Dear Readers,

I have tried to get comfortable with the wordpress format, but I must return to my first blog hosting home, Blogger.  Please follow this link and visit my blog at the new location (I’ve imported the entire blog, so you will not miss anything).

(If you need the link to the new bloghome, here it is: http://menu-planningmama.blogspot.com/)


Thank you for reading and following and please come by my new home!

Menu-Planning Mama


Easy and tasty vegetables

I watch a lot of Food Network.  It is family friendly (no swearing, no violence), educational (if you can’t watch an hour of Food Network and learn something, you weren’t really paying attention), and inspirational (they make some things, like souffle look so easy!).  As a self-confessed picky eater, I have to say that Food Network has definitely inspired me to be more adventurous when it comes to my vegetables.

The biggest tip I’ve learned from those tv chefs: roasting concentrates the sugars in the vegetables and brings out the natural flavors.  Roasting is easy and requires very little skill or prep and virtually no active cooking.  The only skill point you need to make sure you pay attention to is that you must make sure when chopping up the vegetables that the pieces are the same size, or else you will have some pieces underdone and some pieces burnt.

This is one of those technique things, so I’m not going to label it as a recipe.

Start by washing and peeling (if desired) your vegetables.  If it is something large, like potatoes, squash, or eggplant, break it down into 1/2 cubes.  In a medium mixing bowl, lightly drizzle your veggies with olive oil*, sprinkle with some salt and pepper, and any other seasonings.  The key to this is to remember that the vegetable is going to be the star, so you don’t want to over season it; if you pick anything other than just the salt and pepper, thyme is a great choice.

Spread the vegetables in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast in a 350 degree oven for 20-45 minutes, depending on your vegetable; at the least, check them at 20 minutes and shake them around some.  You will know they are done when they smell fragrant, are browned around the edges, and begin to look a little wrinkly.

*Extra Virgin Olive oil has a burn point of 350 degrees.  If you want to roast at a higher temperature, you will need to use a different oil.

First menu sampling

Well, I promised you all that I would share some of my menus, in addition to recipes and experiences.  A little more on the experiences later.  But for now, I wanted to share with you some sample menus.  I’m not tacking any recipes onto this one, but if you’re interested in having a recipe for a particular meal/dish, just let me know and I’ll be sure to post it as soon as I can, rather than just whenever I come across it in my binder.

(I run my menus from Monday to Sunday)

Monday: meatloaf and green beans
Tuesday: pork tenderloin and sweet potatoes
Wednesday: spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, salad
Thursday: fish and fries
Friday: pizza (I did tell you that we mostly do pizza on Fridays!)
Saturday: sandwiches
Sunday: macaroni and cheese and leftovers

Note: when I do a porkloin, I usually buy the biggest one I can find because I know my husband likes to take some for lunch and I usually like to re-purpose some of the meat into carnitas (pork tacos) or pork fried rice, or use it to add a twist to gallo pinto (pronounced guy-o peent-o), which is one of my most favorite easy recipes ever.

Monday: chicken and broccoli
Tuesday: pelmeni, Polish sausage and peppers
Wednesday: porkchops, corn, and couscous
Thursday: Tacos
Friday: pizza
Saturday: fish and fries
Sunday: (out to dinner)

Note: I was pregnant from when these two menus were done and I love, love, loved fish and fries.  So it showed up on our menus a lot.  God bless my husband for not complaining!  Plus, it helps that the meals weren’t repeated too closely  together 😉  Also, pelmeni is a Russian meat and chive dumpling, traditionally boiled in beef broth and served with a heavily dilled sour cream sauce.  I buy them frozen from a Euro deli here in town.  If I ever find a recipe for them, I’ll post it, but frankly, I’m too lazy to make my own from scratch when the ones I can buy are so darn tasty!

Monday: hamburgers, baked beans, coleslaw
Tuesday: sweet and sour hamballs and rice
Wednesday: salmon and zucchini gratin, salad, garlic bread
Thursday: stuffed chicken, couscous, peppers
Friday: porkchops, cheesy baked faro, peas
Saturday: steak, baked potatoes, corn, salad
Sunday: pizza

Note: faro is pearled barley.  This is a really hearty recipe (one I will for sure be posting) and it is delicious the first time and even more so as leftovers.  It is a healthier option than just plain old macaroni and cheese, but is close enough that you could fool some picky eaters with it.  Hamballs are made with a savory pork loaf that I have only been able to find in Michigan where I grew up.  They are delicious and scrumptious and I was seriously bummed when I moved to Colorado and discovered that pork loaves are not available everywhere.  Thankfully, my parents drive out a few times a year to see us and always bring out pork loaves with them.

