November 15th is National Clean Out the Fridge Day. And while I'm pretty sure that is meant to be a day that you clean out the fridge, I like to think of it as a day when you look into the back of your refrigerator and scrape around in the bottom of the vegetable drawer to see what can be turned into a creative meal. (In case you were wondering, this is also what every Friday looks like in my house.)
Planning vs. Improvising
I used to be very good at meal planning. When I say "very good at meal planning" what I mean is "I used to meal plan." I would take time every Sunday morning, evaluate what we had from the Farmers' Market trip on Saturday, what was stocked in the pantry, and make a plan for school lunch and dinner throughout the week before hitting the grocery store late Sunday morning.
But that was then. These days I am usually opening the fridge at 5:30 when I should have already started dinner - just as the kids are pouring themselves giant bowls of cereal, because they are hungry and no one has started dinner - wondering what I can make that won't take a zillion hours and that we have all the ingredients for. It's not a necessarily a winning strategy.
But improvising a meal, rather than planning it, can be done pretty easily - even gracefully - when you employ a meal strategy, rather than a meal recipe.
5 Meal Strategies for Improvising
Rather than making a specific recipe, if you focus on a general meal strategy - or a broad food genre, you can really turn anything into a meal. Here are some of the strategies I use to help me get dinner on the table (and use up what's in the fridge).
Just about anything can be turned into a taco, and they present an excellent opportnity to explore and experiment with textures and flavors. Plus, they easily accommodate any and all dietary restrctions - vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, meat-lover, omnivore, herbavore, 2-year-old-I-only-like-tortillas-avore. Pair a protein (leftovers are perfect here!) and any vegetable you have in the fridge. Add a lime wedge, herbs, or a drizzle of sauce and you have a meal. Tacos are one of the 3 Simple Strategies for Easier Mealtimes guide that's on our website (the other two are NOT written about below, so check those out too)!
Before kids, my husband and I would make a "big salad" at least once a week. Whatever greens, veggies, cheese, beans, sliced meats, nuts and fruits we had on hand were diced, sliced, and tossed in for a simple and hearty meal. Add a bake-at-home French loaf, or a simple slice of bread, for those who also need a true carb on the table.
Pasta is exceedingly forgiving as a meal, especially for families with kids because it's pasta and kids usually love pasta. Sausage and braised leek or onion; chicken, with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts; canned corn and blistered cherry tomatoes; tuna and black olives; heck ... just peas and butter! Warm up leftover roasted root veggies with some candied walnuts, toss in pesto with feta cheese ... the combinations options are endless and pasta is very forgiving.
Stir frying is a cooking technique in which ingredients are fried in a small amount of very hot oil while being stirred or tossed (usually in a wok). Stir fry meals are versatile because they can easily accommodate whatever vegetables (and meat, if you choose) you have on hand. Add to that differences in flavor profiles that can be accomplished by using different stir fry sauces and you'll understand why this meal is worth having in frequent rotation.
This is my favorite way to clean out the fridge. I pull out any item vegetable, 1/4 block of cheese, remaining slices of sandwich meat, and fruit left sitting in the fridge that needs to be eaten and spread them out on a cutting board. I fill in gaps with nuts, crackers, or dried fruit from the pantry and round out any remaining gaps with olives, pickles, or bowls for dips (fig spread, hummus, salad dressings). Voilà! Dinner.
And If You Still Want to Actually Clean Your Fridge
And if you are still the kind of person who wants to actually scrub your fridge clean in order to feel in control or prepare for the holidays ... godspeed. For tips on how to do that well, you best turn to Apartment Therapy or self.com. That's what I would do.