It is a cold, frigid, blustery, single digit day here in Western PA so I decided to work on one of my goals for the New Year. My first goal for 2010 is to cook a meal every single night. During the month of December, Erik and I get very lax about eating out. With shopping, preparation for our open house, Christmas Eve, and traveling to my hometown, preparing meals falls to the wayside. The kids live on PB&J, mac n cheese, spaghetti and ravioli. Erik and I eat whatever is left over in the fridge. In fact, we are still eating some left overs from our parties and gatherings.
We've all gotten tired of eating this way, so it is time to get on a real meal plan.
My mother in law got me a beautiful cast iron enameled dutch oven, so I broke it out today to make chili. After getting all the ingredients into the dutch oven, I sat down to devise a meal plan for the coming weeks. My goal was to plan meals up to Valentine's day. I don't really plan breakfast or lunch because those things are relatively easy to throw together. My kids usually eat oatmeal, cereal, eggs, pancakes, etc. Breakfast is ALWAYS the easiest meal at our house. Lunch is sometimes trickier with juggling Walker's appetite and his Kindergarten schedule. Walker is (and has always been) a late sleeper and he doesn't really like to eat breakfast right away. The other two are early risers and wake me up each morning by saying, "Morning, Momma. I'm hungry." Overall, lunch is easy compared to supper.
Over the last few days, I have been collecting meal ideas on a note pad. (This photo was taken after I had already started crossing off my list).
The one thing I had to plan for specifically is that getting vegetables into my children has become a challenge. Walker actually does very well with plain veggies on his plate, but the younger two often refuse to eat them. A year ago, I really got into a philosophy of cooking loosely called "deceptively delicious."
Jessica Seinfeld, wife of the famous comedian, Jerry, wrote a cookbook of that title offering recipes in which she added 1/4 -1/2 cup of pureed vegetables or fruit to a recipe to enhance the nutrient content. In the book she also discusses whole foods, fresh produce, etc. It is a nice little cook book. My only complaint is that it doesn't really break down what produce works best for items not discussed in the cook book. For example, besides the recipes in her book, what other foods can you hide beets in easily? She lists all the fruits and vegetables she regularly purees and adds to her recipes, but I would have liked it if she also listed what foods the flavor profile works with. I guess it is pretty easy to figure out on your own, but I like to have someone else test it before I go for it. My only other complaint is that she has several recipes for "kid" foods as main dishes for the family meal - dishes like chicken nuggets - things I don't really see as acceptable for our family meal time. I feel it is important to expose our children to "adult" meals and once our children started eating solids, they ate whatever we were eating. I am not a short order chef and I do not make two entrees at each meal. What I cook is what is available. If you choose not to eat it, that's fine, but if you get hungry later, fruit is pretty much your only option.
So, what does my meal plan look like?
3 - Chili loaded w/ black beans, kidney beans and veggies.
4 - Alice Springs Chicken (I found the recipe for this meal online because this is one of Erik's favorite meals at The Outback Steakhouse and the 4th is his birthday) with Caesar Salad (Erik's favorite) and mixed
5 - Chicken Salads - Tuesdays are easy nights! Erik and I usually eat alone because we have Youth Group this night and the children eat at my in-laws house. This is when we get to eat stuff the kids normally don't eat. If I was making a salad for a different night, I usually just keep some chicken set aside for the little two.
6 - BBQ Pulled Pork. We'll either eat this on whole wheat buns or just by itself with green beans and a salad.
7- Slow cooked roast beef with potatoes and carrots (a lot of people call it pot roast).
8 - Beef and Chicken Fajitas with corn and Spanish rice. I'll use left over chicken and roast beef from the previous meals to make this.
9 - Beef Vegetable soup. I have a batch of this frozen in the freezer from earlier this fall. I'll serve it with some crusty bread - yum-O!
