Every week I sit down for upwards of an hour and make up menus and shopping lists for the following week. This sounds tedious and awful, but I love doing it. If it’s morning I sit down with a cup of coffee (any time after noon is fair game for wine, though) and several cookbooks and/or cooking magazines. I decide what we’ll be having and make lists of what we’ll need from the store. I get input from various family members (my husband’s contribution generally consists of “Whatever is fine” and my three-year-old always demands pizza on Friday nights). As strange as it sounds, this ritual is one of the highlights of my week. I know plenty of people who would rather be forced to sit through the Ice Capades every week, but I love doing this.
I have a notebook devoted to the task. On each page I have the days of the week with the dinner choice, and below that is a list of things to get at the grocery store. Generally they’re what we need for the dinner recipes, but I also include things that are running low, or that we need every week. Instead of a magnetic list on the refrigerator, I have my notebook (the refrigerator pad either manages to get torn off of its cardboard backer, or I can’t find a pen to write down what we need—and I’ve never managed to get a pen to stay on the fridge with a little magnet or something, like some clever types can).
I start by looking at the upcoming week and noting any special events. If we’re having dinner out, or my husband will be away on a business trip and it’s just me and the kids that night, I indicate that next to the day and plan accordingly. Then I write in any “standing” meals. As I mentioned, my older son demands pizza every Friday night, so I write that down right away.
Then the fun starts. Depending on my mood and the season, I pull out anywhere from two to a dozen cookbooks or cooking magazines. I do try to keep the number of different sources for dinner recipes to a minimum. Once I’ve chosen everything we’re having, I leave the appropriate books out on the counter, and I don’t like to have too big a pile hanging around all week.
My collection is vast (too vast, says my husband). The most common sources are current issues of the various cooking magazines I get. I have subscriptions to Cooking Light, Everyday Food and two Australian food magazines: Donna Hay Magazine and Delicious. magazine. I generally pull out the back issues of previous years from the same month for whatever magazine I’m currently using. This is usually dictated by whichever one has come most recently in the mail. Donna Hay Magazine, for instance, is only published six times a year, and because their seasons are the reverse of ours, I have to pull out the old November/December issues in order to get light recipes for summer evenings.
Sometimes I use cookbooks. I have several “quick” cookbooks that often get called into service—some of them are a little more upscale than others. A couple of them are the “can of soup and egg noodle casserole” variety, while others lean more toward fast recipes for homemade potstickers and the like.
I try to vary the kinds of things we have from day to day. I try, for instance, not to have something with an Asian flavor two days in a row. I also try to make sure we’re not having the same kind of meat two days in a row. Since we often make enough dinner to have the leftovers for lunch the next day, that would mean eating the same type of meat for four meals in a row.
Because I have a three-year-old, I have a picky eater. Don’t tell me about your two-year-old who likes falafel and pad thai. I’m lucky my kid will eat green beans and cheese and crackers. So I have to make things that I can either serve to all three of us, or that I can modify somewhat and serve to my son in a plainer form. If we’re having a chicken stir fry that uses chicken tenders, I can cut a few of them up, bread them, and make them into nuggets for him. He’ll eat pepper strips, and loves Asian dipping sauces. While the stir fry is cooking, I fry his nuggets. I try to make it so that his meals don’t require much more effort than ours to make, but I’m not always successful.
Sometimes we get contrary and insist that he’s going to just have to eat what we eat or go hungry. Usually this means he eats cheese and crackers, and applesauce for dinner. I’ve read that this is OK to do, but it never works the way it’s supposed to. He just happily eats his cheese and crackers and applesauce and ignores the bits of “our” meal that we put on his plate. I know what they say about serving a kid the same thing 15 times before he or she will try it, but honestly, I can’t stand to throw away whatever it is I’m trying to get him to eat the other 14 times I offer it to him. And if there are other kids around, he will eat what they eat. So I figure when he starts school he’ll be influenced by his friends, just as I was (I didn’t try cauliflower until I was 13 and it was served at a friend’s house, and then I loved it) and his horizons will expand, just as mine did. Until then I’m resigned to his eating hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. He eats a reasonable selection of vegetables and fruits, so I don’t think he’s going to die of some vitamin deficiency between now and age eight.
Still, I love poring over cookbooks and magazines, reading through the preparation, calculating how long it will take to get dinner on the table. I suppose it can be related to the female tendency toward nesting that has been both discussed and derided over the years, but I feel like this menu-making is part of my “job” as wife and mother. My feelings may also have to do with the fact that my own mother was a bit of a washout in this department. She worked full time, so my father was almost always the one to cook me dinner, and I have memories of really standout awful meals he prepared, mostly featuring canned beets and instant mashed potatoes. As an adult, when I became interested in food, I was determined that I would not follow in their footsteps.
The downside to all this is that we seldom have the same thing twice. Because I have so many sources, and am so excited to try so many different things, I suspect that as adults, my children will wind up being like an old coworker of mine. She had something like seven or eight recipes that she served in rotation. Her husband was a highly selective eater (he’s probably the only person I’ve ever heard of who doesn’t like pizza) so she had found a handful of things that both he and her kids would eat, and that’s what she made, over and over again. No doubt when my kids look back on their childhood they’re not going to have a “favorite” dish that mom used to make—meatloaf, or spaghetti, or turkey tetrazzini. They’ll look back on a jumble of casseroles, roasts, soups, and random other offerings and have no very clear idea what dinner “means” to them. Then again, they may say that to them, comfort food is applesauce and cheese and crackers. That’s certainly the direction in which we’re headed.