Monday, August 26, 2013

The Method to My Meals

Tragic Sandwich has been doing a series of posts on "Mom-friendly meals" around the premise that we all have to eat, but dammit, what a pain in the ass that's become.

I can sympathize. And did sympathize, in a tweet about the PITA that is meal-planning, which prompted me to say I'd post my meal planning method at some point.  (Is anyone surprised that I have a meal planning method? I thought not. Although the fact that I have a plan for how to make a plan is perhaps a new level of optimization, even for me.)

The method has evolved over my 6+ years as a mother, and continues to evolve. In fact, one of the best parts of it only came to me in the last few months. Part of that is because as my kids get older, this is one thing that actually is getting easier. But the insight that came in the last few months? As you'll see, that was just me suddenly getting a clue.

Basically, my method boils down to having a pattern (because the kids like predictability) with variation at every point in the pattern (so that the adults don't become catatonic from the boredom of the same damn meals, over and over). I should say upfront that we prioritize having family dinners, not because I think that is The One True Way to Eat but because we like to eat together and there is no way I'd get multiple different meals on the table in time for that. Also, it seems to increase the likelihood of the kids trying new things. The actual trying of a new thing remains a completely unpredictable stochastic event, but these events seem to occur more frequently when we are all having a "family meal." Of course, this is just my kids. Your kids might be more likely to try something new if it is presented to them as a special, cool, kids only thing. Kids are annoying like that.

Also, I am only responsible for dinners Monday - Friday. Mr. Snarky does weekend dinners, and for the most part I happily accept whatever he wants to cook, even though that usually means that the kids get either plain pasta (because he's including a pasta salad) or chicken nuggets (because nothing else he is cooking stands an iota of a chance of being consumed by one of our children). The exception was when he served grilled lamb with an asparagus-goat cheese pasta salad two weekends in a row. I will eat lamb, asparagus, and goat cheese, but I'm not particularly enthused about any of them, and having all three in one dinner two Saturday nights running was just too much for me. I mostly ate bread, just like Ellyn Sater says picky eaters should.

Anyway. My pattern is:

Monday: Baked good + healthy liquid

In the cooler months, this is soup + pumpkin parmesan scones, with the variety for the grown ups provided by varying the soup. Sometimes the soup is homemade (that cream-free Cream of Zucchini soup I keep threatening to post, a great crock pot potato and carrot soup, a curried butternut squash soup I love) and sometimes it is from a box/can/jar/whatever (Trader Joes has some good options).

In the warmer months, this is more likely to be waffles or scones with smoothies. Tonight, I tried out popovers.

Easily produced honey substrate

Popovers are ridiculously fast and easy, so they'll probably become part of the rotation. Also, Pumpkin liked them so much that she ate three. Petunia wouldn't try them. This was exactly the reverse of what I expected. Kids are annoying like that.

If the baked good is something light like popovers or waffles, I will sometimes make bacon, too. Everyone in our house likes bacon, except for Pumpkin.

Tuesday: Leftovers

Tuesday nights are workout nights, so I don't cook, I heat up leftovers from the freezer. Mr. Snarky generally produces the adult's leftovers on one of his nights cooking. I periodically have to make mac and cheese for the kids, and that is usually the kids' leftovers. Petunia also likes to eat leftover pancakes. Pumpkin, for some reason, doesn't eat pancakes, even though she'll eat waffles, and now popovers. Kids are annoying like that.

Wednesday: Tortilla Night

The kids love tortillas with butter and cheese, and refuse to try even a nibble of any other filling I have produced to date. So I let them eat the tortillas and cheese, and make a wide range of fillings for our tacos. If I am feeling guilty for not eating fish, I make Fish Hater's Fish Tacos. Or I do sloppy joe filling. Or- and here is my recent flash of insight- I brown bite sized chicken pieces and dump any number of jarred sauces on top of them.

So far, I have found two jarred sauces I really like: Iron Chef Orange-Ginger glaze (I dust the chicken with seasoning salt and five spice before browning, and add enough soy sauce to about 1/3 of a jar of the Iron Chef glaze to make a nice sauce) and Pace Garlic-Lime Verde Restaurant Style salsa (I dust the chicken with seasoning salt and cumin before browning, and use roughly 1/2 of the jar of salsa).

