From Template to Table
In my last two menu planning articles I have rambled through the basics behind menu planning and put together a template and some concepts to keep in mind when planning out the week’s menus. This article builds on those ideas and goes from the menu template to the shopping list to the table.
Every family has their favorite meals and dishes, some families deal with allergies and others have strong likes or dislikes. Additionally culture influences what the menu looks like. Do you enjoy curries or is pork sausage a favorite? When I first started seriously menu planning I found that I wanted to make some changes in my family’s diet, mostly looking for healthier choices. We like meat load, steak, burgers… basically a lot of high-fat red-meat heavy meals. We also struggle with getting in a good number of vegetable and fruit choices unless I am menu planning. It is very tempting for me to plan the dinner menu and ad lib the rest but life works better and our diets are healthier if I avoid this temptation. My menu template is just that… mine. I find it works well for my family but your might be completely different. So if you find this doesn’t work for you or you feel it isn’t healthy enough please change it to your heart’s desire. But, as an example I will use my menu template.
Several years ago I took the time to ask each family member what their favorite meals where. Lasagna, taco casserole, salmon, chili, lemon-ginger chicken, chicken Budapest, pesto and pasta, steak… the list went on. I found that we were short on fish and vegetarian/legume dishes and heavy on red meat. I took the meals my family loves and put them into a database that would generate up to 52 nights of meal options. I added in several “try a new fish” and “try a new veggie” nights. This, I reasoned, would allow me to introduce new options and keep those that my family liked. Thus was born my first incarnation of my “menu planner” software solution.
Making your family’s favorite meal list:
This is going to be unique to every family. To create mine I sat down and wrote out those things I knew would be on the list and then asked everyone to tell me what they liked too. Some items are a universal hit, some are liked by most the family, some are beloved by one or two of us. I go back and forth on the number of menu options you need. Part of me thinks it is fun to have a variety of meals that go through a long cycle, other times I think some family members would be happy with the same thing every week (Tuesday is Taco night, Friday tuna casserole and Saturday is pizza for example). Right now I am settled on a four week rotating cycle with spots for new items to try three times.
Trying new things is also a personal option. Some people love to cook and can cook well, they either follow recipes meticulously or they are able to just be creative and turn our brilliant meals. Others struggle in this area. Cooking is a skill, good cooking is a matter of practice and great cooking is an art. If you are unsure of your cooking skills don’t start out by being really creative. Start with some basic recipes that your family likes and master those then expand your cooking horizon if that appeals to you. If you start out with seven simple healthy meals that you take the time to master you and your family will be more happy with the results than if you start out trying to do twenty-eight complicate menus and keep adding in new things in an attempt to find something better.
My parents taught me this quite by accident. My mother is a really great woman, but her skills in the kitchen are underdeveloped. I remember when I was young she would go through magazines and clip new recipes, go shopping with her neat list and have the very best of intentions to spend as little as possible. The sad fact was that she didn’t like to cook much. She viewed it as an awful chore and would try to speed through it as fast as she could. If an onion needed diced it would be cut into huge chunks (faster that way), if something needed roasted it was just a little bit higher temperature (just add 50 degrees) than the recipe called for (it would be faster) if something had to simmer it would be boiled for a little while (yes, that would be a speed thing too). The stove top seemed to have two temperatures off and high. Spices and seasoning where measured quickly, added in all at once and stired for as brief a time possible — except for vegetables which need to be boiled to mushiness. No one really liked to eat mom’s meals. So her feedback was my father dutifully gulping it down and the children (me included, sorry mom) whining about how the food sucked. No wonder she dreaded the whole thing and was greatful when we got old enough to cook for ourselves.
My dad is a very good cook. It started out that for some reason he took a liking to Chinese cooking. He had a friend come over to the house one Saturday and teach him how to make some of his favorite dishes. Then dad got a couple cookbooks and started practicing the dishes that sounded best to him. He was very careful in his prep-work, everything was cooked at the proper temperature in the manner the recipe called for. He would purchase quality ingredients and measure them very carefully. Everyone loved Chinese night, mom loved it (good food and she didn’t have to cook, what wasn’t to love?) and the happy children chowed down and proclaimed it all wonderful. Dad learned to cook. He started with something he liked, asked someone with more experience to help him get started then practiced. He also followed the recipes to the letter, used the proper techniques and started with quality ingredients. It became something he enjoys still.
So, don’t stress if you feel your cooking isn’t superb right now. Good cooking can be learned. Start with easy basics, follow your recipes to the letter, maybe take a cooking class or two. Enjoy the process. Don’t rush your cooking and realize that even if the family grumbles and moans at the moment there will come I time when your skills improve and you and your family will be delighted with the results. Cooking is a small thing and can be a chore, but as with so many mundane tasks, if done with love cooking becomes a pleasant service. Take care to do those little things that make the difference, even if the difference doesn’t seem large, the people who serve in your own home are the most important in the world.
Novice cook or full blown chief extraordinaire there will still be a finite list of meals that you will pick for your family. You decide how many weeks you rotate your list, you might find that you have some absolute favorites that show up more frequently than others or you might have two or three weeks of things that loop.
I have 28 favorite meals with three “new meal” nights which replace one of the favorites. I like to start with dinner’s main course. We have three nights where I have meat, one chicken nights, two nights with fish, and one legume night. If I am being smart I check the local sales fliers, what is in season locally and my freezer to help me plan what to eat. Using my family’s favorite meal list I populate the main dish for each dinner. Once this is done I can plan the side dishes. I try to keep in mind that little poem:
Something soft and something crisp
Should always go together,
And something hot with something cold
No matter what the weather;
Something bland needs the complement
Of something with tang and nip.
Follow these rules and all your meals
Will have taste appeal and zip.
After the dinner options I plan out the lunches, breakfasts and then snacks. Then I pull the recipes out, multiplying the servings as I need to so I know what to purchase. For instance if a recipe calls for an 8 oz can of tomato sauce for four servings I am going basically double it. I break the list into staples and produce. I will pick up all the non-perishables in one trip which leaves me to pick up produce, meat and dairy in smaller shopping trips to help assure freshness.