How to Give Mom What She Really Wants for Mother’s Day

This one’s for you, dads.  I know some of you are scratching your heads. Shouldn’t this post be for the kids of moms?  Aren’t they responsible for celebrating their mom’s this Sunday?  To this I say, “Ha! You aren’t a mom, are you?”

Here’s the thing – if you’re a parent of a young child, you know what I’m talking about. While those sweet kiddos often interject with the best peanut butter covered kisses and unexpected hugs, they really don’t grasp the concept of big shows of appreciation nor can they recognize the full picture of what they should even be thanking you for. And I get it, these tiny self-focused beings aren’t built for that yet and that’s not what we’re in it for after all.  But after spending last Mother’s Day (my first) covered in baby throw-up and last night on the hard floor of my son’s room while he woke up every hour, I’m going to need a little bit of a celebration and I’m sure all you other mom’s do too.  This is where dad comes in.

The tiny one who made me a mom (and spent last Mother's Day thanking me by throwing up on me)

The tiny one who made me a mom (and spent last Mother’s Day thanking me by throwing up on me)

A cautionary tale for you dads who don’t think that it’s up to you to celebrate Mother’s Day because “she’s not your mom”.  These are the exact words my dad said on my mom’s first mother’s day (I was the ungrateful kiddo who’d bestowed that title upon her but none of the appreciation).  After a “talking to” from his in-laws my dad gave in and begrudgingly went out to buy her a dust buster to clean her car because it was what she really needed.  As I’m telling you this story 33 years later, you can guess that he’s never lived it down.  Here’s a list of the worst Mother’s Day gifts in case you need to know what else not to give.

I gave my mom her first grandkid so I'm probably off the hook now, right?

I gave my mom her first grandkid so I’m probably off the hook now, right?

That said, my dad has rebounded spectacularly and taken the helm for Mother’s Day celebrations for far longer than his slacker children probably should have let him.  In fact, to this day he still spends the night before making from scratch cinnamon rolls to ensure that she gets a homemade breakfast in the morning.  

I give you this parable to illustrate “what mom really wants for Mother’s Day”.  First of all, she’s probably already told you exactly what she wants, no matter how veiled. I’ve been dropping hints about homemade breakfast for about 2 weeks now.  The little guy hasn’t picked up on them yet, but I’m pretty sure his proxy has.  If what mom wants is a spa day, make it happen ON SUNDAY! Send her off, take over at home, and let her relax. If what she wants is a home cooked meal, don’t wait until the last minute, throw something together, and leave her with a mess to clean up.  What she (I’m) saying when she says she wants that is for someone to take care of her, to let her relax, and show they care.  And I’m willing to guess that this is at the heart of most Mother’s Day requests – the desire to feel appreciated, loved, recognized, and valued.  Is that too much to ask?

In the event that this all leaves you scratching your head, I’m here to help.  Here are the top 4 things to consider to make Mother’s Day great and give mom what she really wants:

  1. What hints has she been dropping?
  2. What’s behind those requests?
  3. How can you plan ahead to make this happen?
  4. What would it look like to take care of the full scope of this thing? (Scheduling an appointment for spa treatments and paying for it all ahead of time; shopping for, cooking, and cleaning up dinner; making reservations at a favorite restaurant)

Did the mom in your life, like me, request a homemade meal?  If so, I’m here to help you out! Here’s some ideas of great things to make for Mother’s Day brunch or dinner that are also easily made ahead for that “full scope” experience I’m sure she’d love.

Make Ahead Mother’s Day Brunch Ideas

I love the idea of making everything possible ahead so that you can clean-up the night before then just pop the dish in the oven in the morning while you make coffee and cut up some fruit. Easy and enjoyable for everyone!

  1. Pioneer Woman’s Cinnamon Baked French Toast
    • Make Ahead: Follow the instructions to put together the bread and egg mixture the night before. You can also make the cinnamon and butter topping ahead of time and store in a plastic bag in the fridge. 
    • In the morning: Assemble your two made ahead items, place in the oven at 350 degress for 45 min – 1 hour depending on preferred consistency. 
  2. PaleOMG’s Easy Breakfast Casserole (Paleo, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free)
    • Make Ahead: Follow the instructions through step 5. Basically you’ll be cooking everything but the eggs, mixing it all togteher, and placing the mixture in a covered backing dish in the fridge overnight.
    • In the morning: Bake in 400 degree oven for 25-30 minutes (step 6).
  3. Minimalist Baker’s Peanut Butter Overnight Oats (Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Vegan) – this one is for you non-cooks out there!
    • Make Ahead: Follow all the instructions up to 1 day ahead of time (but at least the night before). If you make this in a cute mason jar you can even serve it right out of the jar you made it in!
    • In the morning: Serve to mom. If she prefers to eat her oats hot, heat them up briefly in the microwave (about 1 minute?)

Make Ahead Mother’s Day Dinner Ideas

Even dinner can be mostly assembled ahead if you plan it right! Spend some time on this the night before so that you don’t have to spend time on Mother’s Day having her watch the kids while you make the meal and clean up.

  1. Truffled Mac and Cheese: This is hands down one of the best mac and cheeses I’ve ever made or eaten. You’ll want to feel generally comfortable in the kitchen to give this one a try and be prepared to clean up a bit of a melty cheese mess. I’d plan to serve this with a simple green salad to round out the food groups.
    • Make Ahead: The night before, follow the instructions through combining the pasta, sauce, and mushrooms in a large bowl and placing it all in a large baking dish. Cover and store this in the fridge overnight. Pulse together the breadcrumbs, garlic, and parsley. Store in a plastic bag in the fridge.
    • To serve: Take pasta out of the fridge 30-60 minutes before you want to bake it. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture over the top of the pasta and bake 35-45 minutes in a 375 degree oven.
  2. Braised Lamb with Saffron, Raisins, and Pistachios and Lemon Coriander Rice: (Gluten-Free) Feeling really ambitious? This is one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever made and it is almost entirely hands-off on the day you want to serve it so you can spend time with mom and minimize the mess.
    • Make Ahead: Make the marinade and place the lamb in it in the fridge at least 24 hours before you’d like to serve it.  At this point, I’d also chop up the onions and celery for the lamb and store them separately. While you’re at it, chop up an onion for the rice.
    • To serve: You’ll need to start about 3 hours before you’d like to serve dinner. Don’t worry! It’s almost entirely hands off (besides making the rice).
      • Soak the raisins in warm water for 30 minutes
      • Start at step 2 where you’ll be searing the lamb, adding in the pre-chopped celery and onions, and then pouring in the raisin/pistachio mixture.
      • Place in oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Then remove the lid and continue cooking another hour.  
      • Right around the time you remove the lid, start making the rice.
      • Slice the meat off the bone and serve in the sauce over rice.
  3. Crockpot Sweet Potato Lentils: (Vegan, Gluten-Free) This one is for those of you that have a vegan mama you’re cooking for.  It’s also perfect for those of you who who don’t have a ton of cooking skills or hands-on time to spend, but you’ll need access to a slow cooker. Serve this with some sauteed greens and store-bought naan and you can still get some brownie points for making the effort!
    • Make Ahead: About 4 hours ahead of time, combine everything but the coconut milk and lentils into the slow cooker. After 3 hours, stir in the lentils.
    • To serve: Stir in coconut milk and water to thin to desired consistency. Heat the naan in the oven and saute the greens if using.

So tell me, mamas, what do you really want for Mother’s Day? Or if you’re not a mom yourself, what are you doing to make sure the mom in your life has a great day?

An Easy, Healthy Doughnut Hole Recipe (Vegan and Gluten-Free)

If you came here for a fluffy, fried donut hole recipe, you may just want to click away now. While I think that great doughnuts have a place, you can eat these a whole lot more often and feel super righteous about your nutritious choices, oh and they taste great too.

This easy, healthy doughnut hole recipe is vegan and gluten-free, requires no baking, and comes together quickly in your food processor.  I’m including here a general formula that you can tweak to make your own along with a couple recipes for ways that my son and I like to make them.

Hint: These are basically homemade Larabars rolled into balls – hence doughnut holes.  They’re way more fun to eat and share if you call them this.  They were inspired by this original recipe from Ani Phyo.

As as side note, you know that feeling when you stare at the same word over and over again for so long that it eventually doesn’t even look like a word anymore?  I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to figure out whether donut or doughnut is the right spelling and I’m feeling no closer to a conclusion. Opinions welcome!

Raw Doughnut Hole Formula

This is the formula I use to make all different kinds of “doughnut hole” or DIY Larabar variations. Basically, for making one batch you’ll want: 2 cups dried fruit (mostly dates), 1 cup nuts (walnuts or almonds work well), 1/4 cup cocoa powder if you’re going for the chocolate variety, and a pinch of seasonings (I like vanilla bean powder or extract and a generous pinch of salt).

RAW DOUGHNUT HOLES 

Chocolate Doughnut Holes

This has proven to be the most popular variety in our house and is a great place to start if you’re looking to back away from sugar sweetened treats to rely on a more whole-foods based sweetener.

