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Archive for the ‘Menu Challenge’ Category

Internet, I am so sick of all food and have no idea what to cook and yet I STILL feel obligated to feed my family.

Yes, I have been here before. But this rut ravine crevasse feels especially deep and wide and insurmountable.

Let’s list all the things that are contributing to these dark feelings:

  1. My grill is broken, so none of my summery “throw some meat and veg on the grill” options are available to me
  2. My in-laws are here, which means I feel (self-applied, only) extra pressure to cook Things That Are Special
  3. I have still not gotten accustomed to our summer schedule, so I feel off-kilter in general
  4. It’s hot and I don’t have any extra energy for cooking
  5. I used up every last store of Cooking Enthusiasm in June, when I baked two cakes and countless cupcakes and hosted my in-laws for multiple Special Meals

First, I tried to make meal planning more interesting by adding two or three Brand New Recipes to the weekly list of dinners. But that requires research and energy, and I am fresh out of both. Okay, I am not “fresh out” of research. I am fresh out of PATIENCE for research. DESIRE to research. And patience and desire for this line of sentencing.

Next, we have been eating lot of meals outside the home, which takes all the planning and cooking weight off of me. But eating out all the time is expensive and time consuming. And I tend not to make the healthiest choices when I go out to eat (if I’m going to spend money on a meal, it better be tasty and fancier than a SALAD is my line of thinking).

Finally, I have turned to cooking super easy things, like Crockpot BBQ Pork or Tacos or Burritos. But my husband is growing weary of all of those things, and they aren’t really the lightest fare, either. I love to eat foods that are smothered in cheese and sour cream, but there’s only so much of that you can eat before you start to feel like YOU are smothered in cheese and sour cream.

How in the world do you climb out of such a deep and overwhelming food chasm?

Probably what I need most is some fresh ideas. Which is difficult to ask for because a) I have a HUGE list of recipes I haven’t tried and b) I am super picky and so 90% of recipes people suggest never sound that great. Really makes you want to help me, doesn’t it?

What are your go-to meals, when you want something easy and delicious? Bonus points if you would serve it to guests.

(Where does this come from, this need to do Something Special for guests? If a food is good enough to serve to my family, why doesn’t that make it good enough to serve to other people? And yet there are MANY things that my husband and I eat all the time – and LOVE! – that I have never thought twice about serving to others. Some of them are pretty spicy, so maybe that’s part of it… we like a spice level that wouldn’t be comfortable to many other people. Some of them seem… plain, I guess? Like the Crockpot BBQ Pork, which is just a pork tenderloin and an onion dumped into the crock pot with some BBQ sauce [and sriracha]. I usually eat it with a baked potato and some green beans. I LOVE it. But I wouldn’t consider serving it to friends because… I don’t know! It seems too homely somehow? It seems like a B-Team Meal, and when you have people over, it seems like you should be serving them only A-Team foods? It’s too easy to make, and you should put in Real Effort when you entertain? I have no idea. Is this Foods-Suitable-for-Guests thing unique to me and my husband?)

In exchange, I will give you my FAVORITE recipe of late. It is so good. So good that I refrain from making it too often, lest I get sick of it.

(And I cook the chicken in the oven – 425F for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is 165F – so it doesn’t matter that our grill is broken.)

It’s called Honey Chipotle Chicken Bowls from How Sweet Eats but I think of it as a big, delicious salad. I use lots of mixed greens for the base, and I cut some fresh corn and bell peppers and carrots and avocado and add those to the salad. And then I top everything with a mixture of the lime dressing the recipe recommends and a generous drizzle of the cooked marinade from the chicken.  I was really suspicious of putting quinoa on a salad, but it adds a very pleasant texture that I love. We served this to my in-laws recently, and they loved it.

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In order to wrangle control over Husband’s and my not-so-super eating-and-spending habits, I have joined the menu planning challenge posed by The Happy Housewife.

Challenge #1 was to come up with 15 “favorites.”

Challenge #2 is a two parter.

Part 1: Come up with 5 more meals to add to the list.

* Steak in red wine sauce with broccoli and baked potato

* Beef stroganoff

* Coq au vin

* Pot roast

* Beef stir fry with black bean sauce

Part 2: Come up with a list of veggies, fruits, and side dishes that your family enjoys.

This is tough-ish, because Husband and I like different things when it comes to side dishes. Sometimes, we just make what both of us like. For instance, I’ll have a baked potato and he’ll have a baked yam. Or I’ll have a baked potato and he’ll have pureed squash. Or parsnips. Or Brussels sprouts. (He is a LOT less picky than I am.) Basically the only thing he won’t eat is celery. So the following lists are things we will BOTH eat.

Side dishes:

* Steamed broccoli

* Baked green beans

* Side salad

* Shish kabobs (bell peppers, onions, and mushroms0

* Sauteed mushrooms

* Asparagus

* Sauteed green and yellow squash

* Herbed baby red skin potatoes

* Baked potato/yam

* Baked yam “fries”

* Pureed butternut squash

* Corn on the cob

Fruits and veggies (not including those used in side dishes):

* Plums

* Grapefruit

* Cherries

* Blueberries

* Dried cranberries

* Peaches

* Apples

* Bell peppers

* Carrots

* Lettuce

* Avocado

(Is this really ALL of them?)

Mmm. This challenge is making me hungry!

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Food on the Brain

I clearly remember the first meal I ever made for my family.

