Geekkat, in her blog, A Bit of a Geeky Mom, has been writing on meal and menu planning, which has led me to my own happy thoughts on the subject. (Thanks for the inspiration!) It’s actually been a long time coming, so I thought that I’d finally start a new category on the subject here on Seedling, The Produce Patch.
As background, I love food. I’m not a mega-foodie, but I consider myself something of a foodie. I love healthy, tasty food. The way I measure a good restaurant is whether their food is fresh (vs. processed/pre-packaged), and if I know how/could make the dish myself.
I became interested in healthy food in high school, and went mostly vegetarian in college. I wasn’t die-hard about being vegetarian, and it wasn’t until later that I understood my motives completely: that I did it for the environmental effects, humane animal treatment issues, and self-discipline training. Because my motives were mixed, I allowed myself to eat chicken when out of the house because a lot of people just don’t know what to what to offer a vegetarian besides a salad (boring). When I went into the Peace Corps, I dropped being vegetarian because one of the wonderful ways to explore a new culture is through the food. Later, if I had come back from the Peace Corps sola, I may have gone back to being vegetarian, but I didn’t, so I’m not. But – even so, we still only eat meat 1-2 times a week, and my husband complains if we have it too often, as we just feel too full, or too weighed down by it or something. I prefer making vegetarian meals because they take less time.
So, coming back to my menu and meal planning. I always make a loose menu plan before shopping, and structure my list around it. When I lived alone, I planned four to five recipes for two weeks, and ate left-overs or easy foods like boxed macaroni and cheese or rice with soy sauce on the days that I didn’t make a big meal. Mind you that back then a box of macaroni and cheese could last me two meals, whereas any more, I could eat the whole thing plus some in a sitting (but I don’t because that stuff is NOT healthy, and funnily enough, I don’t like the taste any more). Now that I have a family, up until recently, I was planning four to five recipes for the week, and we’d eat left-overs or beans on the off days. For the last few months, after it noticed my grocery bill growing exponentially, I decided to plan about seven recipes and do a big shopping trip bi-weekly, with a smaller one for perishables on the off weeks. I’ve definitely felt the difference.
So, that’s the shopping trip, how about the actual meal planning? At times, especially when I was trying to lose a little weight after the Peace Corps, I tried making a strict menu that placed certain meals on certain days, down to breakfast and lunch. But my personality is too random, and depending on what’s going on in the rest of my life, sometimes I feel more like cooking, sometimes less, so I don’t do that any more. I also don’t like eating late, so if I happen to get home at 6pm, I just wouldn’t stick to the plan if I had a 2-hour meal planned for that night. So, I make a list of recipes I’m wanting to make that week, with about half being easy and quick, and the other half more complicated, that way I can pick and choose based on how I feel that day. In a pinch, our fall-back meal is comida tipica, the ‘typical meal’ from Honduras, as my husband is Honduran. This is a meal of beans, rice, eggs, queso fresco, avocado, tortillas, mantequilla if available, and maybe something else.
As for choosing recipes, I love experimenting and trying out new recipes and foods. I have about ten cookbooks, five of which I use most often. My favorite book is actually a cookbook: More-With-Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. This cookbooks is so versatile and really helped me learn how to make substitutions with what I have on hand. It was very, very handy when I was in Honduras and couldn’t get unique ingredients, or even much meat. This technique of substituting is also good on the wallet.
To make my list, I like to get a few cookbooks out as I am getting set up, then I browse them to see what recipes catch my eye, as well as how I might use the same ingredients across a few days to be more economical. As I said, I choose some easy meals, and some more complicated ones. When Paul was an infant, I only chose easy ones, it was kind of weird at the time actually. All recipes I choose have a vegetable in them. A vegetable is usually what I plan to use across multiple meals. Each meal is also composed of a complete protein. I try to not over do protein either, like why have chicken and beans and rice, or beef and cottage cheese? Best to save money and calories and eat them at separate times. In needing to complete proteins in meat-less meals, I do consider legumes, grains, and potatoes proteins instead of vegetables. When the meal is served, a fruit, usually fresh, is on the side as well, if it is not part of the main dish, so I plan those into my menu. We rarely have desert, and if we do, it’s not eaten after the meal.
That’s it, easy peasy! I make a list of recipes, then I make them! I don’t often get bored cooking because I’m always cooking up something new. Besides beans, I rarely make the same recipe more than once within 4-6 months time. I also like to mix up the whole grains we eat. We do eat lots of rice, but we also get millet, quinoa, spelt, barley, cracked wheat, oats, and couscous. I do make macaroni, but it’s usually a lunch food, and I still consider it a processed food, like bread, even if I get the whole grain version. We usually have pizza, whether homemade or delivery, about once a month.
During the summer, cooking is really fun, as we have a large garden. Lately, I make a list off the veggies we have ready right now, then I pick out recipes around that list. Sometimes, something comes on and I just incorporate it into my menu. Flexibility is what I’m all about!
Now, I know it’s not for everyone, but I do cook from scratch as much as possible. Beans are cooked up from dry here, and I make my own white sauces instead of buying canned cream of whatever soup. Sometimes, I even strain tomatoes for juice, though I haven’t done that in a long time. I don’t really can, though I do freeze some, but mostly we just eat fresh. I am also not very interested in baking, so unfortunately, bread is still Sara Lee. I did try bread-making for a while, but I didn’t have much of a hand for it. I do have a bread maker that I just can’t get rid of, though I’ve never used it. I keep thinking that maybe someday… I don’t like to buy canned tomatoes, but I do get jarred tomato sauce as long as it doesn’t have any high fructose corn syrup. A lot of people like to use pre-shredded, bagged cabbage and carrots, etc, for convenience, but we don’t like the taste, so so I shred them myself. Even cheese I shred myself to avoid the extra preservatives and de-caking chemicals that are added to them. Basically, you’ve got to pick and choose what is most important to you and how much time and money you have. The thing about shredding my own is that it takes more time, but it costs less money. Give and take.
I’ll admit after going on and on about what I do from scratch, that I’m not a fast cook. I would never apply to Chopped because there’s no way I could make even an appetizer in 30 minutes! But that’s ok with me. Actually if too many of my meals are too quick during the week, I feel like something is missing from my life. I enjoy the time spent cooking to be able to concentrate on doing one thing at a time (well sort of), express myself creatively, and produce something that meets a need in my family. I find it very satisfying. Not everyone does, and that’s ok. Everyone has to find what works best for them and their family. If you are new at menu and meal planning, my best advice would be to just try different approaches to see what works best for you, but don’t give up, healthy meals and savings at the store are to be had! And it’s not really that hard or time consuming!
Whew! That’s all for my thoughts on menu and meal planning this time. If you liked it, keep an eye out for more musings on healthy cooking, as well as highlights on specific fruits and vegetables here on Seedling.
Ring the dinner bell, and leave a thought on how you menu and meal plan.