{Insert Meal Here} Meal Planning Board Origins

The {Insert Meal Here} Meal Planning Board was conceived around midnight in the middle of June 2014.  I was up late, and had been looking for a better solution to keep track of the week’s meal plan than an old white board hung on the kitchen wall.  It worked, but there were problems.  I had to be at home to check it; I had to remember what cook book the recipe came from (or sometimes what a dish even was!); and, while it was easy to change things around, it wasn’t as easy to look and see how long it was going to take to make a dish, and, maybe we didn’t want to make home made pulled pork sliders on fresh baked brioche buns on a day that my young child and I were out running a bunch of errands.

whiteboard-11292014So around midnight, I started writing out a list of features that I wanted in a program that would help me in all of this.  The heart, and the origin of the whole thing, was a flexible meal planner that worked just as easily as a white board.  Something that I could drag recipes into and into their selected time and day, and if I wanted to change the day, just drag it and drop it into its new place.  I also wanted to be able to adjust the number of people that it was serving, to scale up a recipe to a party of twenty, or down to an intimate two.  I then wanted the program to be able to generate my shopping list for me, to make sure that I didn’t forget anything from the grocery store, ever again (the number of weeks I made a third trip to the grocery store because I forgot olive oil on the first two was getting ridiculous).

Insert meal here alpha shopping list.
{IMH} Shopping List Alpha Display

Of course a shopping list isn’t very useful if I can’t add things to it, but once I started using the  program, I quickly realized that there were certain things that I was adding to the program every week: eggs, milk, yogurt, etc.  So, a little bit more coding and I could make a list of things that I wanted to get every week.

Around this time I had started talking to some other people about this.  And there were four questions that I kept being asked, “Can I use it?”, “When will it be ready?”, and “How much?”. The fourth question was always in the form of, “Will it be able to ____”, and my answer was always one of three. Either “Yes, that’s in the plan!”, “It already does!”, or as happened earlier today, “It will now!” when someone asked about something that I hadn’t thought of, but was a wonderful idea!

Now, when I turn the search features on, it will not only be able to search by ingredient, style of cuisine, and prep time, but also by dietary restriction.  And, if you turn it on, it can warn you if you are adding a recipe that might violate any diet that you might be following!

But I still wanted more.  I kept adding features to the list, like a wizard to build unique recipes from common components (a pizza with choices of a dozen different doughs, sauces and any topping and sides you can imagine!) A budgeting tool so I could keep track of what I was spending before I get to the checkout line (without doing all the math myself). Or a glossary with common cooking terms appears as tool tips in recipes.

There is all of this, and more (so much more) on my list of features to add. There’s not a day since I started that I haven’t worked on this program in an effort to bring it to life.  It’s alive, and it works, and all of the core functions are in place.

glossary example
An Example of the {Insert Meal Here} glossary

Bread and Custard and Bananas

Good planning leaves a bit of room for spontaneity, especially with a little bit of ingenuity in the kitchen. More often than not, breakfast in our house involves baked oatmeal and yoghurt or good old bacon and eggs. Sometimes though, we go a little crazy, especially when there’s a bit of bread in the house, and we make French Toast. It’s incredibly simple, and makes use mostly of ingredients we’d have for breakfast anyway (yes, I’ve replaced the milk traditionally used in French Toast with yoghurt with success). Besides being something of a treat, it’s nice to slow down and enjoy something that takes a little more thought and planning: French Toast is best if the bread is a bit stale (or has been allowed to sit out and dry up a bit), and then soaked in the custard (egg + milk = custard).  I like to cook up the leftover custard that the bread doesn’t absorb and top the toast with that as well as walnuts and bananas or other fruit.

 

French Toast

French Toast

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 4.0 slices bread
  • 2.0 eggs
  • 1.5 cups milk
  • .33 cup sugar
  • 1.0 tsp salt
  • 0.5 tsp cinnamon
  • butter
  • 0.25 cup walnuts
  • 1.0 banana

Make It!

Allow the bread slices to sit out over night to dry out a bit. Alternatively, dry in a warm oven for 5 – 10 minutes.

Mix all other ingredients in a bowl. Place the (slightly) dried bread in a pan and cover with the eggs and milk mix. Allow the bread to soak in the mix for at least five minutes on both sides.

In a pan on medium-high heat, melt enough butter to coat the pan. Place the bread slices in the pan and leave until cooked through, about 3 minutes each side. Pull out and set on plates.

Add more butter to the pan. Pour the remainder of the custard into the pan with the walnuts. Cook as if preparing scrambled eggs. Top the French Toast with the additional custard and walnuts as well as the fresh banana slices

Updates!

The Meal Planning Board is well under development, and is starting to take shape. I thought I’d share some updated screenshots. Some of these look much the same, some of these are brand new. The entire program has increased functionality, and is moving along right on schedule.

Sample view of the heart of the program: the Schedule

Schedule FeaturedAn unsorted shopping list in two shots to show the full list as well as the bottom of the list and the tool that sorts and organizes the individual items on the list. Clicking on the “Sort by Section” link will sort items  by customized store sections.Shopping List topShopping List bottom

Sample view of a recipe. Recipes with multiple components show those components in one view.Recipe View

Sample of the Recipe List. Right now, recipes are sorted by meal. When the full version is released, they will be able to be sorted by tag, source, and other options.

