Let’s face it, meal planning is at best boring and at worst, pure drudgery. Why is that? We love to cook and eat, but if and when we sit down to plan out a week’s fare, it’s work – not play. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this one – it’s because meal planning as it’s commonly done robs us of the spontaneity that is the heartbeat of great cooking.
Don’t get me wrong – if planning out a weeks worth of meals and executing them gets you cooking and makes you happy, then by all means do so! If on the other hand, planning seems like a chore, perhaps the process isn’t all it’s cranked up to be – at least for you.
Is some degree of planning necessary? Probably, and especially in busy households. On the other hand, for most of us, simply having a decent variety of things to work with is often planning enough. If you’ve got good building blocks, you can prepare nutritious and tasty meals relatively quickly, and have plenty of room for spontaneity as well.
What are good building blocks? Herbs and spices come first to mind first and foremost. You don’t need an excessive amount of these, but you should be well grounded in the basics of what you like, and maybe with eye toward the ability to build some blends when the spirit moves you.
Dry pasta, beans, and rice are a must. Stock is too – we always have chicken, beef, and veggie on hand, preferably our own, and boxed for backup. Having reduced stock frozen in ice cube trays with airtight lids makes it super easy to use.
Vinegars, oils, and favorite sauces like Worcestershire, hot sauce, and fish sauce are a must. Canned tomatoes are always handy, and tasty if they’re cooked. Good salt and pepper. Flour, baking powder and soda, corn meal, and masa. Proteins of your choice, from chicken and sausage, to tofu and beans – if you’ve got that stuff portioned and frozen, you’re good to go. And of course, fresh veggies from root to leaf, and fruit, especially citrus, will come in handy.
And leftovers should always be front and center. One of the biggest wastes of food, good food, is not making full use of leftovers. That may mean anything from transforming a protein to making fresh stock and then soup or stew. Making stock is always a great exercise, because so many things will make great stock – anything from poultry carcass to pea pods and Parmigiano rinds will do the trick.
Whatever you do, take a page from the pro play book and prep your mise en place for each meal. You know those little bowls of this, that, and the other thing, chopped just right and set out beside a cooking station? That’s your mise – it’s French, of course, meaning ‘everything in its place.’ You see it done here darn near every meal, and you can and should do the same thing. Mise is designed to maximize efficiency, and it’ll do exactly that for you in your kitchen – and if you’re prone to any sort of anxiety from meal prep, this is the answer – once everything is portioned, right where you’re going to work, building a dish becomes a joy.
As for transforming, it’s far easier than you might think. Something like barbecued chicken will readily transform into Mexican, or Asian – the smoky-sweet top notes will work perfectly. Rice or beans can become any profile you like – all it takes is a little seasoning. Veggies will make soup, or stew, a bake, or a tangy cold salad.
Really, almost anything can be transformed, so long as you have a solid grasp of seasoning. How does one get that grasp? If you’re not sure what Italian seasoning means, google that sucker – you’ll get a good enough idea to whip something up, see how you like it, and tweak it next time to make it yours. Same goes for pretty much any cuisine you can name.
If you want to go deeper than that, then get a copy of The Flavor Bible. This 2009 James Beard Award winning book, written by Karen A. Page and Andrew Dornenburg, is a reference I use constantly. It’s an alphabetically indexed cornucopia of flavors, ingredients, and their affinities for one another. It’s far more versatile than a cookbook, and will take you much farther than any recipe collection can. Pair that with Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. the seminal text on cooking process – that does for how to cook what the Flavor Bible does for what to make. With those two books, you can and will begin a limitless journey of culinary self-discovery.
Following a path like this is more fun and rewarding than planning out and executing X number of somebody else’s recipes every week – and you’ll waste less food, too. It dovetails nicely with making something spectacular on weekend nights, and then transforming leftovers through the working week. A low and slow roast, great baked beans, a big pot of rice, roasted root veggies, green salad, and so on – with leftovers like that, who needs recipes – you can let creativity rule your roost.