Sunday, September 15, 2013

Vintage Values: Menu Planning

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm about to start planting my seeds. I'm chomping at the bit to get things ready but my children have been sick and it has been an absolute nightmare trying to deal with them and keep up the basic housework, never mind trying to mess with dirt, seeds, and water. So I thought that while I was sitting around, waiting for a good time to get started, I should probably talk about the planning that goes into your garden, and even more so, creating a balanced diet for your family.
I assume that most people already know about the health benefits of eating locally, organically, and seasonally (if not, you should watch Food Beware: The French Organic Food Revolution or Food Inc.). It's actually funny that most of these kinds of opinions seem like they are part of a new awareness about food, but I have several old cookbooks, some which include guides on nutrition, and all of them emphasize the need for seasonal, quality foods. They even talk about America's Obesity Problem, and eating more whole grains in your diet. These books are mostly from the 40s to the 70s, so maybe this is a knowledge we had but just lost. One of my favorites is Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, which I got at my library's yearly book sale. In this book, they dedicate one of the first chapter's to menu planning, which is where any good garden should start.

Helping to plan my garden is one of my main reasons for making menus. You may just want to keep better track of how you spend money on groceries, or help keep your family healthy (and let me just say here, if you really hate cooking, give it to someone else in your family. It doesn't matter if mom or dad or the nanny is doing the planning, as long as someone is). If you really want to be thrifty, and healthy, you can't avoid cooking. This is so much easier though with proper preparation, and practice. I cringe to think at the kinds of things I used to serve, or how often we would go out to eat because cooking took so long for me. But anymore cooking rarely takes more than an hour of semi-attentive supervision, and I've begun to really understand what kinds of things go together, and which don't. It's funny that so many people think of spending so much time of food as derisive, as if it is an outdated and silly thing to spend time thinking about. But really, what else is there in life except eating. Obviously we live in a time and age when Maslow's heirarchy of needs makes us rarely HAVE to think about it, but it would be foolish of us to think that means we don't have to spend any time thinking about what goes in our mouths. Food is the most essential thing we need, and as such, it deserves to have a little bit of your time and thought once a week!

Here is an example of a weekly menu for us:

Breakfast: Orange Cinnamon Rolls, Bacon, Orange Juice
Lunch: Cold Meat Sandwiches
Dinner: Lamb with Oregano, cooked with fingerling potatoes,
rutabagas with butter maple dressing, and blood orange crepe gateau

Ajiaco Soup
Savannah Red Rice, Carrots with orange sauce, and Pea and Cabbage Salad
Chicken casserole and braised country greens

Friday: Pizza

That's it. I don't organize it by every meal of the day (except for Sundays), or specify which meals will go for each day, since some days I will be too tired to cook a big meal and just want to throw things in a pot, and other days certain things wont sound good while others will. There are two nights a week when we wont be home, so the children eat with my parents, and we always have pizza on friday night. I do follow some general rules though. We have two meat dishes a week, usually one red meat and one chicken, and any leftover meats are used up in soups. I do buy cold cuts for my husband, since he likes to take a sandwich to work. Since we've reduced our meat consumption from cheap, grain fed meat daily to organic, free range meats only twice a week my grocery bill has still gone down 100 dollars a month. I think it is more than worth it to eat a lot of plant and grain based dishes to be able to treat ourselves to some spectacular cuts of meat less often.
It also really helps for us to follow the European principle of lots of soup. Soups are so diverse, and putting just about any kind of vegetables in some good broth makes it so much better. I try to always have one pot of soup in the fridge at any time, and we usually eat that or other leftovers for lunch. The children really like taking the last bits of soup, whatever kind it may be, and eating it over noodles with a bit of cheese. It uses up the last little bits of leftovers, and amps up the health value of "mac and cheese." Because of all these little shortcuts, I only have to actually plan for dinners, and to have a couple of staples around, like noodles, cheese, eggs, bread, and cereal. Using leftovers and these staples you can create a surprising number of yummy lunches and breakfasts without having to buy extra.

