Have I ever mentioned how much I love food? Seriously. For some people, food is just something that gives their body energy, and from a weight gain perspective, I’m jealous of that. For others, others like me, food is an experience. God decided to give me extra taste buds in my mouth (fact!) which gives me heightened taste receptors. I can be called a “super taster”, if you will. Because of that thing foods either taste super good, or super yuck. There are fruits here, for example, that can be tart and sweet at the same time. Chris and Olivia love them, but when I eat them, I pucker up and shake my head no. Too intense!
Because of things like my super taste buds, if I’m going to eat something, I want it to be yummy. Also, cooking is something I enjoy doing – most of the time. Feeding people is one of my spiritual gifts! Just kidding. But, in reality, I love that something I enjoy doing can not only nourish peoples bodies, it can nourish their souls too. All of our missionary friends get excited when we have them over for dinner because it’s a treat for them, even if I make something simple like spaghetti, and I love that we can love on our friends this way. One time our board of directors even made a comment about the fact that it was really a part of Chris and I’s ministry to the other missionaries in our area and that they loved that we did it (which is great because the mission covers most of our food budget!). I loved that they saw the value of it and encouraged it.
That said though, the whole process of cooking here can be challenging. It requires planning – lots of it. Most of the produce in Haiti is sold in the open market, and there are certain days of the week that are “market day” in each area. On those days marchands will come from all over to sell what they have. On non “market days” there are still people selling, you just don’t find the same variety that you would on a “market day”. In our area Thursday is our big market day, so each week we send Yonese to go get all of our fresh produce. We can get quite a good variety in our area, though some things you can only find in Port au Prince. Aside from fruit and veggies, we also get our eggs and fresh milk from the market, and most grains like beans, rice, flour,corn meal, sugar etc. We can also get these things in the stores locally, and often due if we’re running out before market day, but it’s less expensive to buy them in the market.
Other things like condiments, meat, cheese, etc are bought in the local small grocery stores. We used to do a big shop about once a month in Port, but since the beginning of this year one of the local grocery stores has been bringing in a wider variety of things and will even order meat in for us that they don’t sell in the store on a regular basis. Because of this we hardly ever have to shop in Port anymore, which is a huge time saver. The trip up to the grocery store itself could mean an hour in traffic each way.
Even if I need something from the store, it’s a 20 minute drive each way. We try to use our trips to pick Olivia up from school to do any shopping in town that we need to do, but again, that takes planning.
So, how do I put it all together so that life is actually simpler, rather than more complicated in an already complicated situation?
I meal plan!
I started doing this several years ago and it helped us immensely in so many ways.
First off, I really don’t love trying to figure out what to make for dinner at 4 pm. We get up really early and our work day starts at 6 am, so by the time late afternoon rolls around my brain is done for the day. Trying to figure out what to make for dinner with what I have on hand sucks. So I stopped doing it.
Secondly, food here is expensive. By meal planning I can buy what we need, not just random items that may or may not get thrown into something else. I realized we would have things we would eat regularly, and the things that seemed like a good idea at the time would either sit on a shelf, or die in the fridge. By meal planning I can buy what I know we’ll use and that’s it. Because the mission pays for our food as a small stipend, we want to be as effective as possible with how we spend that money. There’s always room for improvement, and I’m always looking at how we can not only eat healthier, but also cheaper. Meal planning has been a huge help in this department.
How do I do it?
I try to keep things pretty simple. I actually meal plan a month at a time, rather than weekly. This just works better for me because a week here can get busy and then I realize that I haven’t done it and things all fall apart. By taking about an hour once a month I can plan the whole month and its all ready to go.
I start by using a blank calendar page. Computer programs like Publisher have blank templates that you can use, or you could just make a simple table with enough boxes for 5 weeks and print it off. The one I use right now is actually a little calendar notepad thingie that I found in a dollar store. No dates, just days of the week.
I start by writing in the dates. After that I make little notes about anything special, like days where I know we’ll have visitors. This is important for me because when we have people in I have to cook a higher quantity of food, and I need to plan for lunches which is something I don’t typically do because we just eat leftovers or scrounge for something else. I also cook differently when we have people in. I learned several years ago that while I might want to cook something special, it’s often more of a time suck, and our days are already full with hosting duties. Keeping things simple during those times means it’s less meal prep time for me, I have more energy and the time I’m not using for cooking is time I can actually spend with our guests. Also, by keeping meals simple there are opportunities for people to help me out in the kitchen, which provides more time to connect.
After I note all that stuff I write in three things each week: Ryan Cooks, Leftovers and Chris Cooks.
