Weekly menu plan key to cooking for family

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For my birthday this year, I’ve told my husband and children that all I want is a week off from making dinner.

It’s not the cooking I mind. It’s the menu-planning.

It’s hard sticking to a budget, providing nutritious food and getting dinner on the table within 45 minutes of coming home from work – not to mention keeping straight what the kids will and won’t eat.

But thanks to a menu-planning system I devised a few years ago, it has gotten easier (though I still want my week off).

Here’s how it works: I made a list of all 30 or so meals I know everyone will eat, and that also meet my time constraints, budget and nutrition criteria. The meals are organized by type of entree, such as pasta, chicken and the ever-popular “other.”

I then use this list to make weekly menu plans. The key is picking something from a different entree category each night to ensure variety. Of course, the pasta dishes are so diverse – some paired with seafood, others with meat – it’s easy to double up on those most weeks.

Despite my efforts to stay organized, it’s still easy to feel frustrated. How do I get my kids to eat more vegetables? How do I cut down my prep time? I took my questions to some experts, and here are some of their tips:

• Make more than you need one night, and reinvent the leftovers the next. “Monday night you’re going to do baked chicken, but if you double the amount of chicken, Tuesday night you can have barbecued chicken wraps with salad,” said Molly Morgan of Creative Nutrition Solutions, a nutrition consulting company based in Buffalo, N.Y.

• Have a slow-cooker meal one night a week, so that the food is ready when you get home; a stir-fry night, which is a great way to use up whatever vegetables you have in the fridge before you do your grocery shopping; and a pizza night, said Zonya Foco, a dietitian who hosts public television’s “Zonya’s Health Bites” (http://www.zonya.com). Use readymade pizza crusts (or as Foco recommends, individual whole wheat pita breads) with different toppings, such as peppers, broccoli, cheese, jarred sauce, and lean meat (such as ham, but not pepperoni).

• Take shortcuts. “Look at healthier convenience food – vegetables or fruits that have already been chopped up or grated, salad from a bag, whole-wheat tortillas, frozen vegetable mixtures – and incorporate those into simple meals,” said Lisa Martin, a dietitian with Kansas State University Research and Extension, who created a “Month of Menus” program for families.

• Find ways to include vegetables in your children’s diet. Morgan suggests sneaking veggies into spaghetti sauce or soup broth by tossing them in a blender, though she said that will change the texture.

Foco cites studies showing it can take 11 tries to get someone to accept a new food. “People say, my kids don’t eat asparagus,” said Foco. “Well, have you tried 11 times?”

She also recommends keeping a small plate or tray of cut-up raw veggies in the fridge to put out while you’re cooking dinner so the kids will snack on carrots instead of chips. Ranch dressing on the side adds to the appeal.

If all else fails, serve fruit as a side with dinner. “Fruit is an acceptable alternative to vegetables, nutritionally speaking,” said Morgan. Martin added that brightly colored fruits pack the most nutrients, so vary fruit offerings by color – red strawberries one night, oranges the next.

My own list of menu possibilities includes some things that are way too time-consuming to make more than a few times a year, such as a five-course Indian dinner. Then there are the items I’m not proud of serving but that work when I’m really pressed for time (fish sticks, BLTs, toast and eggs).

I’ve also learned not to make favorites too often. We liked a steak, red pepper and onion stir-fry so much that I made it weekly. Then all of a sudden, the kids stopped eating it.

So far we haven’t tired of our version of a Tex-Mex buffet. What’s nice about it is, everybody can choose fillings to their liking. One son just wants beef and rice in a hard taco; the other loads up a warm tortilla with everything, including three kinds of picante sauce; I go vegetarian – beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato and guacamole.

Despite my efforts to organize the weekly menu, though, it still feels like a lot of work. And that’s why, when my birthday comes around, it will be nice to have a week off.

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