The Meal Planner

When I sat down to write this post, I first asked my husband "What would you tell the person who's stuck in the meal planning rut, but afraid of trying new things?" He became so passionate and outspoken about the issue, I thought I would have him record his thoughts:

When it comes to trying new things, the payoff is far greater than the failures. What I mean is, I will eat 2 or 3 or 4 "failed" meals in a month gladly, for the opportunity to experience 27 new, exciting, excellent meals. Eating good food makes me feel like a king. I get to experience great foods from around the world every night, and there are few things I enjoy or appreciate more than that. I think that when we limit ourselves to only eating foods we know, we are missing out on one of the greatest joys in life. God gave us beauty in things like Art, Music, and Nature. But he also gave it to us in food, and by limiting ourselves to only 5 "tried and true" meals every week, it's almost like only listening to the same 5 songs for the rest of your life. Sure they might be good songs, but you are missing out on the millions of other songs written throughout history. If you start searching for new music you might hear a song that you don't like, but you will discover thousands of others that you love. It's the same with food. So what if you eat a crappy meal? Be adventurous. Try something you've never tried before. It's okay if you don't like it. Try something else. If you don't like that, keep trying. Discover the beauty of food. There is so much to explore, you'll be amazed by what you will find.

I love how passionate my husband is about food and how excited he is about trying new meals. But I can understand too that not all spouses are like that, and not all children are like that either which makes stepping out of the comfort zone scary. Who wants to spend the effort planning, shopping, and cooking a meal that your kids whine and turn up their noses to you at?

I can also understand being on a tight grocery budget so the possibility of cooking something new and having the family hate it doesn't really help you out in your money-saving efforts.

I get it. But if you really are bored with meal times, or your kids don't seem that excited to eat the food on their plates, or your spouse would like you to shake things up a bit here are a few ideas, tips and inspirations to get you thinking outside the box:

Try a Variation of Your Favorite Dish
Sometimes all it takes to get you excited about meal planning and cooking again is to shake up an old favorite.

  • If you know your family loves pizza, try a twist on a classic - use salsa, alfredo, pesto or Asian peanut sauce as the base instead of tomato sauce and chicken, shrimp, or taco seasoned beef instead of pepperoni and ham.
  • Rachael Ray calls herself the Queen of Burgers, so the next time you are thinking of making the standard beef patties, search through her almost 200 recipes and see if any of her variations turn your crank.
  • If you know your family likes stir-fry, swap out the rice for vermicelli noodles. Or if you always use teriyaki sauce, maybe go for some sweet-chili sauce next time.
The possibilities are really endless and any one of your favorite dishes can be looked up on a recipe search engine and you'll find many delicious variations. By sticking close to a favorite and just changing it up a bit, you and your family might be less intimidated by change.

Make It Fun
Make trying new recipes fun for you and your family. If you have the attitude that trying new foods is fun and exciting it will rub off on your family members. Turn dinner time into a game...Who can guess what country this meal comes from? Or have trivia questions to ask kids during supper about the particular country. If kids are enjoying the process of being introduced to new foods they are more likely to like the foods themselves.

You could also inject fun by introducing new ways of eating. Put chopsticks on the table when you are serving up your family's favorite stir-fry. Have fun trying to eat your food with them. The next time you try something different like Japanese Donburi or Thai Curry, you can have the chopsticks on the table again and the kids will remember the fun experience they had last time and be more likely to try the new dish. This could also include sitting on the floor on cushions around a low coffee table to eat your meal like they would in Japan, or Morrocco. Make a point of telling your kids where these different traditions are coming from. Or try Trish's idea of serving up a Chinese Lo Mein with Chicken in a Peanut Sauce delicious and fun would that be?

Rate New Recipes
Rate new recipes by asking family members their opinions (you could even ask for how many stars out of 5 they think the recipe is worthy). We do this in our family all the time since I try so many new recipes. It helps me to figure out if a recipe is worthy of another go, or if it should go in the trash. Make sure that everyone feels like they are allowed to be honest with their opinions....and make sure you don't take bad ratings personally. Remember it isn't a reflection on your cooking skills, but a judgment on the recipe itself. Having family members give you their rating out of 5 as well as the "why" behind the rating will really help you in finding new recipes next time...If your husband gave the recipe a 2 and tells you he really didn't like the pineapple then you'll know to avoid recipes with cooked pineapple next time.

