In the early years of our marriage it wasn’t always easy, but I cooked dinner for a family of 6 to 10 every night. I say 6 to 10 because we never knew when another foster child (or two) would come to stay. Like most families who are busy with both parents working (I worked w/o pay as the preacher’s wife) we had a lot going on. We often relied on canned food, box meals, freezer meals or the local hamburger joints. But as our family grew and natural born children were added, we no longer had options for easy meals or fast foods. It was necessary that we change how we ate, and the benefits were more than just nutritional. We sat at the table together every single night, and that one habit alone improved the quality of our lives. Foster children who had not been trained in manners could learn during the dinner hour together, and of course after our evening meal we also had age appropriate Bible readings together.
As much as I loved to cook and be in the kitchen, getting dinner on the table every night was no easy feat—especially because I was also tired from refereeing needy, abandoned children or children in trouble with the law. It took some serious organization and planning, not to mention some creativity to please myriad different palates. My husband was a picky eater, who had promised never to refuse anything “publicly,” so I had to please him as much as possible. Our children’s ages varied widely (ages 18 to newborn). You can imagine the challenges I faced!
Because we took five teens into our home within the first year of our marriage (Harley, Gwen, Marilyn, Irene and Cecelia), my husband and I established some rules right from the beginning and stuck with them. The most important rule was that I made one dinner and one dinner only and grazing on junk food, candy or leftovers from the refrigerator was not an option. If the children chose not to eat what I made, they were out of luck. During a meal they were required to have “no thank you portion” (one teaspoon) of foods they had never tasted before or thought they did not like. That rule was intended to help them learn to like everything. While that may seem harsh, it gave our kids a measure of control, and most of the time, they were willing to eat what I served. Every evening we all sat at the table together. Eating together was a nonnegotiable exercise. The older children generally took turns setting the table and clearing dishes afterwards. Everyone had some ownership, and it made getting dinner on the table easier.
Fruit was allowed all the time, but not snacks or candy!
I did my best to have a varied menu and rarely made the same thing twice in a month. One night a week, the older girls were allowed to choose a menu and cook what they chose. Our first adopted daughter (age 13) always chose pork and beans with beef wieners and toast. Gag! My husband and I had a hard time choking that down, but it was necessary to encourage participation in the cooking process and to keep a flexible attitude for all. At times the congregation members would bring a kettle of fish or wild berries in season, and if I froze those things, I tried to serve them within 3 weeks to be sure they remained fresh. I got dinner ideas from a variety of sources such as magazines, my Betty Crocker Cook Book, neighbors and friends (remember those were the days before computers or Internet). A lot of my good dinner recipes came from friends. I always asked for recipes when people invited us over for dinner—maybe to the point of becoming a pest, because all I seemed to talk about in those days was food!
I began every month by adding events to our large wall calendar and then writing in the main course for our meals. Almost every week, there was some activity that affected our meals, so I made notations by the meal plans. I liked to see what was going on in my month ahead of time. I also made notes of anything in season that I might be able to freeze, and I added that meal to the end of the month so that I didn’t forget about it. Meatloaf was a family favorite and finding ground beef on sale would be my motivation for making two at the same time and freezing one. Making a large pot of dry beans might be another motivation to freeze half.
The most important part of meal planning was to ask my family (especially the kids) for any requests. It was important that they have a say. I found it lead to less disappointment when they were served something that they did not like once in a while. Including them in the meal planning also made my job a little easier since I was not making all of the decisions. Sometimes the kids gave me really good ideas!
I also took inventory of what I had in the cabinets, fridge and freezer. If I had extra chicken breasts in the freezer, I knew that I needed to add some chicken recipes to my plan. Those were the days when members of the congregation shared their garden produce with us and sometimes their hunting catches too. OK, so here comes a friend with fresh venison or bear! What did I do? I ground the wild meat with pork or beef and moved right on.
I often cooked one recipe and used leftovers in a different way on another night. For instance, one night we ate Porcupine Meatballs (a recipe from my Presto Cooker cookbook) with pasta, and a few nights later, we would have meatball subs. I sometimes did the same thing with chicken. My Chicken Curry was great with rice or chapatti and a side vegetable. When I had them, I tried to make a few extra breasts to serve as sandwiches or on top of a salad later in the week. My goal was to make my life as easy as I could, and thinking about what else to do with one main ingredient helped.
After planning our meals, I brewed a cup of hot tea, sat at my kitchen table, and started making my grocery list. That process alone helped me not to over spend at the grocery store. Impulse buying can bankrupt a family budget. Since we got paid once a week, I really had to be organized and frugal. I went over every recipe and added the needed ingredients to my list, making sure to check that I had all the pantry staples as well. It is frustrating to be in the middle of a recipe only to realize that you are out of sugar or garlic!
When I was done with my grocery list, I clipped all of the recipes together and taped the meal plan to the refrigerator. That cut down on all of the questions about “What’s for dinner?” There were few questions, because everyone in the house knew where to look. Did I always follow the meal plan exactly as written? Almost always, but unexpected events did come up. Sometimes I planned meals that need to be started in the afternoon, and surprises happened. Maybe I couldn’t find an ingredient at the store. In those cases, I just replaced that dinner with another one in the plan until I could get what I needed.
Planning out meals could be time-consuming, but it was a job that I looked forward to. An hour of planning freed me up for the next week. I knew what was for dinner and had the ingredients in the house. It was just a matter of preparing the meal. Best of all, we spent more time together as a family and spent less money on food, since we no longer ate junk food or fast foods. An added bonus was that the quality of the food we ate was so much better. It was so much better for all of us!