And one last menu on this entry, for good measure.  If you have a large freezer, you could shop for the bulk of this entire menu sampler and just get your produce weekly…

Monday: gallo pinto
Tuesday: pierogi, pelmeni, Polish sausage, peppers
Wednesday: ham, sweet potatoes, zucchini gratin
Thursday: salmon/rice/green bean packets
Friday: lasagna, salad
Saturday: pizza
Sunday: linguine alfredo, salad

Note: for the pierogi, I just buy the box of the Mrs. T’s frozen pierogi from my grocery store.  Also, anytime you see peppers on my menu, I’m just julienne-ing them (slicing them into thin strips) and carmelizing them in just a bit of oil – they add a sweet dash to any meal and are a great way to get extra nutrients into your diet.  A well-rounded diet, any nutritionist will tell you, will consist of a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables.  I tend to favor the red, orange, and yellow peppers as they are sweeter.  I always remove the ribs and seeds so they are easier to eat (those stupid seeds stick in your teeth!) and you don’t have as much heat as you do just pure flavor.  Nine times out of ten, if you see alfredo in my menu, it’s just a jarred sauce.  Lastly, the fish packets?  Super duper easy prep and clean up.  I will for sure post a recipe of them.  Promise.

I hope these four sample menus give you a clearer idea of how I rotate some of my favorite meals in with others so I don’t bore my husband to tears with our dinners and also keep our diets better rounded than they used to be.  Also, I should mention that when I grocery shop, if I can, I buy the bulk of our food for two weeks, so that I don’t have to do a complete grocery trip every week.  So I will menu-plan for two weeks, and buy the meat portion of eat meal at that time.  Then for the second week, I just have to buy our produce for the week and some other odds and ends.  It doesn’t always work out that way, but when I plan ahead like that, we waste far less money throwing out produce that has gone bad before we can use it.  Happy planning!

What is menu planning?

Menu planning is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll elaborate just to satisfy your obvious curiosity.  A menu is a listing of offered meals.  A plan lays the steps proposed to complete a task.  So menu planning is laying out a listing of meals.

Simple, right?  But it can seem a little daunting to get started on menu planning for your family at first.  I originally started menu planning because I got sick of the meal rut we were in.  It seems like I made the same dishes week after week, and frankly, I was sick of it.  I scoured the internet for a program or site that would do this for me, but there was nothing that really worked for me.  And it is much easier for me to cook off of a paper in front of me, rather than running back and forth to a computer screen.  I’m also, like many Americans, overweight.  My doctor and the nutritionist I saw (once) told me that I need to add more vegetables into my diet.  Well, duh.  I know that.  But it’s hard to eat vegetables regularly when you don’t really like too many vegetables.  Add into that the fact that we have a toddler and I just had a baby two months ago and I am currently nursing, and it becomes even more important to add those vegetables into our diets.

Menu planning makes sure that I rotate through my vast store of recipes and that we eat a balanced diet.  It also cuts way back on our grocery spending because I know precisely which meals I am going to be cooking over the week.  That means that I make fewer trips to the store, which results in less impulse buying (which is a challenge for me).  I also can plan out how best to use my coupons in conjunction with the store sales and store coupons to maximize savings.

So, if menu planning sounds like something you’d like to capitalize on, keep reading.  Now that I’ve explained how I see menu planning, let me tell you my method.

First of all, I have a three-ring binder I use to hold my recipes.  I use page protectors so that I can remove the recipe from the binder and have it on the counter-top while cooking; I can wipe it clean when I’m finished and place it back in the binder.  I use a composition notebook (so the pages won’t fall out as easily as from a spiral bound book) to map out my weekly menu plan.  Along the left-hand side of the page, I list the days of the week (M, T, W, R (for Thursday), F, Sa, Sun), skipping two to three lines between days.  I list the entree and the side or sides, one on each line.  Some of the days I plan something that I’ve been craving (Mexican food, comfort food, etc.) and other days I plan based on what is on sale at my store that week or what I have coupons for (or better yet, something that is on sale that I also have a coupon for!).

I also plan meals for the week based on difficulty or time to prepare.  For instance, Mondays are usually bad days for my husband because it is the first day in his work week and he usually gets bogged down in meetings until fairly late, so I will usually plan a meal that is easy to prepare, takes a minimal amount of time to cook, and produces the least amount of prep-work dishes to wash.  Wednesdays I usually watch my friend’s daughter for her, so I plan meals that require very little active cooking on my part.  And Fridays we generally have pizza because, well, we really like pizza and it’s fairly simple to do.

When it comes time for me to go grocery shopping, I first evaluate my food situation.  I have specifics that I like to always have on hand just in case I get bogged down or some unforeseen eventuality happens which calls for a quick and easy dinner.  These staples for me are pretty standard in most cookbooks and simple recipes too, so it helps to keep them on hand.

