Tips for Successful Meal-Planning

I’ve had a few of my coworkers ask me how I manage to bring a lunch from home every day instead of going out to buy lunch, and the short answer is… leftovers.  But the long answer is that I don’t want to spend $200 a month on lunches when I like the taste of my own food more. There you have it, folks: the key to lunchtime is being stingy and snobby. ;)

But for real, the easiest way to get enough leftovers for lunches is to cook meals at home for dinner. I feel like I’ve become pretty adept at meal-planning, so I thought I’d share some tips. You don’t have to have an excel spreadsheet with 356 (and counting) recipes on it in order to become a meal-planning pro. But you do need a little time and energy, and a commitment to home cooking.

I recently started paying a little extra to use the meal-planning function on my favorite grocery list app (AnyList*) but you don’t need a fancy app to get started. Any place you want to write down your plan for the week is fine. So here are my tips:

  1. Organize your recipes. It’s helpful to have a catalog of recipes you’ve tried and loved. This could be an excel spreadsheet, a Pinterest board, or an old-fashioned recipe box. (Or if you’re me, all three.) It’s also nice to keep track of recipes you want to try in the future; I keep a Pinterest board as well as a list in my phone. If I’m browsing through cookbooks and spot something that looks tasty, I type it in my phone along with the cookbook name and page number. That way, when I’m really stumped and can’t think of anything to make, I have a bunch of new recipes at my fingertips that will inspire me to cook again.
  2. Constraints can be liberating. There are millions of recipes in cookbooks and millions more on the internet. Sitting down on a Sunday afternoon and knowing you can cook anything in the week ahead is a little overwhelming. Constraints are key. We get a box of vegetables and fruit each week from our CSA, so I start there. If I’m getting zucchini, Swiss chard, potatoes, and spinach, I look for recipes that use those ingredients. You can also focus on what’s on sale at the grocery store, or ingredients you need to use up that are already in your fridge or pantry. Either way, limiting your options can actually help you plan more quickly.
  3. Look to the calendar. After knowing what recipes I want to make, I look over the activities and events that are coming up in the week ahead. Dinner with the in-laws on Sunday? No need to cook! The hubby has to work late on Thursday? Then I’ll have cheese and crackers for dinner. (Real life, right?)
  4. Pay attention to recipe yields. Since there are only two of us, I expect to eat leftovers for lunch and sometimes dinner. So I space meals out based on how much food they make. If a recipe only makes enough servings for dinner and lunch the next day, then I know I’ll have to cook the following night. But if a recipe makes a ton of servings, I can work those leftovers into the dinner plan as well.
  5. Make a plan and write it down. Like I said, I use AnyList to plan my meals for the week. I love it because I can easily save recipes from the web or manually enter them into the app from my cookbooks. From there, I assign recipes to a certain day on the calendar and then seamlessly add the ingredients I need to my grocery list. But I also go old-school and write the weekly plan on a chalkboard on the fridge, so both of us know what’s for dinner each night. (Pro tip: The wonderful thing about using an app or calendar to meal-plan is that I can always answer the age-old question, “How long has this been in the fridge?”)
  6. Be flexible. The other night I got home and realized that the root vegetable gratin I had planned to make for dinner required two hours in the oven. Oops. (I guess another tip is read recipes all the way through first…) So I decided to switch it up and make the pasta dish that I had planned for a different night instead. Sometimes I have to work late, or coworkers want to go out for a spontaneous happy hour. Just relax and go with the flow.
  7. Make meal-planning part of your routine. I plan our weekly meals every Sunday morning. It can take 30 minutes, or close to an hour, but I still carve out the time. Sometimes even I grumble about this task, but I have to admit that a little advance planning makes our week a whole lot smoother. And more delicious too.

Tips for Successful Meal-Planning

Tips for Successful Meal-Planning

* This post is not sponsored in any way. I’ve just had a really great experience with AnyList and wanted to share that with you!

Salted Carmelita Bars

This blog has seen a lot of kitchens. I started writing it while we lived in Madison, in an apartment with an L-shaped kitchen so small I had to store my KitchenAid mixer on a shelf in the bathroom. Then we moved to Boston, and I cooked out of a tiny kitchen that (astonishingly) had no drawers.

Our second apartment in Boston had an awesome kitchen with white cupboards and granite countertops that I still dream about, but we weren’t there for long. Our Minneapolis apartment has the biggest kitchen yet, but the countertop edges are so sharp I have actual scars from running into them.

So many kitchens. So many culinary trials, tears, and triumphs. And now, it’s time to move on to yet another kitchen. In a few short weeks, we’re bidding adieu to our beloved Minneapolis and moving to Los Angeles. Our belongings will follow on a truck a few weeks later, and I will be anxiously waiting their arrival. Because then I can start to organize yet another kitchen, and then it will start to feel like home.

