Monday, November 2, 2009

New Menu Strategy: Theme Weeks

Most people in the world eat the same thing or the same type of thing for nearly every meal of every day (except special feast or celebration days). Even in our country, it's a relatively new phenomenon to be able to have Mexican one day, chicken pot pie the next, and a Thai flavored stir-fry the following day. My family enjoys a wide variety of food--textures, flavors, "ethnicities," and so forth. My grocery shopping has become quite complicated since I enjoy cooking from scratch, I try to stay on a fairly tight budget, we like to eat so many different kinds of things, and I hate wasting food/leftovers. Even having a night each week allocated to pasta or Mexican or whatever was too complicated and left me with random ingredients left over.

I read about a new strategy in someone's comment to a blog post I read recently (can't remember where!). It struck me as completely visionary: Theme Weeks. This will enable someone like me to purchase ethnically-inspired ingredients more cost effectively, to use up leftovers more easily, and to have a list of similar recipes that all work together for the week--not needing to be consumed in any particular order most of the time. In addition, there are so many yummy recipes like French Toast that work best with "stale French bread." If we haven't had an Italian/French meal in a while, we're likely not to have had French bread in the house either. Aaahhh... but in a theme week, we'd have some viable leftovers for those great recipes that START with leftovers. It doesn't have to be an ethnic theme, necessarily, but I found that grouping food from general regions of the world seemed to be most effective.

I spent about 30 minutes coming up with some possible "themes" and the accompanying lists of meals that loosely fall under that category (to be posted later this week). I was amazed at the variety within each category and noticed that there were soups and leftover type meals that coordinated nicely with each theme (nachos fit at the end of a Mexican week, for example). Some of my friends have said that they would get tired of "Mexican" all week, but I don't think that will happen. You won't have Mexican again for at least a month, maybe 2, so you'll no doubt be ready for it when it rolls around again; in addition, there seems to be plenty of variety for a week's worth. The organization I've done so far has taken far less time than I've spent in the past trying to figure out other systems, I have some nice groups of menus from which to choose, and my shopping lists will be shorter--larger quantities of fewer ingredients.

My hope is that this will enable me to streamline my grocery shopping some, use up leftovers better, and cook from scratch more effectively. For instance, if we're having Italian food, I might just whip up a batch of homemade marinara sauce that can then be used for spaghetti, sauce in a baked pasta dish, and dipping sauce for Calzones. Or, I can cook a big pot of beans that can be main course one night, mashed for refried beans the next, and finally used as a quesadilla or burrito filling. Definite potential here. We'll see how it goes.

For now, here are my themes:
  • Asian (Chinese, Thai, etc.)
  • Mediterranean (excluding Italian food but including Greek, Moroccan, Middle Eastern...)
  • Indian (yes, we like Indian food!)
  • Southern European (France, Italy, Spain)
  • Northern European (including the British Isles--this is the week for those big 10-pound bags of potatoes!)
  • South of the Border (Mexican, Caribbean, Latin American, etc.)
  • American (sub-categories here might be Southern, Cajun, comfort food, or whatever)
  • Clean out the freezer/pantry week

I'm starting with Mediterranean since we haven't had that in a while, I have most of the ingredients already, and we've been craving it. We'll see what we're in the mood for next! I don't think there needs to be much rhyme or reason to a "rotation" as long as we're not having one theme week twice in a month. So, we'll just see what's on sale, what sorts of ingredients we have on hand, and what we haven't had in a while. Certain seasons of the year cater more to certain categories; potatoes and cabbage tend to be on sale this time of year, so we'll no doubt have some Northern European type food more now than we do in the summer (things like bangers and mash, shepherd's pie, and so forth).

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