Meal planning for Indian Country, say whaaaat?? Indeed, it is happening and we are on that bandwagon. Since when has any Native not cooked for 8 with a family of 4 or considered how nutritious are our eating & shopping habits? We’re up to our headdresses (pun intended) in our ceremonial calendar, football pools, third grandbaby’s birthday dinner or playing in some tournament Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and if we win.. for Championship on Sunday. Round up the kids, grab a variety pack of hot flavor chips, the Gatorade, $20 bag of pinons, cash for the popcorn and nachos, my seat cushion, gym bag and let’s roll!!
While raising my children in the early years, I was that tote packing mom that had a ton of toys, snacks, drinks, blankies, diapers and change of clothes running from school-to work-to appointments, after school or local events, birthday parties… and at no time was I checking the ingredient labels or contemplating the sugar dosage or carbs of anything I was putting into our bodies. Don’t worry, no Diabetes or High Blood Pressure lecture is pending. Just good ‘ol sharing information.
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I actually sat down for lunch with my co-workers over their home-cooked meals. And me with my drive through lunch bowl or fried, greasy goodness. Of course, hospitality ran deep, so I’d be invited to share their meal. Let me tell you… the flavors running through my mouth were so delicious, I started asking questions. At the time, I didn’t actually think, “Ahhhh, meal prep.” Looking back, my friends shared their super quick & easy recipes that were the pre-fad meal prep design. Boil a huge pot of beans on Sunday, package it and use it in everything all week. Every head nodding. Someone else would pipe in one ingredient and the rest would take their turn to add in… I always keep fresh garlic, spinach, limes, cilantro, tomatoes, Serrano chile, onion and rice stocked.
Those meals & conversations were the best lessons I’ve ever had during a lunch that was over if you blinked your eyes. I started to think more about what I was actually feeding my family, how much processed crap I was shoveling in out of convenience and then I started to try different things, not just eating but creating. Cooking has become one of my better talents (and self- therapy time). I have fun doing it and I love feeling good about what I consume and feed my family (& friends).
If you’ve run across diet fads, infomercials or the latest ‘lose weight fast’ self-help books, that’s not where I’m going with this. To truly change your eating habits, it has to become a part of your lifestyle and you should feel good about it. If you’re not quite there, start small. *Story time. That epiphany I had about healthy eating while I was away from home, the reservation, invigorated my joy for cooking and eating. Fast forward to coming home to rural Native America. I was devastated. First, I really missed my friends and the life we created in a small, but growing, town. I loved that my supermarket choices were within a .25 to 3 mile radius and mostly, I now greatly appreciated the quality of food choices I had in an urban setting.
Coming home, I am 45- 60 minutes from the nearest town or commercial grocery store slash super center. Sadly, no farmer’s markets included. I get super excited about the 90 minute excursion for access to a farmer’s market and other choice grocers. Locally, I have a few choices of grocery options… you would take your chances at the quality of the produce and your cash flow is significantly impacted with the semi-outrageous mark ups. As early as a month ago, I spent nearly $3 for 2 small in size, half ripe (anything’s possible) Roma tomatoes. Partially my fault for not making a list when I went into town just 2 days prior. Some weeks I have good experiences shopping local. Then I go back and it’s a total nightmare and I kick myself for trying to have a little faith.
One early shopping trip I had upon moving home, was mid-week and I had not yet come to terms with my predicament of limited access to groceries. [Seriously, some weeks I’d go into town for 2 grocery trips, not counting the weekend fix.] I was second in line to check out and had some revelations. Please remove all judgmental thoughts from this scenario because it was more of a reflective celebration for my own habits. I observed the belt loaded in front of me with at least 3 family-size bags of chips, 6 – 12packs of soda, 2 Ramen cases, and a ton more processed & packaged items. The tab was just over $300.00. It wasn’t until I’d set my items on the counter, that took up maybe 1/3 of the belt, when I made a comparison of my grocery choices that included some meat products, vegetables, fruit, and juices. Number one, the visual of fresh vs. packaged captured my attention. Number 2, I was proud of myself because I remember when I used to be that shopper in front of me. Number 3, I wanted to be able to keep the habits I’d established with my family as we transitioned home.
Some of the challenges of preparing healthy meals while living in a rural area, are the local quality of groceries, the distance to travel to maintain my grocery needs and reminding myself of the benefits of eating healthy. At the time, I was going to be able to afford my food choices. However, there are times that the overall cost & commitment could be a barrier for an of us – rural or urban. It’s easy to slip into old habits and the limitations can be frustrating. Brace yourself. This is a big area that I try to share with friends, family and new comers to the area so that they can make adjustments and have a better transition to the rural lifestyle.
So what I have to offer you here are a few items I am also working to continuously implement. Up to now, winging it on grocery lists and no meal prep, has worked out. Where I have my own challenges are in wasting food and in not planning meals, a healthy-balanced meal may not always be an option.
The benefits of planning meals can be overly simplified by saying…
Meal Planning saves money. How?
Less waste, as all foods purchased will be used. Reduce expenses of unplanned trips for groceries (locally or 30-90 minutes). Alleviates impulse buying (if you stick to your lists). No frazzled mid-cooking crisis of missing ingredients (less stress). Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom/dad, single-parent household or someone in the home who makes dinner, meal prep will not only reduce the anxiety of “what’s for dinner?” but will add some continuity to the home. At least where food’s involved. That’s a good thing. If I wanted to dump on you, the multitude of studies that show either negative or positive impacts of eating healthy, I may as well write a book and get paid for this.
