When Menu Planning…

One of the steps that makes the whole process easier is setting up your own loose guidelines for menu planning.   For example, some people may assign certain meals to certain nights of the week- think Taco Tuesday or Pizza Friday, that kind of a thing.    We have one of these nights regularly- and that’s Crockpot Wednesday due to a busy afternoon and evening.   There should be a method that works best for you, and here are some ideas for how to find the method that works for you.  (As before, I’ll use a week as a standard measure of time, use what you prefer.)

First, how do you eat?  Do you eat meat? Is it your primary source of protein?  Then one suggestion would be to take your seven days and assign each day a protein.  Be sure to break it up so that you’re not eating chicken three days in a row.  Standard here in the Midwest would be Beef, Pork, Chicken, and Fish.  Seldom do we see seafood, and very rarely Lamb, Veal, or Duck.  Game would also be a consideration for many (Think venison, wild boar, elk) and then there’s the exotic meats that are becoming more available, like Bison/Buffalo and Ostrich.  Anyway, here would be a typical Midwest week here:

Sun: Beef
Mon: Chicken
Fri: Fish
Sat: Other- this would likely be a pizza night or a night out to dinner

If you’re a more adventurous eater, and have access to some other meats, you could really vary your menu by making each day different:

Sun: Lamb
Mon: Chicken
Tues: Beef
Wed: Pork
Thurs: Turkey/Duck/Game Hen, etc.
Fri: Fish/Seafood
Sat: Game/Venison/Elk, etc. 

Obviously, that’s a very protein-centric way to think about it, but it gets you thinking.  Let’s say you are a vegetarian.  One way I would think about meals then is by taking a trip around the world, like this:

Sun: Mexican
Mon: Thai
Tues: Caribbean
Wed: Chinese
Thurs: Italian
Fri: Indian
Sat: Greek

That way each day is different, and it gives you at least a starting point for how to look for recipes for each day, or to decide what you’re in the mood for.  In the trip around the world example, you could obviously go for weeks without repeating a cuisine, but you can also use this to your advantage.  For example, Cilantro is used a lot in Mexican, Thai, and Indian cooking- I would put those all in one week because a bunch of cilantro only lasts a few days.

Another way to think about meal planning is the type of meal.  I’ll use that method sometimes too.

Sun: Casserole/Pasta
Mon: Salad
Tues: Breakfast
Wed: Soup
Thurs: Sandwich
Fri:  Pizza
Sat: Roast or Braise 

That way, I’m not accidentally planning three soups in one week for my soup disliking children.  You can see I’ve put the quicker dinners in during the week when we have the potential to be busy, and the longer cooking ones on the weekend when there is more time.  Right now though, I kind of use a combination of these methods to best determine my menu for the week.

Sun: Crowd-Pleaser
Mon: Stew or Pasta
Tues: Breakfast
Wed: Soup with Bread
Thurs: Something with beans or lentils
Fri: Freezer day (Eat something from the bulging freezer)
Sat:  Roasted meat of some kind

This is kind of how I loosely make a menu right now.  We’re really enjoying having breakfast for dinner, since we never have breakfast for breakfast, so that’s a given once a week.  The soup is also a given because that works best in the crock pot.  The freezer day is a way to motivate me to pull something out and actually use it instead of just letting it freeze until it’s beyond recognition.  The days of the week above are just an example, the different days are always changing.

If you are a leftover person, you would plan that into your menu accordingly as well.  We’re not big into leftovers, but if that is your cup of tea, then your week may look more like this one:

Sun: Roasted Meat
Mon: Sandwiches from roasted meat
Tues: Soup or Stew
Wed: Leftover Soup or Stew
Thurs: Chicken
Fri: Mexican Night
Sat: Dinner out/Leftovers

Or something like that, you get the idea anyway.  Then, when you have your general outline as to what a week would look like for you, you use that to help plan your week.  It makes it much easier to look at your week and think to yourself “hmm, I need a soup yet.”  It’s much easier to narrow down soup ideas than dinner ideas in general.   I also take price and seasonality into consideration when meal planning.   Rather than add on to this extraordinarily long post though, I think we’ll save that for another time.