 

Chocolate Doughnut Holes
Yields 12
Raw, vegan, gluten-free "doughnut" holes for the whole family
Write a review
Print
Prep Time
15 min
Prep Time
15 min
Ingredients
  1. 2 cups dates, pitted (preferably Medjool)
  2. 1 cup walnuts
  3. 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  4. 1 tsp vanilla bean powder or vanilla extract
  5. Generous pinch sea salt
Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients in the food processor and pulse until well blended but small chunks still remain. Take about 1 Tbsp scoops and roll between your hands to create "doughnut holes". A little bit of water on your hands can help keep it from sticking if needed.
Delicious By Nature http://deliciousbynature.com/

 

 WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE HEALTHY SWITCH? 

7 Delicious, Make-Ahead Side Dishes to Wow your Passover Guests

Passover is almost here and I’m betting that if it’s a holiday you celebrate you have all of your usual favorite recipes that you turn to when you host family and friends. In my house there’s lots of hard as rock matzoh balls, boozy charoset, long-cooked brisket, and mandel bread (the most popular part!).  But the real highlight is the rousing rendition of Chad Gadya!  You have to see it to believe it.

PesachDinner1

For holidays steeped in tradition, such as this one, it can often be difficult or unpopular to try something new or make something a little different.  That’s why I often find that opting to be the bringer of side dishes is the safest and most fun place to contribute — because it’s the one area that you can do something a little different without causing an uprising. Plus side dishes are one of the easiest things to make ahead of time and simply assemble or reheat at the party.

So when my dear friend wrote me with a plea for veggies other than carrots and topped it off with the ultimate compliment by calling me a “veggie goddess”, I couldn’t resist putting together a list for her and anyone else who might be looking to make something a little bit different this year.

Passover Sides (1)

I haven’t tried all of these, but here are some of my favorite potential side dishes for your next Passover (or other) celebration.  I’ve also included some make-ahead tips because please don’t be that person who shows up with a dish they need to prep, bake, and clean-up at the host’s house.  (And if you’re the one hosting, check out my tips on planning and prepping for a dinner – or other- party here and here for the most stress-free Passover yet.)

 

  1. Grill Roasted Vegetables with Pine Nut Pesto: I’ve made this one before and I love it because you can easily change out the vegetables for whatever is seasonal and also make it vegan by leaving out the butter and cheese.  
    • Make Ahead:
      • Vegetables: Grill or roast the vegetables up to 3 days ahead of time and store in a covered casserole dish
      • Pesto: Make the night before and store in a lidded container
    • Reheat at the party: 
      • Heat the vegetables in the oven at 350 degrees until warmed through (about 15 minutes)
      • Top with room temperature pesto and serve
  2. Tomato Basil Zucchini Pasta with Goat Cheese and Asparagus: While I haven’t tried this specific recipe, I love the idea of serving a “noodle” made of veggies on a holiday that traditional noodles can’t be served. For this one, check that you can use a large pan and the stove (often the less utilized appliance!) for a few minutes at the party.
    • Make Ahead:
      • Sauce: Make the sauce up to 3 days ahead of time and store in a lidded container
      • Asparagus and “Zoodles”: Shave asparagus and spiralize zucchini the night before and store in a lidded container
    • Reheat at the party:
      • In a large skillet, cook zoodles and apsaragus for a couple minutes. Add tomato sauce and cook until heated through. Top with goat cheese (if using) and serve.
  3. World’s Best Braised Cabbage: Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo is not lying when she says that this is the world’s best braised cabbage. It’s hearty and warming, full of fiber (a must for Passover if you have any experience with a matzoh heavy diet), and can be easily made ahead.
    • Make Ahead:
      • Follow recipe to make cabbage up to 4 days ahead of time and store in a covered baking dish
    • Reheat at the party:
      • Reheat in oven at 425 degrees until warmed through, about 15 minutes
  4. Summer Squash Salad: Amy Chaplin is the queen of flavor-packed, nutrition-filled dishes, so while I haven’t tried this particular dish, I don’t hesitate to recommend anything that she makes. This is also a great example of escalating a salad to side dish by mixing up flavors and cutting your vegetables in interesting ways (i.e. a thin, raw squash rather than a thicker cut roasted one).
    • Make Ahead:
      • Dressing: Place all dressing ingredients in a mason jar up to 3 days ahead of time shake to combine (now and before serving)
      • Vegetables: Shave all of the vegetables thinly the night before and store in a lidded container
      • Garnish: Grate manchego cheese (if using) and pick mint and basil leaves (don’t tear yet) the night before and store in baggies
    • Assemble at the party:
      • Place vegetables in serving bowl
      • Top with dressing followed by grated cheese and torn mint and basil leaves
  5. Stovetop Tzimmes: These don’t technically meet the request for “non carrot side dishes” but I’m including this new-to-me recipe here because they are super traditional and a real crowd pleaser thanks to their sweet and salty flavor profile.
    • Make Ahead:
      • Follow recipe and stop right before adding the prunes. Do this up to 3 days ahead of time and store in a lidded baking dish (which you can serve in)
    • Assemble at the party:
      • Add cooked veggies, with remaining liquid, to a large pot. If the liquid has all been absorbed, add a touch more broth or water. Place pitted prunes on top and cook 15 minutes over medium heat until cooked through and prunes are softening. Place back in baking dish to serve
  6. Lentil Salad with Beets and Pomegranate:  Passover tables everywhere were rocked last week when the Jewish Journal publicized the Conservative ruling that “kitinyot” including rice, beans, and corn are “are now permitted for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover, overruling about seven centuries of Ashkenazi custom that banned those foods”.  Now you probably don’t care about this too much if you’re a casual Passover guest or observer, but it does open up a world of culinary possibilities when it comes to side dishes. I’d recommend checking with your host first on their feelings on beans (and sharing the news), but if they’re open to it, something like this lentil salad could be a great way to celebrate (the news and the holiday).
    • Make Ahead: 
      • Put together dressing and store in a mason jar up to 3 days ahead
      • Cook lentils, strain and store in a lidded container up to 3 days ahead
      • Roast beets, clean pomegranate seeds, and slice onions up to 2 days ahead and store each separately
    • Assemble at the party:
      • Toss together dressing, lentils, beets, pomegranate seeds, onions, torn mint, and salt and pepper in serving bowl
  7. Spicy Quinoa Salad: This tabbouleh style quinoa salad with a little kick of spice looks like it could be a great carb-heavy side dish for non-matzoh or non-meat eating guests (gluten freers and vegans).  Based on the reviews, it looks like it could use a few small tweaks, but that’s easy to do in a salad dish like this, and it could be a great base recipe!
    • Make Ahead:
      • Cook quinoa and store in a lidded container up to 3 days ahead
      • Make cucumber mixture and store in a lidded container up to 3 days ahead
      • Combine onion, lime juice and vinegar in a lidded container up to 3 days ahead
    • Assemble at the party:
      • Combine all of the elements in a serving bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed
      • Top with avocado and serve

Let me know if you try any of these recipes or if you have other favorite Passover side dishes we should try!

Healthy Help: My PlateJoy Review

Have you ever posted a totally clever question on social media to only hear crickets? Yeah, me neither 😉
 
But there are also some posts whose response blows me away.  Last Summer, on a whim, I asked the question:
Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 9.40.07 PM
 
In a matter of days, I had over 30 responses which ranged from “time”, “planning”, and “cooking skills” to “shitty food tastes good”, “I know know what’s healthy”, “I crave salty things” and more.
 
Over the past 9 months or so, I’ve thought a lot about this discussion and the candid, clearly frustrated responses that ensued.  This sparked a journey into developing a prototype of a cook-ahead meal plan designed to address so many of the frustrations and barriers that my friends were facing.
 
Fast forward to today and I’ve learned so much about the meal planning market and world.  The good news for you? There are tons of great options out there that make cooking more efficient, personalized, easy, and healthy than ever, all without demanding your precious brainpower to come up with ideas or willpower to make healthy decisions at the end of a long day. 
 
The problem? There are so many options that it can be bewildering to understand which one might work best for you and where to invest your money (though many of them are quite reasonably priced).  So, I decided to start trying some for you! Today I’ll be highlighting PlateJoy and reviewing their services, but depending on your interest, I’m happy to do some in depth looks at others in the coming months.

My PlateJoy Review

The overview: PlateJoy is a meal planning service that is unique in that it customizes the menu to you based on your answers to questions including – who you’re cooking for, how you like to eat (think vegan, paleo, gluten-free, etc.), food preferences, where you shop, and how much you want to cook on any given week. 
 
All of this is done through a short and easy 3 minute quiz which results in a meal queue that you approve followed by a menu for the week (shopping list and recipes) that you can also further customize by deleting or replacing meals.
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.08.54 AM
 
My experience:  At the beginning of March I bought a 6 month membership (which will run you about $59) and set up my PlateJoy profile.  I’ve been getting menus – which include shopping lists and recipes – for the last 4 weeks and quite enjoyed it (with more details on my thoughts below).  
 

