Friday, September 19, 2008

Efficiencies:: Part Two


Aahhh... this little chart... it's a thing of beauty, isn't it? Okay, maybe not, but I have such affection for this little darling, this gem, this... where-have-you-been-all-of-my-life? or at least, where-have-you-been-all-my-mothering-life?, meal planning chart. You can click on the picture to see it close up and please be assured that everything - even things like the "pigs in blankets" - are veg!!

Ever since I began staying at home with my little ones, eleven years ago, I have been doing a bi-weekly menu of meals on a regular basis. There are SO many reasons to do this: you save time, you save money, you are less likely to have impulse purchases, you'll have everything you need on hand to make your favorite dish, and - easily my favorite reason - you don't have to think when you are already hungry and the troops are beginning to cry out, "When is supper going to be ready????? or What are we having for dinner??"

All that said, there have been periods of time over these eleven years that the evening of menu planning was only begrudgingly met after much procrastination and sighing. And there have been periods of time when I would actually skip it and blow all the former good reasons out the window because I was just too dang tired (though I rarely have done this, because I am the type of person who is pretty dedicated to a discipline if there are enough "good reasons" behind it; i.e. Bible study, flossing my teeth, exercise, vegan lifestyle, etc.). For as good as the reasons are to plan a menu, I just hate sitting down and figuring out what to make.

I would flip through my binder with my tried and true recipes and begin to figure out what to put into the days. We just had that this week. Oh, we could have that, but it takes a long time to make...well, maybe on this day that I'll be home all day. We have a lot of potatoes, so how can I use them? Well, if I use them, then we shouldn't have them on this day and oh, there's a lot of soy protein happening here, so I should have some days without soy... and on and on and all the while flipping back and forth among the recipes as well as a couple of cookbooks or a magazine for something new.

A couple of weeks ago, though, an idea started to form in my mind: What I'd really like to have is just a simple chart with all the meals that we regularly eat and rotate through, so I could just see them all in one place and pick and choose quickly. And so I took my own advice and made one up last weekend. And you know what happened?

Trumpets began to blow a glorious Hallelujah chorus and white doves were circling my house for at least five minutes straight as I added the last meal in the last column and hit the print button! I swear.

Because I knew how well it would work. And it does, oh, it does!

So, in case you can't really see the scan, I'll just tell you that I have 4 columns labeled: Breakfast, Light, Main, and Soup. The Light column is for lunch-size meals, which with Paul's new schedule, usually means supper for the girls and me.

Under the Main section I have sub headings of Mexican and Pasta, because we have a few favorite regular dishes of those to choose from too. Now it was so easy to just look at the calendar and see which dish to fit into which day. Easy dishes were for a busy day and more complex dishes for an easier one. We can have a soup once a week. It's so easy to see on one page what we've had and what we haven't had in a while. I leave two or three days over the two week period for trying something new and the weekends are primarily left-over days.

One more thing I did was to get the girls involved. At 9 and 11 1/2, they know how to make a number of things for themselves for the smaller, lighter meals. I made sure that the Light column had lots of things for them to choose from and let them pick their own light things they could make for themselves a few nights a week: everything from cream of wheat to a pre-prepared pasta salad I might have in the fridge. That way, Maia won't be having a chick pattie (her favorite) every time she goes to make something for herself, and Eve won't be having pb& j every time either. Some evenings I'll make something for all of us, but some evenings they're on their own and they like checking the menu to see what they'd picked for themselves that day.

This has saved me SO much time and now I don't dread having to think out our menus. It actually leaves time for preparing a few more efficiencies I've incorporated into our kitchen:

I always keep one or two large containers of peeled, chopped bananas in the freezer ready for putting into smoothies. I buy the over-ripe bananas when the store has them on sale or use the ones that we just haven't gotten to sitting out on the counter. Bananas never go to waste in our house!

I buy a big bag of almonds from Sam's Club and keep it in the freezer. I don't actually have a membership there, but I will go with my mom every once in a while with the main purpose of buying big bags of raw almonds and walnuts. I keep them in the freezer and dole them out when needed. I keep a constant bowl of soaking almonds in my refrigerator for practically instant almond milk. Sweetened with vanilla and agave and a pinch of salt, this is the base for all my smoothies. Without sweetener, it's a perfect base for chowders and to use in baking in lieu of soy milks if you are trying to keep your soy intake to reasonable levels.

Out of site is out of mind, so clear containers of prepared sticks of cucumbers, celery, carrots, and broccoli and cauliflower florets are waiting in full view at snack time. If my kids don't grab them, I'll throw some on a plate when the 10 o'clock hour hits and we're still at it with school. Crunchy veggies are a more inviting diversion from math on it's own and the veggies get eaten. I also keep a clear container with the almonds and walnuts plus raisins, dates, and sometimes pumpkin seeds thrown in for a quick handful snack while meals are being prepared.

So, there you have it: some more new time-saving, money-saving, health-preserving ideas that are working for us. They keep tummies filled and Mama happy. Can't get much better than that! :)
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