Monday, February 7, 2011

what's for dinner?!

We've come a long way baby.  Long ago, pre kids, we enjoyed cooking.  We cooked elaborate meals, shopped on the fly, entertained on a whim.  I envisioned cooking every day I was on maternity leave.  Hmmm, reality set in.  I could manage to bake a batch of cookies, because that was what I was craving, but  complex meals went by the wayside.

Kids happened and we cooked for them.  When they hit the solid food stage, I would make a weeks' worth of baby food, using every pan and surface in the kitchen.  Hubby would clean up the war zone.  This was our teamwork to get this accomplished.  With this, our kids ate the best, most local and homemade food.  Hubby would come home post work when I was on leave and would cook the 2 of us a nice meal.  We would shop at the farmers' market on Saturdays and make whatever looked good, with no real plan.  Once I went back to work, I still let hubby do the dinner cooking.  We'd peruse cookbooks, but with little ones abound, cooking together was a thing of the past.  We'd eat when the kids went to bed after 7.

Then I stopped working and had to prepare meals for 3 (and then 4) kids 3 meals a day.  There was no way with dad working and not home until 7 that the kids could get to bed by 7 without feeding them at 5.  I had basic, staple meals I'd feed them.  Sausage, gnocchi and broccoli was an example of this.  When #4 developed chronic fluid in her ears, she had to go on baby solid food and I started to make her formula from scratch.  The recipe was from the Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon.  I'd separate the whey from the yogurt, purchased lactose and a zillion other things whipping this formula up 2 times a week.  You see, the doctor wanted #4 on food and not formula.  She needed to gain weight.  But my life, the life of a mom with 3 other kids 5 and under could not sustain a baby that couldn't eat on the run.  Hence the formula.  She outgrew her ear issue and the formula.  Now I had 4 kids eating the same meals.

Sounds simple, but we were still shopping for kids' food and parent meals as separate menus.  We were not paying attention to cost.  Most especially since we paid a lot by cash at the farmers' market, and charged our way everywhere else.  Then one year, I recapped our spending and saw what we had spent at our local Whole Foods Market.  Yes we are a family of 6, but ignorance is no excuse.  We also were buying prepared foods from Three Stone Hearth.  It was cooked food that just needed heating up, made the way we'd make dinner so long ago.  Saving time had a price and we had to cut back.  We also had to cut back eating out.  When I was pregnant, we'd do takeout a couple of times a week.  We replaced it with the Three Stone Hearth, but it was starting to add up.  When the 6 of us eat in a restaurant, it was totaling close to $100.  Yikes.

At about that time, I came across a 13 week meal planning cookbook Supper's on the Table, Come Home by Rachel Masters.  13 weeks of home cooked meals including shopping lists.  The food was simple and quick including vegetables, entree and a starch.  There was a bit too much condensed soup, velveeta and religion interspersed in the recipes and book for my taste, but I managed to substitute and ignore what I didn't want.  We cooked through the entire 13 weeks along with a friend who did the same week by week.  We'd compare notes and laugh at our mis-steps.  I often missed the parts that said something needed to cook in the crock-pot all day or should be started at 4, not 5:30 to marinade or some silly other little detail.  The beauty of this process was that every week I knew what I needed to purchase to make 5 good meals.  We'd end up with left overs and an impromptu dinner out here or there.  The other great thing was that I started eating with the kids.  Due to extra curricular activities, the kids were staying up a tad later, so they were eating at a more normal adult time.  Hubby would make it home eventually and join us in progress or reheat.  The kids started to have some favorite meals.

I'd never been able to figure out how my mom had made family dinners every night with all of us eating together.  This is probably partially because I don't necessarily remember when I was little, like my kids' ages.  She cooked awesome meals for us with variety and love.  I was on the verge.

Once the 13 weeks were up my friend and I decided to make our own 13 weeks.  We called it our cookbook adventure.  We sifted through years and years of collected recipes torn out of papers and magazines.  We threw out all of the ones that took longer than an hour to prepare and sorted the keepers into meat types, side dishes, vegetables and soups.  We planned 13 weeks of variety with 5 meals a week.  We varied the meats and types of meals, trying to include a crock-pot dish per week.  There was less usage of condensed soup and no velveeta.  We copied and spiral bound the collection.  Since these recipes were untested, it was an adventure for sure.

This led my friend and I to create our own 3-ring binders of recipes that worked for our families.  Armed with a box of sheet protectors, I pulled all of our family favorites into this binder.  It is now separated by meat, rice, pasta, soups, breakfasts, snacks and desserts.  I've been known to let the kids peruse the book and pick a recipe for the coming week.  This gave at least one kid per meal ownership of what we were having.

At the same time, I began budgeting our groceries for the first time ever.  I tracked for years our spending, but never recapped it.  I looked back on all of our spending and picked a weekly average number.  This amount included eating out and everything but cash spending that had been recorded in our tracking.  Each week, on Sunday, we'd pick out 5 nights of meals from the book.  Well, it wasn't just from the book.  I follow several food blogs (smitten kitchenlynns kitchen adventures and dinner a love story) and print out recipes I see that look like they'd fit for us.  I swing those into our weeks and the ones we like move to the binder.  I've even taken to printing on 3-hole punched paper to bypass the sheet protector step.

Things I've learned are that planning one meal as a family is infinitely easier and less expensive than separate kid meals.  It also provides less wasted food.  Shopping farmers' markets gives us the freshest food possible and enables us to carry meals over to the next week if we don't eat 5 meals.  It has simplified our shopping, making it more efficient.  I've also learned that we can do more with less.  I've cut our budget by 20% and am now trying to squeeze it down another 5-10%.  This is without sacrificing quantity or quality. be continued with further conversation about kids eating habits.....

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