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Why Meal Planning Makes Sense and How to Do It

5 Jan

Let me start by saying that I haven’t always been great at planning meals. Growing up we just went to the store, wandered the aisles, and stocked up on the things we used a lot and/or looked good. Then we went home, put the food away, and wondered why we still didn’t have anything to eat. I continued this approach into my early twenties for several reasons. First, it was all I knew. Second, meal planning sounded like too big of a hassle and a time suck. Three, nobody really planned their meals, right?

I’m not sure exactly when I started planning meals, but I think it was in the early days when Seth and I were dating and I was on my own, buried in debt. I knew I had to stop eating out and save money, otherwise I would end up begging for quarters on the freeway off-ramp. I figured if I had to eat at home, I wanted to eat a variety of good food, not chicken flavored ramen every night. And thus it began.

It was definitely a rough start. I basically started by thinking of something I wanted to make and searched for a recipe on my go-to recipe spot: food.com. I’d search through all the recipes based on ingredients and ratings and choose what I thought best suited my needs. Then I’d write down the ingredients I needed on a random piece of paper and started looking for my next recipe. This was not a fast process by any means, but it worked.

I started shopping with my list and while it did save me time and money in the grocery store, I wasn’t very organized and ended up going back and forth across the store several times to get items I’d missed in my chicken-scratch jumbled list. I knew there was room for improvement.

One of my biggest breakthroughs was when I started using my laptop in the kitchen instead of a cookbook (most of the time anyway). I increased my search for recipes online by following different food blogs and adding them to my Google Reader. I could look at all the new recipe posts in one place and put a star next to the ones that looked good.  Then during menu planning time, I could just scan through my starred recipes and choose the ones I wanted to make that week. I’d try to get a good variety of meals that also used some of the same ingredients.

When I decided to start posting the recipes on my blog, I would paste the url of the recipe into each post and save it as the recipe name so I wouldn’t forget what meals I’d planned. Then, when it was time to make something for dinner, I’d pull up my blog post list, see what my options were, and decide what to make based on what ingredients I needed to use first, how much time I had, and what I felt like eating. Suddenly it was all coming together and meal planning wasn’t so hard anymore.

The final thing that really helped improve my meal planning and shopping was using my smartphone with a grocery list app. I love GroceryIQ because it allows you to order the aisles so they mimmick your own grocery store. It sorts items by aisle and you can check off an item with just a touch and it moves it to the bottom of the list so you can easily see what’s left. Plus, it’s free! By using this app I rarely have to go back across the grocery store for an ingredient I missed and only go down the aisles I need. And I don’t have to carry a big piece of paper and pen with which to try and cross out an item using the grocery cart handle as a writing surface (no worky). Plus, when I run out of an item, I just add it to my list and it’s always there whenever I make a trip to the store! No more remembering stuff!

These days I have tweaked my meal planning approach just a little. I still use my Google Reader to find recipes I want to make (as well as cookbooks and other random sources). However, I’ve found it helps to have a guide in helping to choose what kind of recipe I’m looking for. Each week I try to choose one recipe from each of these categories:

  • salad/sandwich
  • soup
  • comfort food/good old standby
  • vegetarian
  • pasta

It helps me narrow the options down so I’m not looking at a giant list of recipes wondering which I should choose. It also keeps me from planning a week in which I make soup 5 times. I also pay more attention to how long a meal is going to take to make. During the week, if it’s much more than a half hour and/or requires a lot of prep, it’s out. It’s just me and baby in the evenings and I don’t want to waste those precious few hours I have with her standing at the stove.

I realized how far I’d come in my meal planning habits the other day when I attempted to make an impromptu trip to the grocery store without a meal plan or list. I walked into the store pushing my cart and had absolutely no idea what to buy aside from milk. I wandered down each aisle trying to scan every ingredient to see if I needed it. I felt stressed and lost and completely inept.  I came home from the store with a bunch of canned food with nary a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. A far cry far from what I’ve become accustomed to.

So there you have it. This is what I do pretty much week in and week out. Sure it takes a small amount of time to plan my meals and make a list and go shopping, but the benefits from these small actions are huge. My family gets a delicious (usually healthy) meal almost every night. I’m free of the stress of searching for something to make at the end of a busy day, and I save time and money during my shopping trips. If you’re still wondering if this is something for you, stop wondering and just do it. It’ll probably be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you give it a couple weeks, you won’t ever turn back.