Easy fusion tacos
My current seasoning salt is a grinder with sea salt, some black pepper, and some red pepper flakes in it- so nothing fancy.

I serve the Orange-Ginger tacos with feta, cilantro, and chopped up mixed greens, and the Garlic-Lime Verde salsa tacos with Mexican-style preshredded cheese (which I am reasonably sure is nothing like what you get in Mexico, but makes great quesadillas, so we always have this on hand), diced tomatoes, chopped mixed greens, and cilantro if I have it.

So far, I have had one failure, which was a lemongrass sauce that wasn't bad, but was sort of bland, and I couldn't really figure out how to spice it up. I'll be trying more, though, as this feels like a magic "eat something different!" option for the adults.

If it is not too hot and I don't forget to turn the oven on when I get home, I serve the tacos with sweet potato fries, so that I can pretend my kids ate a vegetable.

Thursday: Pasta Night

I rotate through plain pasta, gnocchi, and cheese tortellini. The kids will eat all of those. Pumpkin likes them plain, with just butter and cheese (Italian style preshredded cheese. I have no shame.) Petunia likes plain to be like her sister, but then always asks for some with red sauce, too. The red sauce comes from a jar. I read the ingredients on the Classico jar and realized they were essentially what I'd use to make the sauce from scratch, so I buy it. Sometimes I get wild and divide the pasta three ways and put pesto on the grown ups' pasta. But usually not, because that seems a bit ridiculous. If we're having plain pasta, I often microwave some meatballs, too. I found a brand with reasonable ingredients, so I just buy frozen. When the kids get older, maybe I'll try making them. Pumpkin won't eat meatballs, but Petunia loves them.

Sometimes I get really adventurous and try a new pasta recipe. As long as I save plain pasta out for Pumpkin (and Petunia, if she doesn't like the look of the recipe I make),  I can get away with this. I like Cooking Light and an old cookbook of mine called While the Pasta Cooks for pasta recipe ideas.

Pasta is served with either a green salad or a veggie, usually sauteed zucchini, but occasionally Picky Eater's Green Beans.

Friday: Pizza Night

Either we order in, eat leftovers from the last time we ordered in, or eat a frozen pizza.  Basically, by Friday night, I don't care enough to worry about the source of the pizza. I do make a green salad (mixed greens + cherry tomatoes + walnuts + parmesan + (sometimes) carrot sticks + balsamic vinaigrette) to go with the pizza, though.

That's the plan. The variety afforded by tortilla night in particular keeps me and Mr. Snarky reasonably happy with this plan, but it is predictable enough that I don't have to spend heaps of time pouring over recipe books on Sunday morning, which is generally when I write the menu plan and the grocery list.

What's your meal planning system? Or do you just wing it?


  1. I love this. It's been rattling around my brain that I need categories for each night, but I have yet to institute them. (Besides Thursday's pizza night, and the occasional Breakfast For Dinner and Taco Tuesday.) Awesome planning!

  2. We do something similar, but without the theme for each night. I have a list of go-to meals (probably 20-30) and choose which to do, trying to get a mix between chicken, beef, and vegetarian. Friday nights are always either take-out or breakfast for dinner (pancakes, waffles, or crepes). I plan out the meals for the week on Saturday, and DH does the grocery shopping that day.

    Love the pastry + smoothie idea for the summer! I'll have to steal that!

  3. Carolina (@braziliancakes)6:01 AM

    I've been trying to get better about organizing our meals and this plan is perfect. We have the added dimension of my mother in law sending us food every week (sometimes its good, sometimes it sucks) and its always a surprise. So it gets hard to incorporate her food into our meals.
    Do you have a similar organization for the lunch you send with your girls to school?

