Tag Archives: Menu

A Year of Planning Meals

25 May

It’s been over a year since I posted about my commitment to menu planning and family dinners and I wanted to post an update. In my Life List I wanted to be able to successfully plan and cook family meals for an entire year. I’d like to be able to do that, but I’ve been thinking about it. Say I do it. What next? Do I stop? I realized my ultimate goal wasn’t to be able to do it for a year. It was to be able to do it. Forever. For always. For realsies.

Not that I had to always do it. I just wanted the option. To be able to do it, if I so chose.

Our life circumstances have changed dramatically since I first wrote about this. Anthony’s (fortunately) down to one job now and has graduated school so he’s around pretty much every evening that doesn’t involve D&D. Isobel is older and doesn’t need constant attention (just, you know, near constant attention). These things have helped the family dinner situation dramatically. We eat at the table together every night that we can, even if we’re eating pizza or takeout. I love that we get to do that.

I’ve been consumed with finishing my job at the library and I haven’t done much menu planning. I’m really just trying to get through the last month of this with my sanity in tact. I’ve given up on menu planning for the most part. I’m not going to have any more time when I’m home–I don’t have any illusions about that–but since I’ll be home menu planning will be more of a priority for me. I’ve already made an outline of our daily schedule for when I do stay home, and I’ve devoted lots of that time to the making of, eating, and cleaning up after food.

One thing I’ve noticed that really helps me stay inspired is scrolling through the food blog section of my blog roll daily. I don’t always have time to read, but I find that even if I just scroll through it I get inspiration and motivation and it really helps me cook more. One look at my browser history and you’ll find it’s full of porn–food porn.

Isobel has become very involved in our kitchen life and she likes to help by “washing the dishes” (read: getting enough water everywhere to fill a small pool), “feeding the cats” (read: filling one of their bowls with scoop after scoop of food until it’s overflowing, while simultaneously not letting the cats actually eat anything),  and “cooking” (read: standing next to us on a small stool, eating the ingredients and watching us cook).

She’s even beginning to take note of our food preferences and habits. A couple weeks ago when I was sick and laying on the couch in abject misery she patted me on the arm and said, “Poor Mama. Mama sick.” She then went to the pantry and gathered up my tin of coffee and some emergenC packets and piled them on my lap.

Isobel is also honing her palate. Sometimes she rejects food for no apparent reason. The other day she decided she didn’t want to eat the half a banana she had asked for just a few minutes ago. Anthony ate it in front of her, to her absolute horror, and as he did she shrieked, with ever-rising pitch of disgust, “ew ew ew ew EW EW EW EW EW YUCK YUCK YUCKY! GARBAGE! GARBAGE! GARBAGE!”

How many times does she have to tell you, banana? When she said that you were garbage she meant that you were garbage.

Right now Isobel’s favorite thing to eat is cooked chicken. She still has days where she’s just not that interested in solid food. She’ll ask for a bottle and when I suggest something to eat instead she’ll say, “No Mama, I’m full.” The girl really loves meat in any form, but chicken is her number one favorite, so I like to always keep some around to tempt her. If anyone has ideas for using up vast amounts of leftover cooked chicken, I’d love to hear it. Isobel will eat it day after day, but Mama needs variety.

Lunch, Menu Planning, and Eating Healthily

17 Mar

Before I make good on the promise I made few days ago, I wanted to point you in the direction of this post by MK. It is an excellent resource to ways you can donate to various charities assisting in the relief effort in Japan. As days go by and the situation becomes even more grim and horrible, all I can do is sniff my daughter’s head as I sadly watch the news. Of course, it feels that way, but it’s not true: I can help by donating. And you can, too.

It’s been nearly a year now since I first discussed my meal planning goal, and meal planning in general is something I still work on and think about several days a week. As a family we are much closer to my ideal of eating a home cooked meal together every night, but we’re not quite there yet.

Weekly meal planning  got me through that time when I was fighting to come out of post-partum depression. I needed a set menu plan to tell me exactly, precisely what to do without any thought on my part. When you’re depressed you need help putting one foot in front of the other to soldier on. While I didn’t stick to the set weekly menu plan for very long, I use ideas and meals from it frequently as a backup plan. When we get busy, or when our plans fall through, it is always there, reliable and easy and comforting.

