Monday, March 10, 2014

Vegan-on-the-Go Q&A and Menu Planning

Today I'm linking up with Dawn over at By Sun and Candlelight for her new mini-series, "Kitchen Chat." Today's topic is menu planning and I thought I would offer a vegan perspective to the link-up. I'm sure I've talked about this before, but I must not have tagged my post back then very well and it's time for a refresher anyway.

First, though, I'd like to clear up a few misconceptions, because over the years plenty of people have asked my husband and I questions about our diet and these have been common ones:

 Q. Are you a foodie?  A. Although I eat a primarily, but not strictly, vegan diet ( I eat eggs at home from time to time when I know where they've come from... but I am considering switching back to completely vegan again soon. There's just too much that I know about raising animals or animal products for consumption that disturbs me, but I digress...) I am not a foodie. I mention this because I think that sometimes folks thing you have to be a gourmet cook in order to have a diet other than the standard American diet and this is just not true. My meal prep likely takes the same amount of time - or less - than a meat-eating household. Like everyone, I have learned over the years a number of tried and true recipes that I use over and over again, many of which I know nearly by heart. And, like everyone, there was a learning curve, meaning that in the beginning, as with every new venture, my cooking took longer because some of the ingredients were new and I had to learn how to cook with them. Tofu and tempeh for example. And quinoa seems to be all the rage across the country right now, but at one point very few people even knew what it was, much less how long it takes to cook (not long at all!) and what to do with it. My learning to cook just hardly involved meat, since I became vegetarian when I was 19 and prior to that, I did little real cooking for myself on my own; my mom did nearly all the cooking at home and then I was in college where I ate with a campus meal plan. Anyway, now tofu and tempeh... and quinoa are common staples in my home. I rarely take time for long-ingredients-listed recipes unless I want to do something special. More often, I take simple, common recipes - if not from a vegan cookbook - and veganize them. It's not hard at all!

Q. Do you eat everything organic? A. Who wouldn't love to do this?? :) But I am a stay-at-home, homeschooling, college-attending mom living on a single-income, lower-middle class budget. That's just the way things are! So, I do my best to shop as much organic as I can within my budget, which presently is $500 a month for a family of four. I shop around, planning my shopping with driving routes as much as possible to save on gas: Trader Joe's, our local co-op, Mississippi Market, some items at our local big chain grocer, and I just got a membership at Costco and am figuring out how that can work for us. Trader Joe's and Costco offer amazing deals on organic foods, usually their own name brands. The co-op is the only place I buy our eggs (my kids are vegetarian, not vegan) and cheese (for the kids), since it IS organic and uses vegetable rennet. Certain foods, like the dairy cheese I purchase for my girls (though Eve seems to have given up cheese recently when she learned more about the industry), I always try to buy organic because of the prevalence of growth hormones and other drugs. I buy a few other things at our co-op, but not very much because we simply cannot afford it.

Q. Do you ever eat junk food? A. Well, um, Paul is making a double batch of chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen right now, so... yes! I buy everyone one snack food of choice per large grocery trip (usually twice a month, but now, with Costco maybe {hopefully!!} just once). So, sometimes it's a bag of chips or a box of ice cream sandwiches (vegan or otherwise for the girls), peanut butter stuffed pretzels or goldfish type crackers. That's what they get and they've got to make it last! I always have ingredients on hand for making homemade cookies, peanut butter rice crispy bars, and cake/cupcakes - all vegan. And the past couple of years, being that we're on the road so much more with homeschool highschool activities, I'll get pre-made granola bars. For a party I might get a lemon-lime soda or root beer, but I don't buy soda as a rule. I really don't like it except a little as a rare treat, because it's just too syrupy for my taste. We prefer juice spritzers that we make with 1/3 to 1/2 juice of choice and plain carbonated water. Oh - and one more junk food treat: on the occasion that my girls - one or both - help me out with grocery shopping at the big box grocery store, I let them choose a doughnut from the bakery as "payment" for their help. :)

Menu Planning Tips

So, there are four things that I put to regular use in my home regarding menu planning that I have found to be the greatest help, especially with an active schedule that doesn't always allow for me to be home to leisurely prepare dinner. These habits have evolved over the years and I use them more or less as I need to incorporate them depending on the seasonal schedule. I have never done menu planning just ONE way ALL the time.

