Thirty Minute Thursdays: Meal Planning + a Fauxtalian Grilled Cheese Sandwich

I’m a very careful spender. I don’t often impulse buy, and it’s rare that I waste things – especially food. Every Thursday or Friday, I sit down with my laptop and my Rachael Ray cookbook, and I plan out a menu for the following week. This process used to be painstaking. I would sit for hours going back and forth between hundreds of recipe combinations to find one that worked to maximize the value of what I spent and minimize waste. Now, I’m able to do it much more quickly. When I’m done, I write up a grocery list, pop it into my phone, and go grocery shopping to pick up only what I have on that list. I spend, on average, $20 a week to feed myself, with maybe 1 week each month going up to $40 if I need to replenish the essentials like yogurts, grains, cereals, etc.  There isn’t a single item of highly processed, stereotypical “convenience” food in my cart. (And no, I don’t even use coupons.) I’d say that’s pretty good. Granted, sometimes I’ll pilfer my parent’s kitchen when I’m home, a luxury that most people don’t have, but the bottom line is – I eat a healthy diet without really breaking the bank or going to huge extremes to cut costs.

The one sacrifice I do often make is in ingredients that a recipe calls for. I won’t buy 3 types of cheese in one week just because one recipe calls for ½ cup of mozzarella and 2 tablespoons of parmesan and another calls for 8 ounces of feta. Instead, I tweak the recipes to use similar ingredients (or I just look for another recipe that works better with what I already have). This is often why you see adapted recipes on Floptimism, particularly on Thirty Minute Thursdays – the recipe likely called for an ingredient that was close but not exactly the same as another ingredient I already had on my grocery list, so I just substituted. That’s the beauty of cooking: you may not wind up with the same dish in the end, but you can adapt recipes to your heart’s content.

This recipe was supposed to be an Italian grilled cheese sandwich, but I already had smoked cheddar on my list for a recipe earlier in the week. I didn’t want to buy provolone when I was already buying the cheddar in quantities greater than the one recipe called for, so I just changed it. (Alternatively, I could have gone to my deli counter and simply asked for 3 slices of provolone, and frozen the extra cheddar for future weeks – this is a great way to save on cheeses and lunch meats.) It was supposed to be made on Italian bread, but earlier in the semester I bought a Costco-size package of whole grain sandwich thins and put them in the freezer, so I used one of those for bread instead. My mom had bought a large container of campari tomatoes and wasn’t going to use all of them before they went bad, so I sliced some of those instead of buying regular tomatoes at the store. I didn’t have to buy the basil because I bought a pot at the grocery store for $2.99 at the beginning of the year and have been watering it every day since – it’s still going strong! All of these factors came together to, yes, change the meal to the point where I probably can’t call it an Italian grilled cheese sandwich, but it fit easily into my budget. And did it prevent the sandwich from being the best gosh darn grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever eaten? No, it most certainly did not!

So you see, the less confined you feel by a recipe or a set of ingredients, the easier it is to incorporate healthful foods and delicious meals into your diet. I believe that cooking should be a freeing experience, and it doesn’t take a lot of expertise to get there. It just takes a little bit of patience, practice, and planning.

“Fauxtalian” Grilled Cheese Sandwich, adapted from Rachael Ray’s Classic 30 Minute Meals
Yield: 2 servings

The Ingredients
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic
2 whole grain sandwich thins
6 (ish) slices smoked cheddar cheese
4 camperi tomatoes, halved1
8 fresh basil leaves, torn

The Method
Heat the oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the sandwich thins to the pan to soak up the garlic oil, then remove the thins from the pan. Open the sandwich thins and set the two top halves aside. Layer each bottom half with ¼ of the cheese, then 4 tomato halves, then the remaining cheese. Place the top halves on top to complete the sandwich and return the sandwiches to the skillet to cook until the cheese has melted, flipping once to brown both sides.

1It’s easier if you also slice off the rounded edges of the tomatoes just a little bit to make flat slices for the sandwich.

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