Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Make the Most of Your Food Budget: A Weekly Dinner Menu and Shopping List

About a year ago I wrote a post about being smart about how you shop for produce. And while I shop for a lot of produce, there is another way that I learned to be smart about my food (and this I do religiously because it saves me so much time, money, waste and fridge space!)

What is my "brilliant" idea?

I write a weekly dinner menu and 

a corresponding shopping list of ingredients.

Okay, when you think about it, it's not so brilliant. It's common sense. Going to the grocery store and standing in the middle of the aisle, thinking, "What am I going to make this week?" (which is what I used to do every week) really doesn't make any sense at all. I would end up forgetting what I was going to make for dinner later on in the week because I never had actually written down the ideas that I had had to brainstorm in the midst of the grocery store. Or I would think I had ingredients that I didn't which I then needed to go out later in the week after work to go buy. Or I would get stuck making the same damn meal over and over again. Or I would end up buying a whole lotta crappy (and I mean CRAPPY) boxed or frozen previously-prepared-and-therefore-processed-with-tons-of-sugar-sodium-and-chemicals foods that literally were hurting me from the inside out. (And, no, I'm not being paranoid. Talk to a chemical engineer about what goes into our processed foods and see what she thinks about processed foods.)

I think I'm not the only one who used to do (or still does) such a ridiculous thing on a weekly basis. I think a lot of us do that very thing because we are pressured for time.

Folks, taking half an hour to an hour to plan is going to save you the same amount of time in the grocery story as well as much, much more. I promise.

SO. Here's what I do:

On Saturday or Sunday morning, as I sit with my coffee, I interrogate Chef Reiton and peruse my foodie magazines/cookbooks to decide what I/we want to make for dinner every single night that week. I write down the meals we decide on in an organized list on my phone. Below is an example. I keep a template in Notes and then update it weekly. (If I want to save a particular week because I love the meals I made and want to save them as a reminder of what to make again, I just copy and paste the whole note into a separate Weekly Dinner Menus folder.)

As I am writing up my list, meal-by-meal, I keep a separate, running "To Get" list where I write down each of the ingredients I need for each recipe (this may require popping up and checking the fridge to make sure I really do have Worcestershire sauce). 

Here is a snapshot of what I have on my "To Get" list today. Not much is on there because I only have a few random things left to get (thanks to crappy selection on earlier shopping trip and a few random things that popped up):

I try to enter the ingredients in coordinating sections to save me time running back and forth in the grocery store: produce section first, meat next, center aisle items next, then the dairy section. 

Since the list is on my phone, I never forget it. And as I shop for the ingredients, I delete them from my phone.

On the occasion that something pops up (the neighbors ask us over, we do an impromptu night out, I decide we need to eat leftovers, whatever), I bump the dinner list down a day by doing a quick copy-and-paste.

Planning my menu out for the week helps HUGELY with the following:
  • I rarely have to go to the grocery store during the week, giving me extra time at home in the evenings.
  • I always have everything I need to make the dinner I want.
  • I save time at the grocery store because I already have an organized list of what I need, so I'm in and out as quickly as possible.
  • I save money and waste because I don't buy foods that I end up not using and throwing away.
  • I usually buy ONLY what is on the list, saving me money because...it's not on the list, so I'm not buying it—unless it is something I will use later for sure AND it is on special. This way I know that I'm still saving money in the long run.
  • I save my health because I don't walk down the junk food aisles and buy bad-for-my-bod processed foods that are SO tempting when I walk down those aisles list-less-ly.
  • I save fridge space (and my sanity). You will be amazed at how streamlined your fridge gets when you only shop for what you need!
I really, REALLY encourage you to give this a try. Not only have I learned how much time, money, etc. I've saved, but it's also done so much more for me as a cook and a lover of food:
  • I actually try those recipes that I've bookmarked/dog-eared/torn out of a magazine.
  • I broaden my tastes and try recipes using ingredients from countries that aren't American (no ingredient is hard to find anymore, folks. Shopping on the internet has existed for decades now...)
  • Cooking has become a fun and rewarding (I get to EAT!) way to explore and push myself to learn new techniques, ingredients, flavor pairings, etc.
If you do take this step into streamlining your schedule and amping up your cooking, leave a comment below. We'd love to hear how you've adopted this strategy and what it's done to help you!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Wine Kitchen—Frederick, MD—A Restaurant Recommendation

While I was back visiting my folks over the holidays, my uncle "U.P." had a 76th birthday roll around. Being one of my favorite uncles, I suggested that we spend his momentous day together and just do whatever the heck he wanted.

And so we did. We started the day by driving one of U.P.'s best friends to the Baltimore airport. Doesn't sound very exciting, I know, but if you took 30 seconds to meet Greg, you would quickly understand that the hour-and-a-half drive really was a rollicking good time.

After saying our goodbyes to Greg at BWI, U.P. and I stopped in at Mt. Airy Liquors, his favorite wine store in Mt. Airy, MD. MAL's service was excellent and friendly, and the shop was clean and exceedingly well-stocked for its size. U.P. and I both found some new wines for great prices to give a try, AND I found a 1.75L bottle of Beefeater for $24.00! That will keep my brother and I stocked on G&Ts for months of visits to Mom and Dad!

