“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.
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.