You might be asking, “Exactly how is my life better for spending time planning my meals?”
Meal planning can be fun. If you’re not the organizer, maybe delegating the task of inventory to the kids or a spouse as a weekly chore would be helpful. Some people are just great at it and they LOVE it… I am not one of those people, however, I am that person designated. So I try to carry over my “Do what you Love and Love what you do” attitude into the process. Why fight it? Rock with it, roll with it, lean with it… whatever works.
There are online templates for meal planning. If you use social networks, they can be overwhelming. It’s important to find and save links to pages that speak to you. Not every internet personality is for you. I’ll continue to update and add any links I find helpful.
Do what works for you. I’m the last person that would tell you how to go shopping, but do be purposeful and try to stick to your lists for meal planning. Too many options might be more of a distraction. Using grocery ads is good if you are shopping on a budget. If you’re not a guru with supermarket apps, find out what days your local papers have the circulars if it’s going to help you stay on budget. Ads also have sale items of your favorite ‘go-to’ items that you can freeze. I don’t know about your part of Indian Country, but around here, some of us have an extra freezer or two. If they’re not stuffed with deer meat. Lucky ladies I say.
What’s an item that I would stockpile?
I do go a little ape over fresh berries. Every now and then, I run across the .99 frenzy and take 3 of each, wash and freeze those suckers!! I use them in smoothies, salads, pancakes, pies and fruit topping. I get a little sad when I’m down to my last freezer bag and there’s no sale in sight. You feel me?
My husband and I love seafood. So we do occasionally splurge a paycheck on some wild sockeye salmon, swordfish, shrimp or something that sounds exotic. The boys also enjoy seafood, my daughter not so much. Win some, lose some. They’re really great for a quick 10-20 minute grilling and eaten as a main dish or in fish tacos. Shrimp is awesome in pasta or grilled with a quick fruit topping as glaze (freezer bag style). In the case you have a picky eater, try as best as you can to make the meals reasonably flexible so that you’re not prepping 2 completely different meals. It might even be just one main dish item that they can’t stand but the rest of the family loves. This might be a good time to let them be their personal chef for the night. It’s good practice to incorporate a picky eater’s delight into the menu once in a while. Now who’s the picky one (or bunch)?
In consideration of having to rack up some miles for a good grocery run, you do want to have an idea of what you’re cooking up. I’ve read and I think it’s a great idea, to be flexible. Once you get the hang of what your family enjoys, seeing something on sale will perk your ears up. Don’t be afraid to change up a meal and modify your list accordingly. As for the unexpected, it’s good to know your local grocers and products. This will help you in the long run, to know what you’re willing to negotiate. They may not have the best of what you need, but there are items that you can get away with for one or two meals.
In my local store, I’ve found and used the random generic mushroom soup to work up a mighty tasty brocolli-bacon-potato soup that was pretty darn awesome! So, don’t write the local grocers off, just be willing to experiment and let go of the mishaps.
RECIPES & MENU
As I mentioned earlier, we all know the meals our family loves. Keep a list of recipes, keep recipe cards (if you’re into that) and try new things. Incorporate more fresh veggies, create salads or meals that you’ve had in a restaurant, experiment with the varieties of rice and beans or lentils. Having been raised in a cultural-social structure, we often get teased about how good or bad of a cook we are. Don’t be afraid to pick up a cookbook. I’ve come to acquire different tastes for food and desserts that sometimes require a little order that calls for a recipe.
Start a seasonal or traditional fruit bowl for the house. This was actually one that scared me early on. I had this warped idea that buying fruit was going to cost me more financially than I could keep up with (as a full-time working, single parent with 3 kids in the middle of my Master’s program). In the beginning, it did. Not because the fruit was expensive, but my children LOVED it!! They were eating it up. They were STASHING (more like hoarding) the fruit that they enjoyed. I’d find random plums, strawberries or peaches in their beds, closets, bathroom drawers… it was getting a little crazy.
The conclusion I came to after talking with the kids, was that I wasn’t going to put more fruit in the bowl and they’d miss out. So we had a family conversation and came to the understanding that we’d keep fruit in the house as long as we didn’t let it go to waste. And we were all in agreement that having one or two pieces of fruit a day would get us through the week. In addition to replacing soda for fruit juice, I was totally excited that we easily transitioned potato chips and sugary snacks off the grocery list for fruit. Who knew?
You’ll decide what format works for you, but know what and when you’re cooking. Some households may not do all meals. Whether you eat at the staff dining room, pack a lunch, or you only prepare dinner… make a plan. Start with Google and type in the search bar: ‘menu planning template’ then click on images and you will have a variety… a slew actually of options. Pick one and get started with a draft menu with items you have on stock in cabinets and the refrigerator.
But I don’t have a printer.
You don’t need a printer… map it out on a piece of paper. Use the format from the internet options and run with it. Into the kitchen.
There are some serious meal planners out there. If you’re on facebook, you might think it looks like so much work. You’re going to cook anyway, why not be prepared? Try not to associate the ‘meal prep’ photos of people packing up on protein or for weight gain/loss. This is about you and your home, your healthy lifestyle. However little or more you can handle, just start. You’ll feel great about it and I hope that it becomes a habit.
That’s it folks.
May the force be with you.