    1. Petunia's day care provides lunch. Pumpkin eats the same thing for lunch every day, at her request: half a bagel thin w/butter, slices of Parmesan cheese, some strawberries, and some Teddy Grahams. We also have to send snack. Right now, that is a go-go squeeze applesauce, some goldfish, and a third thing that rotates through a variety of options ranging from healthy (cheese stick, freeze dried banana slices) to treat (fruit rollups, fruit snacks).

  4. This is great--and I love your opening description of my rationale!

    I like to eat as a family, but like you, I think it's not because it will Save Our family, but because (a) I like it, and (b) it seems to help Baguette eat more. If I haven't written about that yet, I should.

  5. Alexicographer6:26 AM

    I have been blessed with one kid who mostly is not annoying about food (kids are annoying like that), a fact I should probably remind myself of when he is being annoying about other things. Note to self.

    Two nights a week it's just me + DS and we eat whatever. Usually either leftovers or he gets a cheese quesadilla and I eat something I like (no examples spring to mind but such things exist) or we do a cheese/smoked fish/fruit kind of thing.

    One weeknight is DH's night and I don't give that one a second thought.

    One weeknight I am out and DH and DS usually (always?) eat out, typically either pizza or Mexican.

    One weeknight is mine but I don't actually have time to cook. I am trying to fix this (really it should just belong to DH but we haven't had that conversation). Sometimes I grab takeout, e.g. bbq or fried chicken. Sometimes we have leftovers, sometimes it's pasta. I need to figure out a better system for this one than I have. Assigning it always to be pasta might work.

    Weekends sort of fall in the same category as that "bad" weeknight. I should work on improving those three. I did recently buy a set of to-go meals from a local catering place as one experimental improvement, but overall don't think it's a good value:effort-saved ratio (having tried it), so need to find a different solution.

    1. I'm telling you- the fusion tacos with random sauce from the jar is amazing. The meal comes together in about 15 minutes. Super easy. I can't believe it took me this long to figure that out. And, at least in my area, there are a lot of good sauces in jars that have pretty much the exact same ingredients they'd have if I made them from scratch.

  6. I meal-plan on paper at work on Thursday or Friday of the preceding week. I pull from a list (mental, but also physical, on the fridge) of meals in regular rotation. Our current dilemma is that 3 nights a week, starting this week, a child has soccer practice at 6pm, a 5 minute-walk from our house. The problem is, if I am doing the after-care pickup, we walk into the house at 5:50 if we hurry, and if mr. flea is doing the after-care pickup (only one day a week, when I work 12-9), it's more like 5:55. So basically we need 3 meals a week that can be ready-made and brought to soccer cold, or eaten in 5 minutes. Last night, not a soccer night, we got home at 5:50, I cooked that night's dinner (pasta with beans and kale), we ate it, then I cooked tonight's dinner (home-made bread, bacon, and a vegetable gratin that only the adults will eat). Tonight after soccer I will cook tomorrow night's dinner (mac and cheese and steamed broccoli). The pickiness of my son is an immense problem (no stews/soups/sauces), especially as he is very skinny and tends to eat almost nothing at lunch at school, no matter what we pack.

    1. Ugh, that's hard. When we had soccer, we ended up eating out afterwards. I have no ideas to offer!

      I can sympathize on the picky skinny kid, though. That's Pumpkin. She is 6 years old and not yet 45 lbs. Her little sister may pass her in weight soon! And yes, no stews or sauces. She'll eat chicken alphabet soup (or the branded similar soups) but only if I pick out the chicken and any veggies. I really need to find a source of alphabet noodles and just boil them in broth.

    2. Anonymous6:57 AM

      DC1 just hit 40lb a few months ago. We were finally able to switch him into a booster seat. He's average height, energetic, healthy looking... just really skinny. Little sister at 12 mo was 20lb.

      It's weird how society spends the early years worrying that they're too thin and not eating enough, and then switches over to too fat.

    3. Andrea7:44 PM

      Our pasta aisle has alphabet pasta, I've made a version of pasta salad out of them. They cook super fast since they are so small.

      The soccer thing is tough for us, too! I,ve started taking pre-cut things along for the one year old, and knowing that the rest of us will eat after practice. Then I make sure we eat a decent snack (string cheese, banana, etc) before practice starts.