So I thought, maybe I’m going about this backward? I like variety at dinner, I like to improvise and cook based on mood and energy level. But I eat the same breakfast everyday (oatmeal, coffee) and am content. Lunch is more difficult, since I tend to rely on either leftovers or a soup and a salad.  I’m one of those people who work through lunch unless I have to stop. I enjoy food immensely, obviously, but if my head’s all wrapped up in a project I tend to ignore things like eating or sleeping—you know, the details. I seldom care about variety at lunch; I just want to get fed so I can go back to what I’m doing.  I also noticed that when I go out to eat at lunch I don’t try new things on a menu—I stick to my favorites, what I know I like.

The past few weeks I’ve been making variations on a turkey sandwich, inspired by the delicious sandwiches at Leland Tea Company. My current fave is a turkey and Swiss cheese on whole wheat bread with mayo, honey mustard, arugula greens, alfalfa sprouts, scallions, and thinly sliced tomatoes and pickles.

I realized I could eat essentially the same (with room for variation) breakfast and lunch everyday, and this fit in perfectly with my desire to monitor my calories. I could calculate the calories for lunch and breakfast once and be done with it, giving myself flexibility—and a calorie reserve—at dinner.  The next step is planning four or so different lunch and breakfast items that I love and working out the caloric intake for each so I always have healthy options for the first two meals of the day.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Ideas for Avocados

2 Jun

I spend long winter nights dreaming of avocados. They are summer personified. Around here they are available in cheap abundance in farmer’s markets from June to September. Every year Anthony and I can’t wait to take full advantage.


Besides guacamole, my favorite thing to do with avocados is to make salad dressing. Yes, that’s right, salad dressing. I first read about avocados in salad dressing in one of my most often-used cookbooks, 1970s-fave Laurel’s Kitchen. Both my mother and my grandmother used this cookbook. I also have an awesome friend named Laurel so the name is altogether dear to my heart.

This recipe in the book is called ‘avocado dressing’ or something boring, but given my connection to the name Laurel, I call it “Laurel’s Avocado Dressing.” It’s sharp and sour from the lemons yet smooth from the avocado. I like to add dill to this but I like to add dill to just about everything.

Laurel‘s Avocado Dressing


  • 2 tbs oil
  • 1 large ripe avocado
  • 3 tbs lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • dash pepper
  • dash chili powder
  • dash garlic powder

1. Mash avocado and mix all ingredients together. Keeps about a week.

I’ve tried lots of different oils in this recipe and a plain one like safflower oil or even avocado oil is preferable to a strongly-flavored oil such as extra virgin olive oil. Experiment though, to see what you like. Avocado is yielding enough to mash up into a thick liquid and love it over plain greens with carrots and broccoli.


Not too long ago I decided to deviate from my normal avocado dressing recipe when I stumbled upon another dressing recipe by the venerable Mollie Katzen. The first cook book I ever bought myself was Mollie’s seminal “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.”  I was in seventh grade, a vegetarian at the time, and I never knew food could be so exciting. This recipe actually comes from her more recent book “Eat, Drink and Weigh Less.”  I think it’s the most informative diet/healthy lifestyle book I’ve ever read, but it does sort of make me depressed that I don’t exercise. I can eat healthily all day long but let’s face it, I don’t get a whole lot of cardio.

This recipe is more complex than the first one and quite a different experience altogether. It’s very creamy and sweet and would make a fantastic dressing for a fruit salad, should you happen to have lots of ripe fruit lying around. It’s also delicious on greens.

  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1 tbs fresh lemon juice
  • 1 small perfectly ripe avocado
  • 1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon (or more) honey
  • Salt
  • Zest of lemon  & orange

1. Combine OJ  & lemon juice in a medium-sized bowl.
2. Scoop out avocado and add to juice. Mash with a fork until very smooth.
3. Use a whisk to beat in honey &  yogurt
4. Add salt to taste &  zest. Chill before serving.