HOW PLATEJOY WORKS

    1. Take a quiz to personalize your Meal Queue. You really only need to do this your first time, but you can update it at any time. For example, I did a Whole30 menu one week and then switched to a Vegan one the next week. This is all included in the membership.Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.09.21 AM
    2. Review your Meal Queue. These aren’t all meals that you’ll get this week, but rather ones you may get in the future.  At this point you’re reviewing them to remove anything you know that you wouldn’t want (for example, I don’t love making soups as a meal, so I usually remove those).Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.09.51 AM
    3. Now PlateJoy will generate this week’s menu based on how many meals you said you wanted. They can provide recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Snacks/Desserts, but wisely suggest that you start small (aka not all of your meals for the week) so that you can avoid overwhelm. You can always generate a new menu later in the week if you’ve worked your way through all of your recipes!  
      PlateJoyMenu
      At this point, you have another chance to remove or replace any items you don’t want to eat that week. This will update both your recipe and shopping lists, but they do warn that modifications at this point will affect the “waste reduction” aspect of menu planning that they strive for.
    4. Once you finalize your menu, you can access both your recipes and shopping list online or on your phone via a text they link you.Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.10.10 AM
    5. I then use Amazon Fresh to buy the bulk of my products (hey – I’m working on efficiency over here, might as well cut out the shopping step as well!), but the great thing about the shopping lists is you can check items off as you go and they’re organized for easy use in the store, so they’re also great at making your in store shopping easier.
      Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.10.33 AM
      Extra bonus is that they ask you what “pantry” items you already have so that they won’t show up on your shopping list if you don’t need them. You can also add any other items you do need to your shopping list, though I haven’t tried this functionality yet.
 

WHAT I LOVED

  • Healthy food without all the planning: PlateJoy is really great at focusing on minimally processed, real food that’s easy to make. Most of the meals take less than 30 minutes, don’t require a lot of exotic ingredients, and are fairly easy to put together.
  • Easy customization and scaling: I love the flexibility that PlateJoy offers by allowing you to update your personalization profile at any time and create a new menu whenever you like. This means that if your plans for the week change, you have a guest in town, or you feel like eating Paleo instead of Vegan you can make those updates and get a new menu any time with only a few clicks.As someone who’s used to planning my own menus by searching online and in cookbooks, then modifying for my food preferences and number of servings, this is a huge help. It certainly adds to the value for the money you pay (about $10/month) as I don’t think you could get this level of flexibility and customization in many other services.
  • Great “filler” meals: I, like many of you, get stuck in ruts with what I make when I don’t have new recipes or inspiration. PlateJoy has helped me break out of those ruts by providing easy to make meals on the weeknights that I don’t feel inspired to do the leg work of searching, planning, and shopping for a recipe.The bonus is that since I do all of the shopping for that week’s meals at the beginning of the week, thanks to their trusty shopping list, the ingredients I need are already in my fridge, making it truly easier to make a meal than it would be to go out or order in take-out.
  • Waste reduction: One of the frustrations I’ve heard from many home cooks is that they buy a special sauce or even a bunch of cilantro that goes bad before they have occasion to use it all, especially when it’s for that one specific recipe they’re following.PlateJoy does a great job of using up the ingredients they ask you to buy on any given week.  In addition, most of the spices and seasonings are easily bought in small quantities in the bulk department or are things you’re likely to have on hand (think: cinnamon), though I have had to buy garam masala and maple syrup (how did I not have this on hand already?) I found that my recipes used them a couple of times during the week and again since, so it feels like a worthwhile investment of money and shelf space.
  • Inspiration to step out of your “cooking rut”:  Ever since my 2 year old son has taken to loving “bars” as he calls Larabars, we’ve been buying them religiously for those afternoon snack needs. I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t even considered making our own dried fruit and nut “balls” even though they’re so easy, cheaper, and more fun to make. When they showed up on my PlateJoy menu a few weeks ago as a snack recipe I had one of those “duh” moments and have even whipped up a few other batches since.Same goes for the breakfast cookies we made this morning courtesy of this week’s menu. It was just oats, banana, cinnamon, salt, ground flax, and a dollop of raspberry jam, but they came together in such a different and interesting way that it got both my son and I excited about eating them. As of this writing, he’s eaten handfuls of leftover dough and at least 3 cookies. So much for the 25% leftovers PlateJoy suggested we save for later!
  • Clean design: The PlateJoy system is the type of technology that I use and think “I wish I had designed that”.  It’s almost stupidly simple as a user, which is exactly what I want from something that I know must be so complex behind the scenes. I love that they text you when you have a new menu so the links are right on your phone and the site (and menus and shopping lists) are all optimized for computer and phone use.  They also seem to be working constantly make it even easier to navigate and provide more links so that you can go back to old menus, find things in fewer clicks, etc.
  • Other things you might like that I haven’t experimented with as much:
    • Nutrition information is provided for the recipes, along with portioning instructions by person
    • You get a chance to rate each of the recipes and give feedback as well as put ones you’ve loved back into rotation
    • Printer friendly recipe links at the top of each page so that you could feasibly create a hard copy collection if that were your thing
 

SOME LIMITATIONS TO CONSIDER

  • Some advanced cooking techniques without clear instruction: I can appreciate that creating delicious, interesting recipes with minimal ingredients and prep time is really challenging, but I did find that some of the PlateJoy recipes I received were what I would consider a little “complex” and/or “advanced” for the average home cook.Examples of this include the Shaved Zucchini and Fennel salad which included both working with fennel and really thinly slicing things and the roasted beets that went into a “10 minute salad” that simply said “11 oz beets, roasted in oven for 30 minutes” as part of the ingredients list (this also happens to be a personal pet peeve of mine, so it may not bother other people as much).
  • A few pretty basic recipes: On the flip side of the overly advanced techniques is that fact that if you are a particularly advanced cook or adventurous eater, you may find that there are some “boring” or “basic” recipes. I completely understand why they are here and don’t actually mind them, plus it’s easy to opt out of them when they show up in your queue or menu, but you have to keep an eye out. One example would be the “California Sandwich with Avocado and Sprouts” that I had last week.  Honestly, it was super basic and I probably didn’t need a recipe for it – think tomato, cucumber, avocado, sprouts, etc. – but that said having it on my menu did mean that I had all the items on hand and it was a super easy, nutritious, and tasty lunch one day.
  • Not a ton of pictures of the meals or the steps: When I was working on my meal planning prototype, a lot of the feedback I received was from folks who didn’t necessarily know how to cube a butternut squash or cut cauliflower into florets.  These steps, if you don’t effectively know how to do them, can take a lot of time and create unnecessary confusion. I wish, for the sake of these types of cooks, that PlateJoy had more pictures of finished dishes (see screenshot below of my menu this week) and even potentially step-by-step photos, especially for the trickier items so that the service could be easily accessible to more people.PlateJoyMenu
    If these things are important to you when making a recipe, then PlateJoy might not be the right option for you (right now).
  • Same ingredient “overload”: I love quinoa and chickpeas as much as the next person and while I certainly appreciate that it’s most efficient to eat similar things over and over (for your time and pocketbook), it can get a bit repetitive after a while.  This week my Lunch and Dinner meals were what you see below:PlateJoy_Quinoav2
    If I follow this menu to a T I’ll be eating quinoa for 4 of my meals and chickpeas for 2.  Now I can obviously easily change the quinoa to brown rice with my kung pao cauliflower, but it is a small annoyance in an otherwise delicious sounding menu.
  • Errors in recipes and not always the most efficiently written:  For two weeks now I’ve gotten a recipe in my “Vegan” menu that contains eggs.  Since I’m not actually vegan (just trying to eat more plant-based) and I know how to easily replace eggs in baking recipes, which is where they’ve shown up, this isn’t actually a big deal but there are people who it would really matter to!Likewise, a few times I’ve gotten recipes that are meant to make 2 servings from my family that could easily be done in one batch but instead it says to “make it twice”.  When the whole point of the service is to make my life in the kitchen easier and more efficient this seems like a silly recommendation and one that I shouldn’t really have to think about as a user.Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:PlateJoy_MakeTwice
    They’re obviously working on this problem because here’s a recipe where they have you make it all at once and instruct you to eat leftovers (definitely my preference – you better believe if I’m going to eat the same thing twice in one week I’m not going to cook it twice!):PlateJoy_Leftovers3 Also, as with any recipe, there have been a few with blatant errors or ones that just didn’t work. If you have enough experience this is no big deal as they’re usually easily adjusted, but again, I think this service is aimed much more at those who don’t have that level of experience so it’s imperative that the recipes are spot on.  For example, this Chocolate Quinoa Breakfast porridge, while delicious, cooked up more like “regular” quinoa than a porridge. When you look at the liquid to dry proportions (2:1) you can see immediately why and while the instructions say you can add more liquid to make it “porridgey”, the picture clearly indicates a porridge is what you should expect.  This makes my “recipe writer” brain want to explode.  (Hi – welcome to all the kitchen, food, and recipe neuroses in my brain. It’s nice to meet you! Now that that’s out in the open…)Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 10.03.41 AM
 

COST OF FOOD FOR PLATEJOY MENU PLANS

 
Obviously food costs will vary heavily depending on how many people you’re cooking for, what you’re making, and how many meals you’re making at home.  That said, I have spent between $55 and $100 / week on the groceries to make my PlateJoy menus. 
 
