Thursday, January 5, 2017

2017: The Menu Plan and Meal Prep

 A quick moment of triumph and happy today.  We went to the dentist for the kid's six month check up today.  Every dentist visit for the kids is just something I dread and panic about so much.  Why?  Because if they find cavities on my son they have to knock him out (he would never sit still to get a tooth drilled, period), and we've only ever had to do it once and it was still terrifying.  So, I just pray as I scrub his teeth every night that he inherited my husband's teeth versus mine (before the acid reflux my husband's teeth were perfect).  Well, not only did my son do really well today (he normally wouldn't sit still for the dentist and would fight him...thank goodness we have an awesome dentist who is always understanding and works great with him), but he sat still enough that they were able to get X-rays for the first time of his front teeth, they got a great look at his teeth and everything looks clean and good on him :).  And no cavities in either kid.  My daughter's two teeth she's set to lose are actually wiggling of their own accord and will probably fall out with no problems (we've had to have all of her other baby teeth pulled pretty much as the suckers just would NOT loosen for her).  So, it was a good day on the dentist front, even with me not doing great today :).

So, this post is actually really hitting close to home with some of the problems and stuff with menu prep tonight as I'm utterly crippled today, yet still having to function and get stuff done.  I'm typing one fingered with my right hand (and an occasional tap of the space bar with my left hand) as I did something to my bad arm last night (I think I slept wrong...just a hunch as I woke up the consistency of a human pretzel) and as a result my left side is utterly worthless to me's one big knot of agony that is radiating along my back, into my neck.  And I've had to battle a migraine from the pinch nerve it's caused me all day, so yippee for being organized so dinner is taken care of tonight *painful thumbs up*.

The last bit the menu has well...not happened.  Even when I made a plan, something would come along (like me not sleeping the night before, not wanting to do prep work involved and just punting when it came to cooking), the menu would get screwed up, which would throw off other meals because I'd plan on left overs and things...and well it would just go down hill quicker than a luge team.  So, of course, lost opportunity got me thinking of ways to better improve how I did my menu plan and meal prep.  And I came up with a system, I think.

So, changes to the way meal prep and menu planning are going to be done around here?  I'm going to go through the menu plan and meal prep first and then move onto other items :).

Problem 1:  Pantry Configuration Leading to More Boring Meals
Root of Problem:  A hurt arm.  Due to hurt arm the idea of crawling around on my hands and knees in my pantry to get stuff off of my shelves to help with dinner prep has been akin to asking me to walk on broken glass some evenings.  As a result, I end up asking my daughter to go down in the pantry and get something as a side for dinner.  The result of doing THAT is we are blowing through canned peaches like they are going out of style, but still have plenty of other side items in the pantry (she's found she loves them).  So, I had to come up with another way to do things to make me more motivated to grab things to go with dinner.

Solution:  Empty the shelf in your bathroom that used to house soap bars and other small bathroom items, put those into a small set of rubbermaid drawers (like you'd put in your office on your desk kind of system), line the shelves with cardboard and shove the shelf next to your china cabinet in your hallway.  Then, go into your pantry on a good day and get the things you've marked off on your menu plan so far for the month that you want to make and pull the items you'd need for that.  Then grab a few sides to go with dinner for the week (the rest will get pulled from the freezer), a quick "punt" meal that you can put together quickly (Chicken Helper "Alfredo and Pasta" and a can of chicken) and you suddenly have a "grab it quick" shelf that is at least on the same floor as your kitchen.  As soon as I'm feeling better I'll go into the pantry and grab another box of pasta (I go through the angel hair with my son as I end up making him pasta with olive oil and Parmesan cheese at least twice a week) to stretch the chicken helper out for a few meals (an overlook on my part when I grabbed the stuff eventually).

 Problem 2:  Finding Inspiration to Make Meals Interesting
Root of the Problem:  Eating the same thing all the time.

Solution:  This one is still a work in progress, really, but I'm working on it.  Pinterest is a great resource, I've found, IF you have an idea of what you might want to make.  Looking up "Pork recipes" for instance, doesn't really net you much in the way of ideas.  Looking up, "Pork Fried Rice" and suddenly you have got a ton of recipes you could choose from.  So, for me, it has been trying to find things to inspire creativity that I can branch off of into different meals and different types of meals.