Quick Tip- Budgeting

I just wanted to share this post over at Blogher today.  My friend Alanna, of A Veggie Venture fame, put together a wonderful resource on saving money while grocery shopping.  There may be many tips that you’ve seen before, but we could all use a refresher. And perhaps there’s a tip or two you’ve never thought of before.  It’s definitely worth your time to check out.

Another Week Ahead

This week I tried to shift my focus a little with the menu planning, and I thought I’d share how the actual planning process happened this week.

First, I looked at my calendar and wrote down the two meals that were already set in stone. The first of these was the Sunday Company Dinner. Someone generously supplied a turkey for this week, so we’re having a turkey dinner with the trimmings. The second non-changeable day is Monday. I’ve got a new recipe due for the paper that day, so I’ll be cooking up a roasted chicken for dinner that night. I know. Poultry two nights in a row probably will be overkill, but then I’m making up for it by eliminating the idea of poultry from the rest of the week.

Along with Monday’s chicken I’ll be making a mash of some type, and as long as I’m at it, I may as well make plenty and make enough to top some cottage pies with for Tuesday. The cottage pies I’ll make with ground beef, which is cheaper if you buy it in larger quantities, so… I added some beef and cheese manicotti and taco salads to the week’s menu. Any ground beef beyond that will certainly be frozen. Then, looking at my selections thus far for the week, I recognized a craving for bright, fresh flavors, so I added a simple baked fish- which also happens to use lemons, which I’ll already have on hand for Monday.

And finally, I needed a soup for next Wednesday to tuck into the crock pot. Looking at a rather meat-heavy week, I opted for a vegetarian version of a Tortellini and Tomato soup. This week I’m also going to put down here three breakfasts. I don’t generally cook breakfast much, but I do like to have options, so the three breakfast options will be rotated throughout the week. I’ll also add some lunch options as well. I usually eat leftovers from dinner, Abigail eats school lunch, but Andy and Zander eat sandwiches usually. Well, Andy eats sandwiches, Zander eats sandwich fillings.

Thursday: Taco Salads

Friday: Beef & Cheese Manicotti, Salad

Saturday: Lemon-Baked Whitefish with dilled carrots and salad (hmm, I sense a salad theme)

Sunday: Turkey Dinner with the trimmings; I’ll be making a hot veggie to go with

Monday: Lemon and Fennel Roasted Chicken, Potato Mash, Salad

Tuesday: Cottage Pies

Wednesday: Tortellini and Tomato Soup

Breakfasts One: Bagels with Smear and Fresh Fruit

Breakfast Two: Granola and Yogurt Parfaits

Breakfast Three: Waffles and Juice

Lunches: PB&J; Ham&Cheese;Salami&Cheese;Mini Pizzas

My grocery shopping list this week:

3 lbs lean ground beef
1 roasting chicken
corn tortillas
lettuce/salad greens
cherry tomatoes
3 cucumbers
bell peppers
10# Russet potatoes
4 lemons
Fresh fruit
Sour cream
Cream cheese for bagels
Silk coffee creamer
Rice Milk
Ricotta Cheese
Cheddar cheese
Mozarella Cheese
Manicotti shells
Marinara Sauce
Olive Oil
Canned whole tomatoes
Frozen California Blend Vegetables
Bagels (maybe, I might make them)
Frozen Waffles (I know, I know)
Frozen juice concentrates

Quick Tip Today- Convenience Foods

For a long while I did my best to eschew convenience foods- canned soups, rice in a box, cake mix.  I felt better about feeding my family if I avoided these products.  But then slowly they started creeping back in, and by golly, I felt bad about it for awhile!  Sometimes though, it’s those convenience products that really save the day.  Using them every once in a while is not going to wreck my perfect little world, it’s using them every day that’s going to make my family’s sodium levels skyrocket.  They do have their place now, and I try not to apologize when “caught red-handed” with a convenience product.

But did you know- for many of those products, there are homemade substitutes?  All those rice blends in a box are convenient and tasty- did you know you could make your own to have on hand?  Sans preservatives and excessive sodium?  Today I have a link for you to a site I visit from time to time- Hillbilly Housewife.  They’re all about saving a few dollars on nutritious food over there, and well worth the time to check out.  This link in particular will take you to their homemade convenience food page.

And if you’re looking to find something to replace those cans of “cream of” soup?  Check out this recipe.

