easy steps to weekly family menu planning


“What’s for dinner?” You hear it every night and unless you have a good answer, it is always a dreaded question. Planning what is for dinner is a challenge, especially in this day and age. It seems that even when we think life is calm and slow-paced, it tends to be just an illusion. Consider that even a vacation is full of hustle and bustle - that very time we carve out to slow down and enjoy a break. If that is the case during a planned, relaxing event, just how hectic is the typical day?

If you are busy with a family, as most of us are, juggling work, school, soccer practice, dance lessons, piano lessons, homework, spouse, animal companions… the list can seem endless… dinner just seems to be the very last thing that gets thought about. When the inevitable question finally hits your ear…”What’s for dinner?” how do you answer? Take out, fast food, frozen food, casual dining? 

If you are lucky enough to have a spouse stay at home and take care of feeding the family, life becomes easier, but even he or she has many other home-bound tasks needing attention and dinner might fall off their radar.

Although I am sure it has been heard time and time again that planning is the key to success, it bears repeating. Planning is definitely a road to success. However, the planning itself can be its own challenge. 

How exactly does one go about planning a menu that will satisfy everyone in your vegan family?

As a mother of three teenagers, I realize that tastes vary from individual to individual, be they parent or child, and each opinion should be respected. This can mean running to three different fast-food places or picking up something at the last minute from the grocery store to satisfy each palate, but is that fair to the family and the caregivers? Is it efficient? It might create peace for another meal, but it is by no means practical.





Planning is your key, and planning the menu with the entire family participating is paramount. Here is a breakdown of just how to accomplish this feat:

1. LIST OF FAVORITE MEALS.

Make a separate list of everyone’s favorite dishes. Each family member should have this list handy during menu making sessions. This will make the process faster and less stressful as there will not be any waiting for someone to decide. This list should only include foods that you deem acceptable. In other words, a child should probably not list veggie dogs, pizza and cereal as their choices if it is not something that you approve of at least occasionally. Although you should encourage children to find options that are balanced and healthy, if the child can only really, truly offer a few not-so-healthy meal ideas, accept them. This process is about compromise. You should eat a veggie dog every once in a while (you can say no repeats until their list has had a chance to be used one complete time) just as your child should eat (or at least try) your meal choices. Not only does this show children that you respect their choices, it allows them to open up to trying your menu choices; the first step in being respected is offering it.

2. MENU TEMPLATE.

Print out a menu template that fits your dietary needs. The templates are available on the "Menu Planning" page HERE.

3. DATE AND ACTIVITY.

Today’s busy family is full of hustle and bustle. In order to accurately place meals, you must first know when you will have more time to cook than at other times. Knowing who is going where Tuesday afternoon or doing what Friday evening will make scheduling the menu items more efficient. Add dates to the template and note what the weekly activities are for each family member around meal times. This does not mean that you have to list everything everyone is doing the entire day; list only what is pertinent during cooking and eating hours. 

4. FILL IN MENU IDEAS

As the menu ideas are called out one at a time, place each one on the day you think it belongs best. If you are getting back from soccer practice at eight in the evening, enjoying a veggie dog, which is quick to prepare, might be the perfect dinner. Scheduling a more in-depth meal, such as a casserole, might be better placed on a day that you have more time to wait for it to bake, without having to pacify crying, hungry children.

5. CATEGORIES.

As a menu item is placed, cross off the category it belongs in. If it is a veggie dog, cross off “sandwich” and “soy,” as it is a sandwich that uses mostly soy ingredients. If it is spaghetti then cross off “pasta” and “tomato.” If it is Seitan Picatta with baked potatoes, cross off “seitan” and “potato.” This ensures that you don’t over-crown the menu with one type of ingredient and find yourself having a pasta-filled week instead of a pasta meal. It allows more variety onto the menu.

6. PREP NOTES

Utilize the “Prep” column to add any preparations that need to be taken care of, such as pressing tofu overnight, soaking beans, defrosting seitan or soaking nuts. You will glance at the prep notes in the morning, around breakfast time, to prepare any needed tasks for the evening meal.

7. RECIPE NEEDED?

If a recipe is needed for a menu item, note the location (cookbook or magazine) and page or website of the recipe. If the recipe is a web-based one, print it out and attach it to the Weekly Menu. If it is a book or magazine, have the volumes easily accessible during the week.

8. ONCE A WEEK RULE.

It is best to establish a “once a week rule” if you have children who have each placed the same menu item on their favorites lists. If little Johnny called veggie dogs for Monday little Timmy cannot call it again for Thursday. In this way, the veggie dog is on the rotation for the week, but you won’t be stuck eating it twice that week.