I got Alton Brown's new cookbook as a Christmas gift and it has really helped to spark some creativity in me, not to mention gave me a bunch of recipes I wanted to try.  Reading his love of pressure cookers made me think more about pressure cookers and how much time they can save and then researching it online I decided I needed (not wanted, but needed) one as it will make dinner SO much quicker to cook when I just plain forget to do things like defrost the meat or want to make steel cut oats for breakfast one morning.  Not to mention perfectly boiled eggs and things.  I got my pressure cooker in the mail yesterday and have been having fun reading up online on all the different ways to use one and bookmarking recipes (now I just need my nice, strong and mechanically inclined husband to put it together for me :). 

I've found myself expanding my selection of things like spice and herb mixes and spices period the last bit.  I've found that having more things at my disposal actually does improve my chances of making a dish.  Oddly enough, I'll sub out main ingredients without much thought in a recipe (I promise not to review the original recipe stating that I changed everything and it still came out great, though ;), but when it comes to spices and herbs...those I consider to be important parts of a recipe that shouldn't really be messed with.  So, I'm glad that I am going to have more weapons in my arsenal when it comes to cooking dinner and making it interesting (IF Amazon ever ships a lot of them, that is *grumble*).

Problem 3:  Having Easy Meal Ingredients Available (Thus Making Dinner Easy on Busy or Stressful Nights)
Root of Problem:  Affording more expensive canned goods, such as canned chicken, even though I use it a lot and would like to buy it on a rotating basis. 

Solution:  Keep my eye open for good sales on chicken (whole or value packs of thighs and things) and not only freeze it but start pressure canning it too.  I've got two pressure canners at my disposal now that I got my dials replaced.  I really need to get my feet wet again and start pressure canning more.  I used to pressure can when I first got my pressure canner all the time, but when my son required me having to take care of him more and more I kind of just stopped doing it and my pressure canner became a glorified hot water bath canner for years.  Now that the kids are old enough that they are in school for a full's time to start getting back to basics and trying to save money by doing things myself versus buying it from the store.  My biggest worry is having enough jars to rotate them constantly, but I'll quickly figure out if I need to invest in more or not over time.

I mean I have two big buckets full of beans alone.  I REALLY need to start pressure canning them instead of buying canned.

Which side not to me is to find my pressure canning manual in with all of my other books and start to brush up on proper procedures and things.

Problem 4:  Baking
Root of Problem:  Finding Time to Bake More Time Consuming Things

Solution:  This problem was one that I really had to think of for a bit in trying to figure out.  See, I'm kind of at this point where I really want to bake, but at the same time I don't want to bake too much, have tons of stuff in one week, gain ten pounds and then not bake for three weeks.  Don't ask where I could have come up with that scenario or anything.

I've tried freezing my baked goods, but have found that things like muffins...I end up being the only one who eats them out of the freezer and they eventually get freezer burned, so I'm determined to keep it small in amounts that I bake this year as well.  Things that can be stacked flat, or close to flat (like waffles), I'll probably make more of and freeze, but things like muffins or bread is just going to be made on a weekly basis as I need them.

One of the things I really need to start baking more of is whole grain breads.  I mean I love white bread, and I love the bread that I can make in an hour and all, but it's not the healthiest option and I have a ton of whole grain flours I'd like to experiment with.  I tried the bread machine recipe that my "made for bread machines" flours came with and baked it according to the directions.  The loaf comes out with the consistency of a brick.  A tasty brick, but a brick.  I have an awesome cookbook for breads that my dad gave me a lot of years ago and it has a really good bread recipes in it, but it's all done "the old fashioned way" so it takes a long time with the rises and things needed to make the breads. 

So, to combat the need for time to make baked goods and things, I've decided that a baking day is going to have to be on the weekend and is probably going to have to start early in the morning before my kids get up (for the sake of my sanity as my son needs my attention about once every two seconds or so).  I might not be able to sleep in, but I'll at least be able to get bread baked, muffins made and cookies baked for the week and things.  I think it'll work out alright if I can keep up with it.

Problem: Wanting to Eat Healthier
Root of the Problem:  Weighing costs with eating a healthier diet.

Solution:  Eat more meatless meals, especially utilizing beans and lentils and things more.  This will be cheaper if I can make it fly with the family as well.  The biggest issue is that I worry about my husband getting enough meat as his body, being active outside and things, needs meat or his mood and health are effected, so it's going to be carefully finding a balance so we're both healthier in the long run for it.
I will still be posting up my menu plans for the week to keep myself on task and to hopefully share some cool recipes as I find them, but yeah, that's what is going on behind the scenes around here this year.  How about you?  Menus going well, getting stale or never started?


