lotus, because you know that stuff is gonna be bomb. But with bills, rent, kids, debt, school, mortgage and owing Earl down at the tracks big time, you really need to plan ahead and shop smarter. It'll save you a lot of cash and calories down the line and we could all afford a bit of that.
(Trust me here, Total Wine has the absolute best deal for beer, wine and booze. I've done some shopping around...)
#4 : Take the time to do it right.
“But Mark,” you're probably saying right now, “I just don't have the time to cook and prepare meals every night!”
Stop whining you cry baby!
Actually, no, it's true. There are going to be days and times where you just can't get it together and get in the kitchen and get cooking. After a twelve hour day, the toilets clogged, the kids have soccer practice, the spouse is out on a business meeting and the cat is on fire, the last thing you probably want to do is shred chicken and slice peppers. Here's the thing: if you have the tools and the means, you can prepare meals in really no time at all. Heck, we even do slow cooker / one pot meals all the time when the clock is the enemy. After “smart shopping” and having your menu all laid out, all you have to do is take a few moments to grate the cheese and saute the onions. It's really not that hard. While the roast is in the oven, go take a long deserving bath and play Farmville with the towel wrapped around your head afterward. When you've had that ever eluding “me time” all you gotta do is put the stuff on plates and serve it up. Bonus is you have kids or pals around that are willing to help out. Teach junior how to get juice from a lemon, to toss and dress a salad, proper ratio of salt and pepper and for crying out loud how to do something else except microwave chicken nuggets. Isn't that why you have kids in the first place? To do crap around the house? That field aint gonna plow itself boy. Better get behind the mule and help ol' ma and pa out.
Cooking is pretty easy and totally awesome. We love to do it and now that we have a solid plan from week to week, it's gotten even better. I can't tell you how many times we've gone to a bar with a dinner planned then after a few drinks go “Nah...let's just order a pizza.” Dude, that noise just adds up, both cash and fat wise. After a while we just looked at ourselves and realized we were wasting time and money and getting chubbier because of it. Not cool. Now we keep bar visits to a bare minimum and keep the kitchen stocked for weekly meals. And, if you're a soup maven like She-Ra, she makes enough to keep you prepared for lunch and late night snackin' for days. Her minestrone, which was the best I've probably ever had, is still in the fridge. She made that stuff like four days ago. Unreal. So good.
#5: Have fun.
This is the most obvious one. If you hate cooking, enjoy wasting money and want to get fat then go for it. Can't do nuffin' for you son. All I'm trying to do is share the wealth that She-Ra and myself have acquired over the years as serious eaters and cooks. Now that we pretty much have it down to a science, we just want to pass it along to you. These five easy steps is what we do every day, every week, and have noticed a significant difference in just a short amount of time. Hopefully it can be an inspiration to you and help you along the way to better eating and cooking. Unless, of course, you're like some health guru or fancy dietician chef with a TV show and book deal.
Then...why the heck are you reading this?
Good luck everyone. And good eating!