Friday, April 2, 2010

Meal Lists and Grocery Trips

Before I got married this last summer, I spent 5 years of my life working in the shipping/packaging industry. Shipping is all about deadlines and accuracy, packaging, all about problem solving and creativity and the whole thing is loaded with multitasking. And I loved it.

So much of what I learned (and enjoyed) about the shipping industry is true about cooking as well. Cooking is replete with deadlines (watch that timer!) and demands accuracy (that's what those measuring utensils and different pan sizes are for!). It also employs problem solving techniques (ever need to figure out what a good substitute would be for cream of tartar?) and thankfully, usually leaves ample room for creativity (be it artistry with colors, flavors, textures or aromas!). And you know cooking is a multi-tasker's heaven (isn't it challenging trying to get all of your dishes done at the same time?)!

But before you can cook, you must pre-cook! And pre-cooking involves many of those elements I just mentioned! As I talked about in my last blog post (the one about the moose...), I live in a rural area, so my pre-cooking might be a bit more complicated than yours needs to be, but basically, this is what I do...

Step 1: Recipe Wrangling
This is a continuous process. I often leaf through my current cookbooks, or grab a couple from the library, just to get ideas. Sometimes I browse the web (my preference is or pull out the wonderful box of recipes my sisters compiled for me when I got married. But the point is to immerse yourself in possibilities. There are so many things to try!! As I come across things that look interesting, I fold the corner of the page or mark down the number in my notebook. If they are tried and found successful, these later go into a file on my computer where repeat "winner dinners" are cataloged according to main ingredient.

Step 2: Making the List
I do this at the beginning of every month. I make a list of about 20 dinners for that month (the extra 10 days leave room for leftovers, dates, spontaneous decisions, invitations, alien invasions, etc.), drawing from my "winner dinner" file, or new recipes I want to try. I try to keep a well rounded list consisting of fairly equal parts of beef, chicken and "other" (which may include pork, turkey, moose, fish, breakfast foods, soup- you get the idea).

Step 3: The List's List
This step is the actual grocery list making step, and it involves 4 rounds.
Round 1: I go back through my recipes for the meals that are on the Dinner List and jot down the ingredients I will need to purchase in order to make them.
Round 2: I contemplate side dishes that are nice to have on hand and make trips to the various locations side dishes usually reside, and report any missing ones to my grocery list.
Round 3: I make a thorough inspection of cupboards, refrigerator and freezer to add needed breakfast foods, condiments, snacks, and any other misc. ingredients to my now quite lengthy grocery list.
Round 4: This is a rather passive round, as it consists of merely leaving my list on the counter in a visible location for 2-3 days. It seems simple enough, but it serves as a reminder for things that may need to surface in my memory before we set out for the store (and they usually do)!

Step 4: The Shopping Trip
Now this is serious business. Once a month, Travis and I make a shopping trip to Spokane, which is about 50 mi away. We are a team, with me making decisions between brands and prices, and he keeping track of the total (to keep us to our budget!) and pushing the cart (which gets rather heavy when you do a whole month's shopping in one fell swoop!). I prefer WinCo for our main grocery shopping, as it is one of the few places where I can leave spending less than I expected to when I bought more than I expected to! I always try to have a little of our budgeted grocery money leftover for other misc. items we pick up during the remainder of the month. I don't really love grocery shopping, but it does make me excited. Somehow, all that "ingredient gathering," as I like to call it, makes me excited to cook all over again! And, though it is tiring (and takes a good 2 hrs), with Travis beside me (and stopping to kiss me almost every aisle!), we have a lot of fun. There is something very satisfying about a full refrigerator and stocked cupboards!

Step 5: Weekly Lists
The last step in the pre-cooking regimen is to make up weekly dinner lists. I find that I love having my dinners for the week planned in advance. I don't always stick to them, but it is nice to know that there is something planned for dinner tonight. Usually I pull out my calendar and try to figure out what days we will have dinner at home or what nights we'll be out, as well as which nights we'll need to eat quick or afternoons I'll be gone and need to fix something easy when I get home. That done, I make up my weekly lists using the Dinner List from Step 2, and hang it on the fridge.

Now, maybe all that planning frightens you, because you're more the spontaneous type, but I really enjoy strategizing and figuring out what I need to do to make it work. It gets me excited for what's coming next and gets my creative juices start flowing. We just finished this whole process yesterday, so my cupboards are bare no longer and the lists are ready on the refrigerator. I can hardly waiting to get cooking!

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