  1. Greetings! It sounds like you've put a lot of thought into things. I wanted to mention that you can use all those 'old fashioned' ways of baking bread in the bread maker. Most machines want the liquids on the bottom and dry ingredients on top. After that, push a button and go. You can also take the bread out of the machine when the second rise starts and do that in a bread pan and pop it in the oven when it's ready. Bread is pretty easy once you've run through it a few times. Don't let it intimidate you.
    Also, when i know i need to bake more than one item or i'm in the mood to do a big bake; i'll get my recipes out and just get the dry ingredients in a bowl, put the recipe right on top so i know what goes with what, and mix the rest the next day. It doesn't feel so overwhelming to me. Maybe that's something that would help you. Of course, with your bad arm, it's easy to overdo things.On a good note, your kids had great dentist visits! Good for you! Raising children takes hard work and you're doing a fabulous job!

  2. I forgot to mention; my menus are running kind of stale, too. Boring!!!! I'm vegetarian; my husband is not. Since i'm the main cook, 99.9%, my husband eats a lot of meatless meals. We eat a lot of soups, stews, crustless quiche and rice. My husband likes pasta but it's so high in carbs that i tend to only cook it once a month or so. Plus, we have to have bread with it which doesn't help the waistline. Anyway, you're not the only one in a rut. It's that time of the year.

  3. Do you ever use the New York Times cooking site? (It's just The search and filter options are really cool - you search "pork" at the top and see that there are 700 pork recipes, but then there are all these filters, one for diet (so can say you want something gluten free or low calorie), and then there others for cuisine, and preparation method, etc.

  4. My husband and I are eating low carb (again), so that makes it very important to plan menus and actually cook. We've been eating well; I've make vegetable beef soup, chili, fish, lots of eggs and veggies. Lunches for him are leftovers. I usually take veggies, a boiled egg, a yogurt, etc. I get tired of packed lunches. Variety is key for me.
    I think you're doing a great job, Erika. I always enjoy your posts and your "make-do" attitude. I'd wondered what happened to cause your husband's dental problems. Acid reflux-too bad! Keep posting; you have readers pulling for you.

  5. Hi Erika,
    As far as canning beans and such it's so quick and easy to do them in the pressure cooker that I don't can them anymore. One thing I've learned is that store bought canned beans aren't soaked along enough before they're canned and this can make them hard for some people to digest. By soaking beans for 24 hours rather than the usual 8, the become more digestable. Pressure cooking them after this can take as little as 5 to 10 minutes and making a recipe, such as baked beans as little as 15 to 18 minutes. Win-win as far as I'm concerned and no need to use precious canning jars for this.

    I also use the breadmaker just to do the mixing and kneading and bake the loaves in the oven. It's quite a time saver and will save your arm but still get the job done. It's possible to make several loaves in one day using this method. Just let the machine rest for about an hour between loading it again. Dorothy

    1. Dorothy, what kind of pans do you use for oven baking? And how long do you usually bake for? My machine died a few months back and with Christmas money from my mom I bought a new Oyster one and it came yesterday so wanting to try and use it mainly for kneading, and do the loaves in the oven but theres a lot of pans out there. My recpie we love for basic bread is 1 1/2 lbs.

    2. Sarah, For 1 1/2 lbs I use a pyrex loaf pan. Unfortunately it doesn't have the dimensions on it but it holds a little over 1 1/2 quarts of liquid and is just a tad larger than an 8 1/2 inch loaf pan. Sorry I can't be more helpful with this. It easily holds a recipe that calls for 3 to 3 1/2 cups of flour. Dorothy

    3. Contemplate investing in some cast iron bread pans. I love mine and they have a smaller interior dimension than a lot of the loaf pans on the market, so you end up with primarily vertical rise on your loaves (good for smaller recipes I'd think). Mine were gifts one year and I actually keep them on my counter just for bread baking.

    4. Thanks for the reminder of the dough cycle on the bread machine. I might just try it to get the whole grain breads through their first rise and see how they do. It'll save me from having to wash the right quart bowl on my mixer anyway *laugh*.

      And thanks for the advice on the beans. My husband put my pressure cooker together for me last night and I am all kinds of excited to make beans in it! The cooking times are so SHORT! I am amazed! This was definitely a great purchase :).

    5. Thank you both for the pan suggestions. I have the pyrex already, so I will see if it works for me or if I have to try cast iron. I saw those on amazon pretty reasonable priced.

  6. I'm hoping to have a few more interesting meals, or at least different ones this year. I found a xookbook at goodwill called it actually DID have a lot of those kinds of recpies, so going to try some out this month. my experience has always been cookbooks title that rarely are good but this one is good! I'm nearly done tabbing it.