10 - Ribs. We got kind of tired of ribs after our cook off this summer, but it's time to start practicing again! I'll probably serve Baked Beans and Coleslaw with this.
11 - Spaghetti with meat sauce and veggies
12 - We'll be eating whatever is left over from the previous week. We're leaving the 13th for Harrisburg and the PA State Farm Show, so the next 5 days we'll be combining eating out with my plan for saving money by bringing food to make lunch and avoid the food court temptation at the Farm Show. Trust me, we'd love to eat all of our meals at the concessions - the various food councils - beef, pork, poultry, etc., all have exceptional food booths providing delicious meals, but, like all concessions, they are a bit on the pricey side, so I try to bring sandwiches for our main lunch then allow for a concession treat. One of our favorite is the fried mozzarella cubes - I look forward to those every year! Another way to save money is that we get our hotel online through hotwire.com and choose a hotel that provides breakfast. We're able to eat a great breakfast and usually I can take some yogurt and fruit from the breakfast buffet for snacking at the farm show. Another great trick is to take some plastic spoons and those little single servings of peanut butter that they provide at the breakfast buffet. My kids love to just eat peanut butter on a spoon - this way takes a little longer because they have to dig the peanut butter out of those little cups.
Anyway, this meal plan goes on and on - I was actually even able to plan through February 27th!
A couple other tips that I'll share that have helped me with meal planning:
1) if you have a lot of cookbooks, go through the cook books searching for recipes your family would enjoy. In a journal or notebook, divide the book into sections - appetizers, soups and salads, main entrees, side dishes, desserts. As you find a recipe your family would enjoy, instead of recopying the recipe onto a card, in the notebook under the appropriate section, record the title of the recipe, the name of the recipe and the page number the recipe is on. You only have to go through a cook book once to see if there are any good recipes. I've done this for myself in a small journal:
2) If I have a great recipe I found from the internet or have gotten from someone else, I put the recipe card into photo albums. It makes it easy to find and you can leave the card in the plastic cover so you don't spill on it! I have one large album I use for recipes I make a lot/recipes I know are tried and true family favorites. I also have several small photo albums that I use. Each one is labeled for different purposes. One book is for cookies and desserts, one for recipes I've been given that I'm meaning to try. I also have books specific to birthday parties or holidays. Those are filled with both recipes and craft and game ideas.
Whenever possible, I try to buy and serve whole foods. We do still enjoy our processed foods too - blue box macaroni and cheese and the like, but while I'm not perfect at it, compared to a lot of America, I'm cooking healthier than most. Additionally, we have the advantage and privilege to have two freezers full of home grown or locally grown beef, poultry and pork. I'm not even going to go into it in this post, but if you want to improve your health, your community and the world, start investigating local farms and purchasing "freezer meats." There are several farmers I know of just in the South Butler area that offer beef for sale. My brother in law raises and sells pork this way as well. We have been raising our own poultry for three years now. Yes, purchasing meat this way can be more expensive, but the health benefits are more than worth it. There is a lot of controversy whether you should be buying organic or not, but for now, I think it is more important to buy locally. Small local farmers do not have the need for antibiotics, growth hormones, etc., that mega farm feed lots do. The cows are born in healthier environments, raised in healthier environments and are treated better. Same goes with chickens, turkeys and hogs. I do not have a garden and I do not "put up" my own vegetables. I am not a dedicated gardener and year after year my vegetable garden falls to the weeds. However, I have discovered that during peak seasons, my favorite local produce market, Ambrose's, has a wide variety of produce available for purchase in bulk and the prices are so reasonable it makes it silly to have a garden of my own. I just buy, blanch and freeze locally raised beans, corn and whatever else is looking good. I'm also a fan of the frozen produce at the grocery store. The prices are reasonable and most products are flash frozen within 24 hours of being picked, so in the winter, buying frozen vegetables are really the best way to get the bang for your buck.
Hopefully this inspires or helps any of you wanting to get your meal strategy in place for the New Year.