Last week, I wrote about a scheduling adaptation that I devised to help me stay functional on high anxiety and depression days. Today, I want to tell you about another adaptation: my menu.
In the past, I sat down with my spreadsheet and my cookbooks every two weeks and planned a new menu, often defaulting to familiar favorites. Late last fall, I decided to ambitiously create a menu for all of 2019–every evening meal, weekend and summer lunches, and three school lunches a week. My theory: if I didn’t have to face creating a new menu every two weeks, my anxiety would diminish.
Why do I shop in two-week cycles? 1) It matches my husband’s paydays. 2) We live in Oklahoma, and space really isn’t an issue. 3) I don’t like leaving my house.
Now that we are a few months into the new year, I can say that the menu works. So, how did I set up a year’s worth of food?
Since I started preparing menus years ago, I’ve always used a spreadsheet. Column A is for notes: birthdays, holidays, commitments–basically anything that might interfere with a menu. Column B: Date. Column C: Week Day. Columns D-G: Lunch, Dinner, Snacks/Desserts, Breakfast.
Column A is the most important. It must align with our family calendar because our busy-ness informs our food choices. I simply won’t make a leg of lamb on a band concert night. I won’t schedule breakfast-for-dinner, which my husband prepares, on a night he won’t be home. I include everything in Column A. Know we’ll watch the Super Bowl (or its ads)? Want to remember Bastille Day or Juneteenth or both? Gotta pick up one kid late every Monday in September? Kid’s best friend follows Ramadan? One member of the family traveling? I put it all on the menu! As the year progresses, Column A changes due to new and emerging obligations.
Lunch and Dinner columns are always filled, but Snacks/Desserts and Breakfast are only filled if there is a special item for the day. A birthday cake. A required school snack. Holiday breakfast. Otherwise, everyone fends for themselves for snacks and breakfast. And good luck finding dessert!
I needed some way to organize my approach to a year’s worth of dinners, so I decided to use a cycle.
- Sunday Lunch: Omega-3
- Sunday Dinner: Vegetarian
- Monday Dinner: 21-Day Sugar Detox recipe
- Tuesday Dinner: Broth-based
- Wednesday Dinner: Home Favorite
- Thursday Dinner: Omega-3
- Friday Dinner: Pizza & Veg
- Saturday Lunch: Egg-based
- Saturday Dinner: Home Favorite
This cycle supports the dietary lifestyle we want and need to keep sugar low, eat fish intentionally, and incorporate vegetarian meals. It also keeps us grounded in familiar foods with two home favorite recipes a week and pizza on Fridays. However, my menu doesn’t repeat many meals throughout the year. That, too, was intentional. I could potentially use the same menu the following year and not be burned out.
If you are thinking about doing this, consider your food goals. Do you want to focus on flavor profiles, food destinations, lower fat, more eco-friendly? Whatever it is, be intentional about it. Design your menu around your aspirations.
Each meal rectangle–Lunch and Dinner–contains every recipe and fresh food I intend to prepare for that meal. This has two functions: 1) prompt me to add the right ingredients to my grocery list, and 2) prompt me to prepare everything intended. The key, in my experience, is to name the part of the cycle, special instructions, the recipe name, and where to find the recipe, for example:
Omega 3: DOUBLE: Honey Ginger Salmon with Spicy Baby Bok Choy, printout, Rice
Omega 3 tells me that I’m staying on-cycle. DOUBLE informs how much of the recipe I’ll need. The name of the recipe helps me find it; I learned the hard way to use the full and accurate title. Printout means that I found this recipe online and it is waiting in my 3-ring binder in the order of use.
Vegetarian: Winter Squash Stuffed with Red Quinoa, Beekman, 216; Greens
Here, “Beekman, 216” tells me I will find the recipe on page 216 of The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Cookbook.
The point: be as specific as necessary so that I or anyone in my household could find the day’s meal if we half-way tried.
Special Days & Adjustments
The menu has to be flexible, because life flexes. I build in flexibility in three ways.
- Each person in our home gets to choose what they eat on their birthday, both meals and dessert. I leave those rectangles blank until the birthday person has informed me of their decision.
- Within a two-week shopping period, I might rearrange when we eat which meals. I print out the two weeks from shopping forward and hang it on my fridge. Then I make notes about any changes or swapping. Swapping sometimes becomes necessary because calendars change, and sometimes because my mood to cook changes.
- Column H. Column H is headed Alternate/Intended. This column is administrative so that any meals not eaten in the last two-week period, say, because we ate out instead, can be transferred to the next period rather than wasted. The intended meal gets pasted to Column H, and the uneaten meal is copied to the new spot. This is also a great column when I have a newly planned dinner party at someone else’s home. I can move my planned meal to Column H and plan to take whatever I’ve been asked to the party.
Likewise, dates with my husband make the menu. When someone in the family is traveling or at camp or whatnot, I note in the rectangle that I’m preparing FOR FOUR or FOR TWO or whatever (because meals are understood to be for five people in this house) so that when I make my grocery list, I don’t get too much food. The opposite is also true. If I’m preparing food for twelve, my menu had better say so, or I will not have enough food.
One intentional extra I built into this menu was seasonality. Because I planned so far in advance, and because I live in a city with access to basic foods, I generally planned foods according to their season. This is a practice I’ve long wanted to do better. Eating seasonally means better nutrition, better taste, and better environment. Is it hard to break the habit of buying tomatoes in winter? For me, yes it was. But if it’s not on the menu, it doesn’t go in the cart.
My favorite cookbooks with seasonal charts or divisions:
- The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Cookbook
- Cooking from the Farmers’ Market – My absolute go-to for seasonality because of its amazing charts in the front matter.
- Kitchen Garden Cookbook
- Weeknight Fresh + Fast
A Few Notes About the Picture
- The redactions are all names or locations and redacted for my family’s privacy.
- Where you see a redaction followed by a date, that indicates a birthday or anniversary of some kind. I include all the people important in our lives, not only nuclear family members.
- Why, yes! There is a shocking number of field trips in May!
- One additional cookbook is on this picture: Bountiful
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