Please keep in mind that I was having PlateJoy plan between 6 and 9 meals (plus 2-3 snacks/desserts) for 3 of us.  The total cost also greatly varied depending on what pantry items I needed any given week (think spices or maple syrup) and sometimes I’d just substitute what I did have on-hand (honey for agave or cooking dried chickpeas instead of buying canned) instead of buying something new.  Predictably, my vegan menus have also been much more cost effective than the Whole30 one thanks to the absence of the expensive meat items. 
 
All told, I’d estimate that based on the numbers above:
 
$100 in groceries / (9 meals * 3 servings per meal) = about $3.75 per serving (*note that this is on the highest end)
 
Note that most of my shopping was done on Amazon Fresh or at Whole Foods Market and the majority of the produce and meat products were organic, so your actual costs may vary significantly depending on where/ how you shop.  This also obviously doesn’t cover every single meal we eat during the week, so there is other money that we’ll be spending on food or eating out as well.
 

WHO PLATEJOY IS GOOD FOR

  • Are you a busy person who wants to eat healthy without all the planning?
  • Have you been looking for an easy way to have healthy food on hand so that you can will more easily make good choices at the end of the day?
  • Do you want your grocery shopping to be more efficient and easier?
 
If any of these apply to you and you like what I had to say above then I think that PlateJoy is a great option!  I especially love that they’re able to accommodate so many special diets and preferences, so it’s adjustable for so many different scenarios.
 
For me, it’s certainly been worth the $10 per month to have someone else come up with my menus and shopping lists. In many ways, it’s made me even more creative with what I make on “unplanned nights”, meaning that since I don’t have PlateJoy plan every meal for me (which would be my recommended approach) on the nights when I’m picking what to make it’s a little more elaborate, indulgent, and adventurous because I haven’t spent all week picking out recipes and exhausting that food planning muscle.
 

WHO SHOULD CONSIDER ANOTHER OPTION

If you’re new in the kitchen or cooking takes you a long time (hello 15 minute recipes that take an hour), I could see how PlateJoy might be a little bit ambitious or involved, even with it’s aim for simplicity and accessibility.  There are ways that you could combat this – for example by saying that you want to purchase pre-chopped veggies or pre-cooked protein in your personalization menu – but either way it can be a lot of cooking.
 
If you or your family are super picky I actually think that PlateJoy would be great because you can always veto meals either in your Meal Queue or when they show up on your Menu.  Essentially I think of it as PlateJoy narrowing down the options so that you can suffer from less overwhelm and decision making in the ocean of internet recipes. That said, from what I’ve seen, PlateJoy does try to skew healthy so it might not be for everyone from that perspective.
 
In addition, one of the things I think PlateJoy is currently lacking is a way to address the needs of people who prefer to eat more and cook less.  A lot of this is popping up under the guise of “meal prep” where you cook a bunch at the beginning of the week and then just heat up or put together pre-cooked things as you’re ready to eat them.  This is an approach I recommend to especially busy people or just those who don’t want to cook and clean every night and PlateJoy, in it’s current state, just doesn’t address that in the way the Menu Plans are built.  Despite that, most of the recipes are quite quick and easy to put together, so I think that inherently combats this potential problem for those who can dedicate 30-ish minutes to put dinner together.
 

Want to give it a try?  I have a free trial code that I’m happy to share so that you can check it out and let me know what you think!  Sadly, I only have one, so if I get more than one comment asking for it, I’ll pick a “winner” at the end of the week (Friday, April 15th, 2016).

How to Host a Dinner Party: Planning your Menu and Schedule

So let’s say you’ve read my post about hosting a dinner party and ingrained these 4 elements to success into your head: 
  1. Plan it all out well ahead of time
  2. Balance the elements (and the work)
  3. Figure out what you can make ahead
  4. Create your schedule, stick to it as much as you can, and then relax!
Check it out for more about the steps above and my hard-earned wisdom about what to do to throw a dinner (or other) party you can actually enjoy.
 
Today I want to dive into more of the practical details around setting your menu and scheduling out what you can do when (which basically encompasses all of the elements above).  Here are the basic steps that I follow and recommend:
 
  1. Pick a style of food: Inspiration is everywhere – What have your guests been raving about? Who traveled where recently? What style of food do you most like to cook? There are many sources online including these ones here, here, and here.
  2. Find inspiration: I find the most reliable and helpful sources for recipes that work well with dinner parties are those that are specified as “Make-Ahead” (see this post on why make ahead is so important). Some of my favorite sites that do this well are: Food and Wine and Epicurious
  3. Set the menu: I recommend finalizing your menu and creating your shopping list a week out. This will help you with all of the next steps, including planning out your schedule and then, of course, making it all happen.
  4. Plan it out: As I mentioned in the original post, you’re usually pretty safe to start preparing make ahead items about 3 days out, so I start by considering how much time I have each day to dedicated to prep, how much space I have to store things in my fridge, and what will hold best in order to determine the best order for making everything. (See the example below for a real life example of this) 
I recognize that lists and guidelines are nice, but that the most helpful way to see how something works is to really see it in action, so here I’d like to walk you through a real life example of selecting, vetting, and planning your menu.

Planning a Menu and Schedule for a Dinner Party: Real Life Example

Helping us today is “Susie”, our imaginary friend who is having over 7 of her nearest and dearest next week.  She is hosting the dinner to help celebrate her friends who just got engaged and wants it to be a special, relaxing evening focused on good food and wine. Her friends are pretty adventurous when it comes to food, like to try new things, and don’t have any food allergies. Susie is proficient in the kitchen in that her space is pretty well stocked and she knows her way around a recipe, but she doesn’t have much experience in cooking ahead of time or in more elaborate preparations. Lets see what this process looks like for Susie:

1. Pick a style of food 

There are two key pieces of information that will help Susie in planning her menu: her friends are adventurous and she’s celebrating an engagement. An easy place for inspiration here would be to think about the couple and their favorite types of food or where they’ve traveled recently. In this example, let’s imagine it’s Thailand.
 
Susie should start where I like to imagine we all do (I hope it’s not just me!) and Google something like Thai Dinner Party:
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 10.56.31 AM
 
Notice that the first results that show up in the photo above are from what I like to think of as “reputable” sources in that they are websites/magazines that I know and trust and that they’ve already done a lot of the legwork for us.  Most of them don’t have a fully coherent menu or schedule, but they are ripe with inspiration.
 
Click through and you’ll notice some common themes:
 
Shredded salads
 
ShreddedSalads
 
Meat Dishes and Curries
 
Curries
Coconut Desserts
CoconutDessert
Delicious Cocktail
 
Drinks
 
Cool! Assuming that Susie likes the direction that these dishes are going in, we now have our general outline and some ideas of things that we could serve.  The most major challenge here is to keep your search really high level and just come up with the menu outline instead of trying to finalize every single detail and recipe.

2. Find Inspiration

We did much of this in our initial search (win!) but now we can narrow things down a bit and get more specific in what we could make.
 
Shredded salads:
  • Considerations: Keep well and can be made ahead; Can be hard to find ingredients like green papaya at your regular grocery store
  • Verdict: Make a shredded salad with ingredients you can find where you’re shopping
Meat Dish like satay or Curry?
  • Considerations: Meat dishes like satay are delicious and typical of the area but so are curries and they can be make ahead and keep really well since they fall in the “saucy” category
  • Verdict: Make a curry
Coconut Desserts:
  • Considerations: Want something that can be made ahead – either ice cream or rice could fit in that category. Which would guests enjoy most and what do I have the equipment to make?
  • Verdict: Let’s make a rice based coconut dessert
Cocktails:
  • Considerations: Which best suits what our guests like to drink? Which one can be made ahead?
  • Verdict: Most should work – will decide when we look at recipes

3. Set the Menu

Now’s the time to really dig deep into recipes if you’re so inclined.  For the sake of this example, let’s focus on Susie who is mostly looking to find something delicious that she has the skills and equipment to make, can be made ahead, and her guests would enjoy.
 
Salad Course (Shredded Salad):  Based on the initial search and the decision to make a salad with ingredients that are easily found, this one from Saveur with carrots and zucchinni came up in the initial search and really fits the bill. 
 
Now that you’ve decided on a recipe, the key step here is to copy the links of the recipes you want into one document, along with the full recipe (serving size included).
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.20.42 AM
 
 
Note that this is nothing fancy, the main goal is to get all elements of the menu, along with ingredients and steps together now so that it’s easily modified and consolidated later.
 
Main Course (Curry): Our initial search also turned up a real gem here in the Massaman Chicken curry from Bon Appetit. How can you tell? 1. It’s a restaurant recipe which usually means it’s really tasty if they’ve bothered to source it from a favorite place and 2. It has do ahead instructions, which are SO key to having that easy, laid back dinner party we talked about before.
 