Now, I know you don’t really need me to wax poetic about guacamole. If you like avocados you’ve most certainly had it and probably have a recipe for it. But I think this transcends guacamole and could make a fantastic appetizer for a cocktail party or a gallery opening. The combination of blue cheese and avocados is heavenly. Deep, rich, and tangy. You don’t want to miss this.

This recipe from Nigella Lawson’s cookbook “Nigella Express.” 


As far as the blue cheese goes, Roquefort would be the obvious choice, and Nigella does have another kind of blue cheese that she suggests but let’s face it: the woman can afford to have a pig slaughtered and brought to her house whenever she wants to bake a ham. You don’t need to find the most expensive blue cheese out there to make this. Just find some delicious blue cheese that won’t break the bank.

She also suggests eating this concoction with blue corn tortilla chips. Tasty! But don’t limit yourself. I like this with the tortilla-like Mexican corn chips you find in restaurants. You can find them freshly made in small batches or you can find them mass-produced in 3 feet tall plastic bags. Hell, use any old corn chip, toasted bread, or pita wedges you prefer.

When I make this I don’t add the jalapeños even though I don’t doubt that would be awesome. My goal is to work my way up into adding them in, but I’m too much of a gringa to tolerate much heat. You could also try substituting red pepper flakes for the jalapeños if you don’t want to bother with them.


  • 1 cup crumbled blue cheese
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 ripe avocados
  • 1/4 cup sliced jarred green pickled jalapenos
  • 2 tbs finely sliced scallions
  • 1/4 tbs paprika
  • blue corn tortilla chips
  1. Combine the cheese and sour cream.
  2. Mash the avocados and add to the cheese mixture.
  3. Roughly chop jalapenos and slice scallions. Add to the cheese mixture.
  4. Dust with paprika and serve.


This last recipe comes from The California Cook by Diane R Worthington. I found this book at a second hand store years ago. I made this recipe just to try it and magic happened. Diane suggests using this sauce on fish but I’m squeamish about cooking fish at home. I think this would be exceptional on grilled prawns or scallops also.

An ‘English’ cucumber is simply the seedless, unwaxed variety sold encased in plastic. I’ve heard them sometimes referred to a ‘hothouse variety.’ Their skin is thin and they contain only small amounts of seeds, but regular cucumbers would be fine as well.

Californian Avocado Sauce


  • 1 English cucumber, chopped fine
  • 2 tbs fresh dill
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 2 tb rice vinegar
  • 1 tb fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ripe avocado, mashed

Mix all ingredients together and serve soon after.


  • Mash into a chunky paste and use as sandwich spread/mayo replacement. Particularly yummy with a bit of roasted garlic paste mixed in.
  • Add to an omelet for breakfast
  • Toss slices or chunks on top of a garden salad – delicious with vinaigrette and a friend of bacon
  • Garnish gazpacho with avocado cubes and a slice of lime
  • Add slices to grilled hamburgers
  • Mix chunks with chopped tomato and red onions and serve on top of refried beans
  • Add to quesadillas
  • Add to fruit smoothies
  • Add to jarred salsa


  • Avocados turn brown quickly after being exposed to air but this is a cosmetic issue more than something that affects flavor.
  • Sprinkle cut slices of avocado with lemon or lime juice to prevent browning.
  • When storing mashed avocados or guacamole, press plastic wrap onto the surface of the avocados. This will form an airtight seal to prevent browning. You’ll lose some of the avocados to the film when you remove it, but it’s worth it.
  • I’ve heard some people suggest storing avocados (whole fruit) in the fridge, but I’ve never done that. I leave them on the counter and in patches of sunlight to get as much ripening action possible before using.

Life List: Create a Working Menu

29 Apr

First of all I’d like to say thank you to those who took the time to (very thoroughly!) write up insightful replies to my post about meal planning. Everyone’s ideas really got me thinking and it was encouraging to hear others say they occasionally struggle with this, too.

I think my main problem lately has been motivation. Before the baby was born I was on top of the weekly cycle of planning, shopping, prep, and cooking. Having a baby just makes everything more complicated, and it can be difficult to work up the enthusiasm to plan, let alone to get in the kitchen and actually cook.

