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, I can’t plan, and even if I could, I wouldn’t know where to start.
Hopeless in Hopeswell
Welcome to part two of this series on meal planning. Part 1 focused on finding the dining room (or kitchen) table and getting into the habit of eating at home, whatever it took.
I want to clear this misconception up right now: a habit is not the same as a rut. The habit helps break the cycle of relying on the drive-through for sustenance. Without introducing new foods, the idea of repetitively cycling through eight meals of convenience food becomes depressing, and once again, the take-out option becomes appealing. To prevent the rut, you must be brave and experiment.
Two facts about your meal planning journey:
- As the cook, it is not your job to please everyone. I take requests, but they must be reasonable. Don’t cook to irk your family purposely, but do not cater to overly picky palates, either. The planner’s perk is that your whims are the first to be accommodated after allergies and dietary restrictions.
- Accept that there are times when you will screw up or be disappointed.* It’s not the end of the world, it’s one meal, and there are very few of us in America who couldn’t stand to skimp on a meal or two. Salvage the night by making popcorn or some other treat. Be careful, though; some of the more inventive family members out there could figure out your plan and sabotage future efforts.
Ten tips to successfully expand your menu:
- If you cook for others, don’t push your luck, only introduce one new food item per week.
- Pay attention to the reactions of your audience. For example, if they hate the black bean dish you tried this week, try a different main ingredient next time.
- Be open to suggestions.
- Ask friends with similar family situations for suggestions if you have young children.
- Different marinades make similar meals feel exotic. For example, grilled chicken with barbecue sauce is nothing like chicken served with an Asian-style marinade. Additionally, using the same marinade on a variety of meats can also liven up a menu.
- Vary your sides. Similar entrees can feel entirely different if they are served with noodles instead of mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes instead of broccoli.
- Learn to make soup. It’s simple, economical, and hundreds of variations can be created from ingredients found in the average fridge, freezer, and pantry. It also is a fabulous way to use up leftovers.
- If you are new to cooking, avoid fancy cooking magazines. Some are great, but others call for exotic ingredients that a beginner cook may not have on hand. In rural areas, some of the ingredients may be difficult to find. I do recommend Taste of Home for straightforward, tried, and true recipes.
- Peruse other menus.
- Finally, think of your favorite menu items when eating out. Set a goal to master a similar recipe. Even a beginner cook can quickly learn to outdo many middle-of-the-road chain restaurants.
*True story, a few weeks ago, I burned garlic bread in front of company. I’m not being modest and trying to call slightly overdone burnt. I, honest to God, completely forgot about it and scorched it badly enough I was worried the fire alarm would start and add another layer of embarrassment to the evening.
Looking for the rest of the Meal Planning Primer?