9. FILL IN THE BLANKS

Once everyone has had a chance to choose a weekly menu item, you can begin to fill in the holes. That is another reason the list of categories comes in handy. In my family soy and seitan are the first things chosen – very infrequently do I have to supplement the menu with a soy or seitan menu choice! Beans, well, those seem to always be left for me to choose. If you, like me, need a bean dish, you can choose something that is universally liked by the family (or by the majority) or you can hit up a cookbook or website. Search for “bean” or “legume” and pick something that sounds good to you (or other members of the family who are still hanging out – you might find that after their turn is up they tend to straggle off). Go through the rest of the menu template using the categories list and ingredients list to help you make choosing easier.  Try to check off as many of the categories as you can to optimize variety in the weekly menu.

10. ASSIGNED MEALS

Consider assigning certain days a type of food. Have days allocated Leftovers Night, Spaghetti Night, Sandwich Day, Sunday Dinner, Mexican Night, American Night, Taco Night, Pizza Night, etc. When everyone knows that every Friday is Pizza Night (or until the family gets tired of it!), no one will ask you what is for dinner, consistency is comforting to kids and that day’s meal, at least, will be taken care of with no difficult thinking involved.

11. BUT, I LIKE TO BE SPONTANEOUS SOMETIMES!

No problem! Friends may invite you out to eat, family can come to town unexpectedly, kids can get sick - in other words, things can come up. Sometimes the best laid plans are upset and need to change. As you proceed through the weekly menu you created, cross off the meals as they are eaten. In this way you can eat completely out of order; you can make Thursday’s meal on Tuesday instead because it is easier or sounds better or you forgot to pick up tofu for Tuesday’s meal, but you have broccoli in the fridge for Thursday’s meal. The Weekly Menu is not set in stone and can and should be utilized as needed. If you find that you shift meals around regularly, use the Sticky-Notes templates instead, which makes use of small sticky notes for the meal planning. Those are easier to move around if needed. Also, do not forget that meals that are not eaten this week can be re-scheduled for the following week. This makes one less meal that needs planning.

12. SHOPPING LIST

Once the weekly menu is planned, write out the grocery list and go shopping. Remember to check your inventory of pantry and fridge ingredients to avoid buying something you already have.

That’s it! Make sure everyone writes out their list of favorite dishes at least a day before you plan on having your first menu planning session. Otherwise, the task will be too long and seem like a chore. Store the lists with the menu templates. We use a clip board for the menus and keep the lists on a cork board in the kitchen. Our menu making sessions last about 15 to 20 minutes with the family, with an additional 15 minutes on my part filling in the gaps.


While the process makes meal time less hectic and more doable, it is also a great way to get everyone involved in major family decisions. At our home, each child is also responsible for cooking a meal once a week (usually one they have chosen for the menu) or at least being the cook’s assistant. In our busy lives, it is a blessing when our children are not just eating well, but are making healthy and responsible choices. It nourishes their body, but it also nourishes the family’s well-being. 

beef-style stew with gremolata

A few years ago I made a vegan beef stew for a friend of mine who was going vegetarian. He had said that it was beef stew he was really missing. It was his comfort food. I made him the version below. He wound up saying it was too much like beef stew and therefore couldn't eat it!

While I think the dish came out pretty good, I can say without a doubt that there is no beef in it at all, and while it is nostalgically reminiscent of beef stew, there is no cow anywhere.

I make this stew using seitan, but Beyond Meat chicken strips work just as well - or simply adding more vegetables. Since this is not an animal-based stew, it is not dependent on meat for the flavor or thickness, therefore you can sub for the seitan with ease.

I cooked celery, carrots, onions, peas and potatoes in this dish, but any root vegetable would be equally delicious (if not better) - parsnip, turnip, rutabaga, fennel or even sweet potatoes.

For an added zing, make the gremolata. Gremolata is a mixture of minced parsley, minced garlic and lemon zest. It offers a fresh and piquant flavor to the earthy and rich-tasting stew. You could also serve the stew over cooked pasta. So good!






If you haven't entered the giveaway for Robin Robertson's More Quick-Fix Vegan cookbook, go do it now! Contest ends May 1.







I am linking to these recipe parties: The blogs hosting Healthy Vegan Fridays are Suzanne at Hello Veggie, Anna at Herbivore Triathlete, and Kimmy at Rock My Vegan Socks.  


I’ve also decided to submit this dish to What I Ate Wednesday hosted by Peas and Crayons.

