Christine Steendahl "The Menu Mom" is a busy mom of three (soon to be four) and a menu planning expert. She is well known for her "The Menu Mom Blog" www.themenumom.com along with her various menu planning services which can be found on the right hand side of her blog.
(Jamie) What helps you get food on the table on a regular basis?
Christine's A: For me, the biggest thing is having the food in the house and ready to go. I have three young children and the closest grocery store is 20 minutes away, so making daily trips to the grocery store is not convenient. Therefore, having a weekly menu planned out and all the food on hand is the only way I am able to make sure our family has a meal on the table without stress.
What benefits have you seen from having a regular "family time" around the dinner table?
There are so many benefits, you can find many of them highlighted on our Family Dinner Video - www.familydinnervideo.com . Overall, we find out so much about what is going on in our kids lives at school through our evening meal that I doubt we would hear about any other way.
What is your favorite reason for having a meal plan?
It takes a great amount of stress off of my day. It seems that the dinner hour is the most stressful part of the day - the kids just got home from school, and between homework, tired hungry kids and upcoming evening commitments the stress level quickly rises if I also have to figure out what to cook for dinner.
What is the most important feature of a meal plan?
I think this varies from family to family. Obviously having meals that will be enjoyed by your family members while also taking into consideration any allergies or health needs is important. Maybe not the most important, but the most appreciated by many of our customers is the categorized grocery shopping list that comes with our menus and makes grocery shopping quick and easy.
Are there any special considerations when looking into or creating a meal plan?
As I said before, I would certainly look for or create a menu that takes in your families tastes and health needs.
How do you stay organized while being busy with life and family?
Family comes first. Thankfully many aspects of my business run themselves now thanks to my awesome partners and assistants. I use Microsoft Outlook for my calendar and check in there each morning to see what is on the schedule for the day.
What are three of your best tips for meal planning?
1.) Make a commitment to try it for at least a month - it takes a bit of time to get used to it, but in the end it turns out making life much easier for most people.
2.) Designate a grocery shopping day and make a commitment to shop that day and that day only. Bring with you a list that covers all the food you will be making for the week, and try to stick with it.
3.) Be flexible. There are days that just don't go as planned - maybe you end up with less time in the evening and you have to pull out a stashed frozen pizza, maybe you get invited by friends to go out one evening. Don't feel defeated when something comes up - just pick up where you left off the next day. You can always push a recipe into the next week if needed. And have fun - be willing to try new recipes periodically and be willing to recognize that sometimes they just won't be hits - but then you know.
Do you really save money having a meal plan?
Yes, most definitely. Some people look at the sales ad for their favorite grocery store and plan their meals for the week around that. I don't necessarily do that, but simply having a plan and sticking to my grocery list saves me quite a bit. I can't tell you how many times I went grocery shopping before I started meal planning where I would spend $200 and get home and have no clue what to cook for the week. I bought a bunch of food, but none of it really went together to make meals. Also, without a list, you are much more likely to pick up items that you would not normally buy just because they look good. That is okay once in awhile, but when you stick to a list and a plan you are guaranteed to save. Of course there are many other ways to save even more such as using coupons, stocking up on often used items when they are on sale, and buying in bulk. These are all things I personally do.
What insight and helpful hints can you give when it comes to any of the following - gardening, canning, going to farmers markets, etc.
Well, we plant a fairly large garden each year. If you have the space it is a great way to cheaply grow organic produce all summer long and a fun family project as well. We love our garden! I do some canning, but more often freezing, or just sharing our bounty with our friends. I am a huge supporter of both local Famer's Markets and CSA Groups (Community Supported Agriculture - http://www.localharvest.org/csa/) Anytime I can support a local farm, I do. Their produce is fresher, often organic, and often cheaper. Of course you are also helping a fellow community member.
How do you stay creative and innovative in the kitchen and with meals for your family?
I make it a point to try a new recipe at least once a week. I enjoy periodically purchasing new cookbooks or searching online for new recipes.
What's one kitchen utensil you could not live without?
My Vitamix Blender. Here is a complete review of it: http://smoothieblends.com/why-we-love-the-vita-mix
How have you incorporated your children into the cooking scene of your home?
They love to help any chance they get. My three year old likes to help me bake by dumping measuring cups, helping with the mixer etc. My six year old loves to help count when we need a certain number of things and he is great at adding ingredients and stirring as well. My eight year old has advanced to helping me on the stove top with things such as browning hamburger, breaking up spaghetti noodles and putting them into the boiling water etc. He is looking forward to the day when I will let him put things in the oven and take them out, but I haven't let him take a stab at that quite yet.
When would you say the toughest stage in your family's life thus far was for meal planning? What advice would you give now, looking back?
I think we might be in it... Our eight year old is involved in football. I pick him up from school and get home around 3:35 p.m. Then the two older boys need to do homework and then we have to be out the door by 5:10 p.m. for football practice and we don't get home until 7:45. (8:00 p.m. is bedtime and they need snacks and showers before bed) Therefore, we have to eat dinner around 4:30 p.m. It is hard to get dinner done and my husband done with work by that time. However, it is a priority in our home so we make it happen as often as possible. Soon we will have a newborn to add to the mix, so I'm sure that will make it all the more exciting.
Are there tricks you've learned to help your kids eat healthier?
Make things fun. My kids will eat almost anything if it is cut up small and you give them a toothpick to eat it with. Fruit pieces, veggies, pieces of meat, chunks of cheese, little pieces of burrito etc. You can also sneak some goodness into certain foods such as pureed cooked carrots into tomato sauce. There are two good books on this subject - Deceptively Delicious and The Sneaky Chef.
Any additional tips or encouragement for families?
I just encourage you to give meal planning a try. It does help save time, money and let you connect with your family - which are all blessings in the end.