My rule of thumb is usually if a recipe gets a 3 or lower it's not really worth making again, but a 4 or 5 definitely would be.

Don’t Worry About the Occasional "Flop" will happen. And it's okay. It's not about YOU being a bad cook, but that the recipe itself was bad, or those particular flavors just don't suit your family's tastes. I have a friend who is so afraid to try any new recipes because she is so scared that it won't be good....what's there to be scared of? One bad meal doesn't veto all the amazing ones you've cooked. And usually even if the recipe wasn't that great, it doesn't mean it's inedible and you can still eat it and your body is still nourished. Nobody will starve.

With that said...the odd time it is inedible (I've definitely had a few of those). Those are the times you need to learn to laugh it off. Let it roll off your shoulders, laugh with your family about what a horrible meal it is and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or toss a frozen pizza in the oven. Even flops have merit will learn from them for next time and your family will have great memories..."Remember that time you made Greek Stew and it was so bad we had to throw it out and have a picnic in the living room with sandwiches instead? That was so funny!" (one of our actual experiences...we still laugh about it today.)

Learn From Failures
This one ties into the last one: I learn just as much from my failures, if not more, than my successes. Over the years I have made some HORRIFIC meals. I once cut up steaks into cubes, put some sauce on and put everything in my new crock pot only to come home to bits of jerky, or the time I made said Greek Stew with beef, cinnamon, lemon, walnuts and feta (TOO many weird flavors going on!), or the Mexican rice I thought would be amazing and had way too much orange juice in it to compliment the beans, corn and cilantro to be edible...all these were failures and I've had many more. My husband never judges me for it, and I can sometimes get discouraged yes, but I always walk away having learned a new cooking lesson. Whether its "wow...I really don't like cinnamon in savory dishes" or "next time I won't let the meat cook so long in the crock pot" or "note to self: orange juice doesn't work with rice and beans"...these are all valuable lessons that make you a better cook with time. I have WAY less flops now than I did when I began as a newly married person 3 1/2 years ago. I've perfected cooking techniques, realized flavor combination's to avoid or ones that go perfect together and become an all-around more adventurous cook.

So don't be afraid of failure. The food may not be good, but at least you learned something.

Don't Get Experimental Too Fast
If you are used to the same few meals in your meal plan rotation, getting TOO crazy or TOO experimental with new meals will really turn your family off and you too if you don't like it. Start slow and easy. Ease your way in and everyone will be more likely to be up for trying a few new things. If all you do is find a new casserole dish, or a new sauce to bake on your chicken that is better than having family members gag on sushi.

Try "Popular" Ethnic Dishes
If the most worldy dishes you eat are taco's (Mexico) and spaghetti (Italy), you might want to step out of the box and expose yourself and your family to new ethnic tastes. The best place to start is with the "popular" dishes from a particular country. These are the dishes that everybody orders when they are out at an ethnic restaurant...and they are popular for a reason. The flavors are new and exciting yet palatable and comforting enough to become a favorite.

For instance, Butter Chicken is probably the most popular and palate friendly Indian curry, as well as Tandoori Chicken. To spare yourself from buying all the strange spices, you can purchase both Butter Chicken curry paste and Tandoori curry paste in jars and add coconut milk or yogurt. Once you've tried it and you've decided it's something your family likes, you can then invest in all the spices and it will become more economical for you to make it from scratch (not to mention delicious). Other "popular" ethnic dishes to try would be:
Don't Be Afraid to Start the Kids Young
Obviously if your kids are older it's a little harder to start introducing new foods into their world...they know what they do and don't like. That doesn't mean you can't get them to like new foods, it just goes without saying that it will be harder. But don't be afraid to offer your children interesting foods at any age...even the young ones.

This summer my Mother-in-Law was visiting and I made Indian Butter Chicken. As I started to dish up a little bowl of rice for my then 1-year old and I began to scoop a bit of curry on top my MIL exclaimed "What are you doing?! You can't feed curry to a baby!" My response was "what do babies in India eat?"...and I fed my 1 year old the rice mixed with a bit of curry. It is honestly her favorite meal. She gobbles it up every time she has it, and it's all because I didn't just assume what she would like or dislike, I just let her try everything. In all honesty, she much prefers Indian and Asian flavors to typical North American. She will eat Fried Rice, Lemon Chicken, Beef and Broccoli, Beef with Green Beans in Peanut Sauce, and Thai Curry all with no problem, but rarely eats roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and plain steamed vegetables.

