Dear Home Ec 101,
I need to get our food budget under control, we spend a ton of money eating out. It’s starting to cause fights. I can’t cook or plan; even if I could, I wouldn’t know where to start.
Hopeless in Hopeswell
I began this series as a response to Hopeless back in August of 2008, and new readers are encouraged to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series for tips on getting a handle on meal planning. A commenter recently requested that I continue posting menu plans as they helped her find ideas for side items, which is the inspiration for this installment.
First of all, the calendar greatly influences what we eat with our meals. I’ve been working with Cameron Blazer at Cottage Industrialist (No longer an active site) to create a series of calendars and recipe cards that focus on the available produce each month.. Over the course of 2010, we will continue to provide recipes that highlight produce available in that calendar month. The flow of the seasons imparts a natural variety to our diets. It’s easy to say this in spring as new fruits and vegetables begin appearing weekly at the produce stand and farmer’s market. In the winter, I find myself reaching for frozen produce to bring color and variety to our meals. We are huge fans of frozen broccoli, green beans, corn, and peas. I highly suggest trying at least two seasonal recipes a month, even for one a week.
With children and new recipes, there’s always a minimal bite requirement. If you cook for other adults, they should have enough courtesy to at least try an item without complaint; it’s a matter of respect and maturity on their part. As a caveat, if you cook for suspicious types, only introduce new side items on a day when the main menu item is familiar.
When planning a week’s menu, first plan the main items for the week. Then go back and fill in the corners with appropriate side items. While fusion cuisine is all the rage in some high-end restaurants, try to center a meal around complementary flavors.
Aim for two sides per meal, with at least one simple vegetable or salad. Casseroles count as both the main dish and one side; if they are packed with vegetables, they can count as all three.
Keep a rein on the number of starches served, whether they are of the pasta, rice, potato, or corn variety. If one of these items is used in the main dish, substitute legumes or steamed vegetables for the usual sides. If rice is in the main dish, try lentil pilaf on the side. While no one in my household has diabetes, it does run in my family, and I pay close attention to how many simple starches we consume.
Sometimes reaching for the same vegetables is a-ok. If everyone in the house loves roasted broccoli, by all means, serve it. Frequently.
Raw vegetables make a great addition to a soup and sandwich night. How’s that for no effort?
Never underestimate the flavor improvement provided by substituting vegetables, chicken, or beef stock (or broth) for water when cooking vegetables or rice. If you use store-bought stock, broth, base, or bouillon, please keep an eye on your overall sodium consumption. Use the lower sodium alternatives whenever possible. Better yet, learn how to make your own chicken or turkey stock. Heck, I’ve even made it from chicken feet. When you make your own, there’s no worry about absurdly high sodium content.
When serving a meal, color is a big deal. As a rule of thumb, try never to serve a pale meal. If you make fettucini alfredo, serve it on a bed of spinach or make wilted spinach on the side. Top the dish with diced tomatoes or serve steamed baby carrots. Avoid the baked chicken, rice, gravy, and corn rut. Even a simple swap for steamed broccoli makes a big impact, rice and tomato gravy?
Even better. Reach for purple cabbage instead of green if the other items aren’t visually stimulating. The simple addition of black beans or bell peppers can give corn a confetti appearance. Use sweet potatoes instead of russet. As a bonus, darker or brighter colors are often a useful indication of nutritional content.
Don’t forget there is a lot more to a salad than the sad iceberg salad mix in the produce section. Try different lettuces or spinach for variety.
For the biggest impact of all, try to create a flow of flavor from one item to another.
How do you keep your side items interesting?
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