  • bread
  • eggs
  • milk
  • chicken broth
  • pasta
  • pasta sauce (red and Alfredo)
  • onions
  • potatoes
  • butter
  • margarine spread
  • olive oil
  • vegetable oil
  • shredded cheese
  • bread crumbs
  • canned tomatoes (diced, pureed, sauce, paste)
  • frozen chicken breasts
  • tortillas
  • lunchmeat
  • rice
  • canned beans
Once I’ve evaluated my staples, then I consider the store ads to see what is on sale.  As I am making my menu, I try to plan a different protein each night for dinner, so we usually have chicken, beef, pork, and fish each week.  Sometimes I will have ground beef and then a pot roast or a steak in the same week, so if I do that, I try to space them apart.  I plan a vegetable to go along with each meal (sometimes I just do a simple steamed vegetable, sometimes I’ll do a gratin or something else that requires more prep and planning), or if I’m doing something like lasagna or tomato-based pasta, I’ll forgo the vegetable because of the sauce.  Once I plan the menu out, I consult the recipes to see if there are any special ingredients I might need or spices that I have run out of (my standard spice rack: basil, oregano, garlic salt, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, thyme, tarragon, chili powder, paprika, kosher salt, coarse ground black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, steak seasoning, poultry seasoning).
I also generally plan one day for leftovers or re-purposing of one of the previous meals (i.e. if we have pork loin one night for dinner, I’ll plan on carnitas later in the week, or turn leftover meat loaf into a tasty and quick meat sauce for pasta).
I would say that since I’ve started menu planning, I’ve cut our grocery bills each month by about $100-$200, if not more.  So if you are interested in my menu-planning experiences, stick around.  I’ll be posting my menu plans, some of my favorite recipes, and even some of my favorite food memories.  I hope to see you around!

Smoky potato and beef soup

Okay, I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  I apologize.  If you follow me on facebook, you’ll know that I announced I had been dealing with some personal issues, and I have been.  Between uncertainty of when my husband is returning, and whether we will be moving, and with having to put one of our pets down right before Christmas, I was definitely down and dealing with other things.  I hope no one was left in the lurch.

With the new year and doubtless new resolutions on everyone’s plates, I’ve concocted a new recipe utilizing more vegetables than meat.  And, if you have any on hand, soup bones!  (I asked at the butcher counter at the grocery store, turns out they generally package them up and have them frozen!  Now I know!)  Keep in mind that I am cooking for one adult and one toddler, so this is a significantly pared down portion size – and since I chop everything super small for toddler bite size, it takes less of each ingredient.  To make this for adults, simply double this recipe

1/2 pound stew meat, diced
1 Tbsp. oil
1/3 c. parsnips,diced (about one small)
1/3 c. carrots, diced (about one small)
1/4 c. celery, diced
half a soft-ball sized onion, diced
2 Tbsp. cognac (optional)
2 c. cold water
2 qt. water or broth from boiled soup bones
2 Tbsp. beef soup base
3 small bay leaves or 1 large
2 garlic cloves, smashed (let sit for at least 10 minutes after smashing before adding to recipe)
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried basil leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. coarse ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground mustard
1 large russet potato, diced
2 Tbsp. tomato paste

In a dutch oven, heat one tablespoon oil on medium to medium high heat until it begins to shimmer, 2-3 minutes.  Dump in your meat (one layer please!) and allow to brown – meat will release from pan after seared.  Turn and allow to brown on all sides, remove from pan (note – it is NOT cooked yet!).  Add parsnips, carrots, celery, and onion to pan drippings and oil and allow to brown well, don’t worry if some of them stick a bit.  Carefully add cognac and stir vegetables.  Allow to cook off a bit and then add the cold water – using a stiff, flat-edged utensil, scrape all of the browned bits from the bottom of the pan (easier time doing dishes, adding awesome flavor to food!).  Allow the water to come to a boil, then add the meat back to the pan, along with all juices from plate.  Add in additional water or bone broth, soup base, bay leaves, garlic cloves, cumin, basil, thyme, salt, pepper, and mustard.  Allow to come to a boil and then reduce to simmer and cover.  Cook for one hour.  Add potato and tomato paste and allow to cook for at least 1 hour more.  Fish out bay leaves and serve.

This can easily be adapted to a crockpot – low for 6 hours, high for 4 hours.  Also, if you don’t have cognac or don’t want to use it, try using instead 6 oz. of red wine or a heavy white wine, 3 oz. coffee/3 oz. red wine, or one of your favorite beers.  You really can’t beat the background flavors these ingredients add.  And the alcohol will cook off, don’t worry.

Breakfast cookies

I created this recipe in order to have something healthy and easy on hand for those hectic mornings.