"more quick-fix vegan" giveaway

BANH-MI NOODLES 

I was so excited when I received this book in the mail! Not only are the recipes completely delicious and quick to prepare, not to mention easy, Robin Robertson used my photos in the book! "More Quick-Fix Vegan" is the follow-up to "Quick-Fix Vegan" and I couldn't be more ecstatic about it!

I find myself pulling these books off the shelf more than I can say! Fast and wonderful vegan recipes are the best and Robin keeps delivering them.

Check out the "Banh-Mi Noodles" (link is to recipe) at the top of the post, out of the "Pasta for Dinner" chapter.




The dish below, "Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas" is a favorite of mine from the "Out of the Oven" chapter.  I love that Robin makes use of inactive time and preparing some of the oven recipes ahead of time and then popping the pan in the oven is just what this busy parent needs.


ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND CHICKPEAS

"Chickpea Nicoise" (link is to recipe) is featured in the "Stir-fries, Sautes and Skillet Dishes" chapter. This is another favorite of mine in the book. Nicoise salad is traditionally made with piquant olives and this skillet dish does not disappoint.

CHICKPEA NICOISE

Pad Thai has to be one of the best-loved dishes. Add spring vegetables and it is elevated even higher. Just thinking about the dish makes me hungry!


PAD THAI PRIMAVERA

One of my favorite chapters in the book is the "Big Bowls Chapter." This chapter is new to the Quick-Fix series and is heaven sent! It is full of recipes that are a complete meal in a bowl. Roasted vegetables are completely delicious and tabouli is wonderful, so putting them together is perfect!


ROASTED VEGETABLE TABOULI BOWLS

As typical of Robin, she uses lots of fresh and colorful vegetables, and accessible pantry ingredients. If you want to check out the recipes before you buy, Robin has a few published on her site. Check the links above or look here and here.

Want to win the book? Follow me on Twitter or like me on Facebook and leave a comment letting me know. Contest ends on the first so be sure to check back on May 2nd to find out if you are the winner. The winner will have until the 5th to contact me before I will have to move on to another choice.

I will tell you that it is rare when the original winner actually responds and invariably it is the second or even third choice who actually wins, so do yourself a favor - if you enter to win, check back to see if you did!

grilled chimichurri tofu with lime-scented couscous + "vegan planet" winner

I love the flavor that grilling imparts on vegetables, tofu, tempeh, mushrooms, lemons - you name it, grilling makes it taste decidedly unique. And while grilling outdoors in not to be missed in the coming months (check out Grills Gone Vegan by Tamasin Noyes for some kick-butt grilling recipes), I love to grill year round.

That is not exactly an impossible feat, being nestled here in the moderate temperatures of San Diego, but even then, I'm more often than not too lazy to light the charcoals and wait for them to get ready. In the instances that that occurs, I'm happy as a lark, but mostly I settle for indoor grilling. Not exactly, the same, but delicious none the less.

There are other reasons to utilize grilling besides the flavor grilled food achieves - less oil. Grilling versus sauteing uses much less oil and fat required for the cooking. If you are cooking with little or no oil, you have a few choices: steaming, broiling, boiling, cooking in paper, baking or ... grilling.

I use a well-seasoned cast-iron grill pan, which as it happens, never leaves the stove top. Call that further proof of my laziness at not putting away dishes, but I just call it practical - I use the thing so often that putting it away would mean an extra preventable step come dinner time.

This recipe, Grilled Tofu and Squash with Easy Chimichurri Sauce and Lime-Scented Couscous, might sound like a mouthful, but is actually quite easy to prepare. The sauce is simple to make, as it utilizes the blades of a food processor, the veg and tofu is just skewered and grilled, the couscous is cooked and then tossed with beans, spinach and pepitas.

The best part is that it is a complete meal - grain, protein, dark leafy greens, seeds and herbs. Another great thing: you can skip the tofu and increase the vegetables since there is protein in the couscous. Gluten free? Use quinoa instead of couscous. Oh, the versatility!

We were completely smitten with this dish! The only trip-up could be that the recipe might not make enough chimichurri sauce if you are as liberal with its application as my husband was. On the bright side, this recipe calls for a fraction of the oil than the typical traditional chimichurri sauce does.





I just KNOW you have been waiting for the winner of Robin Robertson's updated and revised edition of Vegan Planet! Before I get to the winner (of which there is, unfortunately, only one), let me entice the rest of you who can also be winners in your own right if you purchase the book. As a reminder, this cookbook has been hailed  the "vegan bible," "vegan joy of cooking" and the "ultimate vegan cookbook."



