FLS reporter Katie Thisdell serves up news on local food finds, tales from home cooks and inspiration to help you have fun in your own kitchen.
Snap out of a meal-planning rut by shopping your own pantry first.
With a little more than two months to go before spring goodies start showing up at area farmers markets, and three months until our CSA produce box starts up again, we are in the dark days of meal planning in my house.
If I look back over the last several weeks of meals, I can see that familiar winter pattern of putting pizza, tacos and other go-to favorites on the list and then trying to come up with creative meals to keep us from getting bored in the intervening evenings.
There are a lot of ways you could combat this. Commit to cooking one new recipe a week for a month. Introduce theme nights to explore new cuisines. Buy an unusual produce item on every trip to the store and feature it in a menu.
I took the cheap route. Out of a desire to get a handle on what had built up in our pantry and to once again see the back of our freezer, we spent a couple weeks building our meal plan first around what we already had.
This is always a valuable exercise, and a reminder of how fortunate many of us are in this country to be able to have wholesome staples like beans, rice and frozen vegetables sitting around in our homes waiting for us to notice them.
Shopping the pantry and freezer first taught us a lot of important lessons about the way we shop and eat. Here are a few takeaways:
- What are you stocking up for? Our kitchen excavation uncovered layers of frozen chicken breasts, cans of tomatoes and other essentials I’d stocked up on “just in case.” While these are all staples that I will eventually use, they consumed money in my grocery budget and added weight to my shopping bags at a time when I didn’t really need them. Maybe I could get away without all that over-buying if I repressed the urge to buy everything in multiples.
- Shopping more often might be more efficient. Trips to the store can be hard to fit in to a busy lifestyle, but if you aren’t shopping for a whole week’s worth or more of food at one time, the shopping trip doesn’t take as long. You also might be less likely to pad your cart with things you don’t really need to stave off scarcity between shopping trips. If I know I am coming back to the store in a few days, I am also more likely to plan more meals that feature fresh produce.
- The freezer is a helpful tool, not a graveyard. I always feel so virtuous when I pack away extra pre-made hamburgers or chopped veggies in little labeled bags. “Waste not, want not,” right? That only works if you actually make an effort to use what you sock away. My new strategy is to consider what’s already in my freezer and pantry before I start planning meals and filling my shopping list.
- Plan better for leftovers. My meal plan last week called for pasta one night, followed by a Tex-Mex dish the next night. But when I went to make the Tex-Mex dish, I saw that a few cups of sauce leftover from the night before were idling without purpose in the fridge. I assembled a small, quick-and-dirty lasagna, using a leftover open box of no-boil noodles, the remains of jars of olives and roasted red peppers in the fridge, an odd pack of frozen mushrooms, cheese and a few other ingredients. By not being a slave to the meal plan, I managed to clear a lot of clutter from our food storage areas.
So as you pine for the green growth of spring, take some time to clear the winter detritus from your fridge and pantry. You’ll save money, reduce waste and you might even come away with a better approach to your regular food shopping.
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