Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Art of Menu Planning

by Ashley Lukens

I love to cook. I try to cook 4-5 nights a week, as schedule permits. Over the past 2 years, since my daughter was born, I have realized that in order to balance my busy schedule and ensure that my family gets the full range of fruits and vegetables into their diet, I MUST plan my menus out.

Menu planning, for me, is a deal maker.

If I don’t plan my meals out, I find myself feeling stressed and overwhelmed at the thought of making dinner. I am scrambling for ingredients, going to the grocery multiple times a week – wasting both my time and my money. I also find that I’m wasting money on ingredients that I can’t effectively use – and that I rely more on processed and preserved foods rather than fresh produce.

Menu planning requires that we re-orient ourselves toward eating and cooking. With menu planning we have to de-couple convenience and spontaneity. While menu planning can increase the convenience of eating – it takes away that spontaneous, “I want tacos tonight” moment. Convenience and spontaneity are the touchstones of industrial eating.

In order to get me and my family back to eating healthy, real food,  I had to take a well thought-out, proactive approach towards our weekly meals.

So what does a meal planning session look like for my family?

Our goal is to eat at home as a family 5 nights a week. Four nights I plan, the 5th we enjoy with our friends and extended family. By prioritizing a community meal, we check in with our support system – we share a meal, build memories, and help relieve the stress of cooking and childrearing.

On Sunday morning over breakfast and everyone picks a meal for the week. We keep our respective schedules in mind – as well as any events that we might have that week.

This is a sample shopping list that my 2 year old turned into her canvas.

I write the meals on a top of a piece of paper and then organize my shopping list according to the sections of my grocery store: Produce, Dairy, Bulk, Frozen, Prepared foods, and finally processed. Having your meals and their ingredients organized in this way allows you to take a step back and look at what you’re feeding your family. If your shopping list is weighted in processed and not produce – think about how you can change that. If a recipe calls for canned tomatoes – try fresh. Canned Mushrooms? Try dehydrated. Canned beans? Go for the bulk aisle.

If anything requires a special trip to a specialty store, create a box for it.

Feeling uninspired? My favorite thing is to google a delicious ingredient and see the recipes that appear. My favorite website for recipes is the Food Network, but I also read cooking blogs, watch cooking shows, and read cook books for inspiration.

We strive to eat leafy greens multiple times a week.
We have 2 easy 30-minute meals and 2 or 3 that are more complex.
We cook enough so that we have leftovers for lunch.

We also make sure that the recipes make sense when taken together and that ingredients don’t go to waste. For example, if Monday’s meal calls for ½ a container of spinach, I make sure we can use the rest of the container before it spoils.

Meal planning is a skill we’ve lost over the generations as industrial food has crept in and alienated us from our kitchens. Give meal planning a try for a month – if it doesn’t make your life more livable – call me a liar and let me know.

Hope to see you all at our radical homemakers reading group Thursday, March 24th. We’ll be reading the second half of Radical Homemakers and the skill share will be a 30-minute meal prepared 3 ways.

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