Yep. The guys each cook one night per week. This wasn’t something I asked or demanded. When things started getting busier Chris asked if he cook take one night of cooking for me, and I said yes. I don’t care what he cooks, I just love that he does it. Usually it’s something simple like baked potatoes. But the important thing is that I don’t have to do it. When Ryan came we found out that he enjoys cooking and he offered to take one night per week. Ryan does Tuesdays and Chris does Fridays.
Yes, I actually schedule a leftover night each Wednesday. We started to realize we were throwing out too much food because we weren’t eating it all. Aside from cutting down on how much I was cooking, I decided to add a leftover night like I had seen on organizing blog. Because Thursday is market day, we do leftover night on Wednesday. This helps us clean out the fridge and then I can see what we really need as far as produce, etc. Sometimes there aren’t many leftovers in the fridge, so occasionally I have to come up with a quick dinner idea in its place, but I’m okay with that. This morning, for example, I looked in the fridge to take stock, and while there are some leftovers, there aren’t enough to make a meal for 5 so I’m going to whip something else up – but I’ll be using up a bunch of the veggies in the crisper before they go bad to do it. I also know that we’ll eat up the leftovers that are there in the next two days just by feeding the kids lunch.
So, when all of those things are added in I only have to plan four dinners per week. On the side of my fridge I keep a list of all the meals that we enjoy eating so I don’t stagnate and just cook the same things over and over. A couple months ago I went through my cookbook that I have where I can add recipes in. It’s a just a photo album divided into sections. I took out anything that I a) knew I hadn’t ever made, or hadn’t made in a very long time, probably because it wasn’t a hit; and b) anything that I knew I would have trouble making here either because of time investment, ingredients, or because someone in our family just doesn’t like it. No sense in keeping something I’m not going to use when something I will use could be in that space. I made sure all my recipes were laminated and organized. Things had gotten a bit crazy because I just kept printing things and shoving them in the front cover. After I cleaned up the book, I updated the fridge list.
On my list things are divided into sections by the meat involved. Things that need ground beef go under one section, regular beef under another. Chicken dishes with rice are in one section and all other chicken dishes in another. Pasta, fish, soups and other ethnic or veggie based dishes in their own categories.
When I plan meals I like to spread things out and try to do chicken once a week, some type of beef another night, and even aim for a meat free night when I can. On a meat free night I might make soup and bread or something bean based like rice, beans and tortillas. Or it might be grilled cheese!
Once I have everything done on my paper version, I transfer it to the white board calendar stuck on my fridge. This way it’s out where everyone can see it, and I can change anything that needs to be changed if needed.
For planning purposes I also have a white board on the other side of our fridge that I took a permanent marker to. I divided it in half with a simple line, and on one side at the top I wrote “Market” and on the other “Store”. Now, I can look at the coming week and write down the things we need to buy. If it’s fresh stuff, grains, milk etc it goes on the “market” side. Other things that we need to get from the store go, you guessed it, on the “store” side! With three adults cooking through the week and people coming and going I got tired of forgetting things on my list when I went to shop, so I put the board up and the house rule is that if you know it needs to be replaced, either because it’s running low or it’s completely out – it goes on the list. It’s helped so much! We were having some magnet issues in the past couple weeks and I was getting annoyed because it wasn’t staying where I had put it. I was feeling out of sorts and unorganized so yesterday I did something about it and life is all better again!
I do want to mention that I like to keep a regular stock of what I would call “pantry essentials” on hand. For me it includes things like all my regular baking supplies, tomato paste (pasta sauce, pizza sauce etc), basic condiments, coffee, a couple different kinds of pasta noodles, oil, vinegar, and spices. Again, because going to get groceries is at least a 20 minute drive, and somethings aren’t available in our area, I stock up. For example, if I know I need flour, which comes in small 5lb bags, I’ll buy two – one to refill the plastic container in the kitchen and one to refill. I hate it when I feel like cooking or baking something and then run out of an ingredient half way, so I try to avoid that because I can’t just run out to get what I need to finish up. I do go through periods where I realize we have certain things piling up, like I did last week, so I then make an effort to use those things. For example, I had two and a half bags of oatmeal, and decided to make granola. Typically I wouldn’t have used that much oatmeal to make a batch of granola, but when I started I realized I was out of oat flour, so I whipped one and a half bags up in the blender to make my oat flour. All good!
The other reason I keep certain things on hand is because I want to be able to whip up a quick meal if we end up having company. As I mentioned, I cook differently when we have visitors. I pre-portion things like chicken and beef, so when we have company of maybe two extra people I might decide against chicken because for us right now a pre-portioned bag is 8 pieces (4 thighs, 4 drums) and 16 pieces of chicken is way too much chicken for 7 people! In that situation I might decided to make a pot of spaghetti with salad. We always have stuff for salad on hand, and I usually try to keep the makings for spaghetti on hand too. It’s just an easy meal that I can do on the fly. By having certain things on hand I can be ready for something spontaneous in a place where most things require a lot of planning and work.
