Saturday, February 27, 2010

Meal Planning: How to Do It

Last week I was speaking with a client who asked me how I do my meal planning. I realized that some things that I take for granted might not come so easily to others. So I'm taking this opportunity to write a little about the process.

I try to go grocery shopping just once a week, but there are always those weeks here and there when I have to make extra trips. On a good week, I do all my shopping on Friday. So usually on Thursday I take out my family calendar and on my work calendar and look at the week ahead. I look to see which days I'll be working in the afternoon, which days my kids have activities, which days we might have a meeting to go, etc.

My first step in deciding what meals to make involves choosing recipes based on time and method of preparation. If it's a day when I'm working and we have after-school activities, I know I won't have time to make anything around dinner time, so I either choose a crockpot recipe or something that I've previously prepared and frozen and can just reheat that night. If my 12 year old daughter is going to be home, I might choose a meal that can be mostly prepared in advance but that she can just pop in the oven for me at a predetermined time. If I know I'll have a little time, then I can choose a meal that might take a little longer (but never more than 30 minutes in my world!) to prepare. I also plan the nights that we'll be eating out.

My next step in the meal planning decision making process is to vary the types of proteins we're having throughout the week. I try to have one meatless meal each week and I don't make beef or pork more than once a week. The only thing we might have twice in a week in my family would be chicken or pasta. I also ask everyone in the family if they have any particular cravings or meal requests for the week ahead.

The other key step in the process is that I write it down. Since getting a stainless steel refrigerator my magnetic surface space is limited so I just write my meal plan on a small scrap of paper. I post it on a board near my phone and make sure I look at it every night. If something needs to be defrosted, I make sure to take it out of the freezer at least one night before (but 2 is usually better.)

My way is certainly not the only way. What's important is that you try to find a way that works for you and your family. Hopefully, my process might give you some ideas to develop your own.

I also wanted to share a link to another great blog,, which recently ran a series on meal planning with some excellent suggestions.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The 4th P: Putting a Support System in Place

In the past, I’ve written about the 4 P’s of Successful Family Meals: prioritizing, planning, putting together a support system and preparation techniques. In my articles on the importance of family meals, I put much emphasis on how our families benefit when we make family meals a priority. In my monthly Kitchen Issue newsletter, I give tips for planning and efficient, time-saving preparation techniques. But I have yet to give the 4th P, putting together a support system, as much attention in my writings.

Perhaps it is because this may be the most difficult “P” to achieve. By definition, it is not something you can do entirely on your own. In our modern American society, we generally don’t have support systems for family meals that are easily accessible. Most of us do not live close enough to extended family members to make sharing meal duties a realistic option. We usually feel that we have to take care of it all meal-related responsibilities by ourselves.

I know it isn’t easy, but I encourage you to think outside of the box a little. First, look within your own family. Often it falls on the mom’s shoulders to take care of all aspects of meal preparation. Some moms enjoy and cherish their role as chief meal organizer and preparer and feel little if any stress. However, if you are a mom feeling stressed that she has to do it all alone, examine which tasks might be shared with others in your family. Perhaps your partner can do some of the shopping or meal preparation. If you feel like they won’t do it as well as you, you might have to let go of some of your expectations. The goal is to reduce your stress and get a decent meal on the table; it doesn’t have to be perfect. Further, if you never think to ask for help, others may never consider on their own that you’d welcome their help.

I am fortunate enough to have a 12 year old daughter who enjoys helping out in the kitchen. As she’s gotten older, I’ve been able to turn over more of my cooking tasks to her. She has developed safe knife skills and is comfortable at the stove. It is a huge blessing to me to have her help out. Are your children potential helpers? They may not yet be old enough yet to effectively offer help, but start training them now and some day they will be.

Next, look outside your immediate family. As I’ve shared before, my neighbor and I used to cook for each other’s families one night a week. It was a big relief to have just the one night off from having to plan and cook. Other possibilities could be to coordinate with other moms you may know ~ from work, from your child’s school, from your neighborhood~ and form a cooperative where each family provides a freezer-ready meal for all the other families in the group. What I love about this is that it not only reduces your individual meal burden, but it also increases a sense of community. And community and food go hand in hand.

As you consider going forward with any efforts to put together a support system for your family meals, understand that your needs and options will likely change over time. Right now the thought of your children offering concrete help might seem like a far-away dream, but that may change. Right now you may have a community of other moms who are willing to enter into a meal-sharing arrangement with you, but that may not always be the case as people move or change work responsibilities. The key is to be flexible and adaptable to the resources you have available in the present moment.

I’d love to hear from you about any creative ways you have built a support system for your family’s meals.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bacon and Spinach Tortellini

I recently learned of Menu for the Week, an online menu planning service offered by its mom founder, Dawn Billesbach. Dawn e-mails a menu each week with 7 recipes (5 dinner, 1 brunch, and 1 dessert) to subscribers.