Something like this is what I always look for when picking dinner party recipes:
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.25.12 AM
 
Do the same as above – paste all the recipe information (in this case both the curry paste and chicken) into your document.
 
Dessert (Coconut Rice): Let’s just say that in this case our initial search didn’t turn up the right recipe for us. No problem – now that we know we’re making a coconut rice dessert we can go back to our friend Google to find the right one. You’ll see below that I even included “Make Ahead” in my search to ensure that anything we find is suitable to Susie’s needs:
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.32.57 AM
 
 
The Kitchn is a site I know and trust (plus there are always great comments!) and I can see here that there are instructions on making it ahead.
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.34.34 AM
Score! We have a winner.
 
Cocktail: We are looking for two kew things here: What will the guests like? and What has make ahead elements? (Sense a theme?)
 
This one that showed up in our initial search sounds like a great starter in that it’s spicy and echoes other things Susie will be serving. It doesn’t currently contain alcohol, but we won’t let that stop us! Especially when it’s already built as a pitcher drink – great for a laid back dinner party.
 
Just make sure you note the additional ingredient (in this case vodka) on your planning sheet:
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.40.57 AM
 
At this point you should have your ingredient list and menu essentially built in its own document now it’s time to…

4. Plan it out

With your menu and recipes all in one place you’ll want to go through and adjust each recipe to ensure it reflects the quantities that you’ll be serving. In this case we’ll need to:
  • Scale up the Shredded Zucchini and Carrot salad recipe by 2
  • Leave Massaman Curry recipe as written
  • Scale up the Thai Sticky Rice by 2
  • Scale up the Lemonade by 2
Now start a new page where you copy and paste the ingredients from all of the recipes onto one page. Then divide them into areas of the supermarket. You can see here that I kept it simple with Produce, Grocery, Meat, and Pantry (aka things I have):
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.57.24 AMScreen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.57.34 AM
 
I also like to take the extra step of consolidating the “same” ingredients. Even if the measurements aren’t in the prettiest quantities (1 Tbsp instead of 3 tsp), it will still hep ensure that you have the right amounts of each ingredient.  Et Voila! Now you have your shopping list.
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.45.41 PM
 
Now it’s time to create your prep list. I like to first lay out the days of prep, which means that if Susie is hosting her dinner on Friday she might start prepping on Tuesday:
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.03.55 PM
Now go back to the instructions for the recipes to see what can happen where.  For example, we know that the curry paste can be made up to a month ahead of time, so that’s safe to do on Tuesday.  And the chicken curry says it can be done 2 days ahead, so we’ll slot that for Wednesday, which looks like this so far:
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.06.51 PM
 
 
Using the model of determining how much time you have, space in fridge, and what holds best, a prep list for Susie might look like this:
 
Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.17.53 PM
You can see here that we’ve balanced doing things ahead of time (as much as possible) with doing minimal steps on the day of the meal so that time can be dedicated to getting other things ready (cleaning, serving platters, etc.) and most importantly enjoying the party.  You would follow this by looking at your items listed on any given day then flipping back to the original recipe for the actual instructions of how to do that.  Since you now have all of these elements both scaled up and in the same document, it should be easy and straightforward from here on out (barring any complicated cooking tasks)!
 
Phew! Now imagine that I have beamed you one of those tasty cocktails so you can sit back and relax while you wait for your guests to arrive! You deserve it!

What do you think, is this doable? Do you have a favorite technique for planning and hosting your dinner parties that I’ve missed here?

How to Host a Dinner Party: Lessons from Chefs

Imagine the scene – you’ve invited all of your nearest and dearest over to celebrate (insert awesome life event here). You’ve spent weeks inviting, getting ready, cleaning, and prepping for this and you’re so happy to have everyone in one place.  They are all arriving and…you’ll be right back, you just have to put together the drinks.  They sit down for dinner and…hold on, you just have to do one last thing in the kitchen. They’re relaxing after a delicious meal and…just one second, you have to get dessert ready.

Brunch Event

At this brunch event, I had made basically everything ahead of time, so my only job was replenishing food throughout.

We’ve all either been there or been a guest at a party where the host doesn’t even seem to have a second to enjoy their own fabulous event because not only do they have hosting duties, but they have lots of things that need to be done to get the food served.  So when recently I was leading my culinary students through their final project – a 4 course meal for 20+ people – and we were relaxing in the kitchen, joking, and breathing easily, I started thinking about what techniques these chefs had used that could be used at home to elicit a similar result – one where you’re relaxed, happy, and engaged with your guests while hosting a dinner (or any other food focused) party.

Student and Son

This photo was taken as guests were arriving and apps were being passed which means that 1. there was time for a student to have a moment with his son and 2. it was relaxed enough that I noticed and stopped to take a picture.

I’ve been in charge of food for many an event and I can vividly picture both ends of the spectrum.  Starting with the good, there was the baby shower that I helped host and was so prepared for that all of the food was made ahead of time and I calmly went out on the morning of for a 7 mile run (that alone is noteworthy nowadays!) before coming home, heating up a few things, laying out the food, and proceeding to fully enjoy the party and it’s associated activities.  Then there was the time that I thought pizza at camping was a good idea – for 30 people.  I had made all of the individual pizza crusts ahead of time, but severely underestimated the amount of work it takes to create a topping bar, cook all of the pizzas, and clean up, especially while surrounded by dirt.

So what can you learn from this if you’re not a trained chef or hosting dinners all the time?  I believe that there are four key steps to take that will determine your success in hosting a relaxed and delicious dinner party whether you’re serving 2 people or 20:

  1. Plan it all out well ahead of time
  2. Balance the elements (and the work)
  3. Figure out what you can make ahead
  4. Create your schedule, stick to it as much as you can, and then relax!

So let’s take a closer look:

Plan it all Out Well Ahead of Time

By nature, I am not a planner, because who knows what I’m going to feel like eating before the moment is actually here. (Same goes for picking out clothes.)  That said, my sister and I have been talking about the appetizers that I’m making for her August wedding since at least last September.

And thank goodness we have! What was originally a cheese platter extravaganza has morphed into a much more sensible gourmet snack display (hello, brown butter Chex Mix!) thanks to the fact that we had time to think about the food, consider the logistics, realize how that might impact the food, and then start all over again.

A hosted meal at home certainly doesn’t require 11 months lead time, but I highly encourage you to start planning at the highest level at least a week out from your event.  Why? This will allow you time to mull over your options, consider your guests, take into account your schedule, and then settle on something that will be enjoyed by your guests and is also feasible for your schedule, cooking skills, and enjoyment of the event.

Just starting out and feeling stumped for ideas? Here’s where I begin:

  1. Is it a sit down dinner or something more casual?: This will impact the type of food that you serve, in both “formality” but also determining whether it’s a plate and fork affair or something that would benefit from more bite-sized, self-contained elements.
  2. Is there a theme that you’d like to utilize?: No need to create something super specific or kitschy, but a general overarching guide can be really helpful in tying everything together, selecting the food, and providing guidance to guests who might like to bring something. Think Asian fusion type dishes vs. Game of Thrones. Or not, ya know, whatever works.
  3. Are there any considerations specific to your guests?: I highly encourage you to start thinking about any dietary restrictions or food preferences of your guests from the get-go as this can heavily influence the choices you make from this point on and can also be a huge point of stress right before or during the event if you haven’t done it ahead of time. Nowadays, I expect that out of a party of 4 there will be at least one person with an allergy, restriction or heavy preference and it’s a lot easier to accommodate it as I’d like to do if I am aware of and plan for it ahead of time.

WorstDinnerGuest

Photo courtesy of the The Ktichn

Funny story: At one point, while working at Whole Foods Market, I was on a team of 15 on which half of us had a least one food restriction including – a few vegans, a few who avoided gluten, one Paleo devotee.  It was always an adventure coming up with food that the could feed the whole group!

Balance the Elements (and the Work)

I can’t even count the number of meals I’ve planned that have elaborate plating or elements, one stacked on top of another. It’s interesting teaching in a culinary program, because it’s only seeing it through more beginner’s eyes that you realize how much you’ve learned from all of these blunders upon blunders.  

I remember one particular moment when I wanted to serve meatballs for a 200 person event.  On the surface this doesn’t sound so bad – freezable, easy, forgiving – but when it came down to calculating how many we’d need, individually rolling each one, and then storing all those meatballs in the freezer the ridiculousness of that plan was clear before I got too deep.

