The chicken and the axe resume their fall schedule

As we enter into the fall, one of the things I’m most excited about is cooking. I have seriously neglected the kitchen this summer–what with weddings, more weddings, family vacation, and weekends away, I just haven’t had enough of a routine to do my usual meal planning. I’ve cooked a few things here and there, but nothing like last fall and spring when I was making 3-4 new dishes per week.

When our schedule is more “normal” (which it will be starting Monday, with yoga, Bible study, and school for my husband all starting back up), about once a week I sit down with a stack of cookbooks and printed out PW and TK recipes, and float away on the wings on foodie daydreaming. I persue, salivate, and fantasize to my heart’s content as I sip my coffee. I think the last time I did that was maybe early June? I can’t wait to start again–it’s one of my favorite parts of the week.

 At some point, of course, I have to make decisions and commit to only a few recipes out of the thousand mouth-watering options, so I make a list by days of the week and hit myself repeatedly in the side of the head with a cookbook (it’s the only way I can be forced to pick my favorites). The list goes something like this:

M- Angel hair pasta with bacon and zucchini

T- Thai spicy noodles

W- leftovers/forage

Th- n/a (Bible study)

F- Sausage and peppers with rice

Sat- Lentil stew and rice

Sun- leftovers/forage

After I’ve decided what I want to make, I grab a pen and paper, go through each recipe and make a grocery list of what I need. The meal plan gets posted on the fridge so that I can reference it. I would undoubtedly forget what I was doing otherwise and end up wandering around the kitchen with a dazed expression saying “What . . . ? . . . what . . . ? . . . um, what? . . . ?” I need a plan, Stan. I need a diagram, Stanislam. I need a list, Stromquist.

It’s so satisfying.

Plus, if I plan carefully that means I only have to grocery shop once per week. And though I don’t loathe the grocery shopping experience, it’s definitely not something I want to engage in every other day. 

I usually have at least one or two days designated “leftovers/forage.” This is where our leftovers tracking device comes into play, which lets us know at a glance what’s in the fridge–I’ll be talking about that soon, in a separate post. If there are no leftovers to be had, this can end up being an Arroz a la Cubana night, or an eggs-in-a-basket night. Or I may, um, occasionally you understand, get involved in a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Every so often, I still experience relapse from my childhood addiction to it–I wonder if they offer programs for this sort of problem? Thursday, being community group night, we won’t have time to go home between work/school and the Bible study, so we will probably just grab a sandwich at Potbelly’s on Belmont Ave like we did last year . . . or some Panang Curry from Siam Noodle and Rice, the best Thai restaurant in Chicago (sayeth I).

One thing that I love about this season of our lives (with my husband in school and me at work all day) is that unfailingly, though I’m the head chef, my husband is in the kitchen with me during the whole cooking process. He washes dishes as I go, chops garlic, picks up the onion skins that floated off the counter, etc. We call this arrangement “the chicken and the axe.” See, I’m the axe: the master executor of the project. The one wielding the power. The one in charge. He is the chicken, whose head is cut off: brainlessly running around. Dashing here, dashing there, getting things done, but not thinking too much. It’s all about swift, automatic obedience in the kitchen when you’re the chicken. It’s a great arrangement–like having a sous-chef, I imagine, but one who you can occasionally swat on the butt as you cross each other going from sink to fridge to stove. Someone who will laugh as you do that goofy dance in your house slippers and sing opera at the top of your lungs instead of shunning you for being such a ridiculous human being.

Now the caveat to this whole thing weekly meal-planning thing is, of course, the dreaded grocery budget. Because sometimes, when I end up making scallops, steak, and salmon in one week, the weekly grocery financial guideline gets shot up all to heck. Sometimes I just neeeeed salmon and scallops. I don’t waaaannna pick between the two! Once, as my shocked eyes examined the receipt the lovely cashier had just handed me, I realized I had accidentally spent double the allotted amount. To this day I don’t quite understand how that happened, though I blame the temptations of rampant food photography, which in case you haven’t noticed is splayed all over the internet (not that I have anything to do with that den of decadence). Once we realize we have grossly overspent, if we are feeling like good citizens (which we usually are), we will agree to make it stretch for two weeks. That can be quite a fun challenge. Really, I’m not being sarcastic–it’s like a little game. We go into the stash of cans and frozen meat my grandfather likes to send our way about once a year, and figure out how to make it work. This can involve rice, a can of corn, and a frozen pork shoulder. Or pancakes from a box, a can of lima beans, and a duck. You never know what wild combinations can come forth from the storehouses that Big Jake has lovingly provided. And you can always slap an egg on something and call it a meal–that’s one of my favorite tricks. I’m gearing myself up for this since the evil meal plan I devised on Wednesday will undoubtedly cause many surprises at the cash register this weekend. Many, many surprises.

Dang cyberspace and its temptations.

Are there any other meal planners out there? Or are you more creative–can you look at a random assortment of ingredients in the fridge and whip up something amazing with no forethought?

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13 Responses to The chicken and the axe resume their fall schedule

  1. Kay says:

    You are so blessed to have your hubby as a sous chef! And I am one of those people who loathe grocery shopping. My oldest daughter is 16 next year and I am counting my days when she can drive independently! Wish you were closer and I would share some Alaskan salmon my husband caught this summer!

  2. I love “the chicken and the axe.” I am also wicked jealous of chicken and the axe; my hubs pours himself a drink and watches CNN.

