Menu Planning vs. Cooking on the Fly — Simple Scratch Suppers

by in Family, How-to, August 9th, 2011

cooking on the fly
Procrastination has been my strong suit ever since I can remember. Term papers were finished just before dawn on the day they were due. Studying for tests took place until the moment the bell rang, in an effort to cram in all I should’ve been paying attention to during the semester.

It’s quite funny, now that I’ve immersed myself in a world looming with deadlines. I’m not talking about my day job as a food writer. I’m talking about motherhood. Those in the trenches with me understand the feeling of a never-ending to-do list — laundry, homework help, cleaning, etc.

You’re wondering what any of this has to do with getting dinner on the table, right? Well, it certainly explains why I’m not a menu planner. I often give the excuse that I don’t want my “creativity” to be crowded. I say meal planning isn’t for me because I love the flexibility it offers to enjoy what I’m craving at the moment. The real reason I don’t plan our weekly meals, though, is to keep my love for cooking alive. If I planned our meals, I mean really sat down with a pen and paper, dinnertime would feel like a chore — and I already have plenty of those.

So how does a mom like myself get dinner done daily? If you read my launch post for this column, then you know I have a well-stocked pantry. Those staple ingredients help me do what restaurant chefs often do to create their daily specials. It’s called “cooking on the fly,” basically the cooking equivalent to “winging it.” As I write, there’s a pot of beans simmering that will join the leftover roasted chicken for tonight’s burritos.

Of course, meals don’t magically come together around here. As I browse the farmers’ market or stroll the aisles of the grocery store, my radar is on, looking for ingredients to inspire me. Right now, while fresh chickens are “in-season” from Grazin’ Angus Acres, I know there’s always a bird that plays into my weekly menu. I also have recipes and ideas in mind when I’m picking through mounds of eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes this time of year.

I’d love to hear some thoughts from all the menu planners out there. Does planning really alleviate the daily stress of cooking dinner from scratch, or do you find yourself stressing over planning the menu? Do you plot out every meal for the week, or leave a couple of days unplanned to be inspired by leftovers? How do you stay inspired and excited to get into the kitchen and prepare a homemade meal?

Here are a few recipes I’m bookmarking for inspiration this week — that’s about all the planning I can handle.

Zucchini and Ricotta Tarts
Carrot, Zucchini and Squash Ribbons
Farro Salad With Grilled Eggplant, Tomatoes and Onion
Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Subs
Milk-Braised Zucchini

Jennifer Perillo is a recipe developer and food writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her recipes and tips for feeding families homemade meals are a regular feature in Working Mother magazine, where she’s the consulting food editor, as well Relish Magazine, Parenting, Kiwi and her blog, In Jennie’s Kitchen.

(Photo: Digital Vision)

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Comments (5)

  1. I love going home and cooking…it makes me forget the stress of the day. I would definitely categorize myself as a menu planner – i grew up watching my mom plotting out meals for the week. i do find that planning out meals for the week alleviates a ton of stress in my life, especially the nights i get home from a long day at work and do not want to have to think about what to make for dinner.

    When i am planning out meals for the week i get my inspiration from new recipes i have found and want to try and old recipes i love but forget about. i do find that i base my meal plans on what is in season and what season it is. I always leave a day or two unplanned for either leftovers, my favorite take out or a fun night out with friends.

  2. @bellacake says:

    My life is always better when I Menu Plan ahead. When I don't do it, all hell breaks loose. (ok maybe I'm exaggerating a bit) Quick trips to the grocery store that ALWAYS cost more than they should, with products that are never as good, fresh or natural as I want them to be, and all cause I fail to plan. That said, when I DO plan ahead, everything about my day to day activities flows easier, and I have more time. (running to the store at dinner time is a HUGE time waster)

  3. AntoniaJames says:

    I actually do both. I plan, to make sure that when I shop I have ingredients on hand that I need for at least three or four dinners. But then I let myself be flexible, as I'm so often inspired by ideas and recipes that I stumble across (principally from my food52 pals and from the armloads of books on cooking that I bring home regularly from the library). I work hard as a self-employed person single-handedly putting two kids through college, paying a mortgage and everything else, while also preparing for the future. I find tremendous peace of mind in knowing, when I walk into the kitchen in the evening, that I have easy options. I enjoy pick up shopping if its purpose is to fuel my latest burst of creative energy, but not with "what are we having for dinner" as the primary agenda. ;o)

  4. aka enrique says:

    wow, i think am with u. . .i love the creativity and and kind of adventure that no menueplan brings to ma cooking senses . . .i love to play around with what i have. . .so i can surprise every one and me too. . .it makes cooking alot easier .and fun..

  5. Louise says:

    I find my life is much simpler when I menu plan. I love to be creative, but I find that when I leave it to the last minute I end up with half the things I need and have to run out..again. When I plan, I use the ingredients that are in season and create my meals around those. I also make sure that my two daughters have input into the process, so there is at least one meal where they are excited to have something new they thought looked yummy, or to have an old trusty meal that they adore. It makes it easier to get them to eat the things they don't like as much on other nights. I have also tracked my expenses from when I do and when I don't pre-plan meals and I save about 15% when everything is laid out. The added bonus…..I never hear "what's for dinner?", because it is posted right in the kitchen.

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