 

Even if you aren’t planning an event for 200, I encourage you to consider the following to ensure you’ve balanced both the elements and work for your meal:

  • Type of food: The easiest way to make a meal coherent and balanced is to pick a genre of food and go with it.  I know, I know, there are insanely creative and talented people out there who can make anything go together (case in point: my friend Shannon who combined a watermelon basil soup with a tomato one amongst many other feats of flavor). Most of us aren’t them, so picking a flavor profile, ethnicity or style of food can help to ensure it all goes together.  
  • Preparation methods: Anyone whose hosted Thanksgiving has probably learned that hard way that you can’t both finish the turkey and reheat sides at the same time when they all need space in the oven. The same principle holds true for your party. You are limited by the number of burners on your stove, appropriately sized pan, and oven space, so plan a meal that takes the most advantage of the tools at your disposal rather than relying on just one. Think: Baked ham (oven) with sauteed veggies (stove) vs. baked ham (oven) with casserole (also oven)
  • Amount of effort: Hands off recipes are your friend when it comes to hosting. I know that many folks will look at the time it takes to make a recipe and think “2 hours, I could never spend that much time on one recipe”! But when it comes to dinner parties, I’d encourage you to ignore the overall time a recipe takes since you’re likely to be spending hours in the kitchen anyways and consider the hands-on time that the recipe requires. Ready for some hardcore math?

Hands on time = preparation (chopping) +  attended cooking (saute, fry, etc)

Total cooking time = Hands on time + cook time (the time that an item is just sitting in the oven or on your stovetop)

For my money, I actually prefer longer cooking recipes when hosting a party because it means that a) they’ll have more developed flavor and b) I can start them earlier in the day, stick them on the stove or oven, and spend the rest of the day cleaning up and getting ready while the food cooks itself.  A braise would be a prime example of this and there is not better guide for braising than Daniel Boloud’s aptly named Braise.

Braise

My favorite braising book. Because that’s a totally reasonable thing to think about, have, and admit out loud, right?

Figure out What You Can Make Ahead

Hands down the best thing you can do to host a successful, stress-free dinner party is make as much ahead of time as possible. Ask my students! We had almost everything not just cooked ahead of time, but fully portioned out, labeled, and ready to be put on the plate (after a quick reheat in the oven if necessary).  

BeetCakes

Beet cakes, the main course, were all made, shaped, and baked ahead of time. We then placed them on sheet pans, refrigerated overnight, removed them about an hour before service and reheated them in the oven right before putting them on the plates.

BloodOranges

Countless blood oranges were juiced the day before (truth be told we ended up buying some blood orange juice as well to save time!) and mixed with maple syrup and water at the right proportions so on the morning of the event we just needed to throw it all in an ice cream maker (or 3) and then freeze it in containers until the event.

Of course at home, where you’re hindered by hours in the day, number of hands to help, and kitchen space, prepping to this scale may not be possible, but I assure you that you’ll be a happier host if you have most everything done ahead because inevitably things you didn’t even think of pop up and this way you can both address those and ensure that your kitchen isn’t still covered in flour and vegetable debris when your guests arrive.

How do you know if something can be made ahead of time?  Sadly, I find this to be more art than science, and it probably warrants a whole series of posts (let me know if you’re interested!) but here are the basics:

  • Saucy things keep best: Stews, braises, pulled pork or chicken, they all sit in a juicy sauce that’s full of flavor which means that even more flavor develops over time and they keep well because they’re staying hydrated and heat back up easily on the stove or in the oven, depending on where you have space.
  • Dips and sauces often develop flavor the longer they sit: There’s something about some cooling off time – in the fridge or even just on the countertop – that does magical things to sauces and dips. This is why hummus, yogurt dip, tomato sauce, and even dressings are so forgiving. You can make them a day or two ahead of time, cleanup, and then let them sit until you’re ready to serve them.
  • Hearty greens marinate well: Kale and it’s fellow dark leafy greens have been getting a lot of press lately for their nutrition, but I find them equally compelling for their versatility and heartiness. What this means to me is that I can prep them ahead of time, throw them in a bowl in the fridge, then remove them to room temperature and dress them up to two hours ahead of time and end up with something even more delicious than if I had made it in the moment. This kale salad or this slaw are great examples of that.

So how do you know when you can make it? There are lots of charts and resources that will tell you how long something can keep cooked, but for the purposes of hosting a party I’d suggest that you not make anything more than 3 days ahead of time.  Most everything that is cooked can keep for that long safely, but extend it longer and you start to get into a lot of ins and outs and details that are just another thing to stress about. 

Without trying to answer every question in this post, here are a few things that I wouldn’t do further ahead of time than specifically suggested by a recipe:

  • Marinating meat in acid – they tell you how long to marinate for a reason as acidic marinades can actually start pre-cooking your food, which makes for an uneven cook time when it comes time to actually put it over heat
  • Grilling or roasting meat – while you can finagle ways to dry cook meat ahead of time and reheat, it’s better when your meat is warm from just being cooked, so unless you’re in a commercial setting and absolutely can’t cook and serve the meat right away, I’d still recommend to doing it in the moment

Create your schedule, stick to it as much as you can, and then relax!

This tip comes with the major caveat that you’re going to inevitably be overly ambitious in your scheduling and things will run late. Herein lies the benefit of doing as much ahead of time as possible and making a schedule.  

The most important thing about a schedule? It inherently results in a detailed task-list that is ordered by priority. Without this you will forget critical steps or components. 

The good news is that even if you don’t complete everything on time, you can continue down the list in order and be relatively certain that everything will get done. Take a look at the example of our event below:

MealPlanA

As you see, we outlined each item from our menu and everything that needed to get done for it (this is on the day of the event) so that we could cross them off as we went along. Many of the items that you see in purple at the top were carried over to day-of from the days before as they hadn’t yet gotten done.

We had the best intentions to have all kinds of things done on Thursday before our Friday event. When reality struck and they weren’t, we simply moved those things to Friday morning and carved out a block of time to get them done with time to spare for cleaning up and prepping for guest arrival.

Over the next few days I’ll be going into more detail about coming up with a schedule, planning a menu, and picking fool-proof recipes. But in the meantime, I need your help:

What are the hardest or most fear inducing parts of hosting a successful dinner party? And possibly related, what’s your biggest “hosting fail”?

5 Reasons that Farm Boxes are a Good Investment (Though Not Always Financial!)

In our busy lives where shopping can be a big barrier to healthy eating, one of my surefire strategies for eating more fresh fruits and veggies has been to have them show up en masse at my door.  I am convinced that seeing a fridge full of goodness has the psychological effect of making us want to eat more fresh goodies and also combats my natural instinct to horde the good stuff (especially fruit) due to a feeling of scarcity.

THE COST

I’ve always thought “this is a great deal” when I get my farm box deliveries and look at the bounty of what I’ve received in comparison to what I might usually spend at the store.  And I maintain that it is! But, that said, I should warn you that depending on the service and/or season, it might not always be a financial win that you receive.

I ran the numbers this week and here’s how much my farm box cost me vs. roughly what it would have cost at Whole Foods Market for the same items:

 

DO FARM BOXES PAY OFF- (1)

Now please keep in mind that this is a comparison of just one week and one service and also doesn’t take into account that the produce showed up at my door.  I know that my summertime box in San Francisco not only contained a lot more produce but had more of the “expensive stuff” and would have likely come out on top in this comparison, so it really does vary by week, season, and service.

Either way, please don’t let the straight dollar comparison deter you! I’m convinced that net negative dollars or not, getting fresh, wholesome produce delivered to your door.

WHY YOU SHOULD GET A FARM BOX EVEN IF IT COSTS A LITTLE MORE

1. Fresher produce = more nutrients

Of course, I can’t speak for every single produce box company out there, but far and away most of them are sourcing ingredients more locally and fresh than what you might find in a grocery store.  You should certainly check out the buying policies of the company you’re considering, but I always look for ones who are sourcing local produce from small farms (if not picking it directly from their own farm), to ensure the highest quality, most freshness, and best price.

According to this study by UC Davis most store-bought produce is in transport, on shelves, or in your fridge for up to two weeks before consumption, during which time they are separated from their nutrient sources and “undergo higher rates of respiration, resulting in moisture loss, quality and nutrient degradation, and potential microbial spoilage”.   But consumers can maximize the nutrient content of their produce by buying items that are stored for less time, hand harvested, and picked at the peak of ripeness, rather than early.  

Produce box companies like Eatwell Farm, which I was a subscriber to when I lived in San Francisco (and I highly recommend), is amazing because they grow the produce themselves on their farm just a few hours away, pick it, pack it, and deliver it directly to your pickup site for you to use right away. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! 

2. Get inspired to try new things!

Ever eaten brussels sprouts? Cooked with romanesco? Roasted beets?  One of the biggest benefits to getting a farm box is that you’ll be inspired to try new things that you might not otherwise purchase in a store.  While this might sound like a down side on the surface, I encourage you to open your mind a bit to the possibilities that exist outside of your “produce comfort zone”.

Come on, we all have them. The same things we eat over and over again. In fact, a commonly repeated nutrition quote is that most of are eating the same 10-12 things in rotation.  

Research even cites this as a reason that kids are throwing away the fruits and veggies provided through their school lunch programs.  According to an article in The Atlantic, here are the most commonly consumed vegetables in 2012:

Vegetables_TheAtlantic

Source: USDA via The Atlantic

Probably, this isn’t surprising if you also examine your own vegetable consumption at home. How often are you reaching for the same tried and true items? What would happen if something new showed up at your door? Would you be more likely to try it, not just now, but sometime in the future when you see it on a menu or receive it in another farm box?  I think so! Which is reason number 2 that farm boxes are one of my top healthy eating strategies!