Some people though need to take their breakfast or lunch on the go, but even that doesn't prevent you from using your menus to prepare delicious meals to be eaten at that time. If you just try to cook breakfast one day a week (Sundays for me) and prepare a lot extra of whatever you're making, breakfast on the go becomes super easy. Waffles, french toast, and pancakes freeze very well and can be microwaved or put in the toaster for just a couple of seconds before they're ready to go! To literally eat them on the go, slice them into strips before you freeze them, just like they have at fast food places. If you make eggs one morning, make a lot extra, throw in some onions and peppers, put on tortillas, and top with beans and salsa to make a breakfast burrito. These also freeze well. Or put yogurt, some fruit, and a little granola or cottage cheese and jelly in a cup for an easy to go breakfast.

Lunches are just as simple. If you've never looked at a Bento Box you need to! However, don't feel like your lunch needs to be as elaborate! Making a tray full of Pizza Rolls in the oven once a week gives you something to build the rest of your lunch around for the week (you can also fill these with different ingredients. Look at hotpockets and chinese dumplings for ideas about what to put in. I like chicken, cheese, and broccoli myself). Or put some of that leftover soup in a pyrex container to take with you. If I had to recommend one book about food consciousness for busy people it would be French Women Don't Get Fat (the website is also great!).

The most basic of menu planning is to try to serve the proper amount recommended from food pyramid, or plate as it's now called. This means having mostly grains, followed by fruits and vegetables, and a small portion of meat and dairy. Besides just thinking about what you'd like to eat, menu planning involves taking texture and preparation method into consideration. Don't serve mashed potatoes with applesauce, or steamed broccoli with steamed carrots. Creating a variety of textures is important to create satiety. No, seriously. One of the biggest ways to feel full is to give yourself a variety of textures.
Color also plays an important role. Not only do a variety of colors look pretty, but since color often signifies vitamin content, a good variety of colors is an easy way to ensure you are getting a wide range of nutrients.

Still not sure about menu planning? Think about this from Meta Given's:
  • Menus give you a day to day diet where you can plan in advance a well-balanced meal, thus eliminating the tendency to eat unhealthily in a moment of hunger. "Because of the smaller vitamin and mineral content of much of the food we now eat, it is difficult to (eat the proper nutrients) by haphazard selection of the foods the family happens to fancy"
  • Menus give you variety, both in the foods served and the methods used to prepare. Thus the family may be kept interested.
  • "(Menus) utilize seasonal foods. The summertime season for fresh fruits is so short that it would be good practice to utilize it while it lasts."
  • Menus help you think about ways of using inexpensive ingredients to create meals, saving you money and allowing you to indulge in truly expensive foods, or occasional eating out at a nice restaurant instead of fast food.
  • "They call the homemaker's attention to new recipes, new food combinations, uses of leftovers, perhaps even to foods which she has never tried before; and they thus build her recipe repertoire, making her a more versatile cook, and satisfy her with a new sense of achievement."
  • Menus also answer the question about what should we have for dinner, saving time, thought, and last minute trips to the store. Also, those guilty trips for a fast food restaurant, or eating mediocre prepakaged "minute meals"
If you'd like help getting started, you can always use the government's weekly menu planner
They give you recipes, help you create balanced meals, and give you a weekly menu.

Another helpful website is You give them what you have on hand, and they give you a recipe, eliminating the need to throw perfectly good food out just because you don't have a use for it! It is also helpful if you see an ingredient you'd like to try in a store but don't know how to prepare it. Most importantly though, if you end up with extra food from preparing, or from leftovers, don't forget to put it in the compost! If you're not going to eat food, use it to grow new food, or just to keep your flowers pretty.

Menus are the gateway to living thrifty, healthy lives. It gives you a roadmap to keeping your pocketbook, belly, and garden full, and are really indispensable for any person, even if you don't have children!

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