1) One of the most challenging parts (or enjoyable, if you like this kind of thing!) about menu planning - especially if you have done it for many, many years - is figuring out what will you have this week?? Thinking up a new menu for the week can be daunting. So, I suggest you categorize your tried-and-true meals into categories from which you can choose when you are filling in your menu for the week. I wrote about this back in 2008 and you can check out that post here. Basically, I have categories such as : Breakfast, Light Meals/Lunch, and Dinners under these headings: Soups, Mexican, Pasta. I have particular days of the week for each food type: one night, soup; one night, Mexican; one night, pasta. That takes care of three nights right there. And maybe you always have pizza on Fridays, so that would be another day. Choosing from each list, you won't have to think so hard and be searching for a different recipe for each day, BUT you will still have variety, because I be you know how to make more than one kind of soup, Mexican, or pasta dish, don't you? If you're feeling creative, put a new dish on the other days or just something outside of your regular, workhorse meals. And if you're like me, now that I have older kids, I take the weekends off of cooking, so I'm only coming up with 5 meals each week nowadays!

2) Save your menus! Why reinvent the wheel every week or month? I have been putting my menus on my Google calendar since the fall when school started up again. I only have to peek back at a week if I want to get ideas without losing too many brain cells! :)  Also, don't be afraid to repeat a month! I actually planned two months out in the fall when I was nervous about how I was going to manage the new schedule and I simply planned each meal on Google calendar as an "event" and had it repeat into the next month. This is a great idea for seasonal cooking, because you can have a few, basic seasonal dishes - both new and tried-and-true - and just rotate these calendar-based menus around the year. You can switch them up as you like, but if the basic menu is already in place, you won't need to think of original ideas as much as just change a dish here or there.

3) Use your crockpot/slowcooker! This is pretty basic. I use mine two or more times a week for those nights when I'm going to arrive home right around the dinner hour. Most of the time these are chili or soup meals in our household. Occasionally, I'll do a crockpot pot pie which is super yummy too! I also do all my bean prep in my crockpot now. For years, I have soaked my beans overnight and then let them simmer on the stove for about 2 hours or so the next day until I learned that I can rinse my beans, throw them in my crockpot, cover them with water (no measuring, even!) and put it on high for 4 hours. Those who work out of the home can do this as well: just choose a lower temperature for the 8 hours or so that you are going to be away. Dried beans are a real cost savings and play a huge part in our vegetarian diets. I make my own refried beans all the time, so pintos are a staple. Chick peas (for making hummus and all kinds of other uses), kidney beans, and white beans are regulars too. Black-eyed peas and black beans from time to time. Each batch in my crockpot makes roughly 8 cups or more of cooked beans which I put into 2 cup batches and store in the freezer. I buy large bags of beans through a buying club (though I may compare costs of that club with Costco now) and keep them in my basement along with big bags of brown rice, lentils, quinoa, and a big bag of salt. These are on hand all the time and are always available for quick meal ideas.

4) Cook grains in bulk at the beginning of the week. Each week I make a 6-cup batch of rice or quinoa. Most of the time I cook it in the vegetable broth I make from a homemade seasoning mix, but sometimes it will just be plain. We use this all week as a base for so many meals! You can throw the grain into a soup or into a wrap or burrito. You can make an Asian stir fry or any kind of veggie/bean saute and put it on top of the grain. You can have the grain sweetened (made without the veggie broth) for breakfast: rice pudding for example. You can have the grain with a drizzle of olive oil, nutritional yeast, salt, your veggie of choice (froze kale or spinach, for example, just heated up) and maybe toss in some raw sunflower seeds or pine nuts and you have a quick, balanced meal (this is one of my FAVORITE, go-to, weekday meals for breakfast OR lunch!). Leftover refried beans and salsa are a yummy, healthy snack over grains too.

Well, these are just some of my menu planning ideas that work for me. I didn't include quick, vegan recipes, because that's not really what this topic is about and there are tons of those out there on the world wide web! I just wanted you to see that no matter what your diet is, you can choose healthy, whole foods even while on a tight schedule and budget with some simple planning.

Planning of some sort always helps with time management and budget, but don't feel guilty or give up if you fall down with your planning! It's life after all and there will be three more meals tomorrow to think about, so you'll get plenty of chances to "get it right"! And remember, sometimes you just have to wing it too! Sometimes you're just too stressed or busy or tired out to plan. So cut yourself some slack and have cereal for dinner! Peanut butter "tastee o's" and almond milk are pretty popular around these parts. :)

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