As we near our collective first quaranversary, I think I can finally say dinner is sorted. This didn’t creep up on me behind a shrubbery, nor was “Dinner Boss” on my list of lockdown ambitions. Nope, dinner reform came as a surprise guest right after Thanksgiving. Leftovers were finished, local Covid cases hockey-sticked, and after years of resistance to the idea of someone else picking out my Brussels sprouts, I understood we were going to have to get our groceries delivered.
(Of course, some smart people realized faster than me that grocery delivery means fewer people in the store, which makes it safer for everyone. Especially the people picking out my sprouts.)
Fussiness hurdle cleared, I next had to make a meal plan tighter than I’d ever made before. Enough planning to get us through at least two weeks. If you’re not already doing this, and you want to save yourself some money, trouble, and the sadness of last resorts like out-of-date instant oatmeal, here’s my AP Grocery Shopping curriculum:
- Keep breakfast simple. Breakfast at Daniels Ranch is the same thing every day: eggs, yogurt, granola.
- Keep lunch simple. Lunch is also the same thing every day, though not the same as breakfast: Tacos with homemade refries (so easy, so cheap, so much tastier than store-bought) along with leftovers. It’s like Taco Tuesday, only every day. Once in a while, just leftovers.
- Next, just multiply breakfast and lunch components by 28 (14 meals x two people—adjust for your people!), and you’re good.
This level of repetition doesn’t work for everyone; I know that. But it’s affordable and saves a lot of labor, and you might be able to make it work if you mix it up enough at dinner. And it’s only until we can all go out for brunch again.
- Now for dinner. The main meal of the day is always trickier: more ingredients, more preparation. Some of you excel here: technique, repertoire, personal flair. Me, I cut my cooking teeth in the old-timey diners of the Rockies. My natural tendency is to build a meal around French toast.
To combat that tendency in Month 11 of lockdown, I need a list of easy-but-delicious dishes at the ready. You know: Things that are better for you than French toast, but not too much more complicated. And it’s got to be a handy little list, because just putting together the grocery order takes real time now. A dreamy stroll through 86 cookbooks isn’t as fun as it was last year.
- That’s how I arrived at the Index Menu Library.
Behold the Index Menu Library
The Library is a set of seasonal meals that I already know how to make and adjust. This isn’t a bunch of recipes on index cards, which would duplicate work. I leave the recipes in the cookbooks. The index cards are a collection of good ideas, and a list of required ingredients.
At the top of each card, I’ve written the name of the dish and the source, meaning the name and page of the cookbook or notebook. I also note how many servings the recipe makes and—important!—how much lead time the dish requires, if it’s more than a couple hours.
On the body of the card, I list the necessary ingredients—pantry goods on the left, fresh foods on the right. If those lists are too long to fit on an index card, the recipe is probably too involved to be included in the main library. I don’t get super specific about amounts for things like herbs or spices; if we’ve got any, it’s probably enough. I do get very specific about weights and amounts for the fresh things: If a recipe calls for four eggs, two eggs leaves you stranded. You’ll know which items need precision.
So when it comes time to plan the two-week menu, I get out my Index Menu Library, poll the fam for suggestions, and then start shopping the fridge and pantry. Usually, there’s some overlap between what’s on the shelves and what’s on the index card. If I’ve planned well, the pantry’s still stocked and the fridge is getting bare by the time I make the grocery order. (And that’s another reason for tighter planning—we are closer to being a no-waste household than ever before.)
I still look forward to the day I can pick my own vegetables again. But I don’t think we’ll ever really go back to buying dinner ingredients the morning of. I’m too in love with the efficiency of the two-week interval.
If your shopping has been knocked sideways by Covid, I hope this idea, or some refinement of it, will be helpful. And as always, we would love for you to add your own tips and inventions to the comments below. Happy planning!