Maybe it was Mom’s way of preparing me for “wifehood” or “independent living.” Whatever it was, that first meal has remained one of my all-time favorite foods.

It was spaghetti with meat sauce. The recipe came from Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual which – I cannot believe it – I found on Amazon.com.  (Wait a sec… yes I can believe it. It’s freaking Amazon, receptacle of all books young and old.)

So… looking at the book, I have discovered that the recipe for “Ready Spaghetti” is NOTHING like my tried-and-true meat sauce recipe. However, I remember the book fondly, with the adorable cartoon animals and the food-stained pages of simple instructions. I think my mom may have taken a little creative license with the ingredients list, and to that I say “Thank you Mommy!”

Anyway, when Husband and I were first dating, I wanted to impress him with my mad skillz in the kitchen. So every opportunity I got, I cooked… spaghetti. When we took a road trip to his home town and wanted to make a thank you dinner for his family… When we went to a friend’s lake house (twice)… When I invited him out to my parents’ house for a week one summer… You get the picture. I like to think it was my specialty.

Fortunately, Husband loved it. And, once we moved in together, he took it over and made it 10,000 times better.

We’ve been cooking together for nearly eight years, Internet. It’s one of my favorite ways to spend time with him. Plus, I firmly believe that cooking together is a good way to a) save money and b) be healthier.

But I have to say… with both of us working, finding things we both like to eat (I am SUPER PICKY) and things that are easy and quick enough to make after work (we HATE eating later than 8:00 p.m., although it happens more often than not) is becoming more difficult by the day.

One problem we encounter regularly is boredom. With a picky eater and a limited budget to satisfy, we end up eating a lot of the same things. Over and over. And over and over. Blah. Boring. Even my favorite foods (i.e. pizza) get old eventually.

But our biggest problem is laziness, I think. Or over-tiredness. Yes, that sounds better.

You see, we start the week by figuring out what we’ll eat for that week. Usually we go out for dinner one night*. Husband is on call (i.e. overnight at the hospital) one to two nights. So that leaves 4-5 meals (plus lunches) for us to plan. Then we go grocery shopping and buy everything we need for the week.

That’s supposed to be it. No extra trips to the grocery. No takeout meals. No dining out.

But inevitably, something happens. A meal that sounds delicious on Sunday sounds unappealing by the time we get around to it. Or we run out of super quick meals early in the week… and then we don’t get off work until seven when we are hungry and grouchy and don’t want to endure an involved, lengthy meal-making process.

Then we end up going to the grocery and grabbing something unhealthy (i.e. PIZZA)… or going to a restaurant and eating a week’s worth of calories plus spending thirty bucks we shouldn’t have… and usually wasting the perfectly good (and NOT FREE) food that we’d purchased for The Meal That Got Away.

This is not a good plan. For our health or for our finances.

So when The Happy Housewife announced that she is going to write a menu planning series, I decided to jump on board.

The first assignment is to come up with a list of 15 meals.

Sounds simple, right? It was TOUGH**. Husband is a very easy-going eater, but I am not. (See above, RE: me being Super Picky.)

[Slight Digression: I am really, really, really picky. Yes, I try things. But there is a long list of stuff I Will Not Eat. Ever. Like beets. Lamb. Veal. Any kind of game. Any lunch meat besides pepperoni and occasionally salami (you know, the healthy lunch meats). Shellfish. Sushi. Eggplant. It goes on and on and on. There is also a slightly less long list of things that I will eat only in certain permutations. I ONLY eat tomatoes in sauce form, and then only if the sauce is completely smooth. I only eat turkey on Thanksgiving. I only eat chicken if it’s thoroughly saturated with some sort of delicious liquid – i.e., in mulligatawny soup, or chicken paprikas, or coq au vin. I only eat mushrooms and broccoli if they’re cooked. I only eat many vegetables if they are raw or only very slightly stir fried.]

Okay, that’s enough of a peek into my crazy brain for one day.

So, needless to say, this assignment was tough. But in the end I came up with 15 meals we can make on a semi-regular basis (a couple have two permutations):

  1. Tacos
  2. Black bean burritos
  3. Grilled pork chops with asparagus and baked potato
  4. Grilled salmon with sautéed squash and rice
  5. Stir fry or Fire Fry (vegetarian or with beef)
  6. Spaghetti with meat sauce
  7. Chili
  8. Mushroom pasta/mushroom sandwiches
  9. Burgers with corn on the cob
  10. Tarragon pork with steamed broccoli and baked potato
  11. Tilapia with wine/lemon/butter sauce with steamed broccoli and baked potato
  12. Rosemary/garlic crusted pork chops with green beans and roasted baby potatoes
  13. Salad with spicy grilled shrimp
  14. Soup (black bean or mulligatawny or butternut squash)
  15. Chicken paprikas with egg noodles

Let the meal planning magic begin!

* Going out for dinner once a week is something we go back and forth on a lot. It’s something we’ve done since med school, and we’ve decided that the additional cost is worth it. This is our one night to go out with friends, to get out of the house, to “live it up” if you will. We try to never let our very, very pathetic social life suffer because of finances. Maybe not the smartest long-term plan… but it’s something we believe in strongly these days.

** As tough as this assignment was for me, I can’t imagine how tough meal planning is for The Happy Housewife. I only have to feed me and Husband. She has SEVEN kids. Planning meals for yourself, your spouse, and seven kids requires Truly Mad Skillz.

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