Next was lunch. Wending our way down a winding business park road, we came to a.k.a Friscos, a sandwich joint that was HOPPING. With everything homemade, including a few beers on tap, I quickly saw why U.P. had frequented this little restaurant in his past to the point of being considered a regular. It was delicious—especially the "Exploded Potatoes."

From there we headed to the old side of town to wander the shops on East Street, grabbing a fantastic coffee at Frederick Coffee Company & Cafe before we began our afternoon of poking around the neighboring arts-and-crafts and antique stores.

As the temperature dropped and the sun began to set, we decided it was time for a light dinner and a glass of wine to warm up. U.P. decided he wanted to take me to one of his all-time favorite places to sit for a glass of wine and talk, and this...this was the highlight of the day.

Along Frederick's downtown riverwalk dubbed "The Creek" sits a simple beauty, the Wine Kitchen. Part French bistro, part American hipster bar, the Wine Kitchen keeps itself trim and tidy, not just with its service and bearded but clean-cut staff but also with its menu and wine flights and somehow warmly spartan decor.

Seated beside a window looking out onto the water, U.P. and I sat sipping our wine and a Manhattan Curve (with Campari ice!) while grazing on a beautifully delectable charcuterie board, one of WK's most popular offerings, and a basket of warm, crusty bread.

The full charcuterie board at the Wine Kitchen in Frederick, MD

The Manhattan Curve with Campari ice at the Wine Kitchen in Frederick, MD

I wish we could have sat there all night. And if we had been able to, I think the staff would have let us. Our handful of servers carried out our evening with American verve but European tact. U.P. and I were there to talk, first and foremost. The WK servers felt that vibe and respected it, showing a discreet sensitivity that only seasoned, truly humble servers can do.

The evening could not have been more exactly what was needed: the talk, the food, the drinks, the service. Thank you to the Wine Kitchen for that. I'll be back, without a doubt.

But I just may order that charcuterie board all for myself next time.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A New Year's Kitchen Resolution: Being Okay With Ugly

The other night Chef Reiton and I sat down to dinner. It was our first full day together after being apart for the New Year. A candle flickered on the table. We swirled the wine in our glasses, smiled into each other's eyes, then turned to our meal set on the table: a chunky Greek salad and a baked, fake-pasta dish (beef and bacon meatballs, simmered in tomato sauce made with our own homegrown tomatoes, and cubed-up and fried Italian eggplant, all sprinkled with a good picante provolone).

It all smelled heavenly.

And, dear lord, was it all SO ugly.

As I took bite after bite of my absolutely scrumptious, ugly dinner, I thought about my ugly meal: Does food being "pretty" keep people from cooking? Do they see all these Glamour Shots of food on food blogs like mine (not that my photos are at ALL glamorous compared to some) and on Pinterest and on TV and get intimidated by the prettiness?

I remember being intimidated by prettiness. I looked at how easily the pretty girl was...well, pretty. And I just thought there was no way that I could ever be like that. So I didn't really even try.

Here's proof:

(A lot of you knew me when. Big dork. But I was happy!)

And now I'm thinking that might be how people regard "being able to cook." It's intimidating. The "pros" make it look so easy to make such a glamorous meal, but when you try, it's not. It looks just plain awful. So you don't even try.

My friends, I'm here to tell you:
It's okay to be ugly in the kitchen.

Was I embarrassed by my ugly baked meatballs that broke up against the fried eggplant with cheese that didn't melt into a gorgeous gooey mess but instead only softened and congealed into a more plasti-cheese shape? Was I utterly ashamed of my Greek salad whose feta cheese chunks disintegrated in the olive oil and red wine vinegar and ended up coating all my beautiful veggie chunks in a murky white dressing?

No, sir! Why should I? Who was I trying to impress? I not only was experimenting with flavors and using what I had in my kitchen, but I was feeding my husband and myself a delicious, fresh, home-cooked dinner. THAT's what mattered. I wasn't doing a photo shoot for a magazine, using fake food. I was creating a REAL meal with REAL food that was REALLY delicious.

Do I like my food to look good? Yes. But the reality is that a good 5-out-of-10 times I forget the garnish, or my food looks lost on the serving plate, or every dish is the same color and my dinner plate looks like it's from a sci-fi movie, or I am just too damn hungry to care!

So, for all you burgeoning (or not-yet-burgeoning) cooks out there: DON'T be intimidated by all the pretty food (the sometimes really beautifully ridiculous food photos that make you wonder whether the cook ever even got to enjoy that warm pie after getting the mood lighting right, the apple blossom branches just so, the perfect bite mark on the perfect apple, and the sweetly drifting confectioner's sugar caught at the right shutter speed).

Don't think you can't cook because of the looks. Screw the looks. Like your momma told you, the looks don't matter. It's the heart and the soul that do.

And you know what? It's the same with your food.

SO. New Year's resolution for me—and hopefully for you: In the kitchen (and maybe sometimes elsewhere...), I'm going to be okay with ugly.

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