    Also, I want to revisit my More With Less cookbook and some other Mennonite ones too in my collection. Good, simple food but tasty.

    1. I want to get the "More With Less" cookbook. I need to check the library and see if they have it. Amazon's prices for it have been sitting around 10.00 used as the cheapest price and that's a bit steep for me at the moment.

  7. Erika, it sounds like you are taking on your cooking challenges head on this year. You go girl!

    I also found that my daughter refuses to eat baked goods from the freezer (darned picky eater...unfortunately she gets it from me *sign*). So I've been picking one thing to bake each week to use in lunches. Sometimes it doesn't happen, and I just cope with whatever else I have. Or sometimes I purposely make up a box of instant pudding, divide it up into snack sized reusable containers and that's the lunch treat for the week. She seems to be happier with doing it this way.

    I totally get the meatless issue too. My family keeps turning their nose up at is as well. However, my daughter is slowly eliminating different types of meat from her diet, over the past couple years. I'm now hunting for more meatless proteins that she will eat to help balance her diet. Furthermore, finding something that everyone will eat is now next to impossible. My husband likes spicy, my mother can't handle any spice at all, I'm very picky about what veggies I will eat and my daughter is a right-off for most meals that the rest of us will eat. Pretty much any meal I make, someone has issues with. So, I'm finding that meals with options are my best route (eg pasta with choice of sauce and meat optional, wraps with choice of fillings or make your own pizza). Then they can pick what they want to eat. Unfortunately, those types of meals are also limited. Why oh why does making a meal have to be so bloody difficult!?! Anyways, I'm on the hunt for new meal ideas this year that will work for us all. Not an easy task, but nonetheless, one that is obviously. necessary.

    I'm not a "meal plan" enthusiast to be honest. I plan out ideas, then listen to everyone complain they don't want what I planned. Then life happens and everything goes south, just like you said. So my way of meal planning is to have a list of different meal ideas I can make from my pantry and chose one that works for everyone that night. I even have "convenience foods" always on hand to use when I don't have time to prepare a fancy, made-from-scratch meal. That's right, chicken fingers and fish sticks are a necessity and always well stocked in the freezer at our house. It's just what works best for our family.

    I hope you find a meal plan that works well for your family this year, Erika. I know how difficult that is. I'm routing for you!

  8. Hi Erika! I'm mostly just a reader of your blog; I've only commented once before to say how much I am encouraged by your attitude. I am a stay at home honeschool mom to five children with a husband recently diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's. Not a fun past few years, but I have full confidence that God is in control and my husband seems to be progressing in this ugly disease slowly. One. Day. At. A. Time.
    Anyway, I have an extra copy of More With Less cookbook because I adore books and occasionally get carried away in the used book store. (But 29¢!!!!! How could I leave any good book there!!!!😁). I would really love to send it to you. Do you have a P.O. Box? I realize you don't know me. I'm in PA or I'd drop it off somewhere for you! Let me know. I can mail it tomorrow if you want. You are so encouraging to me, and I'd be honored to bless you back in even this small way.
    Amanda Eisele

  9. I also make most of our breads, I use the bread maker just on the dough setting and then I bake them in oven. The bread taste so much better.
    I only use cast iron witch they are a bit smaller, but bread bakes to perfection on them, I got mine from Amazon few years back, I have the
    Lodge brand. I actually use cast iron for most of the food I cook.
    My favorite breads are all Italian breads and rosemary and olive oil bread and I only use bread flour or white ( my kids don't care for darker color bread and honestly me ether). It's still better than store brought anyway.

  10. I have two cast iron skillets that I would love to use more often but I feel intimidated by them. Like will I ruin the pans if I leave food in them on the stove for awhile? My husband works till 9pm and after he gets home he just eats what I leave out on the stove. Or are you supposed to cook then scrub right away? And can you cook pretty much anything in them?

  11. You ca leave food on stove for awhile,I do that to and actually keeps the food warm for a long time. The only think I don't cook in them is tomato sauce or juice.

    1. Yeah definitely stick away from acidic things in them as it will wreck the cure on them and don't cover with aluminum foil as if there is anything acidic in the pan the alluminum, acid and iron will make a battery, the stuff in the pan will eat through the aluminum and you'll end up with a mess you hsve to be really careful to clean up (ask me how I know this *laugh*). You don't use soap to clean them. I just put under really hot water and use a stiff bristled brush to clean them. Then just put them on the stove on the heat to evaporate off any water and while still warm rub some Crisco or other fat into the pan to help the cure. Treat your pans right and you'll find them an invaluable asset to pass down through the generations. They are wonderful kitchen tools :).