Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Joy of Mix-and-Match Cooking

As I've been preparing more meals for me and Ed at home, I've discovered (with surprise) that I prefer to make meals composed of several things (generally a meat, a vegetable, some kind of starch - hopefully a whole grain - and corn, beans, or rolls to bulk things up). One reason for this seems to be that my one-dish meals don't generally turn out very good; it's just easier to do several simple things well than it is to make a well-composed, properly cooked dish.

Another advantage of this kind of cooking is that it's very flexible when you go to the store. There aren't many combinations of meat/starch/vegetable that don't go together, so as long as you have one of each, you're good.

It's also very cheap. By not requiring any specific ingredients, you can buy whatever is on sale at the store and make use of it. This is especially notable in the produce department, where there tend to be what I assume are loss leaders among the common vegetables.

Since I often (perhaps usually) shop on the same day that I cook, I can also take advantage of meat and fish that has been marked down for immediate sale, which is often half the price of the stuff that isn't as close to expiring.

The other night, Ed and I had three boneless pork chops, a box of whole wheat macaroni and cheese, three zucchinis sauteed with crushed red pepper in olive oil, and a can of beans. The cost for the whole meal (not counting incidentals like the milk, olive oil, etc.) was about $6.50 for both of us, which compares extremely favorably to...well, just about anything.

I kind of enjoy the frugality aspect even though I am not very frugal in general.


rvman said...

Sal and I go in the exact opposite direction. We plan out what we will make for a week, shop for exactly (and only) what we pre-planned for, and everything (or at least all but a very few things) is a one-dish.

1) We can cook in advance and then nuke everything. This avoids hypoglycemic emergencies. Many one-dish meals are also freezer-friendly.
2) By only buying from the list, we avoid buying, say, Annie's chocolate bunny crackers. It is easier to resist temptation when the primary focus is on a piece of paper in the hand rather than looking at (or worse, touching) all the neat stuff on the shelves.
3) By preplanning, only one of us has to go to the store, and/or we don't spend the whole time discussing our week's meals in the produce section.
4) We can reasonably reliably only go to the store once a week.

Potential Disadvantages:
1) Less liberty to take advantage of bargains. Not a big issue for us, because we shop at Wal-Mart, home of "Always Low Prices". When there is a big bargain, and it is something we can either use fast or store, we can still buy it .(this week - strawberries for $1.50 per container rather than $3+) It is also easier to make changes 'on the fly' if we are working from a set foundation and don't need to do the math to see how much we need for the week.

2) No flexibility at mealtime. For me, not a problem, given that my bachelor-era 'meal prep' consisted of picking which of about 3 frozen items I purchased in duplicate that I want that meal. Besides, our choices at mealtime tend to be more fraught than in a planning session after dinner on Sunday (or whenever). Sal defaults to "pancakes" when pressed, I default to "frozen pizza". Neither is an especially wise or well-chosen staple.

Tam said...

Your approach seems to work for a lot of people, and I can definitely see its advantages.

One of my problems is that once something has been inside of any kind of tupperware I tend not to want to eat it anymore. I mean, I can get around that for small or important or especially delicious things, but when I put away meals I kind of lose interest in them.

I also really dislike having it determined ahead of time what I will eat, and will rebel against my prior, wiser self just so I can get something "good." If I buy something immediately prior to cooking it, it's a good bet that I'll stick to the plan.

I do buy certain staples that I am always willing to eat, for the meals that I eat alone - some frozen dinners (though I have to be careful not to buy ones that I will simply never be in the mood for even though I like them all right) and ingredients for making pasta (not from scratch, I just mean sauce in a jar, parmesan, and pasta itself).

Debbie said...

I'm more like Robert and Sally. Worse in some ways: I prefer to make enough for the whole week and eat the same thing all week (except for interludes of macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs, etc.)

Before deciding what to make, I check the store ad (which arrives conveniently in the mail on shopping day).

But then I do like to wander around the store looking at--and even touching--things that are not on my list. Often reading the ingredients list makes me put the item back, though, especially if I'm not that hungry at the time.

(Things that don't make a good TV commercial: Shopper replaces prepackaged item on shelf saying, "I'm not eating THAT!")