  Cream Of Soup Substitute

1                cup  powdered milk
     3/4           cup  cornstarch
     1/4           cup  instant bouillon granules
  2        tablespoons  dried onion flakes
  1           teaspoon  basil
  1           teaspoon  thyme
     1/2      teaspoon  pepper

Mix all the ingredients together.

Store in an airtight container.

For the equivalent of 1 can of cream soup, mix 1/3 cup of dry mix with 1 1/4 cups of cold water. Cook in sauce pan until thick. Makes the equivalent of nine cans of cream soup.

The Week Ahead

Thursday: Cumin-Dusted Salmon, Mushroom-barley pilaf, applesauce

Friday: Ina’s Oven-Fried Chicken, Home fries, mixed vegetables, Pear Pie

Saturday: Cornish Miner’s Pasties, Salad

Sunday: Pulled BBQ Pork, Coleslaw

Monday: Navy Bean Soup with Rosemary and Ham Hocks, Fresh Bread

Tuesday: Pumpkin Spiced Waffles, Fruit, and Sausage

Wednesday: Leftover BBQ Pork Sandwiches

I’m afraid I don’t have many notes this week. I really had to force myself to make a meal plan in the first place, so I hope I stick to it this week at least somewhat. Most of these utilize on hand ingredients…I’ll need to pick up some more oil for the chicken on Friday, and I’ll need to get the pork for Sunday and Wednesday. Other than that, another light week grocery shopping wise. A few staples will be needed this week- some milk, eggs, and butter as well.

Anyone else want to share their week at a glance?

I’m not feeling very inspired these days. Must be a touch of the winter doldrums. Spring just wouldn’t be as joyous otherwise.

Organizing Those Recipes…Electronically

Recipe BoxI have to admit, sometimes I’m an old-fashioned girl. I love to read books and magazines on paper, I love cookbooks, and I love the simple process of writing down a recipe on paper with a sturdy pen or pencil. But in the day and age of the internet and “cut and paste” there simply have to be some options for electronic recipe storage. I can share a few options which I hold true to, but I hope that on this subject that maybe there are one or two people out there with bigger and better solutions.

The dilemma comes in as you’re cruising the net, looking at food blogs, or food sites, or you’re looking for a specific recipe. You find what you’re looking for, or something else catches your eye, and before you know it, in 15 minutes of surfing you have amassed ten new recipes you want to try. What on earth do you do with them! It simply doesn’t work to just bookmark them all, you could print them, but paper eventually gets lost. Instead, you can copy and paste. It’s where you paste them that is entirely up to you and your preferences.

One of the options I use is recipe organization software. In my case, I use Mastercook, a program that lets me easily import recipes from online. For Mac users I have heard great things about MacGourmet. With Mastercook the sky is the limit with how many recipes I can put in, and I can edit them any way I choose as well. I also love that it calculates nutrition information, and you can even set up pantry lists, shopping lists, and menu planning lists on it. The only caveat I have to this type of recipe storage system is the dreaded computer crash. I’ve lost my Mastercook recipes twice to computer crashes. Of course, now I back them up regularly, but you never really know when your computer is going to up and die on you.

Along the same vein, I know some people have used Microsoft Word to create their own recipe storage system. Microsoft Works even has a recipe database template available to help you out. Personally, I don’t like either one, they’re not as easy to use, and there is the problem there of the computer crashing as well.

So what is the best option? While I like my Mastercook program, to me the ultimate in electronic recipe organization is online storage. This way your recipes are not on your computer- doomed to be lost in a crash. They are also accessible from anywhere. Visiting family in Tahoma and someone asks about your favorite cake? In two seconds you caShopping Listn hand them the recipe from your online storage system. Obviously, I have made use of the idea of blogging as my virtual storage system. Each recipe in my Recipe Trove is an individual blog entry to facilitate easy searching. Individual recipes sites often have storage places where you can also store their recipes for future use. Recipezaar and My Recipes are two that immediately come to mind. Recently, I stumbled on a whole new project which sounds very fun to me. The Cookbook Tree allows you to create your own cookbook online, and then share it with whomever you would like. You can also coordinate with other people- I could see this being a great asset in putting together a family cookbook. It would be so much easier than mailing recipes back and forth, that’s for certain.