3. Feel the difference that comes from having abundant produce

There’s nothing like a fridge full of produce to inspire you to eat more of it! Somehow, the simple act of not buying my fruits and veggies piecemeal and thinking about their individual cost ($9 cauliflower…WTF) makes them feel precious.  I have always told my clients “the kale that goes bad in your fridge isn’t making you healthier” but I’m embarrased to admit that despite the fact that I both LOVE kale and know how to use it, I’ve let it go bad more times than I can count while waiting for that “perfect recipe”. 

With my farm box, on the other hand, I’m freed from the expectation of coming up with a recipe and then using what I’ve bought. It’s actually a total switch in thinking from “I bought it for this purpose and I’m going to wait until I’m ready to make that” to “oh crap, I have this abundance of X, how can I use it before it goes bad?”.

4.  You’re eating with the seasons, without even thinking about it

Ever scoffed at the price of berries or zuchinni? I’m willing to be that, for the most part, the feeling that a fruit or vegetable is “so expensive” is inversely related to it’s local availability. Thing about it. Is it really so ridiculous that a grocery store would ask you to pay $5.99 for a pint of blueberries when they’ve flown it across the world to provide it?  Think, on the other hand, about the more cost effective process of bringing food from a farm up the street or a drive away.  Big difference, huh?

This point also goest to what we talked about earlier in terms of freshness and nutrition. The less shipping a piece of produce has to endure, the fresher it is when it gets to you and the more nutrition you get from it.

The cool thing about farm boxes is that most of them do this work for you, meaning you don’t have to think about your climate and what’s growing.  That said, get ready for some repeats throughout the winter seasons when less can grow. I just started getting a box from Full Circle in Seattle and even with importing some items from California (many CSAs and farms here don’t even have anything to sell in the winter), I’m still prepared for an abundance of kale, apples, and citrus on a weekly basis.  While some might think of this as boring, I sort of like the exercise of realizing that that’s the natural way of the world, and hey, if I want some blueberries I can always go get them for a premium price down the street.

From the San Francisco Fruit Seasonality Chart created by CUESA

From the Fruit Seasonality Chart by CUESA

5. Your money supports smaller farms

The best farm boxes are curating produce from a variety of small farmers you might otherwise not have access to and are helping to distribute their produce to a larger audience.  The aptly named FarmBox in LA says it well: “Farmers and artisans love FarmBox because they get to focus on what they do best—the farming and cooking—and we help them distribute their wonderful products to a customer base they may not ordinarily reach.”

This is one of the main reasons that I like supporting farm boxes. If you only purchase your produce at grocery stores then you only have access to the producers who can grow enough product to deliver at that scale. Nothing against them, but that is really limiting your exposure to great, smaller farmers in the area.

On the other hand, Farmer’s Markets have smaller producers but then of course you have the downside of making another trip out to get your goods. I personally love Farmer’s Markets but find that a farm box is a more convenient source when I’m very busy.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FARM BOX AND A CSA?

At the end of the day, both farm boxes and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are great options. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll distinguish them as follows: most farm boxes provide more flexibility than CSAs due to the fact that you have more control over the frequency of your deliveries including delaying or cancelling them whenever you like.  Most of them can create this flexibility because they are larger companies or farms doing the work of gathering together produce (from one or multiple farms) and can take on the administrative burden of delivery or making changes.

CSAs are a more traditional model in which a single farm offers shares of it’s farm for purchase in exchange for (usually) weekly boxes of the produce they grow during their seasons.  

Here’s a high level overview of the pros and cons of each.

FB CSA Comp_2

Frankly, I can think of no better place than in produce to invest some extra dollars.  Not only has my commitment to getting produce helped me get more into my family’s diet, but it’s also inspired me and my friends to try new things that you wouldn’t normally find us buying.  

FARM BOXES YOU MIGHT LIKE

Interested in getting these advantages for yourself?  Here are some of the farm boxes and CSAs that I cam across in my research (those with an * are ones that I’ve tried and love).

  • Farm Fresh to You* – San Francisco Bay Area
  • Eatwell Farm* – San Francisco Bay Area  (Great CSA that acts more like a farm box in that you can easily modify or pause and you only commit to 4 weeks at a time. Plus they have really cool events at their farm in Dixon!)
  • Farm Box – Los Angeles
  • Full Circle* – Seattle

Have you ever tried a farm box service? If so, what did you think and which one do you recommend? If not, what’s holding you back?

The Minimalist Guide to Kitchen Tools

I’ll start by telling you that “my” kitchen is crazy.  Over time, I’ve accumulated more condiments, superfoods, and single-use kitchen gadgets than one needs.  Are those things fun and useful? Sure! But they also take up a lot of space, cost a fair amount of money, and aren’t necessary for producing delicious, tasty food quickly.

Recently, though, we’ve made a move to a new state and that has brought with it the rare opportunity to start a kitchen from scratch.  Right now, we’re making do with the most minimal of kitchens and a lot of borrowed goods during our stay in temporary housing. This has given me the chance to really examine what I need to cook delicious, healthy meals daily.

 

Minimalist Kitchen_edited copy

I know what you’ll be thinking “I could never cook with just those items, I need my (insert random utensil here).” And I get that, I really do.  But as a chef, mom, and all around “good eater” I can assure you that I’m really demanding of my kitchen and if I can not only live with, but even produce tasty food at least twice a day with the items on this list (electric stove and all) then I’m certain you can too. And just think of how easy it will be to clean your kitchen and put things away with all that new found space!

 So here it is, all you really need to have a well stocked kitchen.  And while I’m sure there are those of you who could cook up gourmet creations with less, this is what I’ve honed in on (with some help from friends – thanks, guys!) as both a comfortable balance between having enough to make what you want and going completely overboard. From experience, I can also tell you that this all fits really comfortably in a downtown apartment kitchen, with room to spare!

MUST HAVES

Every kitchen should have these items to be able to make great food and I can’t think of one I’ve lived in or worked in that couldn’t at least fit these.

  • A set of pots including at least:
    • Cast iron pan – this gets used for frying or scrambling eggs and searing or browning anything, especially item that go into the oven to finish. This is my most used pan and lives on the countertop. Extra credit if you have a lid for this!
    • Medium skillet – it’s good to have a second, smaller pan for toasting nuts and doing smaller pan frying projects.
    • Stock pot with lid – this is for your soups, braises, or large-volume grain cooking.
    • Small pot with lid – this one is mostly to heat up water, but could also be used for heating up a sauce or hard-boiling a few eggs.
  • A sharp knife and a good, large cutting board
  • A couple baking dishes:
    • Baking sheet – use it for, ya know, baking but probably even more so for roasting veggies or meat and baking sweet potatoes.
    • Medium sized baking dish – a glass Pyrex style one is best if you’re using it to cook “saucy” meats or fish like I do, but a metal one may be better if baking is your jam.
  • A few kitchen utensils including:
    • Kitchen shears – good for opening packages, breaking down a chicken, and everything in between.
    • Vegetable peeler – it peels vegetables. I haven’t found a great substitute.
    • 3 large spoons – 1 solid wood one for stirring things in pots, 1 with a more ladle like shape (likely plastic), and the other slotted for scooping solids out of liquid dishes.
    • Rubber spatula and a metal (or plastic in a pinch) spatula – use it to flip your eggs, pancakes or meat.
    • Pair of long tongs – use them for tossing pasta or removing meat from a pan.
    • Whisk – whether making a dressing or a creamy sauce, nothing mixes things together quite like a whisk.
    • Mesh strainer – in the absence of any other strainer, this can do most things, including draining veggies or fruit you’re washing, rinsing grains, or making Greek yogurt when lined with cheese cloth.
  • A wine opener – obviously.
  • Some sort of coffee making appliance if you’re a mom, busy person, or coffee addict like me. I love my Aeropress as it’s small and makes wonderful coffee, but to each their own.

In all likelihood you’ll also need basics like: aluminum foil, parchment paper, towels, and some storage containers with lids for leftovers. But because these are so variable depending on the person, I’ve left them off this list

NICE TO HAVES

If you have a little more space or propensity for cooking, I find that the items below are extra helpful in being able to make anything that strikes your fancy.

  • A few great pieces of kitchen equipment:
    • A strong blender – Vitamix is my choice, but do your thang! This is in charge of my sauces, smoothies, creamy dressings and soups.
    • Slow-cooker or pressure cooker (or better yet, an Instant Pot) – Slow cooking and pressure cooking are great hands off cooking techniques that help minimize the other pots that you’ll need.
  • Kitchen utensils including:
    • Accessory knives like a paring knife and bread knife –  Not absolutely necessary in my kitchen, but I have been finding them useful for things like peeling apples and slicing bagels.
    • Measuring cup – I just have one big glass Pyrex one right now and that’s been plenty, especially if you’re a non-baker like me, but I could see how long-term a set of measuring cups and spoons could come in handy.
    • Good grater – I prefer a fine, sharp one like a Microplane for zesting citrus or finely grating Parmesan cheese, but a larger or more variable one might be more your speed if you’re really into cheese or onion or carrot grating.
    • A salad spinner – You can absolutely wash your greens and place them between two towels to dry them, but this does take up a lot of time and space. If you can fit a salad spinner and are big on leafy greens I definitely recommend one.
    • A nut milk bag – You can usually use cheesecloth, but nut milk bags can be reused and have a much finer weave so they’re great for straining yogurt or making nut milks.