Recipe List

View of adding recipes to the collection. This has some user interface improvements to go.Recipe Entry

Living and Breathing Ingredients

I grew up cooking. I browned frozen ground meat with my mom at seven; Shredded cheese and helped pour pancake batter with my dad before that. In fact, if such a title can be bestowed, I was the official cheese shredder until I was about fourteen and didn’t spend so much time at home.

This early experience gave me a great start in the kitchen. It also let me build a strong sense of intuition surrounding food, which I put to good use right away in college. I took an abnormal route and worked for rent in a small trailer, with my own private stove. Instead of stuffing cafeteria food down my gullet between class and the next big social event, I came home, rode and fed horses, and cooked my meals. Between cookbooks, the Food TV Network, and having the courage to experiment, I expanded my capabilities and started making beautiful, delicious food.

About this same time, I started chatting with a boy in Idaho from little trailer on the Northern Coast of California. Long before the days of Instagram and a societal obsession we have with taking pictures of the stuff that sustains and nourishes us, I described nearly all the meals I made to him from a computer terminal. Sauteed mushrooms with balsamic vinegar sauce. Fresh, homemade bread, pasta, and granola. Roasted chicken (yes, as a college student I regularly roasted a chicken). Each recipe was painstakenly typed between papers and projects and coffee to keep my hands warm and my eyes open.

He’s admitted he may have fallen for me before he met me as a result of my food.

Years later, I took all that intuition and knowledge and experimentation further with that same boy. We shared a small house in Boise, ID, and I cooked for him. I made him some of the same things I teased him with in college, and I ventured in to cooking game and limited myself to locally produced items. Nothing processed.

And he helped me in the kitchen.

“How do you know when it’s done?” he said.

“I just do,” I said. And I tried to show him what I look for; how chicken and steak and game all talk to me when I flip them in the pan. How a chicken leg can ge wriggled to test for doneness without poking into the bird. How dark greens will take on a sheen when they’ve cooked just enough to be softened, but not so much to lose their crunch, before they head toward the mush zone.

Twelve years after I started talking to him about food, I think he’s starting to understand.

And, I think Samuel Fromartz may have said it best: the food is alive.

No, it’s not wriggling and squirming on my counter or in the pan. But, it is talking to me. The color and shine change on onions as the cook down; they become translucent before they start to brown. The change in a steak’s texture is noticeable just from a poke. There’s no need to cut in to it to determine if it’s done to your liking.

And even more than doneness, each ingredient is different from one day to the next. Brussels sprouts are sometimes almost sweet; honey can have a sour quality; and of course not all apples are treated the same. Time spent in the kitchen builds a knowledge and intuition that allows a recipe to be adjusted on the fly: add a bit more milk to the pancakes in the winter, or a bit less in a humid environment to get to the right consistency; a mealy apple may be unpleasant to sink teeth into whole, but will bring an excellent sweet quality to a pan of braised greens. And sure, there are plenty of recipes out there that will make suggestions such as apples with greens, but, they can’t be made without time spent in the kitchen. The more time with an apron on and a cookbook open, the more the ingredients breathe on their own, and the more tantalizing the meals become.

This is How We Plan It

Anyone else have a flash back to the 90s? Anyone?

All jokes aside though, meal planning take a bit of work. We have a few steps we follow to help us be successful in setting up food we want to eat each week. Plans often start with a roast, which is the base for one meal. Leftovers are used for at least one other meal as well as lunches and snacks. Bones are tossed in to a stockpot with some vegetables that are sadder than they should be and turned in to stock. The stock becomes a base for sauces and soups, or is reduced down and concentrated to make instant soups. Step by step, this is how we plan it:

  1. Look at the schedule for the next week. As an example, next week, I would like to eat this cream cheese and winter vegetable galette. I’ve added a placeholder recipe with a link to the post as I’m not interested in entering a recipe to the collection right this minute. Later, I’ll edit the recipe so it’s all right there in the collection.Placeholder Recipe
  2. Review sales at the store(s) we plan on shopping at. This may influence staple purchases (like flour and rice; why not buy it on sale?) or change our meat usage (pork roast is on sale? guess what roasted meat we’re having on Sunday).
  3. Add meals to the plan. Sunday is usually a roasted meat of some sort, and is often based on what our favorite butchers have on sale (see above). We try to do at least two almost to fully vegetarian (I say almost because we may use a bit of bacon or chicken/beef/lamb/pork stock in an otherwise vegetarian dish) meals a week, two to three three low-meat meals, and two to three meatier meals.Recipe View
  4. Review the plan to ensure everything makes sense in its place.
  5. Build & sort a shopping list. (I’m told the Meal Planning Board should be auto-sorting this week).
  6. Go Shopping.
  7. Again, review the plan and make adjustments as necessary. As an example, this week, we have a meal that’s centered around winter greens on Thursday. However, the collared greens we purchased (I wasn’t happy with the Swiss Chart that was available at the store this weekend) for it may not be fresh by then. So, we’ll switch Monday with Thursday.Schedule

This is all very adaptable. I could start entirely with things I want to make. Or I could start just with what’s on sale, and only buy items that are on sale/have coupons. This makes being a substitute wizard helpful (though plans are to have the Meal Planning Board be able to do this for you). You could also start by looking in the fridge/freezer and building up meals from there. We sometimes freeze extra soup or sauce and use “what’s in the freezer” as our starting point.

How do you plan your meals?