      Personally, the crockpot is a savior, because when I get home from work, it seems like everyone is hungry and grumpy so cooking is tough. Dishing from a crockpot and pulling out pre-cut veggies? I can handle.

      I also agree with cooking the noght before, I eitherr do that or take advantage of naptime on the day I'm home. Not all meals work as make ahead, but enough do to work for us.

    4. Sadly, our past aisle lacks alphabet pasta. I'll have to check and some of the nearby specialty markets.

      The crockpot is awesome, but doesn't work really well if you have a "no sauce, no mixing my ingredients together" sort of picky eater (which would be Pumpkin, and to a lesser extent now, me, in my house). So I love my crockpot, but it gets less use than it probably would in a different sort of family.

  7. Anonymous6:43 AM

    Though recently we've added 3 more cookbooks to the mix.

    1. Also: Age 6 seems to be the year of unpredictable food dislikes. The other day we had BLTs and DC1 refused to eat bacon. Not the lettuce or the toast, but the bacon. (Raw tomatoes are off the list entirely, and at least that's predictable.) So he got a piece of cheese instead. What kind of (non-vegetarian) kid dislikes bacon? He said he just didn't feel like bacon at that time.

    2. Pumpkin won't eat bacon, either. I am beginning to think fairies substituted her at birth. A child of mine who doesn't like bacon?

      Kids are weird about food, that's all there is to it.

    3. Anonymous8:11 AM

      But he's eaten bacon before... it's just weird. So even if we had time to plan "kid-friendly" meals it wouldn't work because who knows what he's going to decide he dislikes next.

  8. Anonymous8:15 AM

    We don't have kids (so I haven't experienced that challenge yet), but our weekly rotation is usually: pasta one night (either with red sauce or veggies and olive oil), stir fry with rice, some sort of "taco" (because I'm sure it's not authentic), possibly stir fry again, and breakfast for dinner. If I have time and the ambition, and the boyfriend isn't being a picky eater that day, I may try a new recipe (usually Filipino or general Asian). We don't try to make this our schedule, but it's just what happens each week.

    We usually eat out on the weekends, but we're trying to stop that.

    1. If you're planning to have kids at some point (and hey, even if you aren't)- I say enjoy eating out now, while you can. Why not? Assuming you can find restaurants with healthy enough options for you.

  9. we plan meals on Friday afternoon and then my husband does the shopping that evening. We usually have BBQ on Saturday, something a bit more involved on Sunday, like a savory pie or sushi, or something new, then just pick from a list of about 15 weeknight dishes, depending on the season or how much time we have that night/who needs to do the cooking. Every second Friday is take out. One slightly frustrating thing is my kids will gradually get sick of most things. So we'll be all "Great, they love burritos, let's have them every week!" then after a few weeks they go cold on burritos. So for us variety seems to work best for getting them to eat.

  10. I haven't done meal planning, though I understand the appeal. I'm getting a little tired of many of my current options, and I'd like to have the kids' stuff and my stuff be of the same theme. No particular reason -- it's not like anyone is giving me bonus points if I'm eating chicken and pasta and they're having chicken nuggets and pasta...

  11. I do the meal planning once a week. Lo those many years ago when my husband and i were under the same roof for long periods of time, I would make a two week menu, which repeated after the second week. Then I could shop every week but not worry about the menu. One take out night every two weeks.

    I always feed my kids separately. This is generally because they are always starving way before I'm done with dinner, even if they have a snack, and because they go to bed early I prefer to feed them early anyway. Sometimes I wish we ate together but I'm thinking that will come with time. I don't mind separate meals because theirs are very simple (ditto very picky eater) - pasta or peanut butter or scrambled eggs. I figure we eat well & diversely & they'll catch up eventually. I think if they get a fruit & veg & protein & carb there's nothing else to think about. I didn't do the menu plan this summer, because I was having so much fun cooking new things all the time that I didn't want to repeat. Ah, the joys of summer.

    But when I'm alone with the boys, I eat things like a baked potato one night and a egg and cheese quesadilla with roasted sweet potatoes.