1 c. (old fashioned) oats, pulsed into fine powder in blender or processor
3/4 c. oats
1/4 c. wheat germ (optional)
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 c. pumpkin purée
1 medium banana, sliced
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. honey
2 eggs
Pinch salt
1/4-1/2 c. water
1/3 c. butterscotch chips (optional)

In blender, pulse 1 c. oats into fine powder. Transfer to mixing bowl; add remaining oats, wheat germ, and pumpkin pie spice. In blender add banana slices, vanilla, eggs, pumpkin purée, and salt. Pulse until banana is incorporated. Add a little bit of water and blend until smooth- you want the liquid to be about the consistency of a runny pudding. Add wet to dry and stir to combine. Drop dollops of batter about 3 Tbsp in size, and press with back of spoon to spread out in a cookie shape (these cookies don’t rise and spread like traditional cookies). Bake about 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Let cool 10 minutes before eating or cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

For an even healthier option, replace the two eggs with 2 Tbsp. of unsweetened applesauce.


Twice-baked potatoes

My last post of twice-baked sweet potatoes had me thinking about twice-baked potatoes.  I love twice-baked potatoes – and aside from the amount of time they take, they are really very easy.  You can mix anything into the middle that you want – I usually keep it pretty simple.  What follows is my basic recipe.

4 mid-sized potatoes
1/3 c. sour cream
1/2 c. shredded cheese, plus extra for topping
4 Tbsp. butter
1/4 small onion, minced
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. salt

Wash and prick potatoes and then bake in the oven or in the microwave (I have a potato setting on my microwave, but it is usually about 15 minutes, or almost an hour in the oven).  Slice the tops off and scoop out the potato flesh, leaving about a 1/4 inch so your potato boats are sturdy.  Place the potato flesh into a bowl with the sour cream, 1/2 c. of cheese, butter, onion, salt and pepper; mash well and spoon back into potato boats.  Top with cheese and bake for 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven (or until cheese is melted, bubbly, and brown).  Serve hot.

Twice-baked sweet potatoes

This is a recipe inspired by some of my favorite flavors and one of my favorite ways to prepare regular potatoes – twice baked.  Since the sweet potato packs the biggest nutritional punch for your money in the produce department, this is another great way to get them into your meal rotation.  It does take some planning ahead, since they take a while, but they are well worth it.

4 small to mid-sized sweet potatoes
1/2 a stick of butter (4 Tbsp.), sliced
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
miniature marshmallows

Wash and poke potatoes with a fork to pierce the skin.  Either bake in the oven for 45-60 minutes or microwave until cooked through (I have a potatoes setting on mine, but it’s about 15 minutes).  Remove and slice off the top of each and scoop out most of the innards, leaving a boat (with about 1/4 inch of the flesh so your skins don’t fall apart).  Place scooped out potato into a mixing bowl with butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, and salt.  Mash well so ingredients are well mixed and butter is melted.  Scoop back into potato boats (it will be heaping full).  Carefully press marshmallows into the top of the refilled potatoes and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until marshmallows are browned and form a delicious, gooey crust on top.  Dig in and eat!

Hot ham and cheese party sandwiches

I made these for my son’s second birthday party and they were a huge hit – everyone was asking me for the recipe.  Hint: make extra – they are a bazillion times more delicious as leftovers!

1 stick butter
2 tsp. Worchestershire sauce
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1-12 oz. package of King’s Hawaiian Sweet Rolls
1/2 lb. black forest ham, finely sliced
4 oz. Monterey Jack cheese
2 tsp. poppy seeds
raspberry preserves

In a microwave safe dish, cube butter and add Worchestershire sauce, sugar, and mustard.  Microwave in 30 second intervals, stirring often, until melted and well combined.  Leave rolls connected and slice through entire “loaf” to create a sheet of tops and bottoms.  Generously baste both sides of the rolls with the mustard glaze; layer with ham and cheese.  Place top sheet of rolls on top and baste tops with glaze.  Sprinkle with poppy seeds.  Bake in 350 degree oven, tightly covered, for 30 minutes.  Remove from oven, carefully slice, and serve hot!  Serve with warmed raspberry preserves on the side.

Oven stew

This is one of my favorite recipes from when I was growing up.  It is simple and tastes phenomenal.  I usually serve it over cooked egg noodles.  It does take some planning ahead as it has to cook for 3 hours.

1 lb. stew meat, trimmed
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 packet Lipton’s beefy onion soup mix
2 c. water

In a 2-quart greased covered-casserole dish, whisk together cream of mushroom soup, beefy onion soup mix, and water.  When thoroughly combined, add in stew meat, making sure to break up into individual pieces.  Cover with foil and then casserole lid.  Bake at 350 for 3 hours.  Serve hot.

Note: I don’t like cream of mushroom soup, so I always make this with cream of chicken soup.  It doesn’t taste weird, I promise, lol.