If it just becomes normal to try new things in your house, you will have much less picky eaters.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt
This is an old saying that means "the more you know something, the more you start to find faults and dislike things about it" (from If you find yourself hating meal planning, or dreading making supper, it's probably because you've eaten your "favorite" one too many times. Maybe your sick of recycling the same meals week in and week out. Maybe something that was once your favorite is quickly becoming a total snore. Challenging yourself not to recycle the same recipes, and doing a recipe search for something new may be exactly what you need to stop hating the meal planning process. Maybe you'll enjoy cooking again. Maybe you'll discover a new family favorite in the process.

Set a "New Recipe" Goal
If you NEVER EVER inject new recipes into your meal plans, set a goal to start slow and introduce one new recipe a month. If you are already doing that and you still need to spice it up a bit, maybe you need to plan a new recipe once a week. Whatever your goal is, have fun with it. Don't make it a chore. I don't have a specific goal, but there are some weeks where every single recipe on my meal plan is one I have never tried ...and I do it because it gets me excited to plan and cook. Other times comfort food is what I'm what makes things fun and exciting for you.

All of these ideas are meant to be suggestions and inspire you to step out of the box. I kind of rode the "cultural soapbox" a little bit, but trying new things doesn't have to be just about trying ethnic foods...just a new recipe for chicken or a variation of sloppy joes every once in a while will be enough to suffice. Hopefully you will get your family excited about meal times, and you will be more excited to plan and cook those meals for them.

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6 Responses
  1. Trish Says:

    Hey! Thanks for the nod. ;) We actually ended up finding a very delicious combination with that Lo Mein and Asian Peanut Dressing. I've been gorging myself on the leftovers. YUM!
    This post is FULL of fantastic advice and tips. Particularly with regards to being very open to all kinds of food with your children from a very young age. I have 7 children and some were raised under different food conditions than others. There is a marked difference in the amount of PICKINESS in the ones who had less exotic food experiences from a very young age.
    And I too love your husband's passion and adventurous spirit when it comes to food. Well said!

  2. Thanks so much for these New Year's posts/goals. I just found your blog and this is the perfect place to start. Thanks!!

  3. Trish - I definitely want to give that Lo Mein and Asian Peanut Sauce a try because it sounds amazing. It's also really encouraging to hear the results of starting your kids young with exotic food.

    Spitzer Tales - I'm glad you've enjoyed the posts, thanks for commenting :)

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Oh my god.. I was blown off with this site. I am at work, and i really want to got to cook after seeeing all these recipes.
    I loved the idea of intoducing your kids to new flavors. Its a lot of work when your kids are picky eaters, and kind of frustating when you meet a grownup who rarely likes anything. I am not kidding. I invited my husband's colleague and his family, and worked hard to put a nice complete meal. The guy just ate with one sidedish, becuase he didn't like any of the stuff ( not this kind of chicken, not this veg.,...). He wont even try.
    It really hurts the host.
    Anyways, Please keep it up, I am dying to try some of this stuff. I love curries, and Thai. trying to cook them myself always seemed tough( with all these different spices??), but i think i would try cooking up some. All your dishes looked so yummy. I am a big food junkie..


  5. LZF Says:

    Great post!

    When I first got married, I had a list of foods I didn't like, and so did my hubby. After a lot of experimenting and just generally being open to trying new things, we eat almost everything on our former "gross" lists now. It was a gradual change, but I've loved it.

    We created a club with friends where we get together and cook new foods we've never tried before, one meal a month. We would sometimes share new, expensive ingredients (like saffron), which made it easier on the wallet and generally more fun to step out of our comfort zone.

    I keep foods in my kitchen that years ago I didn't even know existed! (I swear by Kaffir lime leaf). And I am definitely a better cook for it.

    I once bought a jar of a fermented shrimp sauce for a recipe. When I started cooking with it, I had to open the windows, turn on the fans, and throw away the food. I have never smelled something so awful in my life. I learned that fermented shrimp is not for me. Oh well! :) Though a friend later served me a dish with that sauce in it that was quite tasty. So maybe I should have been braver.

    New ingredients (especially spices and exotic foods) can be challenging, so I definitely recommend sharing with friends. It helps to have that support system too. I mean you can't learn everything from the internet, right?

  6. FoodJunkie and Lindsey - Both of you: WELL SAID! Thanks for your thoughts Lindsey, so thorough and wonderful. I should have had you help me write this post!