Have any planning or shopping tips that work well for you? Anything I’ve missed? Think I’m crazy? Tell me what you think!

How to Order a Steak

15 Sep

When I was a kid, there were two restaurants my family went to pretty regularly: Pizza Hut & Sizzler.  Once I graduated from the kid menu at Sizzler, I was allowed to order a steak if I so desired. Not knowing the choices (and what the differences were) when asked “How would you like your steak cooked?” I just played it cool and ordered whatever my parents did. Which happened to be medium-well. This seemed to work pretty well for me throughout my adolescent life so I just stuck to it.

Then one day when I was in my late teens, my family headed over to ol’ Tony Roma’s for some steaks. Once again I ordered my typical filet mignon, medium-well. However, when it came out, the middle was pretty pink. More so than I was used to, that’s for sure. But, not liking to cause a fuss, I ate it anyway. And it was the best steak I’d ever had. After that day I always ordered my steak “medium.” Well, until I realized most restaurants overcook their meat and I switched to medium-rare. Pure pink deliciousness.

I also used to be a big fan of the filet mignon… and it’s still good. I love the fact that it’s pretty much all meat and no gristle. Oh how I hate gristle. But, it’s also got less flavor than some of your other cuts. Seth has turned me into a big ribeye fan. Nice tender meat with a lot of beefy flavor. New York ain’t bad either in a pinch. Serve up those bad boys  grilled medium-rare with salt and pepper and that’ll be the end of it.

Now I know I already made my point about the amount of cooking your steak needs, but let me throw in one more tidbit of information, just to drive the point home. Maybe the guys working the grill at Sizzler aren’t like this, but you go to any nicer steak joint and I can guarantee you this is true. If you order your steak medium-well or well done, you are going to get a piece of meat that is of lesser quality. They figure “Hey this guy likes all the moisture cooked out of his steak, might at well give him the crappier cut and save this nicely marbled awesome cut for his medium-rare buddy who obviously appreciates it.” Or even look at who’s working your home grill. Seth has told me when people ask for their steaks well-done, to him that means he needs to “cook the hell out of it.” Mmm… sounds delicious eh? Maybe you’re one of those that says “I don’t like to hear my steak ‘moo’ ” Oh yeah? Well I’d rather have it moo than disintegrate into a pile of dust and blow away! But seriously… just give it a chance. Start slowly. Order one level down from what you’ve always done. You’re a well-done person? Go crazy and order medium-well. Compare the difference. I can guarantee you’ll like it better. And if you don’t, you can always send it back and have it cooked more. No harm done. My point is, you never know what you’re going to like until you try it. Everybody has different tastes. Don’t do something just because that’s the way you’ve always done it and for sure don’t do something just because you’re following someone else. Live a little!

Dang… now I need a steak…

 

Spicy Hash Browns

23 Nov

Usually I’m the lazy type. Open a bag of frozen, shredded hash browns, dump them in a pan with oil and cook ’em til they’re brown. But then some days I open the freezer and lo and behold there are no frozen hash browns to be had. What now? My heart is set on some breakfast burritos and you can’t have breakfast burritos without hash browns. What next? Make my own!

Making hash browns is not hard. In fact it’s quite simple. And truth be told, these are so much more delicious than the frozen ones. Don’t worry, they actually aren’t even that spicy. Just a hint of a kick, probably even safe for children!

Are you ready? Here we go…

First we have to make the seasoning mixture. Combine the following in a bowl:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon paprika
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, ground
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat your oven to 400 deg. F and get 2 1/2 pounds of potatoes (about 6 1/2 cups). I use russets, you could probably use Yukon Golds. Stay away from red potatoes. Ew. (2 1/2 pounds is approximately 6 medium potatoes.)

Then slice them…

 

Dice them…

 

And throw them in the bowl with the seasoning mixture. Stir it around a bit to get the potatoes all nice and coated. I probably used too small of a bowl because all my diced potatoes kept jumping out. That’s ok. Potatoes are natural jumpers. Just make sure nobody was looking and then pick them up and put them back in the bowl.

 

Then spray a baking sheet with non-stick spray and dump all the diced potatoes onto it and spread them into a single even layer. You’ll probably have some of the seasoning mixture at the bottom of the bowl… just scrape it out onto the potatoes and mix them around a bit.

