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

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.

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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