Since planning is where I’ve been getting stuck I’ve decided to face the problem head on: my solution is a default menu for those weeks when I just don’t want to reinvent the wheel. In the past I dismissed the idea of a set weekly plan, fearing I’d get bored of eating the same thing on a weekly basis. Then I realized that I crave the same things over and over and I pretty much do that anyway. I created my default menu based off the (affordable, healthy, and tasty) things my husband and I enjoy most often.


I made a happy discovery and relish really went up in my estimation when I found out I could add personal recipes in a custom section of the website. The company would then transcribe the recipes for you so if you wanted to print it out with the rest you could, or if you wanted to view it on your iphone app, and (joy of joys) you could click your recipe and ingredients would be automatically added to your shopping list. Now I just need Grocery Gadget & relish to link up and I will be happy forever and ever.


Breakfast doesn’t stress me out in the planning stage. Anthony eats cereal and we always keep fruit around for morning snacking. I eat either toast, cereal that I buy cheaply in bulk, or Greek yogurt topped with granola. Lunch will be leftovers plus salad and a supplemental soup.


Pre-baby I was a devotee of making soup on a weekly basis. My menus could get pretty elaborate and I made endless pots of soup as accompaniment. I decided I need a default soup to fall back on so I’m going with minestrone, which both Anthony and I love. Plus there’s enough variation within minestrone to keep from getting bored. And when I feel extra-motivated, I can switch the soup up a bit and do lentil, or potato leek, or pumpkin.


Salad is an art with endless room for extensive improvisation. I usually buy a dozen of eggs a week even though we rarely go through all of them. After a trip to the store I take the eggs from the previous week, boil them, then use them on salads or to make deviled eggs. Sometimes I eat them as a snack in the morning if I feel I need that extra shot of protein.

Marinating vegetables is a very good thing, another thing I really like to do is to marinate beans and then add them to salads. Kidney, cannellini, and garbanzos are particularly marinade-friendly, but others should work as well. Canned beets are a special touch to any salad (if you like beets, that is—I love them).

I’m not shy about using pre-prepped vegetables from the salad section of the produce aisle, either. (With the exception of baby carrots. I find their bitter flavor to be very off-putting and favor prepping full-sized carrots and/or adding shredded carrots to my cart.) I buy prepackaged, pre-prepped versions of cabbage, rainbow slaw (with broccoli), snap peas, cauliflower, and a mix known as ‘California stir fry’ that includes broccoli florets, carrot coins, and sugar peas. Sometimes I like to buy bean sprouts, too, but only if I have another recipe or two to use them in. They tend to spoil before I can get through the bag.

I like to add nuts and dried fruit to my salads also, and I keep them in hand in small quantitities. The high fat content of nuts spoil after awhile and the last thing you want on your salad is something rancid.


Let’s talk about cheese, shall we? I finally figured out why so many people assume I am vegetarian. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my enormous cheese consumption. Cheese is pretty much my favorite thing and a meal isn’t complete for me unless it has a strong dairy component. What can I say? I blame my lactose-loving Scandinavian genes.

At any given moment I probably have about seven different kinds of cheese in the fridge. I always keep a wedge of Parmesan, a large block of cheddar, a few slices of American (for cheeseburgers, particularly), feta (great for salads!), cream cheese (not exactly sure if this counts, actually), then usually a couple of rotating favorites such as brie, Gouda, or Muenster. My husband said he never really feels satisfied with a meal unless there’s some meat. I rarely feel satisfied with a meal unless there’s some cheese. It’s expensive, make no mistake, but I budget to allow for it.


I have the set meals all picked out, with input from my husband. When I do find the time to cook he’s an excellent person to feed: willing to try new things, not picky, always hungry enough to devour whatever I put in front of him. When I remember to ask him to rate a meal to gauge whether I should make it again, he usually raves about it. One time, at the beginning of our relationship, I put a huge plate of Brussels sprouts and roasted red peppers in front of him, and bless his meat-loving soul, he ate the whole thing. A lesser man would have called out for pizza.

I decided on four meals per week to allow for the fact that we go out at least once or twice and I sometimes actually have the energy to improvise.

MEAL ONE: Pasta. I know a lot of different pasta sauce recipes by heart and most often make Bolognese because the husband loves it so and never tires of it. Add a salad or some sautéed spinach and I get a gold star.