Something I’m clearly missing as far as electronic recipe organization is the idea of using a PDA for such a purpose. Obviously, it can be done, I see people doing so all the time. Myself, I don’t have a PDA, nor do I have a need for one, so I’m thinking I won’t be exploring this one anytime soon.

But what do I do with all these electronically stored recipes? Well, I’ll give you an example with my Mastercook. Something I’ve been doing for gifts for people for a while now is putting together a cookbook for them. A personal cookbook which has been tailored to their needs and tastes. When I am happy with the recipes in a cookbook, I’ll print the entire cookbook and slide the recipes into page protectors, and then into a nice binder. I do this for myself as well. My computer is in my living room, so when I’m going to cook, I need to print out a recipe anyways. I print it, use it, and then decide if it’s a keeper. Keeper recipes go into a binder. Non-keepers either get notations for tweaking, or they get tossed. Then I need to remember to remove the recipe from my computer…and quite often I don’t remember to do that one. There’s nothing more disappointing than cooking up a bummer of a dinner, and only then remembering that you’d already tried it once before.

That would be the one thing I need to work on most about my recipe storage. I am terrible at remembering to eliminate recipes, or simply going back and using some of the recipes that had caught my eye. I have four Mastercook cookbooks full of untried recipes from online, and how often do I go through them? Not nearly often enough. I will say though that online recipe storage has been WONDERFUL when connecting with other people. It’s so easy to have someone ask me about a recipe, and then I direct them to my blog or the website I got them from in the first place. And while I do enjoy an old fashioned cookbook or handwritten recipe from time to time, I would never want to be without my electronic recipe storage.

A Week At A Glance

Well, the last week or so it seems I have been entirely unable to stick to my designated meal plans.  This is okay when we’re eating out of the pantry and fridge anyway, but my little forays to the store have got to stop! Here is the next weekly meal plan I have.  Hopefully I can do better this week.

Thursday: Braised Chicken Legs in Mustard Sauce, Egg Noodles, Fresh Fruit

Friday: Beef and Broccoli Stir-Fry, Basmati Rice

Saturday: Deep-Dish Pizza

Sunday: Lexington Chicken Spaghetti, Garlic bread, salad

Monday: French Toast Sticks, Bacon, Fresh fruit

Tuesday: Leftover chicken spaghetti

Wednesday: Yellow Broth, homemade bread, pear butter

I don’t really have many notes for this week… most of this is using things from the pantry this week.  The Lexington Chicken spaghetti is a new recipe for me- the recipe makes servings for 50, so I’ll be cutting that in half for our crowd.  I expect there will be leftovers, so we’ll be eating that again on Tuesday.  If there aren’t leftovers, then we’ll have some Mexican stuffed shells from the freezer.

The Yellow Broth is a new recipe that really intrigues me.  It’s an Irish soup made with root vegetables and oatmeal- the oatmeal in the soup totally intrigued me, so I hope it turns out okay.  If not, if I make it earlier in the day and it just isn’t working out, I have a package of frozen cheezy chicken noodle soup that will go in the crock-pot instead of the Yellow Broth.  But I have high hopes for the yellow broth.

There are very few things I need to purchase this week. Let’s see, I need egg noodles, hoisin sauce for the stir-fry, bacon, 2 whole chickens, and some fresh fruit.  In addition I’ll need milk, creamer, and butter this week.  Oh, and some rolled oats so that I can make a batch of granola for breakfasts and snacks.  Easy and short shopping list this week- hooray

About Cookbooks

When you have a cookbook collection like mine, it can be daunting to try and think of a way to organize the books themselves, let alone the recipes within. My method is far from perfect, but so far it seems to suit me okay, and maybe it could be helpful to someone who is just too overwhelmed.

First, I need to break down my cookbooks into categories. Basically, there are three types of cookbooks for me. There’s the “reference cookbooks” like Joy of Cooking or my Cooking Light Annuals which have recipes for everything within. Then there’s the more specific “niche cookbooks” like my Vegetarian cookbooks, or the books by one author like Giada, which all the recipes have an Italian twist. I would consider any of my ethnic cookbooks part of the niche segment. The third type of cookbook is the non-negotiable books. These are antiques or old church cookbooks or cookbooks that belonged to a grandparent, and while I do cook from them occasionally, these are mostly around for sentimental reasons, and are not part of my organizational attempts- there’s only a small handful of these.