It has 50 new recipes and all the information is updated for relevance to today. Here are some pictures I took during testing.

AUTUMN ROASTED VEGETABLES


CRISPY KALE STRIPS


CURRIED LENTILS WITH CARROTS AND PEAS


LEMON RISOTTO WITH PEAS AND SCALLIONS


SMOKY MAPLE KALE AND BEANS

I've strummed you along long enough! The winner of "Vegan Planet," out of 58 entries, is comment number 11 by Papa Dragon. [I feel terrible, but I was not contacted and had to choose another winner :{ ] Please email me at zsu [at] zsusveganpantry [dot] com so I can send this to you as soon as possible. Congratulations! You have until April 14 to contact me before I will have to sadly move on to another winner.

Return for another vegan cookbook giveaway on the very next blog post. I love passing out vegan cookbooks! Use the convenient follow-me buttons on the top right-hand side and don't miss a single opportunity.





I am linking to these recipe parties: The blogs hosting Healthy Vegan Fridays are Suzanne at Hello Veggie, Anna at Herbivore Triathlete, and Kimmy at Rock My Vegan Socks.  




I’ve decided to submit this dish to What I Ate Wednesday hosted by Peas and Crayons.



...and Pickled Okra.


tamale-inspired bowl with pinto and black beans

This tamale-inspired dish is made with cooled polenta, which is much easier to prepare than the traditional corn husk encased filled masa dough.

Prepared logs of organic polenta are now readily available eerywhere and make this meal ready for the table in less than 30 minutes. If, however, you want to make your own polenta, simply cook it and cool it on a baking sheet spread to about 1-inch thick. Once cooled, slice as needed.

The polenta roll (or log) is sliced and sauteed lightly. It is then topped with a combination of black beans, pinto beans, fire-roasted tomatoes and vegan cheese. Because vegan cheese melts easier on the stove-top than in the oven, there is no need to bake this dish and thus makes it even speedier. 

The beans are a bit spicy and a bit piquant. Add some vegan sour cream, salsa fresca, cilantro and more fresno pepper, if you wish.

This meal was a hit with the family and the cook. Not much beats a quick, easy meal that also happens to be delicious. 

And if you need a fast and equally fabulous Salsa Fresca recipe, there is one in my upcoming cookbook, Everyday Vegan Eats, which hits bookstores in a matter of weeks!




If you haven't entered, yet, to win Robin Robertson's updated Vegan Planet cookbook, your days are few, so get to it!



I am linking to these recipe parties: The blogs hosting Healthy Vegan Fridays are Suzanne at Hello Veggie, Anna at Herbivore Triathlete, and Kimmy at Rock My Vegan Socks.  



The blog hosting Gluten-Free Fridays is Vegetarian Mamma.


I’ve also decided to submit this dish to What I Ate Wednesday hosted by Peas and Crayons.

blt salad with quick croutons

(Vegan) bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches are a staple in our home. In fact, it never fails: while making the weekly menu and calling out for requests, someone will unfailingly offer BLT as an option. Making vegan bacon at home is a snap (and the recipe in my upcoming cookbook, Everyday Vegan Eats, is a great one), but unlike the rest of my family, I like new and varied things to eat.

To satisfy the BLT-lovers at home and my need for variety, I came up with a BLT Salad. In this dish the “B” stands for Beans. Before I lose your interest, the beans are prepared in much the same way that vegan bacon is prepared, with smoke, salt and sass. Since I chose to use beans instead of vegan bacon, and while the smoke and salt was satisfying as far as flavor goes, replacing the crunch that a crispy vegan bacon offers, was in order.

And that crunch is contributed by croutons. Not only are croutons made from bread (replacing the sandwich component), but since they are sautéed, they are ready quickly and offer the much needed crunch.
The rest was easy: tomato, lettuce and a quick mayo-based dressing.

Let me end this post by saying that the perfect BLT bite of this salad contains lettuce, tomato, crouton and smoky beans. Just like a wonderful BLT.






I couldn't resist posting another picture from my upcoming cookbook Everyday Vegan Eats.

This is one of my all-time favorite meals: Pasta Primavera with Alfredo Sauce. Creamy sauce tossed with spring and summer veggies and pasta. I've loved this dish since the first time my brother made it for me when he was executive chef at a quaint restaurant in southern Florida. That wasn't vegan, but this one is, and still just as delectable.




I’ve decided to submit this dish to What I Ate Wednesday hosted by Peas and Crayons since, well, it will be Wednesday soon enough!