My tips for meal planning

A few months ago, I did a post about about how I use Evernote for meal planning. In this post, I’m going to build on that and give you some of my tips that make meal planning work effectively for me.

1. Know what you’ve already got
Whether this involves checking your fridge, freezer & pantry before you meal plan, keeping a running list of what is there somewhere, or just being ‘aware’ of it in your head, it’s really useful. I use a combination of the checking and being ‘aware’ of what we’ve got, because there are some things that Hubby mainly uses and he never remembers to tell me when things are running low, but I’m usually aware of how much is left of pantry staples/stuff I use.
This also includes knowing how many meals-worth of frozen food you have. I freeze everything in single-meal serves, so I can quickly count up the containers and know how many meals we have in the freezer.

2. Know what your staples are
These are different for everyone. My staples are even very different from my Mum’s, and she’s the one who taught me to cook. If you have NO IDEA what your staples are yet (be it because you’ve just started cooking for yourself, or because you’ve never really thought about it), there are a few options.
If it’s just because you’ve never really thought about it, collect up your favourite/most-used recipes and look at the ingredients. Anything that can be frozen or is shelf-stable will make up the beginning of your staples list.
If you’ve just started cooking for yourself and don’t know where to start, because you don’t even really have favourite recipes yet, I’ll be doing a post next week about my pantry staples. You can also google ‘pantry staples’ and see what other people recommend.

3. Always have your staples on hand
They’re not really staples if you don’t have them on hand 🙂 If you always have your pantry staples, you can make a lot of meals just out of your pantry. This is great for weeks when you don’t have a lot of money for food, as you can just get a few fresh ingredients to supplement what you already have.

4. Stock up on staples when you can
If your pantry staples are on sale, replace anything that you’ve used. Eg, if you always have tinned tomatoes in the pantry, decide on a “standard” number of cans (maybe 10) and replenish your stock up to that number every time they’re on special.

5. Check the use-by dates on everything
Always keep an eye on what is about to go out of date, to save on wasting this food. There’s nothing worse than planning a meal for the week, and really looking forward to eating it, only to go to make it and find that one of the main ingredients has gone yuck. Then you have to make another trip to the shops and buy the ingredient, which often is not on special at that point, or run around trying to find something that you DO have that you can use instead.

Cooking experiment

I am going to be conducting a cooking experiment.

I currently only own a 6.5L slow cooker. This is a problem – since there’s only 2 of us, a 6.5L slow cooker is a little bit of overkill. A lot of the recipes I’d like to make serve 6 people, and this is not enough stuff to be able to use my big slow cooker. The slow cooker is supposed to be at least 2/3 full to use it, otherwise you risk overheating the upper parts of the bowl and cracking it.

I have been researching alternatives, pending my eventual purchase of this gorgeous thing (I’m hoping I might get it for my birthday this year).

One that seems to be a decent contender is using a dutch oven in the oven. It seems to best emulate the steady heat and no-stir/set&forget benefits of an actual slow cooker. It’s not something I’d choose INSTEAD OF a slow cooker, because I wouldn’t ever want to leave the house when the oven was on (which is basically the main point of slow cookers as far as I’m concerned. Put food in before I leave for work/uni, and it’s ready when I get home).

The basic premise of this seems to be that you heat the oven to a low-moderate temp, then cook the recipe as you would in a normal slow cooker. I’ve decided on 120°C (about 250°F) because that seems to be a roughly average figure when I compare all the various suggested temperatures. The pot I’m using is a cheap-brand version of a Le Crueset pot (enamelled cast iron).

I’ll report back on how it goes.


Veges in the microwave

There’s heaps of reasons for cooking veges in the microwave instead of on the stove.

  1. Boiling your veges causes a lot of their nutrients to leak out into the surrounding water. When you microwave them, this doesn’t happen.
  2. It’s far quicker in the microwave than on the stove – you don’t have to wait for the water to boil first.
  3. You’re less likely to over-cook the veges – the microwave stops cooking as soon as the timer is up, but on the stove they will keep cooking until you take them out of the water/off the steamer
  4. The microwave uses less energy than heating a pot of water on the stove

What you’ll need:

  • veges (duh)
  • a microwave (WARNING: my microwave power is 700W at maximum. Please be careful that you are using approximately the same power level on your microwave, otherwise you may over-cook your veges or even melt your container)
  • a decent quality microwave-safe container with a lid (preferably with a steam vent – I generally use one of these – remnants of my time as a Tupperware demonstrator)

How to:

  1. Chop up your veges – make the softer ones larger pieces, and the harder ones a bit smaller. I generally chop carrots into rounds that are about 5mm (1/4″) thick, broccoli/cauliflower into florets about the size of a golf ball, and softer things like zucchini into rounds about 1cm (1/2″) thick.
  2. Put all the veges into your microwave container, and top with a 1 tbsp of water per serve of veges.
  3. Put on lid – if you have a steam vent, make sure this is open. If you don’t, leave one corner of the lid un-sealed so steam can escape.
  4. Cook veges at approx 700W for 5mins for 1 serve (2 serves will take about 8mins). If the veges are undercooked for your liking, cook them further in 30 sec bursts (still at 700w) until cooked through.
    The cooking time will vary slightly between microwaves, but if you’ve got the wattage pretty close to 700W, this will make cooked veges that still have some bite to them – I don’t like super-soft veges. The times stated are what I use in my microwave.

