Our lives go so much more smoothly when I write up a menu for what we’ll have for dinner in the next few days! I have a full-time job outside the home; Daniel is unemployed right now, so he picks up Nicholas from kindergarten, and they can start dinner before I get home . . . but if they decide what to make on the spur of the moment, we end up eating a lot of easy-to-make, not-so-great, incomplete meals, and we don’t use up perishable ingredients. Menu planning is something that just doesn’t come easily to Daniel, but he’s happy to follow a plan I wrote!
This past Monday, I came home early from work with a headache. By mid-afternoon I was feeling mostly better and walked over to get Nicholas from school, thinking about how I might have enough brain power to get together a menu now and about how I needed to keep him busy so he wouldn’t start some sort of aggravating behavior. (Daniel was willing to take over as the POD if Nicholas was too much of a strain on my headache–but since Daniel was having a very productive day, sorting through things that had been in his inbox much too long, I wanted him to keep it up as long as he could.)
The obvious solution was to have Nicholas work with me on the menu plan. A side benefit is that he’s more likely to eat meals he planned. I know that it usually works better to get him involved in what I want to do than to try to keep him occupied somehow so I can do it, yet sometimes assumptions like, “Children don’t like to do that sort of thing,” or, “He’ll demand frozen pizza or mac-and-cheese every night and refuse all vegetables,” creep in and talk me out of even trying! This time, I was determined to try–and also calm about the idea that if it didn’t work, we could just have spaghetti that night and I’d make a menu the next night.
The first step was to block the idea that we could plan anything. We had a lot of food in the house already, including some that needed to be used soon. So as we walked home from school, I started from the firm anchor point of something we’d already agreed: “Tonight we are going to mix the Honey Baked Lentils for the potluck tomorrow, and then you and Daddy will bake them tomorrow after school.”
I went on to explain that I wanted to plan the whole week’s menu and had an idea for one dinner: Sweet Potato Burritos. Nicholas said, “Yum! Let’s make those tonight!” I explained that we’d need to defrost the tortillas. We agreed to plan the burritos for Wednesday.
Then he made the inevitable suggestion of boxed mac-and-cheese, a favorite food of his that I don’t much like–so it was ideal for the night when I wouldn’t be home at dinnertime! I have to go to a meeting tonight, Thursday.
Wow! We had three meals planned before we even got home! I told him that the next step was to look at what ingredients needed to be eaten right away and try to use them in that night’s dinner. We had
- a cucumber that was more than a week old
- a packet of toasted seaweed strips he’d begged me to buy at Trader Joe’s but discovered he didn’t like as a snack all by themselves
- about 2 cups of leftover cooked white rice
- some sweet sesame dipping sauce left over from the spring rolls we got from Tram’s Kitchen for Daniel’s birthday 10 days earlier
- a package of miso soup mix that was shelf-stable, but we’d had it for years, so I was eager to use it up.
The miso and seaweed of course suggested a Japanese-style meal. Nicholas has had maki rolls (the cylindrical cousins of sushi) with vegetable filling and liked them, so I suggested we make vegetable rolls with the cucumber and a carrot, dip them in the sauce, and have the miso as an appetizer. Nicholas got all excited about this menu: it was exotic, it promised some fun tasks such as peeling a carrot and rolling up food, and it would involve dipping!
We finished our menu by looking through our freezer and pantry for things we felt like eating this week. Here is the result:
- Monday: miso soup and vegetable maki rolls
- Tuesday: potluck dinner including our Honey Baked Lentils
- Wednesday: Sweet Potato Burritos, some with roasted red peppers (from a giant can I’d divided into freezer bags; we put one bag in the refrigerator to thaw, along with the tortillas)
- Thursday: mac-and-cheese, canned tropical fruit salad, and any remaining cucumber and carrot
- Friday: canned soup (clam chowder for Nicholas, cream of broccoli for Daniel, some of each for me), Yogurt & Herb Bread (we’d made this a while back, from the recipe in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen, and found the last loaf in the freezer), and canned pineapple
- Saturday: canned salmon (plain for Nicholas, fancied up for Daniel and me), sugar snap peas, and rice. This may be lunch or dinner, depending on how our plans for Saturday shake down, and the other meal will be leftovers.
A great plan, put together in less than an hour, requiring no new purchases and with no really difficult recipes! Although I had written it down, Nicholas also wanted to write it, cut up the paper so that each meal was on a separate piece, and arrange them in order next to his place at the table–I was happy to help him spell the words to encourage this writing and reading practice. (He has been looking at his menu during the week and trying to read back what we’re going to eat.) We rewarded ourselves with a nice game of Bohnanza before returning to the kitchen to make dinner.
[UPDATE: There was one flaw in our plan. We made salmon 5 days before garbage pickup and 12 days before recycling pickup. Because we don’t take out the trash until the collection day, salmon cans in the recycling bin and salmon vertebrae sealed in a milk carton can get whiffy! In this cool weather, we were able to keep the bones in the house, but we had to put our recycling out on the porch. Next time, we’ll have salmon on Thursday of recycling week!]
How to Make Speedy Sushi
(technically, vegetable maki rolls)
- Transform previously-cooked rice into sticky rice: Put it in a pot with about 2 Tbsp. water, 1 tsp. rice wine vinegar, and 1/2 tsp. sugar for each cup of rice. (If you don’t have rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar or white vinegar makes almost as good a flavor.) Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until dry lumps are broken apart and rice is very soft and sticking to the spoon. This is hardly perfectly authentic sushi rice, but it tastes and feels about right, even if you started with long-grain Indian-style rice.
- Cut carrot and cucumber into strips, as long as the seaweed pieces are wide, as thin as you can make them. (For me with a headache, this was not very thin, but Nicholas was impressed! You could peel the cucumber for a more delicate presentation, but we didn’t.)
- Spread seaweed pieces on a plate or tray. Place a blob of rice on each one. Use butter knife to spread rice in an even layer about 1/4 inch thick. (Nicholas enjoyed doing this!) Let cool for a few minutes so that you’ll be able to touch it with your fingers.
- Place some strips of vegetable on top of rice and roll up. Try to use the amount of vegetable that fills the middle when the two ends of the seaweed are just barely overlapped. When rolling, start with dry hands and try to touch only the seaweed; if your fingers are sticky with rice or damp, the seaweed will stick to them and tear. Of course, if you have a proper maki-rolling mat, you can do a much better job.
Our rolls did not look anything like so elegant as the ones in restaurants! But they tasted good, and Nicholas did eat plenty of vegetables in that meal.
UPDATE: Check out the homemade sushi recipe and tutorial at Penniless Parenting to make much neater-looking maki rolls! It will take significantly more time, though, to cook the rice her way and let it cool completely.