They are shaped by how you source ingredients.
There are two basic approaches to preparing home-cooked meals. One is planning the menu in advance and buying ingredients based on that plan; the other is going to the store without a plan and buying based on what appeals and is on sale.
Over the years I have worked hard to fall into the former category, embracing meal planning as a way to stay on top of the endless challenge of preparing healthy meals for my growing family. But it doesn't come naturally to me, and I have to fight to stay on track every step of the way – avoiding impractical recipes, keeping my hands off tasty ingredients that aren't on the list, and sticking with the plan on nights that my palate begs for something different.Lately, though, I've shifted away from planning and embraced a more spontaneous approach. There are a few reasons for this. The first is seasonal. Where I live in Canada, the local food scene is brief, fleeting, and glorious while it lasts. I want to take advantage of whatever is being harvested in a given week because it won't be around for long.
Now, instead of hitting up the grocery store once per week, I wait for my CSA (community supported agriculture) share to arrive and allow its contents to shape our meals. These are supplemented by finds at the Wednesday morning farmers' market, a stop at the market garden store down the road, and an online local food co-op that delivers once weekly.
It means there's more guesswork and delays involved at dinnertime and occasional frantic trips to the store for something crucial, but that doesn't seem to matter quite so much in the summertime, when my children's bedtime isn't set in stone and we're slightly less busy. I like the result, which is a diet that tracks the local growing season.
The second reason for my shift is lack of cooking space. I'd written before about living in a rental house, but now we've moved to an even tinier space – a second-floor apartment in an old house with the smallest kitchen I think I've ever seen. We have about four square feet of counter space.
There was not a single cupboard for ingredient storage when we moved in, so I've repurposed a three-drawer dresser from one of the bedrooms to act as a pantry. Needless to stay, there's not much stockpiling of ingredients happening here, and my once-weekly shop has had to turn into three or four times a week, since we simply don't have space for anything more.
In analyzing the two different approaches to cooking, Trent Hamm writes in The Simple Dollar that both are effective, but each has its benefits for different lifestyles. Planning is good for people on a tight schedule, but the 'ingredients-first approach', as he calls it (which is what I'm currently doing), can save you money. It does require a good knowledge of cooking, i.e. basic ingredient combinations that work, and a willingness to be creative in the kitchen:
"You have to be willing to appreciate a diversity of foods and ingredients, because most of your meals are going to be ad-libbed around whatever’s on sale [or in season]."
Once I'm out of this rental and back in my own house, renovations complete, and the CSA share is over for the season, I'll probably shift back to meal-planning again as a time-saving tactic. But for now I'm enjoying the challenge of taking each day as it comes, trying to build meals out of whatever's freshest, cheapest, and produced closest to home.