Salted carmelita bars

Carmelita bars are a Minnesota classic, originating (as far as I can tell) in the Pillsbury Bake-off Contest in 1967. The original recipe is delightful, but then I discovered a version that calls for homemade salted caramel sauce and it knocked my socks off. So look out, California friends, because I’m bringing some good ol’ Midwestern cooking like this your way. But it’s gonna come with some long vowels and a lot of me yelling “Gladys, we need more bars!” Okay then? Ohh-kay.

Salted carmelita bars

Salted Carmelita Bars

Bars

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups rolled oats
  • 1 1/4 cups lightly packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Salted Caramel Sauce

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream at room temperature (I used lactose-free half ‘n’ half)
  • 3 1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350° F and lightly grease a 9×13 baking dish with butter. Set aside.

Make bars: In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together flour, oats, brown sugar, and baking soda. Chop the butter into pieces about 1/2-inch square. With the paddle attachment fitted to the mixer, add butter to the oat mixture and stir at low speed until the mixture is crumbly and the butter is broken into small chunks. Press about 2/3 of the oat mixture into the bottom of the 9×13 pan.

Bake crust for 10 minutes, then remove from oven and sprinkle with chocolate chips. Set aside.

Make caramel sauce: In a medium saucepan, stir together granulated sugar and water. Place over medium heat and let the mixture come to a boil, without stirring. Place a lid on the saucepan and continue boiling for three minutes, so any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan get steamed off.

Remove the lid and continue boiling the sugar mixture– still without stirring– until it’s a deep amber color. Remove from heat. Add the cream carefully; the mixture will violently bubble up. Whisk in butter and salt until smooth and well combined. If there are chunks of hard caramel in the sauce, stir constantly over low heat until they’re melted. Whisk in the flour.

Pour the caramel sauce over the chocolate chips and oatmeal crust. Sprinkle the remaining oat mixture over the caramel sauce. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the topping is lightly browned. Let bars cool completely before slicing and serving. Store in the refrigerator.

Makes 24 bars.

Source: Adapted from Erlyce Larson via Tracey’s Culinary Adventures. 

2014 Food Resolutions

Happy 2014! Last year was a big transition for Gabe and me food-wise, instigated by a desire to be healthier and my avid reading of books and articles about the food industry. We still live in 21st-century America, but we’re trying our best to say goodbye to most highly processed foods. It’s actually kind of amazing and depressing that we no longer go down half of the aisles in the supermarket because there’s nothing good to be found.

In retrospect, “eating fewer highly processed foods” was an incredibly easy resolution to keep. I have a (slightly crazy) desire to challenge myself in the kitchen, we don’t have small children constantly begging for sugar, and we were both 100% on board with the change. We have absolutely no desire to go back to eating all those packaged food-like products, and I know we’ll continue to make strides on this journey. But now it’s another year, and I have three new cookbooks to delve into. So here we go!

Krista’s food resolutions for 2014:

  • Make things from scratch, scratchier. I’d love to learn new/old techniques like canning and how to soak beans. And I got a food grinder for Christmas so this girl is gonna try grinding her own hamburger!
  • Try my hand at sourdough bread. I have to admit, this one makes me nervous. A bubbling, fermenting sourdough starter in my fridge? Egad. And do I need to wait until spring to have enough wild yeast in the air? Lots of research to do before my first attempt.
  • Only buy humanely raised meat, locally if possible. If only based on price alone, this goal will definitely lead to us eating a lot less meat. I’ll also need to spend more time in a nearby co-op, although our local Target amazingly carries Thousand Hills beef.
  • Try making more dishes from other cultures. This one also scares me. I’m very content making Italian food or Americanized versions of Mexican and Chinese. But I asked for (and received) the cookbook Jerusalem for Christmas, and I’m gonna give it a whirl. I’ll probably start with hummus to reassure myself that I can handle the challenge, and then go from there. Wish me luck!
  • Eat more vegetables. Always.

In the same vein, Mark Bittman wrote an interesting list of food resolutions in the NY Times that has a lot of great ideas to adopt. What are your food (or non-food) resolutions for 2014?

Behind the Scenes at Lingonberry Jam

I’ve been pondering a post like this for a while now, but a few days ago– when I found myself lying on my stomach on the kitchen island trying to get a good shot while there was still light– I realized it was about time I shared the shenanigans with you. In the name of keeping it real, here are some sneak peeks from taking food pictures in three different apartments.

