Monday, October 27, 2014

Menu Planning for a Month in 10 Minutes

Menu Planning for a Month can be done in just minutes!

Many home cooks recognize that menu planning has huge advantages- it saves time, money & frustration:

1. Menu Planning saves time, because it saves unscheduled trips to the grocery store. It also allows the cook to do a lot of advance preparation for meals later in the week, thereby reducing time in the kitchen.

2. Menu Planning saves money because a well-planned meal that's ready to go at home makes it a lot less tempting to go out to dinner when we're tired just to avoid cooking. It also makes it a lot less attractive to just throw an expensive steak on the grill to make a quick and easy meal.

3. It saves frustration because, well, there's very little more frustrating than knowing that dinner time is an hour away and I have no idea what to cook!

But a lot of home cooks hate menu planning. 

It can take a lot of time to do, and it's a disruption to sit down once a week and have an undisturbed half hour or forty-five minutes to plan the week's worth of meals. So, it gets neglected, and we "wing it" until we've noticed that every meal for the past week has been fast food or that we've been eating the same "easy" meal day after day. Then, we make ourselves do it again . . . and the cycle starts over.

Well, I have a new system that makes menu planning for a whole month take just a few minutes. I clocked it at less than 10 minutes!

I have a monthly meal chart, with re-shuffle-able menu cards.  At the beginning of each month, I can simply "deal" the cards into the pockets in a sensible order, and I'm done : )

It takes a bit of planning to set up (about the same amount of time as planning a menu the old fashioned way), but then it works perpetually.

An Entire Month of Planned Meals

First, get your supplies:

A Package of Rainbow-Colored 3x5 Cards
A Package of White 3x5 Cards (optional - this is only to give you 6 colors instead of 5)
A Jewelry Organizer Similar to this one
A Marker to Write With.
A Pair of Scissors to cut cards with. 

This is what you do:

1. Make a list of the meals your family eats.

2. Organize those meals into categories. For instance, you could categorize by Ethnicity (Mexican, Korean, Greek, Italian, Indian) or by Main Ingredient (Beef, Pork, Pasta, Beans) or some other way that suits you. You can also sort by preparation method (Slow Cooker, Oven, Stir Fry or Grill, Simmering) Personally, I categorize my Vegan meals by texture (Soups, Stews, Casseroles, Pilafs & Pastas, Burgers & Wraps). I put meat-based meals on the white cards. These meals offer a variety of dishes and are a complete meal for Omnivore and Vegan alike.

3. Assign a Color to each category. This makes it much easier to see at a glance that your menu has a proper amount of variety.

4. Write Each Meal on a 1/2 of a 3x5 card in the Appropriate Color. (They sell pre-cut 1/2 cards if you really hate the idea of cutting them) You will need at least 28 cards. Many American families are said to rotate through the same 9 to 12 meals over and over again. If you're one of those families, you'll want to duplicate your favorite meals onto cards so that you have at least 28 meal cards.If you like, you can even put the names of favorite restaurants on some cards, if that's where you know you'll be going on occasion.

5. Sort your cards into the pockets of your Jewelry Organizer. The top row will be Sundays, the second row Mondays, the third row Tuesdays, etc. Put  Slow Cooker, Easy, or Pre-prepared meals on the nights when you are very busy. For instance, if you have Church on Wednesday nights, you might want to plan all Slow Cooker Meals for Wednesdays.Generally speaking, you'll just want to make every day a different color - the row for Wednesday might all be green, and the row for Thursday might all be pink.

6. Double-Check your family calendar, and see which cards need to be moved or removed. If you're going out for your Anniversary in two weeks, remove that card. If a Lenten Season Starts at the end of the month, move any meat-based menus you might have put there. (I know most people check the calendar first, but then they're trying to think of too many things when they first arrange their menu. I find it's easier to arrange it all, then just make a few small adjustments. I'm a sequential thinker : ) Put any extra cards in the bottom row of pockets, still sorted by color, for next month's planning. Check to make sure you don't have too many similar meals too close to each other (like if every meal all week involves chicken ; )

7. Don't leave any blank, to be decided, family's choice, etc. The purpose of menu planning is to have a plan for every day.  You can always take a card out & change it if your family really wants take-out pizza one night. Similarly, if you decide to try out a new recipe, you can easily move a card from its place. But, if you put a card in for every day, when the time comes to prepare dinner, you have a plan if nothing else came up.


 It's so easy to plan a month worth of meals this way!

Once I have the plan done, this is how I use it:

1. On Shopping Day, I can easily shop for 7 days worth of meals, and know just what to buy. (I'm considering writing a list of non-staple ingredients for each meal on the back of the card for ease of shopping). This doesn't mean that I necessarily have to eat at home for the next seven days, or that I have to follow my plan if I don't feel like it. It just means that I'm prepared.

The Jewelry Organizer - I found it at my Thrift Store : )
2. If plans change - say if a friend invites us over for dinner, I simply move cards around. I take the card out of the day it is not needed, and use it to "bump" a card for which I have not yet purchased groceries. The unused card goes back into the deck for next month's planning.

