I’ve been receiving many emails from readers offering great suggestions about food-related topics I could write about during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among them was one from Megan, a reader who asked if I would consider devising a seven-day dinner plan that would involve a single trip to the grocery store.
I loved the idea, but when I thought about it I decided it would be very difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all dinner plan. For example, a single person or senior couple would not eat the same way parents with always-hungry kids would. People’s diets, food budgets and other things can also vary greatly.
So, today, what I’ve decided to do instead is offer tips and suggestions on creating a menu plan that will fit your own situation. I’ve also included a hearty, main-course soup recipe that should fit into most folks’ menu plans.
What is a menu plan?
A menu plan is where you chart out on paper, a bulletin board, calendar or computer what your lunch and dinners will be for a certain period of time. Most already have a breakfast routine, but on the meal plan you could also include special foods you’ll have on certain days, perhaps homemade waffles on a Sunday morning. On that menu plan you could also include special snacks/treats or desserts you’ll serve and any special beverages that complement dishes you are serving.
How long should the menu plan be, and why do it?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been suggested we limit our grocery shopping to one day a week. So, logically, your menu plan should be at least one week long. By creating a menu plan, you’re essentially starting a grocery list of items you’ll need to shop for each week, which in turn will make it less likely you’ll forget something when you do venture out.
How to start your menu planning
Judging by how bare shelves are in some grocery stores, it’s clear many people have stocked up on things, especially staples. Other people did not. So the place to start your menu planning is to take an inventory of what you have on hand and determine what meals you can build with them now and in the future. Doing that will also let you know what types of spices, herbs, condiments and other flavourings you have on hand, and also what items you have on hand for baked goods.
Dishes to include in your meal plan
Be nostalgic and include old family recipes and other things that provide comfort. Always include dishes that will yield two meals, such as a roast that will yield enough meat for dinner and also sandwiches for lunch the next day. Also, make double batches of dishes, such as lasagna or other casseroles, stews and chili, that freeze well, so you can enjoy some now and have some ready to go for another time.
Include ethnic dishes in your menu plan, such as Asian-style noodle bowls — foods that don’t require some of the Canadian-style staples that are in short supply. If you have a family, include dishes kids can help make, such as homemade pita pizzas.
Scan grocery store flyers and work sale and seasonal items into your menu plan.
If you are financially able too, also include dishes such as roast turkey or baked ham you might cook for Easter that you can share with a neighbour or loved one. If you do that, of course, be sure to deliver the food using social-distancing protocols.
When laying out your menu plan, put fresh, cook-me-soon items, such as fish fillets, at the beginning of it.
And this will sound obvious: always include foods you like to eat. I say that, because when some people recently shopped and loaded up their pantries and freezers with food, they might have spontaneously bought certain staple items they don’t often cook or even enjoy that much — foods that might still be sitting in their cupboards when things become normal again.
Lastly, support local businesses offering takeout meals by including some of the things they offer in your menu plan. You’ll find a handy link to restaurants and other food businesses offering takeout on the Times Colonist website at timescolonist.com/what-s-open. When you get there, click on Food & Beverage.
Vegetable Chowder Dressed as You Like
In this soup, the vegetables you might add to seafood chowder take centre stage. After ladling the soup into bowls, you then top it with items that will dress it up and make it more filling, such as grated cheese, bacon bits and sliced green onions. Make sure you top the chowder with items that appeal to you from the list provided below. This soup will also freeze well.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: about 30 minutes
Makes: six (about 1 1/4 cup) servings
1/4 cup butter or olive or vegetable oil
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup grated carrot
1 large garlic clove, minced, or 1/8 to 1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp dried thyme or tarragon
3 3/4 cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth (divided)
3 cups cubed unpeeled red, yellow or white potatoes, or peeled russet potatoes
3/4 cup frozen corn, or drained, canned corn
3/4 cup milk or cream or non-dairy beverage, such as oat beverage
• salt and pepper, to taste
• toppings, to taste, such as grated cheddar cheese or non-dairy cheese, crispy bacon bits, crispy cubes of pancetta or ham, chopped or flaked smoked salmon, chopped dill, sliced green onion and/or snipped chives
Melt butter, or heat oil, in a pot set over medium heat. Add onion, celery, carrot and garlic and cook until tender, about five minutes. Mix in flour and thyme (or tarragon) and cook two minutes more.
Slowly pour and mix in one cup of the stock (or broth). When mixture is very thick, slowly pour in the rest of the stock (or broth) and the milk (or cream or non-dairy beverage). Add potatoes and corn, bring soup to a simmer, and cook 15 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.
Season the soup with salt and pepper. To serve, ladle into bowls and let diners top their soup, to taste, with their desired toppings.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.