YOU DON’T NEED THESE AT ALL BUT I HAVE THEM ANYWAYS (BECAUSE I’M A JUNKY)

  • Yonanas maker: I got this for my birthday. You don’t need one, but if you have kids or like banana ice cream it is pretty fun.
  • Spiralizer: I just got the Inspiralizer as another birthday gift and I’ve been having so much fun playing around with it, but you absolutely do not need one to have a well-stocked, healthy kitchen.

What are your must have kitchen items that you’d keep or take with you? Anything I missed that you couldn’t live without?

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I might get some money towards buying a new kitchen tool that I surely don’t need!

What to Make this Week (2/22/16)

You’re too busy to even decide what to make this week, aren’t you?  I know the feeling. After spending days, sometimes weeks, deciding what I’m going to make only to be too tired to actually shop and make the food I’ve selected, I’ve finally gotten better at quickly finding the recipes and recipe combination that will work for me and my family.

In hopes that I can alleviate some work for you, I’m sharing my weekly selections here.  Feel free to use one or all of these as a plan or inspiration of what to eat this week!  I’m also thinking of testing out a shopping list – preferably something that includes the food for the week but easily customizable. What do you think? Would that be useful?

THE BASICS

Almost every week, I start off making these simple basics so that I always have a healthy starter for my meals. You’ll see that it makes it easy to pair it up with the specific recipes I make or eat them in combination on their own or with a can of beans and some store-bought sauce to make a quick, nutritious, and affordable meal.

  • A whole grain: Usually I’ll cook up 2 cups dry of either brown rice or quinoa on the stove. Take the 2 cups dry, combine with 4 cups water (2:1 ratio), bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until done. This will take about 45 minutes for brown rice or 20 minutes for quinoa.
    • Store it: Cooked grains will last about 4 days in the fridge, which means they’ll last you most of the work week (wahoo!).  You can also freeze them in plastic bags or storage containers in single-size portions for about 6 months. Just make sure you cool them off and store them right away as they can be surprisingly, potentially dangerous when left at room temp.  (P.S. remind me to tell you the story of my food safety training and my near death experience with the rice that was trying to get me)
  •  A tray (or two) of roasted veggies: One of my surefire ways to eat all the veggies (my New Year’s resolution this year) is to roast up a big tray or two at the beginning of the week and use them in all kinds of dishes. They’re already cooked so it’s super fast.  Just pick your favorite ones; some that roast particularly well are: brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and bell peppers.  Toss together with about 2 Tbsp olive oil (enough to cover really lightly) and a sprinkle of salt and pepper or your favorite all purpose seasoning (keep in neutral). Roast at 400 degrees about 20 minutes. Toss with spoon, then continue roasting another 20 minutes or until veggies are cooked through and brown at the edges.
    • Store it: These will also last 4-5 days stored in the fridge. In a pinch if you’ve made to many you can also freeze them, you’ll just want to use them as an element in a dish (think burrito filling) rather than solo (think defrosted + sauce) when you’re ready to enjoy them.

THIS WEEK’S RECIPES

  • Teriyaki salmon with roasted sweet potato rounds and cauliflower (serves 4):
    • Preheat oven to 400 degrees
    • Slice 2 sweet potatoes into 1/2 inch thick rounds, rub with a bit of coconut oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay in a single layer on one or two baking sheets. Roast 15-20 minutes then flip and roast about 10 minutes more, until lightly browned on each side and cooked through
    • While the sweet potatoes are cooking:
      • Coat 1 pound salmon filet in about 1 cup of teriyaki sauce by just pouring it over the top in a Pyrex dish. Let sit
      • Cut up 1 head cauliflower into florets and toss in a large bowl with 2 Tbsp olive oil and 2 Tbsp mustard (preferably grainy) and a sprinkle of salt
    • Remove potatoes from tray and replace with cauliflower, also in a single layer. Place in oven and roast about 15 minutes.
    • Then increase heat to 425 degrees. When it’s heated, add the dish of salmon in and bake about 6 minutes per 1/2 inch of thickness (my 1 lb piece took about 15 minutes), until it flakes easily with a fork. At this point your cauliflower should also be done and you’ll be ready to eat!
  • Slow Cooker Yellow Thai Curry with Beef served over my cooked whole grain and maybe with some of the roasted veggies stirred in at the end to bump up the plant content
  • I’m going to make a 1/2 recipe of this Citrus Braised Pork from a new book Greg got me for Valentine’s Day.  That and I’ll be using just 1 lb of pork (it should be 1.75) plus 1 cup of dried heirloom beans I’m cooking up to bump up the planty goodness and reduce the meat portion. This will also likely be served over my whole grain and with roasted veggies, but who’ll notice with all the other tasty flavors going on?

I’ll let you know how it goes in the comments!

What are you making this week? Are there any new recipes you might recommend we try?

What I’m Making this Week (2/15/16)

We’ve all been there – struggling to figure out what to make, yet again! I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from the designated cook in a family “I pretty much always make the same things…I’m pretty sure that SOandSO is tired of it. I sure am.”  

And I get it! You want to be good and plan ahead (I just sent an email to my list about this – get on it if you want some insider tips), but it takes a lot to find new ideas that fit your criteria.  For me, I have some basic guidelines on what works for my family:

  • Can the ingredients be bought ahead of time and stored? I just don’t have time anymore for shopping on the daily.
  • Does it suit the way we like to eat? For us that’s lots of veggies, maybe some meat, and almost always some whole grains.
  • Will it make good leftovers? If we’re going to keep from eating lunch out all the time, leftovers from dinner are essential.
  • Is it fast? For me, finding detailed, gourmet recipes is the easy part, but having the time and energy to make them is an indulgence. So I don’t need those as regularly, what I really need are recipes with a short list of ingredients that take less than 30 minutes to make (of hands on time).

And a fun little photo reminder I made of this:

On Choosing Recipes

That little list looks so innocuous and easy, but it definitely takes time to find recipes that not only meet this criteria, but also sound good at any given moment. And while I know that your criteria might differ, I figured that if I’m doing all this planning already I might as well share it out with you.  Feel free to comment and yell at me about why you’ll never make bbq chicken in a slow cooker and then use some common sense to make it your own so that it works for you. K? Thanks! 

Also note that I only plan dinners and shop for ingredients for weekdays and even then it’s pretty loosey goosey.  I like to leave weekends a little more open to eat at a new restaurant, make one of the meals I didn’t get to, or decide to try a new, possibly more labor intensive recipe on a whim. Because that’s my idea of fun. Judge accordingly.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’m making this week:

  • Coconut Shrimp: I’m going to try out this new-to-me recipe with some simple slaw alongside to use up my leftover cabbage. Might not make the best leftovers, but I think if I warm them up in the oven they’ll be ok.
  • BBQ Chicken in the slow cooker: no recipe needed here. 1 lb boneless skinless chicken + 1 bottle bbq sauce in the slow-cooker for 4 hours. I’ll serve this on whole wheat rolls to my sister and her fiance as payment for watching my son (cheapest. babysitting. ever. and the best!) along with some roasted brussels sprouts.  FWIW – I’ll plan on using this Tessamae’s BBQ sauce as it doesn’t have any refined sweeteners and you could easily serve this over quinoa for a gluten-free option.
  • Bean, rice, and roasted veggie bowls with this Vegan Queso (made with eggplant instead of cashews!!): The cool thing about this one is that all the components can be made ahead of time and stored up to 5 days. Any extra rice, beans, or even roast veggies you make can also be frozen in individual portions for future easy meals.

Since many of these recipes are also new to me, I’ll share what I learn/think in the comments. That way we’ll all remember!

What about you What’s your criteria for finding recipes that you’ll love and actually make?

Update: Here’s what I ended up making and what I thought of it-

Coconut Shrimp: Pretty good! We had this over the Costco cabbage salad, but instead of using their dressing (questionable) used the Tessamae’s Teriyaki Sauce. It was easy, tasty, and very fast to make.

Bean, rice, and roasted veggie bowls with this Vegan Queso: Really good! I loved that I could make the rice and roasted veggies ahead of time and use them for multiple meals.  The vegan queso was an awesome, flavor-packed addition on top, but I did notice that 1 eggplant wasn’t enough to make the full recipe (for me). Here’s what I would do differently next time: Roast 2 eggplants whole, steam in a brown paper bag after roasting, then peel and follow the recipe.  I’d also make a double batch so that I could freeze some or have it for more dishes, especially lunches, throughout the week.

BBQ Chicken: I didn’t end up making this because life. Maybe it will show up on the menu for next week!