"Food Families" is a term I use to indicate Food-from-region-of origin. I feel that "ethnic" doesn't fit, because...well...look at Chinese cuisine. When you say "Chinese cooking," what regional (or ethnic Chinese) cuisine are you referring to?
"Family" references the relatedness between different regions without lumping groups into an "ethnic" category they don't belong to. (Anthropologist-in-training showing here :P)
After you have maintained a food diary for two weeks, you should start to notice that your choices fall into broader categories.
For instance my own are: Asian, Mexican, and Italian-Mediterranean.
Now that's a wide variety, but it informs me what oils, seasonings, sauces, and grains I need to keep at hand.
Each "Food family" has different-but-related base seasonings. (This is a result of geography, trade, Imperialism, etc) Basically, you have an array of tastes for each of your food families, and "ethnic" options underneath that umbrella.
So you have key items that you keep stocked, because these will allow you to construct meals from any of your "food families."
How do you find out what these ingredients are?
Start with your favorite dishes. Pull up their recipes. Set the recipes side by side. Now take a pen or pencil to the list.
If you have repeating ingredients that show up in at least 2 of your recipes, circle them. These are your stock items, and some of the first things you should buy before meal planning.
Obvious ones are soy sauce for Asian cooking, olive oil for Italian cooking, wine for french cooking, cream and salt for American cooking...
But there are more seasonings and spices than the "obvious" ones. And sometimes these even "cross" families. Like basil, sherry, honey, garlic, onion, salt, sugar, and canola oil.
If there is a seasoning option that you can use "in place of" another ingredient, and the replacement ingredient is in line with other dishes--use the replacement. This means that you keep that "replacement ingredient" on hand, and maintain you "stash" effectively.
Effective management of these base ingredients makes all meal planning possible.
If you’re new to meal planning, the 1st thing you need to do is nothing. I know this sounds counter-intuitive. But before making a change, you need to know what you are changing. Remember what we think that we do and our actual patterns of behavior are quite different.
***So for two weeks, keep a food diary. The challenge will be to maintain the diary for two weeks and then on 6/20/11 share in the comments your Food families (ethnic food categories, "American" for anything common to your home growing up, unless you identify with a cultural subset) and what items you must keep stored to meet your scheme. Also, share 3 links to the sites you found most informative. The first person to post all details in the comments will receive a Modern Menu Recipe-holder and my top 10 go-to dishes with pictures and instructions, as well as plenty of room to add your own. The 2nd person will receive 5 spices (my choice) and Modern Menu Notebook, the 3rd person will receive a Modern Menu bookmark and notebook.***
When keeping a food Diary, write down the following:
When you eat
When you eat
How quickly hunger returns
When you wake
When you sleep
What you do (energy-wise: do you walk to the grocery store, or take the car?)
If you snack, what do you opt for?
How do you make your food choices?
How much unused food makes it to the garbage can?
(In two weeks, I’ll ask you to share your findings --not the whole diary but what you *learned*)
I’ve done this, and what did I learn?
There are a number of things that I bought, planned to use and they stuck around. If my Guy doesn’t tell me he’s hungry, I’m more likely to snack on leftovers than make areal meal. I cave on Pappa Murphy’s and Subway when PMS-ing. If I don’t get enough protein I’m a grouch for 2 weeks out of the month, and my emotionalism runs higher.
Perhaps, for some that’s too much info..but you have to know what your body is doing to treat it properly.
So carry a notebook around with you, and this will help you make decisions going forward.
When Meal Planning for more than just yourself, you must take more than your own food preferences into account. This can easily become a juggling act. It grows easy to fall back on "what mom made" even if you didn't like opening your lunchbox in elementary school to see yet-another PB&J and Tang.
If you’re sending your significant other, child, or other (and yourself) off to work, school, daily-life with lunch in hand, the nature of the job might inform you how and what to cook.
My guy, for instance, spends his day behind a desk. He’s concerned about the recent studies about the dangers of sedantism, and abhors the very idea of weight-gain. So I’m making him a series of “snacks” to take to work.
Breakfast for my guy consists of: fruit salad (strawberries, blueberries raspberries + almond slivers) orange slices (from my parent’s tree!) 1 Blueberry muffin & 1 Strawberry muffin.
Lunch is the remaining Enchilada, from last night’s dinner.
However, being home all day, I can be more active: walks, housework, and errand-running intersperses the job-hunt, writing and blogging. So I eat three meals:
2 Starwberry muffins and fruit salad
Carrot Pseudo-Frittata with spinach salad
(Not yet made)
Look--we’re eating differently! How is this meal planning for 2?
Enchilada: last night’s leftovers (they are turkey enchiladas made with the seasoned ground turkey used for tacos the day before)--containing mushrooms, spinach, ¾ of a tomato (left over from a sandwich-lunch eaten over the weekend), frozen bell pepper, green onion, cheese, the remainder of the tortillas ( a few days prior we had had quesedillas, and so opened the bag).
The carrot-rice pseudo frittata was made of leftover carrot rice that was going uneaten. The salad has two greens: spinach (of course) and the leftover sliced lettuce from the tacos, plus sliced mushrooms, carrots and pickled beat.
Strawberry Muffin, and strawberries in fruit salad come from the same place.
Curry: Chicken + spinach + mushroom + green onion.
Taking into account different nutritional, caloric and other needs leads to looking for veggies that you can get a lot of life out of. What these veggies are will be determined, in part, by your preferences. It can also be influenced by the way in which you get your produce.
Since I rely heavily on a Farmer’s Market, the season plays a big part in our eating choices. But I know there are a few that I love above all else, and integrate year round.
Knowing your eating preferences allows you to buy seasonings accordingly. Seasoning your veggies when you cook them, will lead to much more veggie-eating. Just...go gently with the salt...
And remember, the meals that you are picking week-to-week should be using overlapping ingredients. that doesn't mean the same things go into every dish, but overlap reduces how much money you spend shopping, and cuts down on waste.