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104-Meal Challenge: Lessons learned

November 28, 2009

Some of the tough lessons of a year-long cooking challenge arrived early.  With a four-year-old sick with the flu, I spent the weekend reading cookbooks at his side.  Our household goal is to develop a routine for meal planning. Here’s what we figured out so far:

  1. Read through the store circulars and check out their websites for sales and advice. It’s not a big deal if you only tend to buy groceries at two or three stores. Have the sale items define your menu. When I finally went on Wegmans website I was thrilled at the wealth of information I could find. In addition to recipes, I found consumer affairs information, details on the company’s social responsibility efforts to bring down consumer prices by partnering with its trade partners to produce better quality generic brands and a boat load of information on how the company is going green (For instance, did you know that Wegmans recycled 2.5 million pounds of plastic bags last year. Yes, those bins by the front door where we’re supposed to return our plastic bags.)
  2. Inventory your pantry. I have an entire 42-inch cabinet in my kitchen dedicated to canning jars filled with herbs I grew in containers  in the backyard of my townhome. Still, in reading my cookbooks I realized that there are ingredients that I’ve either never used or don’t have.
  3. Make a list. Every one says that, but it does help avoid impulse buying.  I have to admit there’s usually something in the cart that I forgot to put on the list or I decided in mid-aisle that I’d like to sample. The first big lesson I learned early in this challenge was that I needed to make a list of ingredients that I never or rarely used, but would with some of the meals.  On a second shopping trip, I dropped $70 buying wheat bran, 5-grain cereal, 8-grain cereal, tapioca flour, Oat bran and steel cut organic oats and a slew of plastic storage containers. These are all ingredients found in the health food sections in plastic bags. If I didn’t repackage them in sturdy containers they’d break in my pantry. (My pantry closet is tiny for a family, but, then again, the builder never anticipated that someone would move into this model with enough herbs to fill a 42-inch kitchen cabinet.) 

    Learning to use new ingredients

  4. Know your numbers. If you’re not cooking for 4 to 6 people or more, then make sure you cut the recipe in half or to a third. Otherwise you’ll be doing a whole lot of advanced cooking or eating the same thing all week. It’s your choice. I made a beef stew that could have fed 8 people. I wanted to use the entire cut of rump roast in one effort, since it was so fresh, but I didn’t really want to eat it all week. With two daughters away at school I often cook for just three. I have to plan for one serving each, plus a smidge more. I know we’re also trying to control our portions, but at any given and unexpected notice my four year old, who is as tall as a 6 year old, will eat as much as any man at a Superbowl party. I can’t dismiss him to tiny bite-sized portions or I’ll be the one getting up from the table to make him a turkey sandwich. Any leftovers become lunch tomorrow.
  5. Appliances. All my major kitchen appliances are new, thankfully, and energy efficient. When I moved in last year, many of my small kitchen appliances broke in the moving process. I opted to replace the can opener with a handheld one. Now my second one in a year is falling apart. By the time I struggled to open my fourth large can this weekend with ingredients spewing across the counter and floor, I caved. Keeping something on the counter that cuts is a little scary with a four-year-old super hero in the house. Buying can openers isn’t exactly an exciting shopping trip, but to avoid having to buy another one in a year, I needed a sturdy one. Cuisinart has one where the entire magnet and knife mechanism comes off for easy cleaning, which is really smart. I can take it off and safely hide it away from my son’s eager finger. Bravo!  I expect that my food processor will also take a dive this year. It has seen a lot of living – holidays, birthdays, dinners and projects – since 1993. Now I can’t do anything with liquids without it flooding the counter.  I’m eyeballing another Cuisinart model that has a storage unit in the base for all the blades: about $400. Nice. When mine goes then I’ll go shopping: Not before.
  6. Gadgets. If you’ve got them use them. Enjoy what you own. This summer I bought some fancy peelers to slice up zucchini like pasta ribbons, but haven’t really broken them in yet.
  7. Utility bills. A challenge like this is likely to save me money at the checkout counter. I realized, however, that I will be running my appliances and dishwasher more often. So, I’m anticipating those utility bills may raise some.
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