Taming the Meal Monster
By Jane Jarrell
Kitchen duty can be overwhelming for me, a self-proclaimed organizationally challenged mom. I shop once a week, pop a variety of beautiful and nutritious foods in my cart, feeling oh-so-very “foodie,” imagining all of the semi-gourmet meals that I’ll creatively whip up and innovatively serve to my family.
Then sometime around 5:00 pm on Tuesday after work, as I look at the assorted exotic items in my fridge and on my shelves: the fast-shriveling eggplant, the four cans of Thai coconut milk, a jar of Nutello, assorted dark chocolates and hard cheeses, I wonder, “What was I thinking?” Then I’m desperately riffling through cookbooks looking for a creative and innovative recipe for Nutello Eggplant simmered in Coconut-Chocolate Cheese sauce.
I know planning is the key but often times my menu-planning session takes place between the fruit and vegetable aisle. I also get side-tracked easily by anything that looks interesting or especially appealing at that moment — with nary a thought as to how it will combine into an actual edible meal. It recently occurred to me that if I am uncertain what’s for dinner by noon, there is a good chance we’ll be staring at heaping helpings from the local cafeteria line later that night.
Here’s how my weekly menu plans tend to unravel. I pull meat out of the freezer to thaw in the morning and plan to match it with some sides that evening. Now, my first challenge is to feed an entire family with a limited repertoire of foods they are fond enough of to actually consume. Potatoes are a safe bet, but really, how many ways can one prepare the potato? (Okay, about twenty ways. But then what?) Another scenario unfolds like this: one weekend night we’ll have plans to eat out with friends. Therefore what was semi-planned for dinner will now be shelved. Saturday night we will have been running all day doing errands, planting bulbs and washing the dog, by the time we are suddenly seized with hunger, no one wants what is in the refrigerator, so we order out. By Sunday night, I realize we’ve already eaten out three times over the weekend and I am determined to make dinner at home. But since most of the fresh food I bought a week ago has now wilted or molded before my eyes, I go to the grocery store -- with everyone else and their dog -- to pick up some food my family will actually eat. Since time is of the essence, this is often a frozen pizza, a bagged salad and a quart of Hagan Daz -- quick snacky foods we can eat while watching a movie.
No one is complaining, but I feel like a food failure. There’s got to be a better way.
We needed a radical meal makeover plan.
Therefore, in the quest to simplify; meals have become my first mission. Why? It's part of the daily grind, it isn’t going away and I feel it's worth the time to re-think and fix. I want my family to eat nutritiously and to take the stress out of the last minute “What’s for dinner?” panic attacks. Plus, I’m tired of waiting in line at our local grocer late Sunday afternoon in an exhausted last-ditch attempt to create a satisfying supper. In short, it is my goal to get it together before we gather together. So with pen and paper in hand, I constructed a plan. Here’s what I determined to do:
1. Find the Fave-Five - The top five recipes you know your family will eat. This is your little black dress approach to meal planning. One dress, or one list, dozens of accessories, or sides that are mix and matchable.
2. Create a “getting my grocery groove on” list extraordinaire - something that becomes a signature detailing ALL items you typically use in week. (I include paper products, personal items and cleaning potions.) Print this out and keep it handy to mark when you are out of something important. Your goal: Weekly trips to the grocery store, not numerous pop-ins for vital ingredients.
3. Prior to your week; review the calendar - Who must be where, when and an activity might conflict with dinner. Here is where you go easy on yourself. Schedule in a taco night, or take-home Chinese, or a pizza and movie night. No one enjoys a martyr mom when it comes to mealtime.
4. When you shop only add to your “getting my grocery groove on” master list just what you need to make your week of planned meals. On super busy nights plan simpler meals or carryout.
5. Take a peek in your refrigerator, freezer and pantry, see what’s missing and add it to the list. If you have time, do a quick clean out of the fridge, tossing anything that looks like a penicillin-growing Petri dish, or an alien life form.
Taming the meal monster can be done, by beginning with three easy steps. Plan ahead, create the “getting your grocery groove on” list extraordinaire and keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge.