Side Tracks

I do not have a linear way of thinking. My train of thought is more a hovercar of thought; it moves in all sorts of directions, and it steers like a fish. I have better luck somedays herding cats into straight lines than I do focusing on a task if it’s not written down.

It might be undiagnosed ADD. It might be a simple fact that I hold a full-time job, I’m writing, I’m a wife and mother, I have a house to clean and aging parents to care for that are starting to need more care. I might just be overwhelmed.

This is also the problem with having a large cookbook collection. Menu planning can be easily sidetracked by a bad case of “ooh, I haven’t made THIS in a while!”.

Menu planning is important if you are making a weekly food budget and sticking to it. A weekly or monthly food budget is important, especially if you have goals you are trying to achieve. Meal planning helps you use what you already have, it helps keep you from impulse buying, and it also helps keep you from the takeout/delivery double trap of wasting money on food you have to throw out AND spending extra money for someone else to cook.

If you’ve never done serious meal planning before, there are some good resources on the web to help you with that. Some basics that I use, since I’m sometimes easily distracted:

  1. Talk to your family about what their favorite meals are. The ones they ask for over and over again. Then the ones they like a lot, but don’t ask for all the time. Get a good list together of meals that most everyone is happy with. This might be easier if it’s just you, or you and your SO.
  2. Now match that list to any dietary restrictions in the family. In my family, we are both working on lowering our simple carbohydrate intake. We are both allergic to mushrooms and yeasts. (Which sucks because we both love Beef Stroganoff.)
    1. This means we don’t eat Beef Stroganoff, and most dishes made with wine or beer tend to be off-limits, depending on the cooking method. While most of the alcohol will cook out, some remains – and alcohol is fermented, which means yeast.
  3. Now, look at your schedule for the week and identify which meals are quick cooking, and which meals are involved and take time. You certainly don’t want to do an Overly Ambitious dinner (Thanks, Taco Bell!) on a night when you’re picking one kid up from soccer practice and dropping another one off at Tae Kwan Do and running to the cleaners and… I think you get the picture I’m painting. Save those meals for the weekends or whenever you have the time to do them.
    1. Don’t be tied to cooking one thing for the whole family. Sometimes you can get away with making a simple dish for the kids and fancying it up for the grown-ups, or have something extra for the adults (such as a salad or soup) that the kids might not want.
  4. Decide your dinners, make your list, and check your freezer and pantry. Get help if you have a pantry like mine, with a top shelf where the extras go – I had 7 bottles of mustard because I couldn’t see them and kept assuming we were out.
  5. Do NOT do a stock up shop at the same time you are doing a weekly shop. I firmly believe stock up shops should be separate, mostly because of the 7 bottles of mustard. You should really only be buying the food for the meals you are going to prepare that week.
  6. Shop with a list – and be specific on the list. If the recipe calls for light olive oil, the taste will be off if you pick up extra virgin olive oil – or canola oil. Roasted sesame oil is different from plain sesame oil. Heavy cream whips differently than light cream. Half and half is not cream.
  7. Eat and drink before you go to the store, or you may become the proud owner of Aisle 14.
  8. Stick to the outside perimeter of the store – produce, deli, seafood, meat, dairy, bakery. Don’t go up and down each aisle unless you have something you need in each aisle.

I know most of you have heard this advice all your life – or at least portions of it. Due to the lack of home economics classes in schools across the country, lots of young people aren’t learning these things unless they observe their parents doing them. So the last thing I will say is this:

9. Get your kids involved in this process. Teach them how to cook and bake. Show them how to plan a menu, how to make a grocery list, and how to shop.  Get them to help you take inventory of the pantry and the freezer. Take them with you and get them to help, and when they want something that isn’t on the list, explain to them why you aren’t getting it if they are old enough to understand. Ingrain in them “it’s not on the list” and stick to your guns, even when it’s something YOU want.

We’re all in this together. We all need help to stop being sidetracked.