49. Meals at Home: Plan, Prep, Prosper!

The Importance of Planning Menus

Ask people why their family doesn’t meet for meals around the table on a regular basis, and you will get a predictable litany about zany schedules. Because we all complain of being too busy, the practice of shared meals can only happen if you plan them well and develop a rotating menu that is both easy and affordable.  It takes an attitude shift.

The first rule of thumb for shared meals is that they be simple. If you have time and the inclination to experiment with complicated recipes, knock yourself out. But, if you feel pressed for time, the best palliative is a well-stocked cupboard, a dozen simple recipes, and a general plan for a week or two at a time. Well-planned meals always create leftovers for the next day’s lunches or for another meal. For example, when I make a pork loin in the slow cooker on Sunday, it’s a given that we’ll be having pork chop suey later in the week. If I need cooked hamburger tonight for tacos, I cook up twice what’s needed so that later in the week we can have spaghetti with meat sauce, or a quick beef stroganoff.

So, here’s a short list of easy suggestions to stretch meals, keep an eye on the family’s nutrition and budget, and make things as simple as you possibly can.

  • Learn to use a slow cooker like a Crock Pot. Prep the chopped ingredients the night before, and in just fifteen minutes the next morning you can have tonight’s dinner in the pot. (Because the pot gets quite hot, keep it out of reach of inquisitive toddlers).
  • Learn the value of homemade soups. Soups from scratch are far lower in sodium, and can be used to stretch expensive meats while greatly increasing your family’s daily servings of beans and vegetables. A large pot of soup made on a weekend afternoon can become soup for lunches later in the week.[1] Soups freeze well, and can be defrosted quickly when you have little time to get supper on the table. Serve soup with bread, cheese, yogurt, a green salad, or fruit and you have an affordable healthy meal.
  • Although we like to joke about our grandmothers’ casseroles, the “meal in a dish” concept is helpful when you are stretched for time, because casseroles can be made ahead of time. When following recipes, make sure to cut the fat, sour cream, cream cheese, shredded cheese, and sodium as much as possible, because most of your grandmothers’ recipes are not all that healthy. Casseroles also make good leftovers.
  • Depend on the baked potato. A baked potato is a hot, healthy basis for a simple meal. Top it with sauces like chicken ala king, chili, creamed dried beef, or stroganoff (all of which can be premade and frozen). Avoid the high fat toppings like cheese, bacon and sour cream. Be liberal in your use of colorful vegetables as toppings.
  • If you are not a vegetarian, it is still important to consider having a meatless day once each week. A “Meatless Monday” is a fantastic practice to undertake. Since most of us were taught that the meat is the main character of any meal, preparing meatless dishes takes practice. This is a good time to learn how to make quick and easy stir fry dishes.
  • Pre-prep as many of your vegetables as possible soon after grocery shopping. If your week’s menu of recipes call for things like chopped onion, celery, or carrots, chop and bag them up in quantity for later in the week. The same holds true for vegetables that will go in lunchboxes. It’s fine to purchase pre-prepped vegetables, but it is cheaper and more nutritious if you do this at home closer to the time you’ll need them.
  • When fruits and vegetables are in season and fresh, buy up quantities and freeze or can them. There’s nothing like eating your own spaghetti sauce made in August from fresh tomatoes and basil and sweet Vidalia onions in the middle of the winter! Taking advantage of fruits and vegetables in season means you’ll save money and have these healthy foods available year-round from your own shelves. This does take time and work and planning. Get the whole family involved.
  • When making menus, try to plan at least two meals in which one night’s food can become the basis for another night’s meal. Make a pot of chili tonight, have chili-topped baked potatoes another. Roast a chicken for tonight, and use the carcass to make soup for another meal. Make a meatloaf tonight, and crumble the leftovers to have with spaghetti sauce later in the week. You can find internet recipes and recipe books with a multitude of suggestions. Any leftover meats are useful ingredients in subsequent day’s salad, casserole, or stir fry.
  • Since bread is a basic ingredient in a simple meal scenario, consider using a bread machine. Although the cost outlay is significant, you will save a lot of money by making your own bread. Moreover, you can make breads that are healthier, fresher, and tastier than store-bought bread. If you have people in your family or circle of friends who are gluten-intolerant, you can find gluten-free recipes for bread machines.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of the simple pizza made from scratch. Homemade dough is quick and easy (a few weekends a year you can even make pizza crusts in quantity and freeze), and pizza-making as a family is fun, allowing people to use toppings they enjoy. Leftover pizza is a great next day lunch too. Best of all, making your pizza from scratch allows you to make them healthy and nutritious, using less cheese, less fatty meats (sorry, but pepperoni, bacon, and sausage aren’t too healthy, so use with care),more veggies, and higher-fiber crusts.

Post #50 will provide Discussion Questions for those studying this last chapters on shared meals at home, followed by a holiday hiatus.

Happy Eating!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] We are typically microwave dependent for a hot lunch these days. But, you can still buy a high quality thermos which will keep hot foods hot for up to six hours. So, even schoolchildren can have a hot, home cooked lunch. The trick is to get the child to remember to bring the empty thermos home at the end of the day!

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