For the niche cookbooks, I don’t really organize them much, or the recipes within. Those are the cookbooks that I like to pull a random one off the shelf and just flip through and find something to cook from time to time. I keep them somewhat organized on the shelf-keeping similar cookbooks together, but don’t take them much further than that.

It’s the reference cookbooks that I take an organizational tactic to. Take my Cooking Light Annuals for instance. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of recipes in one cookbook. And when I have seven of them…that would be literally impossible to figure out a way to leep track of the recipes within. Imagine THAT database! So what I do is simply to take an evening and sit down with the book shortly after I’ve received it. With me, I have a stack of index cards and a pen. Then as I’m flipping through the book, I write on an index card when a recipe intrigues me- as well as what page it’s on. When I fill up an index card, I use another one. And once I’ve gone through the whole book, I tape the index cards to the inside of the front cover. Now I have a quick easy reference point. When I’ve made a recipe, I also notate on the card whether it was a repeater. If it was a dud, I cross it off the card, as well as make a note on the actual recipe. Some of my books have many index cards, some only a few, but it makes it quick and easy to pick up a book and try to find a recipe from inside. Here’s a picture to show what I am talking about:So how do I know if a cookbook is worth keeping? Well, to me that’s a personal question! Someone recently asked me about my favorite magazines, and I feel the same about my cookbooks, I’d just as soon pick a favorite child than pick a favorite cookbook. But last year I started a “Cookbook Challenge” on Tummy Treasure. I challenged myself to cook out of each and every cookbook I have, and it’s really helped me to cull out my collection a bit. When I was flipping through a book having a hard time finding a recipe I wanted to cook, that was a red flag to me. And then when the one recipe I would try from that book was a dud- well, that cookbook was a candidate for tossing. I’m still doing the Cookbook Challenge, although it’s been a while since I’ve updated it, and I really need to get back into it.

I guess what I’m saying here today is that you need to find a system that works best for you. I happen to have 70+ cookbooks right now, so to organize the recipes within completely…that just seems like madness to me. The best I can do is to give the whole collection a once-over every few months and see if there are any that just aren’t cutting it for me.

And finally, a note to not be afraid to mark up your books. There is nothing better than flipping through my grandmother’s old cookbooks and seeing her notations to add a little of this or leave out a bit of that in a recipe. I also love finding the pages that are full of splatters and food stains. This shows me that the cookbook was loved and was used, and makes it even more of a treasure to me. And even before my kids were two years old, they would sit on the floor and flip through Mommy’s cookbooks, looking at the pictures. I imagine them doing so someday with their children and grandchildren, and that’s fun to think about.

Revamping The Menu

See, this is what I mean by flexibility.

Today Zander and I were at the store to pick up milk and I happened to glance in the direction of the hams. I found a fantastic deal on a great brand of ham, and right away, Zander lit up when I mentioned buying a ham. My whole family loves ham. So I picked it up, and while I thought briefly about tucking the ham into the freezer, it’s been awhile since we’ve had ham, so I’m putting it on the menu. So here is the revised Friday and Saturday for this week, and the remaining ham will be frozen for later use. The bone will also be used to make stock, as I’m down to 1 package of ham stock. I love multi-purpose meat!

Friday: Mustard Baked Ham, Potato Pancakes, Homemade Applesauce, Lettuce Salad

Saturday: Rotini and Cheese with Broccoli and Ham

Quick Tip: Flexibility!

One of the things about menu planning is that sometimes you do need to have some flexibility available. Today is the perfect example of that for me. Tonight’s planned meal, Southwestern Pork with Sweet Potatoes was totally dependant on me doing my weekly grocery shopping today. Since we’re in the middle of a snow warning, with about 4 inches on the ground and potentially more on the way, I’m not going anywhere today.

So instead I’ll be pulling some chicken pieces from the freezer and cooking that up for dinner. So tonight instead we’ll be having Oven Fried Chicken, mashed potatoes, and a green salad.

There are other things that I could make of course, using on-hand ingredients. Some things I keep on hand just for such purposes would be Bottled Marinara and Pasta, or Pancake Mix for quick waffles or pancakes. Eggs for a quick frittata, ground beef and chicken are almost always in the freezer. Even frozen pizzas are great to have on hand for just such days.