I have a steamer insert that sits over my largest pot (a 6L soup pot), and if I’m doing veges for a lot of people (or if I’m cooking something in the big pot – e.g. pasta) I’ll put the veges into this instead of in the microwave. Steaming your veges in this way has many of the same benefits of microwaving them, but you do have to make sure you take the steamer off the pot as soon as they’re ready, because they’ll keep cooking as long as they are over the steam.

I always microwave my veges when I’m making bentos though, because it is much quicker and results in less clean-up, because I just re-use the same microwave container for everything I need to reheat, generally in the following order:

  1. Defrost frozen rice
  2. Cook veges
  3. Defrost meat items (always do meat last if you’re using the same container, and follow the food-safety tips from this post on JustBento if you’re packing a lunch)


Rice for 1

If I’m going to be home at lunch time, I prefer to make my rice fresh when I’m about to eat (it just tastes better in my opinion).

Only problem is, I don’t always need to stock up my freezer stash of rice, so there’s no point using my rice cooker (I need to cook a minimum of 2 cups in that, and that’s 4 serves once it’s cooked). So I’ve fine-tuned this stove-top method to make it useable for a single serve.

What you’ll need:

  • a very small pan with a heavy base and a well-sealing lid (I use this one) – if you can get a pot with a glass lid it makes everything a heap easier
  • bowl
  • fine mesh sieve/strainer
  • 1/2 cup dry japonica rice (also called “sushi rice”)


  1. Rinse the rice 3-4 times. The video below from Just One Cookbook shows the proper method for rinsing the rice and also gives a really good idea of what the water should look like at the end of the process. This tutorial is what I used as a baseline for my experiments with times for cooking a single serve of rice.
  2. Drain the rice well (leaving it in the strainer over a bowl), and leave for about 10-15mins.
  3. Put rice into saucepan with some water (For 1/2 cup dry rice, you’ll need 1/2 cup + 1/8 cup of water). Allow to soak for about 10-15mins.
  4. After it has soaked, put the pot on the stove at medium heat (with lid on) until the water boils. This is where a glass lid comes in handy! If you don’t have a glass lid to your pot, listen out for the bubbling and have a quick peek (don’t take the lid fully off, just lift it enough to check that the water is boiling).
  5. Once the water is boiling, take the pot off the hotplate and turn it off. LEAVE THE LID ON. Allow the hotplate to cool for approx 2 mins, then turn it back on at low heat. Replace the pot (lid still on) and cook for 8mins without lifting the lid.
    Gas cooker: Once the water is boiling, turn the gas down to low and cook for 10mins (covered). I’m figuring that this will be roughly equivalent to the electric instructions, because SCIENCE REASONS involving ambient heat and heat retention.
  6. After the timer goes off, remove pot from heat and allow to sit for 10mins COVERED. Do not lift the lid at all unless you absolutely MUST peek at your rice.
  7. After the 10 mins, take off the lid and give the rice a gentle stir with a rice paddle. There should not be any water in the bottom of the pot, but occasionally there might be. If there is, put the lid back on and heat over medium heat for a minute or so, until the water is gone. Allow to sit (covered) for a couple of minutes afterwards.
  8. Your rice is now ready to eat!

If you’re putting rice in a bento box, you should always allow it to cool before sealing the box, or the steam will make it go a bit slimy. You can eat the rice plain, or you can top it with just about anything! If I’m putting it in a bento, I’ll usually put a bit of my homemade nori furikake on it.

This makes 1 cup of cooked rice, which is a good-sized serve for your average adult female. 1 cup of rice will make approximately 3 average-sized onigiri if you want to do that. This is a great tutorial of how to make onigiri in an easy, mess-free way (it’s how I make them).

– Rice on the bottom of your pan is all brown and crunchy, but the rest of the rice is fine: you may be cooking the rice on too high a heat (or for too long). High heat is most likely, so try cooking it on a lower heat. Generally this will solve the issue.
– There is ALWAYS water left at the bottom of your pot at step 6: try cooking on a slightly higher heat or for an additional minute or two. Alternatively, if rice is cooked through and there is left over water, use slightly less (see the last point about the weather and humidity)
– Rice is gloopy once all the water is absorbed: there may be too much starch left on the outside. Try rinsing the rice a few extra times next time.
– Rice goes mushy and loses its shape: you are using too much water. Use a little less water next time (this will tie in with the 2nd troubleshooting point as well). Generally, I use a 1:1.25 (rice:water) ratio for the stovetop instructions above.
– Rice is not cooked all the way through, and all water is absorbed: add a little extra water. I find in very dry weather (i.e. winter for me) I need to add a little extra water, so in winter I sometimes use a 1:1.5 ratio instead.