"We are what we believe we are."
C.S. Lewis

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Menu Planning

Oregano growing on my windowsill.

I've had a question from Tabitha: how do I plan my menus for the week?
I had another reader request on this subject back in early summer but of course at that time I was crazed with over-packing for France and I didn't get to it! Sorry about that.

It's actually a terrific time of year to have a look at shopping for the kitchen and home. September always feels like a fresh start to me, academic mindset there, but as the weather changes and we tuck into a different season I always like to clear out the pantry, replace my spices and basic supplies, and maybe incorporate some new recipes into the mix.

I think lots of people tend to waste food as they've not planned things properly, I have certainly been guilty of that in my more hectic days as a younger (frazzled) head of the kitchen.
I'll tell you how I've organized myself and we'll see if we can't share some tips too.

I keep certain reliable dried goods in my pantry at all times:

Pasta, both penne and spaghetti.
Dried lentils, preferably the little green French ones, as below.
Canned tomatoes.
Tetra packs of organic chicken broth.
Rice, both white and brown.
Sun-dried tomatoes.
Herbes de Provence.
Good olive oil.
Assortment of vinegars.
Dijon mustard.
Low sodium soy sauce.
Capers and olives.
Really good breadcrumbs from my local bakery.
Maldon salt and a full pepper grinder.

I have a standing order every week for delivery of milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables and a small amount of meat (beef and some turkey). My delivery service is all organic and I admit it seems like a luxury. However I buy mostly organic anyway and I discovered that I could buy direct from the wholesaler, who runs a home delivery service, and pay less than buying my goods at the local store (which they supply).
It's also been helpful as I share a car with MrBP and haven't always been able to get to a store for a big shop!

So we end up eating lots of vegetables and my menus depend on what is delivered. I never know what's coming and though I have to admit that while dealing with cauliflower can be a challenge, for the most part I enjoy the surprise and the variety.
Stuffed tomatoes are a popular dish these days and are one of the dishes in which I use breadcrumbs. I love any sort of vegetable gratin topped with breadcrumbs: tomato, zucchini and eggplant as well as potatoes and leeks.
We often have green beans, lightly sauteed with any fresh herbs I have lying around.

Root vegetables are my favorite roasted with some olive oil and Maldon salt.
I cook beets this way, as below, but also carrots (which are a popular addition to the weekly veg box, I always have loads).
I cook the beet greens as well, see below, so that nothing is wasted. They are delicious sauteed in butter and fresh garlic just quickly, and this is how I prepare our swiss chard, kale and spinach as well.
Corn on the cob is not a favorite of mine but it is a popular addition to the delivery these days. I cut the corn off of the cob and make a chowder with it: saute all manner of vegetables, the corn, leeks, celery, carrots and potatoes and then add in organic chicken broth for a quick but filling soup. I round this off with some fresh bread and a salad.
Speaking of bread! I buy baguettes from a good bakery in walking distance of my house (where I also buy my breadcrumbs) and on Wednesdays I pick up some rustic loaves of sesame and rye from an artisan baker. Jesse the baker has a brick oven in his back garden, it's gorgeous. His bread is divine. I buy a subscription for the season so that I get a bit of a deal, and bread day is usually a soup meal so as to focus entirely on the Jesse Bread.
I do have to visit a grocery store every couple of weeks or so (it was more often before my son left for University!) and when I go I stock up on butter, a good unsalted cultured one, usually 3lbs at a time. I know it seems like lots of butter, but I cook with it and I do quite a bit of baking as well. Of course my Rascals like butter with their bread.
I also buy cheese at the grocery: cheddar of course, parmigiana reggiano for pasta and mozzarella for pizza night (which is usually a Friday, I make a crust myself and our favorite topping is tomatoes and capers).