  12. Zenmoo12:15 AM

    I really enjoy pulling out my recipe books and internet searching for ideas and used to do it every week but it was too time consuming so now I usually sit down once every two or three weeks and build a list of meals good for a week at a time. I roughly aim for a list of 7 to 8 recipes for each week, including a couple of vegetarian meals, a red meat, a chicken, a pasta and a curry/Asian type meal and something that will generate a meal's worth of leftovers for the freezer. As each week comes up, I shortlist 4 or 5 recipes with what I feel like/what suits the weekly schedule and I then use the plan to grocery shop. The other nights are usually filled in with left-overs from the freezer. I keep the plan, linked recipes and shopping list in Evernote. I find this useful to re-use recipes from plans from several months ago

    I really enjoy cooking and trying new recipes. This is frequently my downfall as I try to get fancy in the time I have available... I am getting better at accepting repeating recipes/meals, using pre-prepared ingredients like pasta sauce and accepting that not every meal has to be a gourmet experience etc. I think now of how I scoffed at people who bought pre-shredded cheese (why would you pay extra I thought?) or bought pesto (I used to have a massive basil plant literally 4 ft high). I'm over the judging other people now but I still struggle to find pre-prepared food that is as tasty as I can cook - I often find it too salty.

    Luckily for me, we caught a break and my daughter is a pretty good eater and not particularly picky. I can usually adapt what we're eating to suit (e.g. last nights meal was honey balsamic roast vegetables with chicken breasts baked in a foil package containing cherry tomatoes , a little wine, garlic, butter and thyme - she didn't have the resulting tomato sauce on her piece of chicken)

    We eat together more often now in NZ than when we were living in Perth because DKs work hours & commute are shorter so he's often home by 6pm (which is when I aim for Moo & I to eat to prevent a really severe attack of the hangries)

    School lunches for Moo are always the same:
    1. Apple or banana
    2. Yogurt or milk
    3. Cheese cubes
    4. Carrot sticks
    5. Sandwich (peanut butter, vegemite or ham)
    6. a treat (cookie or bagel chips)
    7. Rasins

    Recently we've had a request for more food for her and I've been sending baked beans or dry cereal like weetbix for the afternoon as well. My lunch I pack for work is pretty much exactly the same except I'll have leftovers if available instead of the sandwich and will have dried fruit & nuts mix instead of just raisins.

    1. @Zenmoo, I LOVE cooking fancy, too, but the work of getting dinner on the table every night is so not it. I long for the days when I had time (pre-kids) to spend all of one weekend day planning, shopping and cooking a meal to which we'd invite friends and just hang out.

  13. Your themes are similar to what I do, and I plan it weekly in Google Calendar, which works well so that the hubby knows what's for dinner. For some reason, being asked kind of bugs me.

    I like your "baked good + healthy liquid" theme a lot, but it sounds like a LOT of work. Maybe there are baked things that are easy and quick to make. I associate baking with leisure, not "need to eat soon".

    Painful details on the process here:

    1. Oh, no way I'd do it if it was a lot of work! In general, anything I make on a weeknight has to be start to finish in 30 minutes, and I prefer 20.

      Check out the Fannie Farmer baking book recipe for popovers. Ridiculously fast and easy. The popover + bacon + smoothie meal came together in about 20 minutes total. Waffles are also fast and easy. Scones are a little slower, particularly when assisted by a 3 y.o., but also pretty easy. Monday nights are swim lesson night, so Pumpkin and Mr. Snarky get home a little later than our usual, so I have a little extra time, but I don't really need it unless I decide to make a soup AND a baked good from scratch.

      If you have time to let something bake, Irish Soda Bread is also fast and easy to mix up. It takes about an hour to bake, though.

    2. Also- I think some people like cooking more than baking, and vice versa. I definitely prefer baking. Which may be why I don't mind throwing scones together for dinner.

      But really, check out popovers. They are mind-blowingly quick to mix together.

  14. This is why I love menu planning so much - there are so many varieties and we can each find something that works for us.

    i wrote about it on my blog a few weeks ago.


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