Carefree Cooking

Meal planning made simple.

December is an ideal time to get a handle on meal planning. With the holiday season upon us, we’ll soon be running around at full tilt, decorating the house, spending money on presents, scheduling holiday meals— the whole enchilada.

Not having a plan in place can mean way too many fast food dinners for your family. You know what that means: You blow your health budget as well as your financial budget.

The solution to having no plan is to make one. The following page presents five pointers for creating a menu for the next few weeks that will save your sanity while lessening the financial burden of the holidays. And when you’re in a bind, whip up the easily adaptable soup recipe below.

Give each person in the house five index cards. Ask each family member to write down his or her favorite meals that you make. The meals can be anything that qualifies as dinner, except holiday meals.

Gather up the index cards to create your menu accordingly. If you can, add in a couple of other meals you know your family would like. Aim to have a menu that covers at least 20 nightly dinners. Once the menu is decided, write down a corresponding grocery list.

Stock your pantry with staples you will frequently use for these recipes, ensuring everything is on hand. Do the same with the refrigerated stuff, but go easy to account for the shorter life expectancy of food that needs to be kept cold.

Post the menu on the fridge, cluing everyone in about what to expect for dinner for the next few weeks. If you have teenagers or other capable kids, enlist their help. All of the meal prep and cooking doesn’t have to be on you. Ask sweetly, however, don’t be a shrew! There’s nothing worse than working side by side with a dictator in an apron.

To even out the gaps, whip up my Basic Veggie Soup. It’s packed with nutrients and a cinch to make. When you use the optional variations, it keeps the meal interesting.

Basic Veggie Soup

Canned soups are often over-processed and full of salt. This will take you mere minutes to make, and it’s downright good and healthy.

Ingredients:

2 14.5-oz. cans low sodium diced tomatoes,
undrained
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, pressed
2 Tbs. olive oil, divided
2 large carrots, chopped
2 small celery stalks, chopped
1 medium turnip, chopped
2 c. green beans, cut in 1-inch pieces
6 c. low-sodium chicken broth
¼ of a head of cabbage, chopped
½ tsp. thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
In a large soup pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until nearly translucent. Next add the garlic, being careful not to let the garlic brown. Saute another couple of minutes. Add the rest of the chopped veggies, sauteing for just a minute or two. You’re not cooking them— just sauteing for the wonderful flavor this quick step will infuse in your soup. Add the thyme, salt and pepper while sauteing. Now put the veggies in a crock pot, followed by the tomatoes and broth. Cook on a low heat setting for seven to nine hours, depending on your crock pot, or on high for four to six hours.

Serving Suggestions:
Consider pairing the soup with a sandwich or salad for a heartier meal.

Quick Fixes for Variations on the Basic Veggie Soup

There’s no need to change up the whole pot of soup. Just vary the little bit you dish out when you fix yourself an easy lunch during the weeks leading up to holidays. For most of the ingredients, eyeball the amount you add depending on your personal taste.

Quick Fix #1: Tex Mex Veggie Soup. Add some dried and rinsed canned black beans, a little bit of cumin and chopped cilantro. Top with some baked tortilla chips and low-fat cheese, or serve with a quesadilla.

Quick Fix #2: Tuscan Veggie Soup. Add some canned cannellini beans, which are also known as white kidney beans or white beans that are drained and rinsed. Throw in a little bit of Italian seasoning and some chopped kale. Cook until heated through and the kale is tender.

Quick Fix #3: Minestrone Veggie Soup. Add cooked pasta, a pinch of dried basil and top with a fresh grating of Parmesan cheese.

Quick Fix #4: Autumn Veggie Soup. Add diced acorn squash or butternut squash, cooked brown rice, a sprinkling of nutmeg and chopped parsley.