We eat lots of potatoes, well the BP household has lots of Irish in the blood so what do you expect. We love mashed, roasted and boiled with parsley butter, as below.
I do make variations of the same things over and over, I think everyone does.
A type of quiche usually sees the dinner table once a week anyway.
This is a leek tart made with 8 eggs and a pastry crust. Served with potatoes and some greens it's an easy dinner.
We eat meat twice a week. I put in an order for some organic beef as well as organic turkey sausage.
Sometimes I simply roast the sausage in the oven with some sage and serve with dijon and lots of vegetable side dishes. Other times I will make a sauce for pasta out of it.
The beef that arrives is sometimes an economical ground, in which case I make a pasta sauce with tinned tomatoes, celery and garlic, adding in some red wine of course. Yes we love pasta around here!

When we get a roast it is a treat, I usually cover it with fresh herbs before popping it in the oven. Of course you have to have more potatoes with the roast beef!
I buy phyllo pastry and all-butter puff pastry frozen at the grocery store.
Phyllo is quite versatile. I often make up a saute of spinach or some other green, and layer it in the phyllo with bits of cheese.
The key is to brush olive oil between the layers. The Rascals love it and almost don't notice the vegetables they are eating.
I often serve that with rice, it's an easy dinner.

My baking cupboard is a separate pantry and contains the following:

All purpose unbleached flour.
Chocolate chips.
Ground flax.
Instant yeast, baking powder, salt.
Honey, brown sugar, maple syrup.
Raisins, apricots, dates.
Cocoa and large chunks of baking chocolate.
Good jam and chestnut puree.

I often bake chocolate chip cookies for the Rascals (and MrBP loves them too). These ones contain a mix of oats and flax as well as chocolate.
There is always fruit around from the weekly delivery to make a crisp. As long as you have some oats, sugar and butter you can make a delicious dessert.
I often have ice cream in the freezer, which I buy at the grocery when I go. In a perfect world I'd use my ice cream maker but I find it tedious to make my own, though it is so much better!
So you can see my menu planning really revolves around my delivery schedule though I do stick to a few basics.
We don't eat out (with the exception of date-night) and take-away is not an option: too expensive and not very healthy.
When I am stuck with a fridge containing a few items but without a thought in my head I turn to the World Wide Web. I love that I can type in a couple of ingredients (like that dreaded cauliflower) and a site like allrecipes will come up with recipes for me. See for yourself HERE.

Do you have any menu-planning tips to add in? I'd love to know how you manage it!


  1. Dani! Love this post! Thank you! As someone who also cooks dinner every night (though now it is just hubby and me) menu planning is a big part of my weekly 'chores'. I do make a 'changeable' menu for the week usually on Sundays so that I know what I'll need for that week. The menu can change as it is not set in stone but usually we have a very simple dinner each night. Lots of veggies and salads (soups in the fall and winter) along with grilled fish, crab, (love fresh crab cakes!) chicken (including chicken sausage) or turkey. We don't eat red meat (though my kids did/do).

    Living in the SF Bay area is a big bonus because I am in an area that has a lot of agriculture so our farmers markets are fabulous! We also have a local market that has oodles of organic and gluten free products and Mike the owner will bring in what ever I request!

    As for cauliflower I never did like it until I tried it roasted at a high heat: cut the cauliflower up into small florets, add thin slices of garlic, golden raisins and capers drizzle it all with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt and pepper and roast until tender...wow is it good that way. : )

  2. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks so much for the cauliflower tip, I am definitely making that.
    Ahh, San Francisco, I can only imagine the markets. I bet they are as good as the ones in France.
    I also love crab cakes but MrBP is deathly allergic to shellfish so no crab here.
    Thanks for sharing your menu-planning strategies!

  3. I am about to pass out - so this how to be a fabulous housewife! What a utter ness this side of my life is, it's all so erratic in our house - we never waste food because we never ever have enough in! Plus I don't eat what hubs eats, I swear I am never done running to the blooming shops.

    Look at all those amazing eats, in our house vegetables stop at potatoes, I just don't know what to do with veg.

    OK this is being printed out thank so much for this!

