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Valerie Phillips: Cookbook helps you plan week's worth of dinners

Wondering what you'll fix for dinner? So is Susan Nicholson in Atlanta.

"The truth is, I've been thinking nonstop about you and your meals for years and years," she said.

Through her syndicated column, "7-Day Menu Planner," Nicholson has planned about 5,500 dinners, complete with recipes and shopping lists, for the past 16 years. Now, she's sharing her know-how in a book, "7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies," (Wiley, $19.99).

I've been friends with Nicholson since we met covering a Pillsbury Bake-off in 1998. When my four kids were younger, once in awhile I'd get an e-mail from her, asking if a certain recipe sounded like something my kids would eat. So yes, she makes an effort to come up with dinner ideas for real people, using ingredients that can be found at nearly any grocery store across the country.

Her book contains a year's worth of dinner menus. But more than a recipe collection, the book tells how to come up with your own menu plans and strategies to get dinner on the table night after night.

"I wanted to show people how to take control and cut down on the panic that goes with 'what's for dinner tonight?' "

Her column garners a lot of feedback from readers who plan their meals from her column.

"They say they feel so much less stress, and they're not throwing out food like they were, or overbuying," she said.

In her book, Nicholson recommends a family meeting to let everyone give input on meal choices. Each person is allowed two or three dislikes. "You can't rule out all vegetables, you can can rule out Brussels sprouts or another vegetable that no one likes," she wrote.

Check the grocery ads to see what's on sale; flip through recipes you've collected for more ideas.

Start with the entrée, and then choose side dishes to complement it. Generally, the more meat, fish or poultry you have on the menu, the more expensive your food costs will be, she said. Her menus include one meatless meal each week.

A typical meal plan should include a protein, vegetable, salad, complex carbohydrate (beans, rice, whole grains) and fruit or dessert. You can combine some of these into a casserole, skillet dinner or one-pot meal.

Some of her other tips:

When preparing vegetables for one recipe, wash, chop and refrigerate what you'll need for several days.

Organize your shopping list according to the store's layout.

Use slow-cooker liners or line pans with foil to save on cleanup.

Recruit help from family members.

Pack a lunch for work, using last night's leftovers.

Lean meats have less waste because their fat and moisture content are low. "Ground beef that's 20 percent fat may be cheaper, but 95 percent lean ground beef has much less waste," Nicholson points out.

Clean out the freezer and cabinets. "Anything you find in the freezer or pantry is found money, because you've already paid for it," Nicholson points out. "You can dig it out of the freezer, defrost it and turn it into another meal without spending a dollar from your wallet for the meal."

Nicholson's editors let her sprinkle her no-nonsense sense of humor throughout the book. For instance, this tip: "If you do have a sink full of dirty dishes, be sure you're sitting with your back to the kitchen or wear very dark sunglasses. That way, you don't have to see the mess and can enjoy the fruits of your labor."

Here's a recipe from her book. These Asian Turkey Wraps offer a different flavor spin for Thanksgiving leftovers.

Asian Turkey Wraps

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

4 cups chopped cooked turkey

¾ cup sliced celery

6 radishes, sliced

3 green onions, sliced

3 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds

4 8-10-inch fat-free flour tortillas

1 bunch basil leaves, sliced

Combine vinegar, sugar, sesame seeds, sesame oil and salt; mix well, then chill. Combine turkey, celery, radishes, green onions and almonds. Drizzle dressing over turkey mixture and toss to coat.

Spoon evenly into tortillas, sprinkle with basil and wrap. Cut in half and serve immediately.

— "7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies"