June 18th, 2017
Home Menu Planning
By Chris Teague
When it comes to looking up recipes on Google, one of the most-searched phrases is "quick and healthy". This isn't surprising. Jobs, family time, and other obligations make it hard to cook anything, much less a healthy meal. Those of us that are in caregiving roles for parents or other family members sometimes have it even harder, with the added stress of dietary restrictions or special preparation needs. Knowing all of this, it can be easy to excuse ourselves when we go out to eat or pick up takeout for dinner, but this is an expensive solution and won't work for every family. With a little planning, meals can be prepped ahead of time and either reheated or cooked quickly for a healthier, more cost-effective weekday dinner.
Plan the Menu
When chefs are mapping out the menus for their restaurants, they will often look at which ingredients they can cross-utilize on more than one dish. This will allow them cut down on prep time, as one item can be used in multiple dishes. The other benefit of this that buying more of one item can usually help reduce overall costs. These strategies can help make cooking at home quite a bit easier as well, since the time to prepare a complex dish for each night is out of reach for many of us. Almost everyone can think of a few foods that the whole family likes to eat, so plan your menus throughout the week to include those foods. Setting meals up this way will allow you to do most of your meal prep in one chunk of time, so that the actual cooking part will be much easier.
One Dish To Rule Them All
We have all been there: we finish cooking a great dinner and everyone's happy, only to find out that the epic battle has just begun - the kitchen is filthy and there's a ton of dishes to be washed. There is an old joke in the restaurant world that a cook's job is 10% cooking and 90% cleaning, and that holds true for home cooks as well. Keeping with the theme of planning and simplicity, many great dinners can be made and stored in one dish. Veggie lasagnas, casseroles, soups, and even roasts can assembled and either cooked or stored ahead of time in the same dish they'll be served in, which makes the actual cleanup much easier.
Make It Tasty, Too
You may also be planning meals for someone that has restrictions on the amount of sodium or fat they can eat in a day. This will make it hard to cook a meal that makes the whole family happy, as you will often find yourself fretting over how much salt you added or what kinds of oils or fat you're using in your meals. It's important to note that everyone is different, and your doctor will always know best, but there are some simple things you can do at home to make tasty foods that have less salt and fat.
When chefs season foods, they aren't adding salt to make a food taste saltier, they are seasoning to make foods just "taste". Seasoning makes other flavors, like sweet and bitter, play more nicely together, and can really enhance the texture of certain foods. Making foods taste salty is the last thing on anyone's mind, but some foods can really mask the amount of salt that is added, which can cause a real problem for someone with blood pressure or other health issues. If you are cooking for someone that is on a reduced-sodium diet, plan ahead to include different flavoring agents like herbs or vinegars, which will provide many of the same benefits that salt does without the added sodium.
Serve It Up
There is an old saying that "people eat with their eyes", and it's certainly true. Mixing colors and textures in one dish will help keep things interesting and will look more appealing on the plate. Even when making something simple like a stew, you can add a pop of color by using purple potatoes or corn to brighten it up. Foods that are colorful and look delicious are more likely to BE delicious, and can help get over the hump with picky eaters.
Whether you're cooking for one or a whole army, spending a little extra time planning up front will help save effort and mess down the road. Leading a busy life is hard enough, and adding meal preparation to the mix can really complicate things, especially if there are individuals with special needs. Write the menu ahead of time, shop with multiple dishes in mind, and carefully season your food and you will be running a professional home kitchen in no time!