  3. claire says:

    love your ideas on weekly meal planning… I am going to attempt that this sunday! Let you know how it goes!

    p.s. i am dreaming about the Angel hair pasta with bacon and zucchini

  4. giselle says:

    I really should try to plan meals ahead of time. It really IS a huge drag to go to the grocery store on the way home from work and then feeling bummed because I just spent $40 and I can’t think of what I bought other than dinner for tonight. That can’t be good.

    The biggest challenge I have with planning is that I don’t know if I just won’t feel like it and would rather go out with my friends!! Hehehe. But really, that leads to a lot of taco bell nights and that’s not good for anyone.

    Maybe I can plan to cook 4 nights a week and if something gets shifted to a different day, then it’s not big deal. AND this will give me a chance to make meals where meat requires marinading overnight!! Yes!!

    Thanks, Jenna. :) Also.. how much do normal people budget for weekly grocery shopping for 2 people?

    • Jenna says:

      I think planning to cook 4 nights a week is perfect–the other 3 can be going out, or leftovers, or whatever. If you know you have ingredients for 4 meals, you can make them ‘spontaneously’ within the week, based on how you feel that night. That way there’s a combination of spontaneity and planning. In my experience if I plan to cook more than 5 times a week, I end up not doing it and wasting groceries.
      On a normal week, we probably spend between $60-75 for groceries (that includes things like shampoo, toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning products as well as food). If we’re having people over for dinner that week, we can easily go up to $80-85, since I’m not just buying more food but usually also ‘fancier’ food. I’m not sure if that’s normal or not–I think we spend more than some people because we do buy a lot of fresh stuff which can sometimes ironically be more expensive than canned or processed stuff (for example, fresh mushrooms as opposed to canned are much more expensive). . . but to me, it’s worth it. Hope that’s helpful!

  5. Vesselina says:

    Man, your “normal” weekly budget just proves how key planning is to the whole thing. When I used to shop for two, I would easily spend over $100 per trip, and there was never any guarantee that would even last us a whole week. I’m still adjusting to the shopping for one idea, but I still spend $50… easily…. Wow, I reeeeally should give planning a shot! And also, your stories of cute butt-swatting and other general silliness in the kitchen warm my heart.

  6. Sarah says:

    hilarious! i love the ‘chicken & the axe.’ my husband is my sous chef of sorts, much like your arrangement since he works all day and i am in grad school. he calls it following and cleaning up in my wake. it’s great and so much fun to cook together! :)

  7. Twinky says:

    I believe we had a converstation some time ago about our cooking styles: I buy “stock” groceries, open the fridge and based on what I see, decide what to make… although I will qualify that by recognizing the inspiration of things as I shop cause me also to buy the ingredients to make particular dishes…. that usually materialize, but not always! You said you used to try that, and half the food rotted before being used. I guess Moms and daughters aren’t always the same in how they approach things. =)

    In Valencia, I went for quite a while – half a year maybe – with a weekly dinner program based on the kind of meat or cuisine, and over a 3 week cycle, had preplanned meals. That helped get me over a depressed time when I couldn’t figure out what to make as I stood there looking at the refrigerator or the open cupboards full of great food for half an hour wondering what to, or what to wear out of my closet for that matter- decisions become monumentally hard to make in all aspects of life. Mondays were chicken, Tuesdays were pork, Wednesdays were fish, Thurdays beef, Fridays were??, and Saturday was international (Chinese, Italian, Mexican) and Sunday was leftovers: the plan did my thinking for me and told me what to do. Leftovers also served well for the night time meal as did breakfast dishes like pancakes, French toast and the like. I also had a printed up grocery list that had all the products I tended to buy with a space to fill in the quantity. When the brain just can’t think because of busyness, stress, depression, or just general life-overload, it it nice to have done all the thinking ahead of time. That is the closest I have come to menu planning. I had a friend years ago who tried to get me onto a more structured meal planning regime (like what YOU do!), and it just did not work for me. Kind of like in my artwork, I do not create or come up with something from nothing; i have to see something and then work with it. Same thing with 3 home remodelings: I can work with an existing structure, but this trying to design a house from scratch is killing me!!! We are wired the way we are wired, so I no longer feel guilty about not pre-planning every week of menus and shopping. More power to you all who can!!

  8. Joanne says:

    I am a TOTAL meal planner! I only have time to go to the grocery store once a week and so I need to have a plan ready to go otherwise I’ll end up coming home with a cart full of butternut squash and peanut butter and nothing else. Not good.

    I love how pasta-ful your meal plan is!

  9. LH says:

    I was wondering, do you also do a meal plan for lunches as well as dinners?

    • Jenna says:

      Not at this point in our lives, but I’m sure I will if we have kids. Right now I’m at work 9-5, so I usually just have an apple and some oatmeal or something at the office, and my husband has a sandwich or more leftovers at home.

  10. Meal planning kicks my butt. My problem is that I, too, am a culinary dreamer salivating away at cookbooks and sketching recipes on napkins. However, sometimes my brain gets too big for my budget…which can then be detrimental to my sanity.

    One small step toward gaining meal planning success has been to log my grocery receipts into my computer. In this, I can track my groceries’ trajectory and target sales much more easily–and spot the “fibs” in the flyers. Because I have individual prices for items recorded, I can easily look at a recipe and gage its cost per serving without much marginal error. It makes me feel accomplished in life.

    Someday, I want to be a couponer. I wonder if such people are just urban legends though–those whose time and effort really do pay off in dollars and sense. Sometimes I think couponers are just little old ladies who tote around 30 coupons just to because they can save $0.25 on 3 containers of Tidy Cats.

    This planning ahead/budgeting/being an adult thing is kinda tricky sometimes. Opportunity cost is everything.

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