Meal-planning

One of the best ways to eat well on a budget is to plan out the meals for the week, so you buy only what you need at the grocery store, reduce food waste, and cut back on the daily stress of wondering what to prepare for dinner. If you are fine with it, cooking a bigger portion and eating leftovers for meals over 2-3 days save a lot of prep time (and stress, for me). Here are some general principles to help with meal-planning:

1. When cheap, buy in bulk and store properly*. Look for what's on sale, or in season. During the Easter sales, I bought two turkeys and stored them in the freezer. Post-Thanksgiving is another good time to get cheap turkey. Rather surprisingly, I got a reasonably priced 3-lb bag of quinoa at London Drugs early this year, and am still cooking from it. Foods that last include:
  • Dried goods, e.g. rice, flour, pasta/noodles, beans, lentils, quinoa
  • Frozen foods, such as meats, seafood and vegetables. Frozen in meal portions, meats and seafood can last for months. Thaw overnight in the fridge before cooking. A whole chicken may take 2-3 days to thaw. Sliced bread freezes well too
  • Fermented and pickled foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, cucumber pickles
  • Canned goods- they last for years easily, as long as the can doesn't leak
2. It's very useful to have a few go-to base recipes that you are familiar enough with to vary based on ingredients at hand. Pick something you like to eat frequently and work from there. Some of my basics include: DIY soup + instant ramen (grad student days), fried rice, soba, sandwiches, bean salads, and vegetable soup + bread. No judgement here!
  • My current basic is soba noodles, which are easily available in regular grocery stores in the Vancouver area. I have them dry with soba sauce (tsuyu) or in a soup using homemade stock. Toppings I have used so far include (everything but the kitchen sink): soft-boiled egg, sliced chicken or turkey breast, sliced green onions, fried shallots, blanched bok choy, nori strips, powdered green seaweed, sesame seeds, bonito flakes, wood-ear mushrooms (kikurage), rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms. You can pretty much put whatever you like, and have in stock, on top of the noodles
  • The internet is great for searching for variations (e.g. 20 kinds of bean salads!), and check out the Good and Cheap book too, available free for download
3. One ingredient, multiple options. Just because you're on a budget, doesn't mean you have to eat the same thing cooked the same way every meal. Incorporate ingredients into different dishes throughout the week, and include some versatile preps that can feed you through multiple uses, e.g. cooking a big batch of black beans to use in soup, black bean and corn salad, and black bean burgers. Asparagus was cheap last month (springtime). Here's what I did with them:
  • To prep asparagus, the quickie way is to snap the bottom 2 inches of the stalk off by hand. If you want to be frugal (as I usually am), trim the bottom 1 inch off with a knife and peel the skin off the bottom 1-2 inches of the remaining stalk, to remove the tough skin. You can wash and prep big bunches of asparagus and store in a covered container in the fridge if you're using within 2-3 days, else store your asparagus stalks in a jar of water, like cut flowers, in the fridge, where it should keep well for a week
  • My favourite cooking method is to roast whole stalks of asparagus, drizzled with oil, on a baking sheet at 400 C for 8-10min (depending on how cooked you like them- I go for 8min), and then season with salt and pepper. Simple but delish. These are used as sides for a meat or seafood entree. Leftovers can be served for breakfast with a fried or soft-boiled egg, using the egg yolk as a sauce. Just blitz in the microwave for 30s to 1min, or eat cold
  • I usually boil soba noodles for 4min before serving. With asparagus, the stalks are trimmed to 2-inch pieces, and dropped into the boiling water with the soba at the 3-min mark, thus cooked for 1min. The asparagus is then served with roasted sesame dressing as a side to soba noodles. You can get the same effect by steaming asparagus pieces for 4min.
  • Stir-fry 2-inch pieces with garlic and soy sauce as a side dish
  • Cut into half-inch pieces, use like frozen peas- incorporate into casseroles, pasta dishes, quiche, and savory pies
Mac and cheese with asparagus

Smoked salmon pasta casserole with...you guessed it...more chopped asparagus!

*A note on best-before dates: Best-before and sell-by dates are indicative of food quality and not food safety. As always, check to make sure the food isn't spoiled (moldy, smells off or sour, etc.) before using, regardless of sell-by dates. As a grad student, I frequently bought loaves of just expired or near-expired bread and stored them in the freezer, eating them over the next week. I've used curry powder and turmeric, also stored in the freezer, one year past their best-before dates. Here's the factsheet from the USDA, and a guide to how long foods remain edible after the best-before dates.

In summary, have a collection of bulk items bought cheaply, and mix up base recipes with what is available fresh from the store. As an example, here's my meal plan for last week, Breakfasts are usually scrambled eggs and fruit or yogurt with granola, so not much planning needed there:
Mon- Lunch: Traveling back from Sunshine Coast, ate at ferry terminal. Dinner: Dry soba with soba sauce and a soft-boiled egg
Tue- L: Soba soup with soft-boiled egg. D: Hoisin pork ribs and stir-fried choy sum
Wed- L: Leftover choy sum with fried egg. There should have been leftover ribs, but DH ate them all, thus the fried egg. D: Warm quinoa salad
Thu- L: Quinoa salad. D: Quinoa salad
Fri- L: Soba with sauce and egg. D: Pasta with canned smoked salmon
Sat- L: Leftover pasta. D: Attending wedding reception
Sun- L: More leftover pasta. D: Roast turkey dinner with company

As you can tell from the numerous soba meals, we were away last weekend and did not visit the farmers' market. Also, plans are well and good, but it's okay to give yourself a break at times. I had yogurt, fruit and granola as meals on a couple of days last week, because I really didn't feel like cooking. 

Some concessions
I do acknowledge that some things definitely come easier for me, because I have been prepping and cooking family meals since I was 12. It takes a certain amount of kitchen experience and skills to be flexible in using ingredients and preparing a varied menu, and a decently-stocked pantry helps. I'll discuss some basic skills, equipment and pantry items to have in a later post. Tell me if you have requests too. In the meantime, practice your knife skills (invest in a good, sharp knife), learn and adopt a few base recipes, and be adventurous. You'd be well on your way.

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