I often get my serving dishes all set up first to test the light and composition before adding food, especially if I’m using something melty like ice cream. In this picture below, I placed my dishes on a window ledge in the bedroom, since our single kitchen window didn’t provide much light. Yes, that’s dirty laundry in the lower left-hand corner. Oh, and that purple napkin? Totally one of my dress shirts. Use what ya got!

Behind-the-Scenes | Lingonberry Jam

When we moved from our first Boston apartment to the next one, there wasn’t even one window in the kitchen. I prefer to shoot with natural light, so I had to move my setup to the living room. Nothing like apple pie in a window.

Behind-the-Scenes | Lingonberry Jam

In our Minneapolis apartment, we’re blessed with south- and west-facing windows. YES. It may be cold, but we’ve got sunshine! Additionally, we have a bright and open concept, which means I can take pictures in the living room or kitchen, giving me different lights and textures to work with. Of course, some creative cropping is always necessary. For the chicken wing picture below, I used an outdoor table and placed it in front of the pantry near the window. Then I cropped out the wall and countertops.

Behind-the-Scenes | Lingonberry Jam

In the past, in order to get a pretty white background, I would tape dishtowels to the window. (My neighbors probably thought I was crazy.) See that little corner of blue sky? With some slight adjustments to the exposure, this silly system worked pretty well.

Behind-the-Scenes | Lingonberry Jam

Lately I’ve had a new toy to play with! Gabe got me a little pop-up studio for Valentine’s Day. I’ve had a lot of fun putting it in different places and shooting from different angles to see what works best. That’s the moral of the story, really. Trial and error!

Behind-the-Scenes | Lingonberry Jam

With a little coaxing and creativity, and a willingness to play with various camera settings, even a point-and-shoot camera can take some pretty, pretty pictures. Peppercorns, anyone?

Behind-the-Scenes | Lingonberry Jam

Cake Decor Galore

My lovely mother arrived last Friday for a weekend visit to Beantown. Apart from the usual touristy stuff, we hosted an afternoon cake decorating get-together for a handful of my girlfriends. Since my mom has mad skills and I do not, it was awesome to have her teach us how to do basket weave, cornelli lace, roses, swags, rosettes, and on and on and on. (It was also absurd how much powdered sugar and butter we went through. Yum.)

My mom’s on her way home now, but she left me with a big box of cake tips and a bunch of her guidebooks. So I basically want to spend the next week doodling with frosting. (Schoolwork and planning Thanksgiving dinner can wait, right?) I’m so excited about this whole new world that just opened up. Think of all the cupcakes and cookies and birthday cakes I can decorate!

Thanks to my mother for teaching us all, and thanks to Gabe for being such a good sport as we filled the apartment with sugar and chatter. (P.S. My boyfriend can hold his own– he makes a mean basket weave. I’m so proud.)

Fixer-Uppers and Fire Escapes

This week I have a little bit of a lull in my class schedule, probably the last hurrah before the crazy push toward the end of the semester. Gabe and I spent the weekend doing various social things, including Law Prom and a Sunday matinee of The Hunger Games.

When he needed to spend time studying, I celebrated my rare homework-free weekend by fixing annoying little problems around the apartment. The management company stopped by to fix some of the issues, including a broken back burner and crumbling bathroom ceiling. They also pulled out our stove in an attempt to solve the mouse problem… leading to the discovery that there already was steel wool behind the stove. So the mice might be getting in behind the dishwasher. Which is a whole ‘nother to-do.

Their little visit got me into fixing mode, and pretty soon I was standing on a ladder trying to figure out what kind of lightbulb we needed to replace our flickering kitchen light. And then, since I was already up there, I finally washed the puréed carrot off the kitchen ceiling. (Yep, this carrot.)

After Gabe and I got back from the movie (which was awesome but had me sobbing in the theater) I started cooking a batch of pulled beef. It took a bit longer than usual, and finally I had to pull the entire pot from the oven, place it on the fire escape (thankfully last night’s weather was still refrigerator-temperature!), pray to the gods of all that is good and holy that no squirrels would try to steal my brand new Le Creuset, and go to bed.

Thankfully, the sun came up this morning, I finished cooking the beef, and all was right with the world.

Except that I returned from a trip to the grocery store to find TWENTY-THREE new mouse poops on the stove.

I’m running out of both patience and disinfectant.

I swear to god, either I’m going to go insane, or there will soon be a cat living in this apartment. Because this, ladies and gentlemen, is disgusting. Sigh.

Spring Break Recipe Round-up

As soon as my little sis headed back to Minnesota, the temperature plunged and my textbooks beckoned. Spring break and 80 degrees were fun while they lasted.

Here’s a recap of all the yummy food we cooked during Erin’s visit. Some of the recipes will be posted in the next few days as I finish up papers and get organized. Enjoy!

Recipe Round-up: