Monday, February 28, 2011

Menu Plan Monday 2/28/11

My good God has the sun shining full force today even if the temperature is not too warm. He always knows just what I need. And apparently, He knows I need this raging head cold too. I'll take both because I know I'm being "perfected" and "encouraged" at the same time.

So, what will the family be eating this week? As soon as the Sudafed kicks in....

Monday: Spaghetti Puttanesca with Bacon & a Green Salad

Tuesday: Tom Ga Kai & Egg Rolls (the frozen variety - I'll tackle homemade when my bok choy is ready)

Wednesday: Sloppy Joes & Homemade Sweet Potato Fries

Thursday: Broiled Sweet & Spicy Salmon and Pineapple with Cilantro Lime Rice

Friday: Homemade Chicken Nuggets (Buffalo Style) & Deluxe Style Salads (you know, green salads with a lot of chopped veggies, cheese, sunflower seeds, croûtons, and hard boiled eggs?)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How To Menu Plan

Recently, I was speaking with a mentor of mine. She's helping to put together a "how to" menu plan session for some younger women. This mentoring group was formed to help fulfill the Titus 2 passage where older women are to teach the younger women. They speak on both spiritual walk topics and on practical how-to topics. What a great idea! I'm not part of the group but I've heard wonderful things about it...

Anyway, she encouraged me to write a blog post about how to menu plan. Now, in some regards, I feel that menu planning is a very personal thing. You know what you like to eat, what your family likes to eat, HOW your family should be eating, what you have time to make and what you can afford. All of these various ideas roll into each week's menu plan.

I've been menu planning for 2 1/2 years. Some weeks I'm full of inspiration and it takes me 5 minutes to plan all the week's dinners. Other weeks, I sit with a blank face and stare at the computer screen (where I keep track of the menu) and ask anyone who walks by or happens to call or come to the door - what do you think we should eat next week?

Okay, let's get into it. First, you need to decide a few items.

1. What meals do you want to plan for? I plan solely and specifically for dinner. Yes, we eat other meals AND snacks, but I don't plan for them. Why? Well, my wonderful husband isn't home during the week for them and I like to keep them simple. For instance, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, meat & cheese with crackers and leftovers compose the bulk of our lunches. They are quick and simple, easy to prepare and the kids love them. If I see something like fish sticks or taquitos go on sale, I'll buy them and throw them into the mix. This may not work for you. You may want to plan out breakfast, lunch and dinner along with snacks. You'll be amazingly organized but it will take extra time.
2. How many days do you want to eat at home? I know this is perhaps a silly question but it really does help. I plan for 5 nights and this is why: one night can be leftovers (or something pulled from the freezer) and one night can be take out or take and bake pizza. I don't really like to cook on Sundays, so if all else fails, we eat popcorn and cheese. :)
3. How are you going to keep track? I keep my menu plan on Google calendar. There are other free calendar websites that you can use too. We do this for a couple of reasons. 1. My husband can access it at work and see what's going on. 2. We also keep our activity calendar on the same application. So, when I plan, I can easily see - Oh! We are going to have to head out to practice or go to AWANA or such and such has invited us over and adjust the meal for that night accordingly. If something comes up for an evening, I take that planned meal on the calendar and drag it to another day. No scribbles, no crossing things out. Some other ideas would be just to hand write it on a basic calendar. Use a dry erase board that you keep on your refrigerator. Pin up a sheet on a cork board - and then throw darts at it to determine the order of the meals :)

Now for the next part, choosing the actual meals. Are you still with me?

My family likes variety. Or I should, say, I like variety. And since, I'm the cook - guess what we get? To help get variety in your meals try these tips.

1. Make variations of things you like. For instance, your family likes hamburgers so try making: Greek style burgers (with Feta cheese and olives in the mix), Taco Burgers (add taco seasoning to meat), Pizza burgers (top with sauce and cheese and other various toppings), Cuban style burgers (with deli ham and swiss cheese, wrapped in foil and pressed). If your family likes pizza, try things like a pesto based sauce, BBQ chicken pizza, a Thai-style chicken pizza, differing toppings. Or try making a calzone instead! Don't be afraid to experiment. Keep a simple side so people will have something to eat even if the star of the event isn't their cup of tea.

2. Think ethnically diverse. One night is Italian night, one is Asian inspired, and one is good ole retro American (like meatloaf!), one is Southwest, and the next is Mexican. I try not to do 5 Mexican inspired meals in a week. The result of the beans alone is harbinger of why that's not a good idea.

3. Visit cooking blogs or check out cooking magazines. If you are reading this blog, then you have internet access of some sort. People are SO creative. And many are SUCH good writers! If I find a blog that makes me giggle and makes me hungry, I go back. Pioneer Woman is one that will do that. A site called has recently gotten my attention and I'm loving it! hosts a Menu Plan Monday event every Monday where people post their menu's for the week. In fact, that's why I started posting my menus on this blog. I've since stopped participating but it is still a good place to find inspiration.

4. I try to use a method where I don't use the same variety of meat more than twice a week and sometimes I incorporate meatless dishes. So, I'll do one or two beef, one or two chicken, pork, fish and/or a legume. Just using a variety of protein sources will help you get variation in your meals.

Okay, so you are thinking variations, now what?

1. Start with what you already have in your pantry. I like to keep a well stocked pantry and it serves as the foundation of most of my meals. My pantry maybe more varied than yours, or maybe not! But look at what you got - most likely it is the basis for what you most like to eat. And don't be afraid to experiment with some new pantry items - try different grains such as different types of rice. Add a new bean into the mix (we stick to pinto, black and Great Northern but aren't afraid of something new).

2. Now you know what ingredients you have on hand already, go to the sales flyers. What's on sale? Is it time to stock up on a great deal on pork loin? Cook some for a meal in the next couple of days and then freeze the rest. So one meal is going to have pork as the main protein - it goes like that. What veggies are on sale? Eggplant? How about eggplant parmesan? Asparagus? Cream of aspargus soup or roasted asparagus to go with those loin pork chops. An outrageous deal on potatoes? Why not make a potato soup? Along with that, I try to buy fruits and vegetables seasonally. Mostly because a). they're ususally cheaper and b). they usually taste better. Once I was fooled into buying a cantaloupe this winter. Never. Again. Ick.

3. Plan your easiest meals for your most hectic days. I like to do crockpot meals on Wednesdays because that day has the craziest evening for us. On Fridays, I've got more time in the afternoons so I might put a little more effort into those meals and make something a little more complex.
4. So you see that pork is on sale and you have items a, b, and c in your pantry. You think they can go together but you're not sure how. Check out's ingredient search or even just google your ingredients followed by "recipe" and you are sure to get some hits.

Lastly, make the time to do it. It is SO worth it. You'll save money, you'll save time and you'll save yourself a lot of frustration. My dear husband told me that I became a much better cook when I started menu planning. Interesting, huh? Menu planning with the follow through is when inspiration meets motivation - you end up with good results and good eats. I'm hoping this blog is helpful to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section under this post.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Menu Plan Monday 2/21/11

Warm weather then cold again. It is the hallmark of spring! I was glad to have one day in the 60's without having to drive to Florida (in February) and I know that around the proverbial corner, much warm weather is ready to pounce.

After rereading my opening paragraph, I am beginning to think that reading Jane Austen novels is affecting my speech. :)

A quick update on our Valentine's meal: after much deliberation and input, I decided on Grilled Steaks with Sautéed Mushrooms, Baked Sweet Potatoes and Roasted Asparagus. By far the asparagus was the star of the meal. Bring on the spring vegetables! One other help in the decision making process was that it was warm enough to grill - that clenched it.

Okay, now onto this week's menu. There was not much inspiration from the sales ads, but this is what I've come up with:

Monday: Ritz Chicken (also commonly called Poppyseed Chicken) & Green Beans with Butter and Almonds
Tuesday: Chesapeake Bay Pork Chops, Baked Beans & Salad
Wednesday: Beef Pot Roast with Potatoes & Carrots
Thursday: Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches (with leftover pot roast) & Oven Fries
Friday: Crab Cakes, Rice Pilaf & Salad

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Menu Plan & Valentine Day Poll

Tardy, yet still here is this week's menu. Anyone up for grilling season yet?

Monday: Broccoli Cheese Soup (but I ended up adding a lot of other veggies so we'll instead call it Vegetable Cheese Chowder)
Tuesday: Sautéed Chicken, Garlic Mashed Potatoes & Green Beans
Wednesday: Tater Tot Hotdish (from scratch!) & Green Salad
Thursday: Baked Salmon, Brown Rice, & Dilled Peas
Friday: General Tso's Pork, Egg Rolls, & Egg Drop Soup

Now, here is the poll! What should I make for our Valentine's Day Dinner (not necessarily held on the actual day)?

A). Steak with Sautéed Mushrooms, Baked Sweet Potatoes, and Salad
B). Crab Cakes, Spinach & Artichoke Dip with Crackers & Veggies, Mozzarella Sticks with Marinara Sauce
C). Baked Red & White Manicotti with Caesar Salad

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Venison Empandas

For this year's Wild Game Feast, I made some venison empanadas. If you are looking for some game day food, then I would suggest these. In fact, I think you can make almost anything into an empanada and come out with some yummy food - isn't everything better when wrapped in pie dough?

The original recipe came from this site here. I made it as directed the first time but felt some changes were needed - just my preference - feel free to work off of my variation of this recipe too. Cooking is all about what YOU like to eat.

One recipe for pie dough (two 9 inch pie circles worth). I used this recipe here and really liked it for this dish. One, because it was super easy. Two, because of the protein from the egg, it had a stronger structure to the dough - good for when you need to fold the dough in half. It is not so fun to have your pie dough cracking! Of course, you can always buy refrigerated pie dough at your local grocery store and it will certainly save you time (but it will increase the over all cost of the dish). *Note that the above linked recipe will give you enough for one and a half need for the filling recipe (or just make a cream pie to go along with the meal) ;)

Venison Filling :

1 lb ground vension
1/4 cup butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stick, chopped
1 Tablespoon paprika (I actually got a "Spanish" one from the bulk section of Hy-Vee super cheap)
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup Spanish olives, chopped (you know, the green ones stuffed with pimentos?)
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (I actually think it is okay if you omit this - try it and see)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium/high heat. Add the venison and brown well. Add the onion and celery and cook until softened. Add the chili powder and garlic powder cook to start waking up their flavors (about a minute). Add the olives, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 15 minutes on low/medium heat.

Roll out your pie dough to a usual pie dough thickness. For the WGF, I cut 3 1/2 inch circles. Why? Because I had some tubberware that size - lol. Most recipes call for 5 inch circles, a little too big for sample size BUT the bigger you make them the faster the process will go. Now, for the smaller size that I made I suggest filling them like this (listen up because it took me some trial and error). Hold the pie dough round in your hand, slightly cup it so it looks like a "taco." Scoop in your filling - about a tablespoon's worth, then starting at one end, start pressing the edge together. If the filling starts coming out a little, just use a finger to press it back in and maybe adjust your filling amount for the next empanada.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Enjoy!

Now, some prepping tips, you can make the pie dough in advance. You can make the filling at least a day in advance. In fact, I found it easier to use cooled filling - no melting of the pie dough! You can assemble the empandas a day in advance and then store covered in the refrigerator. Bake as previously noted. AND I haven't tried it but I do think you can make and then freeze these. I think allowing to thaw in a single layer in the fridge and then reheated in a 350 degree oven would be your best bet.