  4. Back again, just can't get over the veggie dishes, they look so good, oh boy I have a lot to learn, hmm I've never even tasted stuffed tomatoes, the look so good as does everything and the colours, wow!

  5. Hi Tabs,
    I just ate a leftover stuffed tomato for lunch, I love them. I stuff mine with breadcrumbs and some fresh herbs, a leek chopped up and then some olive oil in. The key is to take the pulpy stuff out of the tomatoes and drain out any liquid before stuffing and baking.
    I'm so glad you like my post! You crack me up, "the blooming shops"!

  6. This is going to take days to 'digest'! I'm bookmarking it for all the inspirational photos and shopping lists. The leek tart is glorious, and I'm going to try the idea of putting a vegetable inside the phyllo pastry---what a great idea. You'd be a good food blogger, Dani! You have such a simple, European touch to your menus, I just love it all.

  7. I must try that stuffed tomatoes recipe! Looks yummy. And the way Lisabfashion cooks cauliflower!

    I am thrilled that I am doing some of the same things as you, so I must be doing something right! lol I am getting better with my meal planning....when I first got married I really had no clue, I could make a few things but Hubs actually did most of the cooking then, now it is the other way around! This summer we ate plenty of fresh veggies and I usually planned our meals around whatever we had. Our starches are usually bread, potatoes and rice....I have about 6 or 7 no fail dishes I can fall back on (quiche, chili, lasagna, linguine dish with peas & ham, stir-fry, steaks with potatoes, etc). We do eat red meat a few times a week and seafood/fish usually once a week. Also chicken, some pork and ground turkey.

    I have to print off this list also! Thanks Dani!

  8. Dani - love the post - we seem to have a similar sentiment to planning and taste in food!

    One thing I do sometimes is pull out a couple of cookbooks and take a quick look before hitting the market - we have a fabulous farmer's market here and I buy bags of awesome veggies each saturday morning..

    Since my work life is soooo crazy, I also often make a double batch of something on Sunday that we can reheat on Tuesday nights and then I might make a risotto as well teaming with veggies for monday, which means I don't have to face another cooking decision until weds..

    Tabitha - you crack me up!

  9. Jeepers, I am bottom of the class in housewifery!

    My mum never cooked so I never learned from anyone - I was raised on cans of baked beans, toast and instant mash, she would make an effort on a Sunday but boy was it bad, I was vegetarian until I was about 28 because I just could not stomach what she did to beef and chicken every Sunday!

    I am going to have my very first stuffed tomato this week!

  10. Oh, Dani. What a great post. I'm being generous in describing myself as a novice. I'm sure others could figure it out, but I'd love it if you shared the recipe for the leek tart. It looks amazing!

  11. Hi Livyb,
    I made that particular leek tart in France, and it's easy.
    The most difficult bit is the pastry crust. I usually use 1 cup of flour, a half cup of butter and a little salt. Mix together to crumbly and then stir in just barely enough ice water to get it to hold.
    Roll out and pre-bake the crust at 350 for 10 minutes or so.
    Saute the leeks in butter with some fresh herbs, whatever you have, then add to your beaten eggs.
    Fill the tart and continue baking until set, usually 25 minutes in my oven.
    I love leeks so I love this tart. Let me know if you try it!

  12. Tabs,
    Wow I didn't know your mother didn't cook, she really didn't at all! Instant mash!

  13. Hi WMM,
    I find I get out my cookbooks when I am having a dinner party, and that's when I tend to hit the Saturday market as well. I don't have enough in from my delivery to accommodate extra guests. Come to think of it I haven't had people over for awhile... I'm going to have to do that soon!
    Your job does sound hectic. I think the double batch on Sunday is really smart.

  14. Hi LR,
    Thanks I'm glad you like the post. It sounds like you have your regular rotation down!

  15. Hi Sue thanks so much. What a wonderful thing to say.

  16. Dani,

    I am signing up for your dinner party! Tabitha will be the guest of honour, as will all your blog followers!