3.Similarly, if I have a lot of leftovers one night, the next night's dinner can be moved to another day while we eat leftovers. Alternately, the if we have enough leftovers to make another entire meal, then the meal can be frozen and scheduled as an "official" meal at a later date.

4. I glance ahead and pre-cook a few meals, or pre-prepare a few dressings or sauces to make life easy on another night.

5. I can do appropriate meal preparation at the right time this way. For instance, if an ingredient needs to be thawed, or the slow cooker needs to be set up the night before so that I can have an easy morning the next day - that's easy to do! I'm not left struggling to thaw a frozen entree with only an hour to dinner time.

6. For many meals, I just write the entree down - because I know that I serve things like Bread, Salad, Pickles, Olives, Crudites and Dips routinely, as well as fruit for dessert, without having to write that down.

7. Any time I find a new meal I like to cook - I just add it to the deck!

* If you like, you can involve your family on this one- having each family member choose a certain number of meal cards that they would like to see on the monthly rotation. 

 * If you like to plan three meals and one snack for each day, rather than just planning dinner, you can use this same system to make a week's worth of meals. 


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Monday, October 20, 2014

About Capers

A flowering Caper Plant
When you hear the word "Capers," you probably think of the Caper Bud. When American Recipes (including mine) mention Capers, they mean Caper Buds by default.

If you're like I was a few years ago, you never gave any further thought to where Caper Buds come from other than the tiny, overpriced jars at the grocery.

Or, perhaps you know of the more obscure Caper Berries, available from specialty markets here in the U.S. Or the larger, less overpriced jars of the Buds also available at specialty markets.

Caper Buds - When American Recipes say "Capers" this is what they mean.

But, when I went to Cyprus and asked for Capers, I was quite surprised when I was asked "What kind?" (What do you mean what kind? The Caper kind! ; ) Turns out they come in Bud, Berry or Leaf & Stem Varieties!

You see, Capers grow in Cyprus. They're not an exotic food there, any more than a Dill Pickle is an exotic food here in the U.S.

The Caper Plant & Blossom with several visible Buds.

Many Cypriots go out and forage for their own, and then pickle them. Each family has its own special pickling recipe. I'm not aware of Capers being cultivated (although perhaps they are) but rather most of them grow wild and are foraged. Foraging for and preserving them is a traditional craft, perhaps comparable to American customs like making one's own Jam. Some Monasteries also preserve their own, and sell the product to help support the monastery. And, like any other traditional food, they can be purchased from the grocery.
Preserved Caper Plant

But, do you suppose that Cypriots only preserve the buds or berries? Nope. they preserve the whole plant - thorns and all! And they're incomparably delicious! (the thorns soften and don't pierce your mouth, although they are a little pointy)

A Jar of Pickled Capers

Sometimes Capers grow in the strangest places - like weeds!

If you find a Caper Plant in flower, they're quite beautiful. But, be warned! You should always carry a large stick with you when you go to harvest them. For reasons I don't understand, the Caper plant is a favorite haunt of snakes!

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Mediterranean Two Bean Salad

Mediterranean Two Bean Salad
This is a simple, easy salad to make from ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available in fall and winter, but quite tasty year round! I adapted it from the "Mediterranean Green Bean and Potato Salad" that I shared a while back. One day I wanted to serve Rosemary Potatoes AND a salad with these flavors, and I didn't want potatoes twice in the same meal. It turned out so well, that I anticipate that I'll seldom make it with the Potatoes in the future.

In our family, we like Green Beans tender. If you're a crisp-tender sort of person, that also will work well in this recipe (and, does make a prettier salad).

It's so simple to make - and so tasty.

Mediterranean Two Bean Salad
Cook to desired doneness & drain
1 1/2 Pound Frozen Green Beans
2 Cans (or about 4 Cups Home Prepared) Great Northern or other White Beans), drained
1 Can (15oz)  Black Olives, Sliced
2 Tablespoons Caper Buds
A little Scallion or Minced Red Onion may be added if desired.

Toss with Vinaigrette Dressing
Shake together in a jar, and pour over veggies:
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon Dressing
1/2 teaspoon minced Garlic
3/4 teaspoon Salt
Dash or two of pepper
Pinch or two sugar
A couple of pinches Oregano

Alternately, for an Oil Free Salad, you can use Simply Greek Dressing

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Mediterranean Zucchini Soup

Mediterranean Zucchini Soup
Here is another simple, nutrition packed, low calorie soup. It's easy to make, tastes good, adds variety to the diet, and helps us get enough servings of vegetables in our diet.

Mediterranean Zucchini Soup

Briefly saute (use a little broth, water or oil to saute - whatever you prefer)
1/2 Cup Chopped Onion (1/2 large Onion, or 1 small Onion)
1 teaspoon fresh Garlic

Add and simmer till tender
2-3 Medium Zucchini, Sliced
Water just to cover
1 Cube Vegetable Bouillon, broken up
1/2 teaspoon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Basil
Simmering the Zucchini with the other ingredients.
Dash Cayenne
Dash Black Pepper

Puree with Immersion Blender till smooth (alternately, carefully transfer in batches to regular blender to puree).

Add to taste
Dash Dry White Wine
Garlic Salt

Serve with your favorite toppings. I used Garlic Rye Chips here.

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