Now bake them at 400 deg. F for 30 minutes until they’re nice and tender (you HAVE to eat one to test it, that’s the rule! Don’t burn your face off though). Scoop some onto your tortilla with some scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese and enjoy!

See? That wasn’t hard at all!

Click here to see a printable recipe.

I Put the Bake in Bacon

17 Jun

Have you ever tried baking your bacon? No? Well let me tell you… DO IT! Need more convincing? OK then. Here are the reasons you should give it a shot:

  1. Your house won’t smell like bacon for a week (if you like your house to smell like bacon for a week then this probably isn’t for you).
  2. All the bacon slices cook evenly.
  3. You won’t get splattered with bacon grease.
  4. You don’t have to flip it over.
  5. One less thing to watch while you make your family breakfast in the morning.
  6. No messy cleanup.
  7. You can cook a lot at one time.
  8. It’s extremely easy.

If that didn’t convince you of the awesomeness of baking bacon, I don’t know what will. Here’s how you do it…

Cover a baking sheet with tin foil.
Place a cooling rack inside your foil lined pan and spray it with non-stick spray.
Add as many strips of bacon as you would like, but make sure there is a little space in between so they cook evenly.
Put it on the center rack of your oven and turn the temperature to 375 deg. F. (no need to preheat!)
Cook for approximately 10-15 minutes (depending on how thick your bacon is and how crispy you like it).
and WA LA! Perfect bacon! And it’s done as soon as you’re done making the pancakes!

The best part is, there’s no messy cleanup! I let the fat cool down and solidify, then put the cooling rack in the dishwasher, wad up the tin foil from the baking sheet and throw it away, and put the perfectly clean baking sheet back in the drawer! How awesome is that?

Today’s Special: Beef & Noodle Broth, Black Bean & Salmon Tostadas, Vegetarian Reubens w/ Russian Dressing, Gnocchi w/ Chard & White Beans, What to Do with Bok Choy

25 Apr
Vietnamese-Style Beef and Noodle Broth– New Recipe. This was one of the better Asian meals I’ve made in a while… well Asian soup anyway. It was a tad bit bland made as-is, but this type of soup is meant to have things added to it, so I put a dollop of Thai garlic chili paste and a couple shakes of soy sauce in mine and it was perfect. Seth said this reminded him of Pho.

Black Bean and Salmon Tostadas– Repeat. I made these once before and used guacamole instead of the chopped up avocado. This time I made these with the chopped up avocado and I have to say it wasn’t as good. Which is fine because it’s so dang hard to find a ripe avocado at the store anyway. I thought the guacamole cut down on the fishiness of the canned salmon as well.

Vegetarian Reubens with Russian Dressing– Repeat. Here is proof of how good these sandwiches are… I asked Seth what he wanted for dinner and read off all the recipes I had planned for this week. He chose this one. Take my advice and make this. In fact, double the recipe… you’ll thank me later.

Skillet Gnocchi with Chard & White Beans– New Recipe. We both really liked this. I used 10 oz. of spinach instead of chard because Wally World didn’t have it. I also used some chicken broth instead of the water it calls for to add a bit more flavor. Seth said he liked this better than Gnocchi with Zucchini Ribbons & Parsley Brown Butter. I don’t know that I agree, but it’s a close call. This recipe says there are 6 servings. I’d say there’s 4 small servings. Um… Seth and I ate this all ourselves. So yeah…2 large servings.

Food How-To:
Bok Choy
There are many of you out there who probably don’t use things like bok choy in your cooking because a) You don’t know how or b) You’re sitting there thinking…what the hell is bok choy? If this is you, don’t be ashamed. I don’t think the typical American uses much beyond carrots and potatoes. In fact when I bought bok choy for the Vietnamese soup this week, the girl who rung up my groceries had no idea what it was.
I first tried using bok choy a few weeks ago and having never used it before, wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I assumed you just used the dark leafy part. So I did. And I threw the rest away. Only this week did I learn that I had done it ass-backwards (which is also how I did my 3-point turns in drivers ed).
Not that you aren’t supposed to use the leaves, but of all the tutorials I watched, most used bok choy like celery. Yeah, that’s it. Think of bok choy like Asian celery. You can eat the leaves, but most people just use the stalks (or separate the two and cook them for different amounts of time. Leaves take a lot less time to cook).
I tried chopping up bok choy a couple different ways, but this way was the easiest and produced the most uniformly size pieces, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just show you one way. The best way. MY way.
This is bok choy. Buy some.
Break off one stalk and wash all the dirt off.
Slice off the leaves where the white stalky part starts to narrow. Slice off the very bottom of the stalk to remove any woody bits.
Cut the stalk lengthwise into several thin strips.
Gather the strips together and slice across them, making small diced pieces. 

