You Can Learn to Cook Part 2: What’s for dinner?
Meal planning can be overwhelming for someone first learning to cook for him/herself. I know when I first moved out on my own and decided to start meal planning and stop wasting food, I was overwhelmed.
REMINDER: Cooking is not difficult, or at least it does not have to be.
Tip #1: Start meal planning to stop wasting food.
Some people plan an entire month’s worth of dinner at the beginning of the month. Chelsea of Being Chelsea does it extremely well. It does not work for me as I don’t have the stable life she does yet. My plans and nights change often, and I never know if my husband will be home for dinner or traveling. I don’t often ask myself what’s for dinner on that exact day, but I can never plan more than a few days ahead.
Tip #2: Do what works for you, whether that is planning a day ahead, week ahead, or month ahead.
I plan a week’s worth of dinners usually, but you can read more about that in Part 1 of this series. For me, meal planning is the reason I don’t gain weight. In the morning every single weekday I plan what I will eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and for snacks. Once in awhile I change it based on a change in plan or taste, but I often follow that plan exactly. This might not work for everyone, but it definitely works for me.
Tip #3: Meal planning can help you control your weight.
You learned most of these tips in Part 1 of my “You Can Learn to Cook” series, but now you are probably wondering, what’s for dinner? While I usually follow a basic formula for our dinners, I still try to be as creative as possible. Here is where I get my recipe and dinner inspiration:
What I See
When I visit the market to buy my main staples for the week, I spend a few extra minutes browsing the produce section. Are there any vegetables that look particularly great? Did anything come into season just recently that I haven’t cooked with in a bit? This past visit, I saw that there was an entire case of zucchini from only 40 miles away, and there were also lots of tomatoes. I knew I would make a few lunches or dinners using both of those items. The zucchini became the inspiration for this zucchini pasta dish, and the tomatoes inspired my Athenos feta salad lunch.
What I Remember
I love to try to recreate emotional reactions to food. Does that make sense? I have so many strong memories from my childhood attached to specific dishes, and when they pop into my head, I basically try to make them right away. Oddly enough, most of these dishes have yet to be shared here. For example, we had a friend coming over last year and I wanted to make dessert. I had no idea what to make when I remembered a dessert my nonnna makes all the time. I have a strong memory of nonna making “rolls with jam” and saving the best ones for my brother, who was (and still is) obsessed with them. Nonna hasn’t made rolls with jam in a bit, but both she and my auntie still have the recipe. I immediately retrieved it from them and added it to that night’s menu.
What I Read
Blogs, brand websites, foodie sites… they can all be great resources for recipes. I have made several recipes by Giada and Ina, and I am constantly inspired by the blog world, especially when it comes to snack time. Don’t be afraid to try a recipe exactly as it is intended. It is fun to taste a dish as someone else wants it to taste, and it can make the meal planning process easier. Friends have shared great recipes with me as well, and much like a blogger, I trust it if a friend says it is good!
What I Dream
Once in awhile, a recipe or dish will come to me in a dream. That is not a joke or an exaggeration. In fact, some of my favorite recipes came to me in dreams. I also have found lots of recipe inspiration while feeling hungry on long runs. If you have ever gone on a long run, you know exactly what I am talking about! (Side note: I really miss long runs!) Sometimes these recipes work beautifully, and other times they don’t, which leads me to my next point…
Tip #4: Don’t be afraid to take chances. Not every recipe will be perfect. Not every recipe will be healthy. I always make small adjustments to my recipes each time I make them. If I had ample time and a huge budget, I would recreate small batches of recipes over and over again until they are perfect, but that is not the case. I take a chance and while sometimes it works, sometimes I also fail. That is ok and that is how we learn to be better cooks.
In the same regard, I always try to make a balanced meal. The formula that works for me is 1 source of protein, at least one vegetable, one source of fat (plus olive oil if I need it), one carbohydrate, and often times a salad. I know that this formula is what keeps me satisfied and energized. Find what formula works for you and stick to it. Once in awhile, even though I followed the formula, I am still hungry 2 hours later. Rather than getting upset about it, learn how not to repeat it.
What’s in my Fridge
By the end of the week, I usually have some odds and ends in the fridge. I use it as inspiration to decide what is for dinner that night. It usually turns out to be a great meal I would not have otherwise created.
What I Learn from a Restaurant Menu
I have tried to recreate restaurant meals many times at home. Great restaurants usually have great chefs behind them, and I have learned some great techniques and food pairings just from paying attention to the menu. The best example I have is a watermelon and feta salad, which I never would have created on my own (still mastering that- not ready to share the recipe).
A few quick thoughts on this subject:
1. Consider your audience. For example, if you are dining alone and will be at the gym late, plan an easy, quick to assemble meal for that night.
2. Study food pairings. Watch Food Network. Read recipe blogs. Study restaurant menus next time you are out. Learn all you can about food pairings.
3. Be risky, but not weird. I know some people think hummus goes with everything, but you will never see me make a chicken salad with hummus as a binding ingredient, or chocolate covered raisins in a salad. I prefer to stick to simple pairings that I know will work. I don’t like to waste food.
4. Don’t forget that it gets easier with time and practice.
Here is my dinner plan for this short week (I head to HLS Thursday morning), and the source of inspiration for each dish:
Monday: roasted chicken breast (inspiration: Gina), roasted tomato and zucchini (inspiration: market), bulgur pilaf (inspiration: PB missing this childhood and Armenian favorite), salad (inspiration: left in fridge)
Tuesday: spinach salad (inspiration: left in fridge from weekend), beans (inspiration: from pantry), almonds (inspiration: pantry)
Wednesday: Mushroom, Pea & Garbanzo Bean Pasta Bake (inspiration: market- great whole wheat pasta on sale- and filling in the formula pieces)
You Can Learn to Cook series Part 1 is all about Your Meal Plan. Check it out if you haven’t already.
I would like to point out that reader Stacy R. is the reason I am finishing this series. I had originally written the entire series in Ecto, only to lose it this winter. After a few tears and a second try, I lost the series a second time. This is the third time I share this information in written form, and I hope you find it informative.
For more specific ideas on how I create my menus for entertaining, come to my 11:45 AM session at the Healthy Living Summit on Healthy Entertaining. I will also be sharing highlights from the presentation next week.
Where do you get YOUR recipe inspiration from? Share in the comments below!
Previous Posts this week:
Summer Roasted Corn and Tomato Feta Salad