MEAL TWO: Roast chicken with caramelized shallots. I posted the recipe link and a photo on my flickr not too long ago. I need a go-to recipe for chicken because I can buy it in bulk and because it is delicious. This meal will be the one that I mix up the vegetable accompaniment: artichokes, asparagus, roasted cauliflower, steamed broccoli, etc. A potato or some wild rice from the pantry rounds out the meal.

MEAL THREE: Broccoli beef stir fry with rice. I also posted a photo of this one to flickr recently. (The recipe for this is from Gourmet magazine and can be found on Epicourius.) I know, stir fry is not the first thing I think of when I want something quick and easy (all that chopping and prep can be a betch) but I use pre-prepped veggies and carne asada that I snip into bite-sized strips. I also have a rice cooker, which I heart heart heart and makes life a lot easier. It also frees up a burner on the stove.

MEAL FOUR: Something with eggs. Eggs are nutritious, fast, and yummy. They are pretty inexpensive when compared to other meat, but I buy the free-range fancy eggs, so they cost more but are worth every penny. I’m thinking I could do omelets, frittatas, baked eggs, etc. And it’s easy enough to add slices of bread and a salad.

There you have it. The proof, however, is in the pudding, or in this case, in the dinner. Will I be able to stick to this plan? Will I conquer dinner? We’ll find out.

(Previous posts on this topic can be found here and here.)

Life List Goal: Master a Working Menu for a Year

26 Apr

Why is getting dinner on the table every night such a giant pain in the ass?

When you are a kid your nightly burden is homework. When you are an adult your nightly burden is trying to figure out what to have for dinner.

It’s my goal to set up a meal planning system that works for me, that is as uncomplicated as possible, and that gets dinner on the table on a regular basis. I have tried lots of different meal planning systems but nothing has worked consistently. I want to make homemade dinners and meal planning a lifelong habit.

Pre-baby I was getting pretty good at putting dinner on the table every night by the seat of my pants. Ta-da! Another delicious meal half-assedly pulled from the fridge at a moment’s notice!

Having a baby changes that, of course, and besides, it was not a very reliable system to begin with. Isobel is quite mobile now and with that blessing comes a curse: she can move around and entertain herself now, which is great, but what does she choose do with this mobility? She follows me around the kitchen, demanding me to be held, while I’m frying bacon or boiling pasta or tending to some other baby-unfriendly activity. Any dinner requiring preparation more complicated than reheating leftovers requires Anthony to watch her while she follows me around wailing. We’re still working on this.

It takes a lot of effort to make dinner happen every night. The act of cooking itself is the culmination of many preparatory steps involving grocery shopping, advance prep work, and the most dreaded step of all – actually deciding what to have for dinner. The goal for dinner is this:

–         It has to be tasty and appealing

–         It has to be affordable

–         It has to be (mostly) healthy

–         It has to be prepared in about a half hour (weeknights)

I have been using some iphone apps to help me. My bestie turned me on to Grocery Gadget, and it is worth the ten bucks or whatever I paid for it. I love that you can assign aisles to items, that it saves items so you make lists faster, and that you can modify your lists online and send them to those that share your account. I’ve had issues with adding amounts to things but that’s probably because I didn’t take the time to read the instructions or watch the tutorials.

I’ve been playing around with Mise en Place to organize the tasks associated with each meal (raise your hand if you’ve ever forgotten to marinate the steak!) but it’s more complicated than useful for day to day meal prep.

I use relish to plan two to three meals a week. When I first heard about it I hoped it would become my meal-planning, list-making savior. It hasn’t, but I still find the service to be valuable and well-worth the $7 a month subscription fee.  Subscribers also have access to the free iphone app, which is great. I can look up a recipe stoveside if I want and cook from it right there without printing the recipe. Nice!

My meal planning process is still a work in progress. What I want to know is, how do you make dinner happen? Do you share the cooking or planning duties? Do you plan at all? What do you eat most often? Do you have any hints or tricks? Please share and help me make dinner less of a pain in the ass!


(*It should be noted that none of these apps or relish has paid me to talk about their product.)