The finished product.

If you want to use the leafy part too, just slice it up into thin strips and add it toward the end of the cooking process to make sure it doesn’t get too wilted and mushy.

See? Bok Choy isn’t scary. It’s just celery’s really pale friend. Try it out!

Today’s Special: Salmon w/ Magical Butter Sauce, PW’s Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup w/ Salsa Verde, Chicken Asparagus Soup, and How to Cut Up a Pineapple

17 Apr

Seared Salmon with Magical Butter Sauce– New Recipe. Ok, so I made this last week, but somehow I forgot to post about it. But, technically I made it this week too, so there. I keep a bag of frozen salmon fillets in the freezer at all times these days. Seared salmon makes for a delicious, fast, fancy-ish meal and this Magical Butter Sauce just adds to the awesomeness. The butter sauce is made using 1/3 c. butter, 2 tbsp. jam (your choice), and 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar. Last week I made 2 kinds: boysenberry and apricot. The apricot turned out a little bland but the boysenberry was surprisingly really good. This week I made boysenberry again and mango. Mango slightly edged out the boysenberry, but it was a close call. This sauce works really well on lots of stuff (i.e. salmon, chicken, veggies) and the sky is the limit on flavors. I was worried it would be too fruity and sweet but it wasn’t at all. Plus, who doesn’t like to dip their food in butter? Feel free to serve the sauce in little cups to dip into or pour directly on the chosen recipient (recipient=food, not a person, unless you’re into that sort of thing). If you click on one link in this post, click on the one for Magical Butter Sauce, you won’t be disappointed.

Pioneer Woman’s Favorite Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup with Salsa Verde– New Recipes. The Pioneer Woman did a whole post special on grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup one day and I thought it sounded delicious. Seth happened to walk by when I was looking at the page again and commented on how delicious one of the sandwiches looked. That sealed the deal. This grilled cheese sandwich was a huge hit… Seth ended up eating two. I loved the addition of green chilies (I had to use the diced ones because I couldn’t find whole chilies at the store and I was too lazy to roast my own!). If you’re not a big fan of tomato soup, these sandwiches were substantial enough on their own. But, the tomato soup did turn out really well. It was very fresh tasting but not bland like a lot of other tomato soups of this style. I think the salsa verde added a lot to the flavor and looked really beautiful. I ended up having to use quite a bit more olive oil than the recipe stated so the basil/parsley mixture would liquify into a “thick sauce.” Both of these recipes were winners. (p.s. I still want to try the Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto & Mozzarella and Turkey, Brie and Apple Grilled Sandwich)

Creamy Chicken Asparagus Soup– New Recipe. Wow this soup was awesome! Not too heavy… a mix between a cream soup and a broth… just perfect. I think this is a new staple. Even better the next day and this recipe makes a ton!

Bonus: How to Cut Up a Pineapple
Apparently pineapple season is upon us. Don’t be intimidated by that pickly looking exotic fruit. It’s easier to cut up than it looks. Just as easy as a cantaloupe I’d say… maybe even easier!
First get your pineapple, a sharp knife and a cutting board.
Cut off just under an inch from the bottom.
Cut off about an inch from the top (below the leaves).
Carefully slice off the rind all around the sides.
Slice pineapple into disks approximately 1/2″ thick (or whatever thickness you prefer).
Remove hard center by cutting around it with a paring knife or use a small round biscuit cutter.
Keep the pineapple rings as shown if you like, or continue on to make smaller pieces…
Cut each slice diagonally several times (like a pizza) to create even chunks.
Now add to your favorite recipe or eat as-is! Delicious!