    Tabitha - I can relate completely - neither my grandmother or mother could cook within an inch of their life - I never at a real pineapple until I was 20 years old! They were well educated, busy woman, who felt that Chef Boyardee was a real chef (was he? do you know Dani??) and in my granmother's case, it was my grandfather who cooked (likely a defensive manoeuver on his part!) do no despair - I have had to teach myself how to cook and clean and wish to god I could sew! That seems hard to self-teach!

  17. Dani, thank you, thank you, thank you!! This is totally awe-inspiring, as well as a fantastic resource for me (I'll be printing this out as well!!). I used to really enjoy cooking and trying out different dishes, now it seems like every meal is a mad, frenzied dash to the finish line and I can't remember the last time I enjoyed the food I ate. I do end up cooking the same things over and over again. Plus, I often end up either wasting food, or else having to make multiple trips to the grocery store during the week. Your discipline and method are a great inspiration!!! Thanks again!

  18. This is mind-boggling, but as someone who is just starting a household of her own, I can tell you that this is one of the most valuable posts I've ever seen. Thank you for taking the time to type this all out. I'll be referring to it often when I'm trying to figure out what the fiance and I should have for dinner!

  19. Oh, I also wanted to ask - who is this organic wholesaler that you spoke of and by any chance, do they serve other parts of the GTA? I have heard of organic grocery box deliveries but the companies I have looked at never offered meat as well. It would be a huge boon to have such a service.

  20. Hi Dani, this fabulous post escaped my attention so I'm late commenting. Great minds we are, I've just posted about organic fare!
    We no longer consumme red meat so are getting quite adventurous with recipes and my daughter likes to cook healthy food which is great.
    Thanks for taking the time to compile this post, it's very yummy!

  21. WMM: Hurrah, it wasn't just me that was dragged up on "just add water " food. I used to be amazed when i went to my Jewish friends' houses, their mothers cooked the most incredible meals, they were all brilliant housewives.

  22. Dani: I'm so glad i asked now, everyone has loved this post. So there's no cheese win the leek tart, just eggs and flour etc? I'm going to make it too this week.

  23. Hi Tabs,
    No cheese! Of course you could add it in but you wouldn't as you hate cheese.

  24. Hi Annie, I find I can only tolerate organic red meat, the typically raised stuff actually makes me a bit ill, very sensitive to that stuff now.
    We don't eat any pork whatsoever and my daughter doesn't love chicken so I've veered away from that too.

    I loved your post on your organic veg and especially the bit about those chickens!

  25. Hi Louise,
    I use Pfennings's Organics, they sell the organic veg and fruit boxes which you can customize by adding in whatever you like from their quaint country store, all organic milk, eggs, yogurt and meat.
    I'm not sure if they deliver to downtown Toronto, I'll go look at their site!

  26. Hi WMM, Well I hate to break it to you but Chef Boyardee was not a real chef! That's hilarious, well they were busy working women so there you go. Cooking and cleaning is not a small amount of work by any means, I hope you have some help at least with the tedious cleaning, which is not as fun as the cooking bit.

    Sewing is difficult. My own Mom is very talented as a seamstress and I can barely sew a straight line.

  27. AllDressedUp, Thanks I am so glad you find the post helpful! Happy times setting up your household!

  28. Louise,
    I've just looked into it and Pfennings does not deliver to Toronto.
    It seems your best bet would be FrontDoorOrganics (www.frontdoororganics.com).
    They seem to offer a very similar service, the organic fruit/veg box plus custom additions of over 500 organic items including meat.
    Have a look at their site, this would be so great for you with your busy work and the two young kids!
    Let me know what you think of it!

