Monday, September 2, 2013

Dinner planning

Over the past six years of being a stay-at-home mom I have found that there are housekeeping duties that have come easily to me, and others that have been a real struggle.

Take laundry, for instance.  Whenever I hear people complain about laundry, I act like I'm commiserating and hating the thought of all the piles of clothes waiting for me.  But in reality, if they could look in my house at any given moment, they will almost never find a pile of laundry anywhere, clean or dirty.  My laundry is always in small, manageable loads.  It's neatly contained in hampers.  Then it's in the washer and dryer.  I try to take it out right away but sometimes it sits for a little too long and the wrinkle monster gets it.  I fold it right after taking it out.  It might sit on our bed for an hour or two before it gets hung in closets and put away in drawers.  Tim has a whole drawer of green t-shirts in nice little rectangles stacked on on top of the other with the sleeves on alternating sides.  Did you just throw up in your mouth a little?  Sorry.  My mom's the same way -- she's always preferred to do smaller loads of laundry frequently, just about every day.  Even with seven of us at home, the laundry never piled up.  I guess I learned from her.

Now, I'll talk about something that I've always been bad at.  Meal planning and cooking.  When we first started out, we soon discovered that I needed to make menus and use recipes.  I am a terrible cook.  I can't just throw together a bunch of things that I have and make it into a passable meal.  I wish so badly that I could, and that it didn't have to be this much work for my family to eat well.  It's not even just figuring out what to make that's hard.  It's how I make it.  I stop to wash my hands about 10 times while handling raw meat.  It takes 10 minutes to chop on vegetable because I'm scared of cutting myself.  I read the same directions again and again, and if I have more than two burners going, it's chaos.  I was that way even before I had all those little hands tugging at me.  Any gains that I've made in meal planning and cooking have been hard-won, and have required a lot of effort that I haven't always been willing to make.

Our early menus consisted of things like baked chicken breast with a side of penne and white sauce or pesto that came from a packet of powder.  And usually nothing else.  Maybe a can of corn or a can of mixed veggies that I usually wouldn't touch.  This was only about four years ago!  Other items were grilled cheese and soup.  Maybe spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf, those things are easy and they make leftovers.  Fridays have always been pizza and Thursdays were breakfast for dinner.  But my menus were very boring, unimaginative, and contained very few veggies.  Making the weekly menu was always something I dreaded, but some weeks I was better at it than others.  We ate and we survived.  Tim helped out plenty on the weekends and he's a really good cook, so we've always eaten well on Saturdays and Sundays.

The past couple years I've come a long way.  Little changes here and there have gotten me to a place that I can be somewhat proud of.  I slacked off while Tim was away because I wasn't about to do all that work for just myself.  The kids hardly eat anything I make.  After after he came back I had to kick-start menu planning again so he can come home around 6 and we can all sit down to a decent dinner.  It was so hard to get organized again after so many months of just winging it.  But I had to admit that all that my laziness was showing in the quality of the dinners.  I wasn't even happy with the things I was scrounging up.  It was time go back to the ways that worked.

Here is the system that works for us right now.  I make a monthly menu and post it on the fridge.  There are all kinds of printable menus -- monthly, four-week, two-week, and weekly -- at moneysavingmom.com, and that's where I found mine.  To minimize the time I have to spend thinking about it, we assign certain kinds of dinners to certain days. Thursdays are always breakfast for dinner, whatever kind we're in the mood for.  Fridays are always pizza with a garden salad or caprese salad.  Saturdays are a question mark because we feed the kids something, and then later have our own "date night in" dinner.  As of the last couple months, I've established Wednesdays as something Italian-inspired and Mondays are usually Mexican-inspired.  Today was the exception because it was a holiday.  You'll notice that all the weeknight meals are something simple because I need things I can do without any help, and with lots of distractions.  Sunday dinners are not usually elaborate either.  Saturday dinners are fancy and I have nothing to do with them.  That is, nothing to do with the planning and preparation.  I do enjoy eating them.  I should make another post about Saturday dinners.
Everything is subject to change.  Last month I made a lot of changes as I went along.  But it is so much easier once I make that menu and have a plan for the whole month.  I know what to put on the weekly shopping list, I know when to pull meat out of the freezer, and I know what fresh ingredients I need to buy at the store on any given morning.  In this season of life, last-minute trips to the store are an impossibility.  If it's 4:30 and I don't have it, I'm just going to have to press on without it.  As someone who has no natural aptitude in the kitchen and a strong desire to eat well, I can't stress enough the importance of planning ahead.  It has made a huge difference, at least to Tim and me.  The kids don't care, and I know they'd prefer not to have a real dinner.  It makes me sad that they eat nothing but pasta and cheese, but at the same time I am scared at the thought of what it will be like when they eat like adults.  Tim and I already eat so much and our pots and pans are only so big.
I keep my recipes in this big green binder.  Most of them come from the Internet, and others I've cut from magazines.  Most are old favorites but I'm trying to introduce at least one or two new things each month.  The beef stir fry at the end of the month is new, highly recommended on a blog I read often that seems like a reliable source.  The binder isn't well organized, and there are a lot of loose papers floating in there, but I don't have any problems finding what I need.

I know I still have lots of room to improve.  I need to be serving more leafy greens besides salads.  I still think we could use more diversity as far as what kinds of meats we're using, and I've fallen in a rut there, just wanting to use what I'm comfortable with.  Sauce from a packet of powder has long been a thing of the past, but I'm sure we could cut more processed stuff out of our diet.  I'm always evolving.  Tilapia was a new addition to last months's menu and we loved it.

What I would really like as we get into fall would be a couple of super-easy but also healthy weeknight dinners that would allow me to not have to be in the kitchen for so long.  Tim got rid of our crock pot a few years ago after everything we cooked in it had a terrible aftertaste.  (It was a new crock pot too, so I still wonder what was wrong with it.)  I'd love to be able to make a crock pot dinner once or twice a week to free me up to take Timmy down the street to play at the neighbors' (or even just to take him outside -- he loves playing outside, but since he needs direct supervision at all times he has to stay in), or to not have to worry about what's for dinner after soccer practice.  It can be really difficult to have to spend all afternoon on meal preparation when the kids want my attention for so many different things.  Another option besides the crock pot would be a make-ahead meal that I could keep in the freezer.  It would take even more planning and organization, but that could work.  Tim gives me a hard time for it but yes, I'm always looking for shortcuts.  Guilty as charged.

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