Today’s Special: Penne w/ Artichoke Sauce, Caldo Tlalpeno, Cod w/ Chorizo & White Beans, Spinach & Red Pepper Pizza, Chicken Piccata w/ Pasta & Mushrooms, Denny’s Style French Toast, and Temperature Guides

9 Jan

Sunday: So, I’d originally planned to have steaks today but Seth’s cousin Greg invited us over for dinner so I didn’t have to make anything! Greg made a big turkey dinner that was awesome. Seriously Greg… some of the best stuffing I’ve ever had (and it was Stove Top! Who knew?). So instead of posting a recipe for today I’m gonna give you some cooking tips.

Here’s a trick to know whether your baked potatoes are perfectly cooked: Continually monitor the internal temperature of the potatoes by sticking a probe thermometer into the center of one of your spuds (or you can check them periodically with a cooking thermometer). The potatoes are done when they reach 210°F. (You may want to check each potato, especially if they aren’t uniform in size or you have a crazy oven like I do). Bonus Tip: The internal temperature of perfectly baked bread is 200-205°F.

If you don’t already have an oven-probe thermometer GET ONE. It’s one of my most frequently used tools in the kitchen. Plus they’re pretty cheap… this is the one I have and it works just fine. Also, don’t use it in your grill unless it’s at a low temp (ie slow cooking a roast). This probe only goes up to 392°F. I learned that the hard way when I broke my first one.

Most thermometers will already have a temperature guide on them. I don’t ever use these. The temperatures printed on them are too high… especially for meat. They’re the USDA temperature guides which means somebody is trying to cover their butts so they make them higher than they should be so they don’t get sued. If you like dry food, go ahead and follow their guides. If not, use these (I wrote them on the back of my thermometer).

Poultry: 165°F
Pork:
    Medium: 150°F
    Well: 160°F
Steak:
    Rare: 125°F
    Medium Rare: 130-135°F
    Medium: 135-140°F
    Medium Well: 140-150°F
    Well: 155+°F
Ground Beef, Lamb, & Pork: 160°F

Also keep in mind that internal temperatures will continue to increase by approximately 5°F when removed from heat. But it’s best to let meat rest a few minutes before cutting anyway so all the juices don’t fly out.
   
Monday: Penne with Artichoke Sauce-New Recipe. I was really disappointed with this one. It tasted pretty much how it looks…. bland. Seth liked it more than I did, but I think it’s because he had more artichoke chunks in his. I’m not sure if it made a huge difference or not, but I used marinated artichoke hearts from a jar instead of fresh ones. There was no picture of this recipe on the website. I should have taken that as a clue.

Tuesday: Caldo Tlalpeno with Quesadillas- New Recipe. This turned out really good. We gave it 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday: Baked Cod with Chorizo & White Beans– New Recipe. I thought this recipe sounded a little odd but gave it a shot because it had good reviews. I couldn’t find chorizo at the store I went to so I just got turkey kielbasa as suggested in the recipe.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well all the flavors blended. We both liked this a lot and ended up eating all of it.

Thursday: Spinach & Roasted Red Pepper Pizza-New Recipe. I’d bought a ready-made whole wheat pizza crust with no real plan for it this week. I got home on Thursday night and had to leave again in an hour so I needed something fast and easy. I found this recipe, made it and ate all within the allotted time. I used mozzarella cheese instead of the asiago because it’s all I had. Probably would’ve been better with the asiago, but it still wasn’t bad. I wasn’t too crazy about the pizza crust I bought… maybe I’ll make my own next time. The way this tasted when I ate it I’d give it about a B-. But it has potential (would be good with some chicken or sausage on it too I think).

Friday: Chicken Piccata with Pasta & Mushrooms-New Recipe. This was good, but I thought it would be better with all the raving reviews it had. Not bad, but not good enough for regular rotation.

Saturday (Breakfast): Denny’s-Style French Toast– This is one of my favorite breakfast recipes. I’ve used Texas Toast style bread and sliced French bread with very good results. Today we also finally got around to eating some venison sausage one of Seth’s cousins gave us at a family reunion this summer (yeah, I know it’s been a while… I was a little scared to try it). Anyway, the sausage was awesome! Glad we have 2 packages of it.

Also, I just wanted to thank Seth again for this awesome new camera he gave me for Christmas. It has a FOOD setting on it which is amazing. My pictures have turned out much better this week and my frustration levels have decreased dramatically. Having the right tools for the job sure makes things easier.

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