I want to say something else about meal planning, and that’s the fact that it helps sort things out when you have a pick eater. In our house I go by the same rule that I grew up with, which was that you ate what was put before you. My mom tried to account for certain things, like my brothers hate of certain veggies, but for the most part we ate what was before us, even if we didn’t love it. I want to raise our kids with the mindset of trying something before you decide if you don’t like it, and to be polite when someone else prepares a meal for you. I don’t force them to eat things they don’t like other than taking a couple bits to be sure they don’t like it. Olivia used to be less picky than she is now, so typically I make her take a bite or two then leave it. Sometimes she ends up liking something that she thought looked gross, and other times she doesn’t. Chris is my really picky eater. He would live on meat and potatoes in any form if he could. When we first got married he wouldn’t hardly touch most veggies. How does a person meal plan for that???
Well, I remember that Chris is one person in our family. While I like to cook things that he likes to eat, I also try to balance that out with what the rest of us like. And, I make balanced meals. Many nights we have salad with whatever main dish we have. Usually I make up a big bowl of salad and we eat that until it’s gone. While I know Chris doesn’t like cooked veggies, it doesn’t mean that I avoid them. I figure he’s an adult and he knows how to use a fork, so he can pick them out, and he does. When I’ve expressed my frustration with trying to cook for him he’s (thankfully!) told me to not worry too much about it and just let him pick things out. So I don’t and he does. I’m proud of Chris too, because while he never used to eat salad when we first got married, he does regularly now. And while he only used to eat one kind of dressing on it, he eats a whole bunch of different things now.
My point is that meal planning allows you to account for your family’s preferences. If you know that one of your kids just wont eggs in most forms (like Olivia) then you can account for that. O had some bad experiences with getting sick after eating scrambled eggs, which were a staple for her when she was small. Now she hardly ever eats them. But, we’ve made her try other kinds and she found she loves hard boiled eggs and poached eggs. If I’m making breakfast and it involves eggs, unless I can plunk a boiled or poached egg in front of her, I don’t bother cooking eggs for her and just make sure she gets a piece of toast and something to give her some protein, but she’s only getting that because I’m making toast and other stuff for everyone else, not because I’m making a special meal for her. I used to worry more about what my kids ate, but then started paying attention to their food choices. Alex eats almost anything, and loves most veggies and fruits. Olivia might not love eggs, but she eats a variety of meat and will ask for salad. I think when the choices are healthy on a regular basis most kids will choose healthy foods in the balance that their bodies need.
I think we also need to be knowledgeable about what’s in our food. This is an area where I need to put more time in, but I’ve realized that while I might think about certain vitamins being in veggies, for example, I don’t think about the fact that some have calcium. My brain thinks dairy = calcium, so I used to worry when Olivia didn’t want to drink much milk. Then I realized that our water has a high calcium level, and she drinks lots of water, and she likes some of the veggies that have calcium in them as well as things like cheese and yogurt.
Now that I’ve been meal planning for several years I’m finding that rather than focusing on how to figure out what we’re going to eat, I can spend more time and attention on finding healthier or homemade options for things. Often people ask us what foods we miss from back home, and our typical answer is “nothing”. There might be something that a specific restaurant makes that we love, but for the most part I’ve figured out how to make the things that we did miss. I missed having tortillas, so I learned how to make them. And you know what? Even when we do have access to tortillas and they aren’t too expensive, I don’t buy them because mine taste better. I like knowing what is in our food, and I like making things from scratch. Recently I had people bring in canning jars and the few supplies that I’d need so I could do things like can sugar free mango jam when we had lots of mangoes, or canned tomatoes when tomatoes were in season. I loved being able to open one of my jars rather than a processed one when I’m cooking.
I hope this is helpful in some way. When it comes to meal planning you really need to find what works for you and your family. Some people need and want to plan every meal of the day. I don’t, so I don’t do it. Some people like computerized versions. I’ve tried several options and I keep going back to my paper and dry board version. Some people like to do a week at a time. I don’t want to have to do it that often, so I don’t. It has to work for you. And, it might take a while of trying things out to develop your system. Mine has literally taken years, but now we all rely on it. If things have been busy and I haven’t updated the plan yet I feel confused and unorganized and Chris often notices and says something about me not having updated the meal board yet. I realized that he likes to know what’s coming, and that makes me happy :) I like that I don’t have to think and can just look at the board that morning and know what needs to come out of the freezer or what other prep needs to be done. I don’t fee frazzled.
Question: Do you meal plan? If so, what works for you and what doesn’t. How does it affect things like your shopping and budgeting?