Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Corn & Toast, Anyone? (Meal Planning 101)

(Another installment in a series of articles you probably read a Mom to Mom newsletter of yesteryear.)

One of the best wifely tasks I do every week is plan the dinner meals. Now, I know what you are thinking because I thought it too: “Ugh. Why would I want to take the time to do that?!?! I dread cooking dinner enough as it is!

For six long years of marriage, I, too, resisted planning a weekly dinner menu, preferring instead (oddly enough) the hungry-stomach, blank-stare-into-the-freezer nightly ritual. Nothing sounds quite right when you are starving – except of course take-out. I would open the freezer then close the freezer, open the fridge then close the fridge. Sigh. Then open the freezer once more only to close it again, more quickly this time. Then walk to the food pantry, stare at the random selection of cans and wish, in vain, that mealtime inspiration would hit. But the truth of the matter is I am not —and never will be — an inspired cook.

As I stared night after night, year after year, into my fridge, freezer, and pantry, the process never got easier. In fact, it got more difficult because I had kids. Frequent trips to the grocery store with kids were more trouble than they were worth, and the kids were hungry even sooner than I was.

Further impetus for planning a dinner menu was a comment a dear friend said to me: “I only go to the grocery store once a week. If we run out of something, that’s just too bad.” I was flabbergasted at what I thought might be indignation. In truth, the reason she could say that and not regularly feed her family a can of corn and toast is because she had planned for the whole week already. I considered all the last-minute trips to the high-end grocery store nearest my house that I make in a month (our checkbook tells no lies) and decided to start planning our meals.

Becoming a “once-a-week-Winco” girl I now sit down at the table with my recipe books, grocery list, a thick piece of paper (my menu) and a pen. I write the days of the week down the side of the menu and glance at the family calendar to see what I have written in it that pertains to meals (going over to the in-laws Saturday night, date night Tuesday, snacks for Women’s Bible Study Wednesday, etc) and I write that down on the days they apply.

Inspiration via cookbooks I find main dishes that are simple and sound good and write them on the menu, along with the book name and page number that the recipe came from. I go through the ingredients list and record what I need to buy at the store, filling in the side dishes as I go. HINT: Don’t forget to account for leftovers! If you make lasagna for Wednesday, write “leftovers” on Thursday – make sure the family knows that you did not intend for the whole meal to be devoured in one sitting.

Baby steps When I first started, I committed to cooking a new recipe one or two days a week because our family needed to change what we were eating. I have three recipe books that I primarily cook from. I use them because they contain relatively simple recipes and the family nearly always likes them. Often I use just one book for any given week to keep things simple. On the days I was not trying something new, I cooked old stand-bys.

Save the menu! I post my menu on the fridge (amidst the sea of colored alphabet letters and family photos) and refer to it all week. At the end of the week, don’t throw it out! I keep all my week’s menus, because they come in handy again (say in about four weeks)!
Create a cheat sheet. One final superb thing to do: start making a list of dinner ideas that you enjoyed cooking and your family liked. Post the list - with the cookbook name and page number next to it – on the fridge for easy reference. I also underline the type of meat that it takes, again, for easy reference.

How long does it take? Well, a better question is, “How long did it used to take?” I used to agonize every day about what I will cook for at least an hour. Now, my planning takes less than ½ hour a week, and my think time each evening is zero. I just look, and cook!

All corniness aside, what I really like about planning our menu is that it requires thoughtful consideration for my family – especially my husband. I know what I am cooking will please him because I thought about that when I selected the meal earlier in the week. In the end, the whole family benefits because I took a little time to plan!

For other meal-planning tips visit the newly updated Seriousmoms.com.

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