I've written before on the importance of meal planning as well as on the value of meal planning services so I was happy to try some recipes from Menu for the Week. As I've written before, I enjoy trying new recipes and getting new ideas for meals. I'm always on a search to expand my repertoire. However, my personal meal planning involves coordinating my schedule with the type of meals I plan to prepare. For those of you who can't stand to think of what to make for dinner, Menu for the Week will do it for you. From what I've reviewed so far, Dawn's recipes sound very tasty and family-friendly and seem easy to prepare.

This week I tried Dawn's recipe for Bacon and Spinach Tortellini and it was a big hit in my house. 4 out 5 of us really enjoyed this meal, although the 5th, my pickiest, was a little turned off by the "green" in her pasta. However, she ate it anyway. I also loved how easy and fast this recipe was. I couldn't believe dinner was ready so quickly. I served this with a spinach salad with mandarin oranges, and the whole meal was delicious. I'm also planning to try her crockpot meatball recipe soon and will let you know how it goes in my March newsletter. (Sign up now!)

Dawn is offering a 20% discount for her subscription service to Dinner Together readers. Just enter the code "DINNERTOGETHER" when signing up. She also offers a free trial week if you just want to give it a test. Thank you Dawn!

Bacon and Spinach Tortellini

6 pieces bacon
1 family-size package cheese tortellini
1 tablespoon pine nuts (I skipped this part because of my daughter's nut allergies)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups fresh, baby spinach
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/4 teaspoon pepper

  • Microwave bacon between 10 paper towels (5 layers on each side) for 5-6 minutes. Crumble and set aside.
  • Cook tortellini according to package; drain. Transfer to a large bowl.
  • Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add pine nuts to pan; cook 1 1/2 minutes until toasted - stirring occasionnally. Add nuts to bowl of pasta.
  • Heat olive oil in the same skillet over low heat. Add garlic and saute 1 minute. Add spinach to pan. Cook for 2 minutes or until spinach wilts. Add to bowl.
  • Add to bowl; parmesan, pepper, and crumbled bacon. Toss well and serve.
Serves 4.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Picky Eaters: Normal or Pathological?

Last month, I had the opportunity to be the expert on the Becoming Mom blog on the Ask the Expert feature. The question was, "How do you know if your picky eating toddler is just exhibiting normal picky behavior or if you need professional assistance?"

Here is my response:

The toddler period presents huge changes in development in many areas. Feeding in particular presents several challenges for parents. The once eager eater who opened his mouth for everything you presented on the spoon is now much more likely to reject foods and have a hard time sitting still for meals. Toddlers do not grow at the same rapid pace as infants and their food intake drops off significantly. Toddlers by definition are often on the move. They are busy exploring their world and testing limits with their parents. They frequently become skeptical of new foods and reject foods that they formerly seemed to enjoy. They may love something one day and reject it the next. And I’m describing typical toddlers! If your toddler has underlying sensory issues, food allergies, or oral-motor difficulties, the challenges will be much more complex.

Signs you may need intervention

While feeding the typical toddler can be tricky, feeding some children can be greatly overwhelming. For most toddlers, employing the strategies described below will address many common feeding challenges. For others, however, more intensive intervention may be required. You may want to consider exploring evaluation and treatment options if your child exhibits the following:

  • has growth or weight issues, i.e., is not gaining weight, is losing weight, is gaining weight rapidly, or is not holding steady on their own growth curve
  • shows signs of sensory issues, including intolerance of certain textures, sensitivity to sounds, light, or other stimuli
  • oral-motor problems involving the jaw, tongue, cheeks and/or swallow mechanisms
  • history or symptoms of severe food allergies
  • history or symptoms of gastrointestinal problems
  • history of feeding tube use

Strategies for dealing with the “typical” picky eater

While “typical” picky eaters may not require direct treatment or intervention, often their parents need some guidance and/or coaching to help them develop effective feeding strategies. One of the most important strategies for dealing with typical picky eaters is to apply Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility. In short, Satter states that parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding toddlers, while toddlers are responsible for whether or not they will eat and how much they will eat from what they are offered from their parents. Her book, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, discusses this model in detail.

Children’s meal and snack times should be structured and occur at predictable times. While the temptation is to offer your children food that you know (or at least hope!) they will like, it is important to keep offering a variety of foods. Build on and expand from what they do usually eat and like, but keep adding to your offerings. It’s also important for parents to sit and eat with their children rather than to just serve them separately. Value family meals and implement family-style service, including at least one item that your child usually likes.

Children usually need multiple exposures to a food before they will eat it. It’s important to understand that there is a progression of food acceptance, ranging from just seeing it on the table all the way up to eventually putting it in their mouths and swallowing. It’s also important to look at your child’s nutritional intake over the course of a week or so and not just one meal. Have patience and respect your child’s individual pace as they grow to become a successful eater.

Common mistakes to avoid

  • Avoid “food handouts” in between scheduled meals and snacks. This will undermine your efforts to have your children come to the table hungry and ready to eat.
  • Avoid being a short order cook and catering to your child’s limited menu. While your motivation may be to help ensure that your child will eat something, what often happens is that your child will accept fewer and fewer foods.
  • Avoid nagging or pressuring your child about eating. This can create an unnecessary power struggle over food and eating and lead to poor eating behaviors.