  29. DaniBP-Thanks for the inspiration. Great post with gorgeous pictures. I try to menu plan but our evening schedules are very erratic. I work or have meetings a few nights a week and the boys are now both playing baseball into the evening 4 nights a week. Slugger has practice both Friday and Monday from 5-7pm games on Saturday afternoon at 5pm and Sunday at 6pm-through October. Rocket Arm is also playing and had a late practice on Friday. I keep healthy veggies and lots of fruit on hand and have been trying some new recipes, and all have been winners. DH usually will grill lots of veggies for me in the spring and summer which I chop and add into pasta sauce. We also grill up chicken and sausage and the very occasional burger. I am quite lucky that I live in walking distance of a Whole Foods markets so I can quickly browse the store for inspiration. On the nights I work, DH usually prepares burgers or tacos. We don't go out too much either - but sometimes on a Friday night - I need to be out of my kitchen so we will go out with friends for Mexican food. A good margarita makes the stresses of the week magically disappear.

  30. Great post Dani! I love hearing what everybody does for dinner prep. I just made up my October dinner schedule, but it will change as soon as I sign up for Pfenning's Organics! I certainly would like to have meat less often.

    Just saw a great recipe for cauliflower on Jamie's 30 min meals. Let me know if you want the recipe!

  31. Ooooh, I'm moving into your house. Seriously. I mean it. I'm on my way. Look out your window and wave to the woman in the yellow hat.

  32. How wonderfully well you live.
    Such splendidly healthy and delicious menus.
    You are well organized too which is a great asset.
    I merely eat stuff I get from the green market at Union Square.
    Came to you via the Hattatts.

  33. Dani, when you are clearing out your spices and staples, are you able to donate them to a food bank or service that provides meals to less fortunate people? Most spices and staples have a very long shelf life unless they are stored in direct sunlight or heat and if any of them are still viable I encourage you to ensure they are not wasted. You probably do this already but I didn't read that in your post.

    Planning the weekly menu is a lot of fun and I am the opposite of you, I plan what I will make and then do the shopping. I guess I don't like someone else to tell me what to do.

  34. xoxo: I have become used to being told what to do by my veg box, I didn't like it so much years ago when I started!
    Don't worry I do set things aside for the food bank run which happens around here at Halloween. We are a University town and the students get together, dress up, and go around with borrowed shopping carts to collect items for the food bank. A worthy cause and they seem to have a blast too.

  35. Hi Elizabeth,
    Thanks so much and Union Square sounds fun actually! I love the Hattatts, they always delight and amaze.

  36. N.Scott, Hello! Is that like The Man in the Yellow Hat? That suits us as we have a coupe of curious monkeys here. Come on in dinner's almost ready!

  37. Dannie, Hi Doll. LUFF Jamie Oliver (see that was a FF reference right there) and of course you have October all worked out you are very organized.
    Order Pfennings you will never regret it.

  38. Hi Julie,
    I just love the images of your little Slugger and Rocket Arm!
    Yes AGREED a margarita is a magical elixir that is quite welcome on a Friday evening. Okay I don't drink them but I think about it.
    I think as long as vegetables are featured and processed foods are kept to a minimum we can't go too wrong.
    By the way you've got me hooked on the Emerson Made site!

  39. Dani, I loved your descriptions of your wonderful and healthy meals. It is so important to try to have good meals together as a family as often as possible. Delivery sounds so great! We have had a CSA (community supported agriculture) membership for the winter which means we pay up front for a big box of foods every 3 weeks. Onions,squash, potatoes, flour, cornmeal, greens etc., all grown organically by local farmers in this largely rural state. I make a lot of stews and soups for the first couple days of the week when my work days are the longest. I have sooo many cookbooks and find them as entertaining as novels to read at night.

  40. Everything looks good!


  41. You are absolutely fabulous! Your menus are so healthy for the earth and you/family bodies!

    I wish I can cook more in the house but when I come back from work I've got no time to fix something. I usually make something and eat leftovers the next day (1 meal for 2 is great!).

    I'd love to try your phyllo pastry idea with my own rascals. ;-) As a mom, I'm always looking for ways to feed my girls healthy and nutritious meals.