A Meal Plan Not Including Hilltop Commons

Planning and cooking fresh food for a family is not an easy task. Looking back on all those tasty meals Mom prepared after working all day, I definitely wish I’d have praised her more for her genius and tried harder to learn from the master when I had the chance. Now many years later, and with my own little family growing, I’ve finally started to ween off delivery and frozen vegetables…luckily, there are resources out there on the good ol’ WWW that are making my own culinary map a little more legible.

The Fresh 20 is a meal planning service developed in 2009 by Melissa Lanz  that provides a weekly five dinner menu for the busy family using just 20 fresh ingredients plus what they call “pantry essentials” such as olive oil, garlic, rice, salt & pepper, etc. The portions are set to feed a family of four but I find it works better for feeding my wife and I each night and providing leftovers for us to take to work and have for lunch. The reason there are only five meals planned each week is to allow for some flexibility for sports and social events…the idea is to avoid buying a loaf of bread for one slice and throwing away excess food as it spoils.
While Fresh 20 isn’t free, for $54 a year the subscriber gets an email every friday with the week’s recipes and a shopping list organized by grocery section (e.g. meat/seafood, dairy, fruits & vegetables). In addition to the “classic” plan, there are similar plans for vegetarians, gluten haters, and a couple 12-week specialty plans for kosher and dairy free. Subscribers can download each week as a pdf and also access the archives for a make your own e-cookbook. 
Now after a week or two of trying to get the hang of the system, stocking up my “pantry essentials,” and figuring out where everything is in my local ShopRite, I’m starting to get into a nice routine. When the email comes friday, I take some time to review the menu and look up some of the ingredients I’ve never heard of (spaghetti squash? radicchio?). Saturday or Sunday morning, I head to the store (after checking to make sure my pantry is stocked) to pick up the fresh stuff for the week. A great feature of Fresh 20 is the preparation plan for each week. It lays out a lot of the ground work to do Sunday so that there’s less prep on weeknights. This includes making sauces, cutting vegetables, cooking rice to be reheated, marinating chicken, etc. I try to get this done Sunday evening and it usually takes me 1.5-2 hours but that’s because peel carrots like an eight year old…while it’s tough to commit the time on the weekend, the prep work greatly shortens the time to cook during the week after long days. 
Another smart feature of these dinner plans is the innovative use of leftovers. Usually meal one is a meat dish that instructs you to save half the cooked meat to be reused on a later dinner Wednesday or Thursday. There is similar use of vegetables like potatoes and squash…this is how the plans minimize waste at the end of the week. It’s more efficient than Sneaky Steve back in the ’99 Frozen Four run…
A final benefit of Fresh 20 that I’d like to point out is the variety of food it encourages you to cook and enjoy that you might not have ever tried on your own. Each week there is usually 1-2 meat dishes, a fish night, a soup/stew or a pasta, and a vegetarian night. In only the last month, I’ve cooked with at least 15 fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables for the first time. I’m also starting to get a good feel for some of the basic cooking techniques I have never taken the time to master….I’m talkin’ ’bout practice…it gives me hope that by the time I’m forty, I may even be considered a responsible parent and adult!
It remains to be seen whether I will continue to follow the plans week in and week out, but for now, I’m enjoying The Fresh 20 and hope that this blog is a sufficient endorsement of a really clever business model… and please no disrespect to the Hilltop. I’m sure they still own the best Saturday brunch east of the Stillwater.

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