Dear Home Ec 101,
I need to get our food budget under control, we spend a ton of money eating out. It’s starting to cause fights. I can’t cook, I can’t plan, and even if I could I wouldn’t know where to start.
Hopeless in Hopeswell
First you need to decide why menu planning has failed in the past. Was the plan too sudden of a shift from drive through windows to four course dinners? Couch potatoes don’t turn into marathon runners overnight and it would be difficult to completely change course in a short period of time. The health gurus and frugal queens may jump down my throat for this advice, but so be it. If you are new to cooking, but must put a stop to the fast food habit use convenience foods. Did you hear that? I just recommended dinners like Hamburger Helper or Taco Kits.
The first two weeks of your menu planning endeavor is spent getting used to eating at your table. Yes, that thing buried underneath the bills and overdue library books. Your first mission is to clean it off, get a piece of paper, a writing utensil of your choice, and sit down for ten minutes. List the days of the week and any activities that may make meal preparation difficult. Our family deals with joint custody based on a rotating shift, so our difficult nights vary from week to week. Allow one night for leftovers, we call it CORN: Clean Out Refrigerator Night and one night that is a complete break from cooking. As you gain experience with menu planning the night off may be a meal pulled from the freezer, but for now frozen pizza or sandwiches will fit the bill.
This leaves a maximum of five dinners to plan. Remember, these first two weeks are only about getting used to being in the kitchen and dining room. Don’t worry if the nutrition isn’t perfectly balanced. This is just your first step. If you can read (and you are right now, so don’t lie) you can handle making spaghetti with jarred sauce. Add a couple frozen chicken patties and you have a cheater’s chicken Parmesan. Pre-made salads can be jazzed up with hard boiled eggs, canned tuna, or grilled chicken and shrimp. Ground beef and a packet of brown gravy can be served over egg noodles or instant mashed potatoes with corn or green beans. Any of these meals can be put together in under twenty minutes and are simply a matter of following the directions on the packages.
Will these meals be served at the Four Seasons? No, but they are edible and won’t break the bank as you find your kitchen legs. Next Friday I’ll cover your next step adding variety.
List your plan and remember that it is simply a guide to help you avoid the drive through. Each night before bed glance at your menu and make sure nothing needs to be done the night before. There have been many days where I have kicked myself for forgetting to get meat from the freezer or place beans to soak. Sure, the world doesn’t stop, but it’s just one more thing to deal with. As you become acquainted with your kitchen you don’t need any unnecessary hassle.
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