How to plan menus for healthy, home-cooked meals, á la française

Mar 3, 2009 by


To cook healthy meals for a family the French way, the first step is knowing what to cook. Before you can make a shopping list, buy all your ingredients and start cooking, you have to figure out not only what to eat, but what to eat with it.

I go grocery shopping every Monday and Thursday morning. That’s the plan, anyway. Before I make my list or shop, I start with looking through my recipes.

I have several cookbooks, but the ones I use the most are my little Bon Appétit cookbooks (Tastes of the World, Fresh & Flavorful, Deliciously Light, and Fast and Easy). They are chock-full of simple, yet tasty recipes that work. I also have two little binders where I have glued in or copied down tried-and-true favorite recipes that I’ve gotten from friends, out of magazines or from cookbooks I’ve checked out of the library.

It makes life so much easier when you keep careful track of recipes you try. In my cookbooks, I mark with a √ the good ones, the ones I definitely want to make again: healthy, delicious, fast, easy (or worth the extra effort). I mark an X on those less than excellent, and never look back. It narrows the playing field as I skim through cookbooks to make my menus.

Eventually, you will find yourself able to make delicious meals every single night. There’s really nothing more to "being a good cook" than having good recipes. It just takes time and being a tiny bit organized (which we are or want to be anyway, n’est-ce pas?).

A Little of Several Rather than a Lot of One or Two

Any given meal needs three legs: like a level stool that won’t tip over. Generally you want to eat not just one thing, or two, but at least three, for balance.

I also keep in mind the rule of thumb given by French Women Don’t Get Fat author Mireille Guiliano: children should eat 20 different foods in a day. It keeps things more interesting and brings in a variety of nutrients.

Last night, for example, we ate fish, asparagus, zucchini, bell pepper, snow peas, romaine lettuce, apples, onions, pecans. If you count the cider vinegar, vegetable oil, parsley, chives, butter, nutmeg and ginger, our score goes way up. We also had some banana and mango with unsweetened crème fraîche (a delicious cultured cream) for dessert. And that was just dinner.

Small Portions, Good Things, In Sequence

The French usually serve a first course, what they call the entrée, followed the main course (what we call the entrée). They don’t bring out everything at once. That way, we can take our time, concentrate on one part of the meal, savor it, and then turn our attention to the next part. It’s an everyday formality that adds to the enjoyment and festivity of even simple meals.

I often start a meal with a salad. I found that my kids, when they were small, were more likely to eat salad if I served it first, while they were good and hungry. I try to make as many different salads with as much variety as possible. Vegetables, especially raw vegetables, are top food choices for nutrient density. Last night, I made a Romaine Salad with Apple, Pecans, Red Onion and Cider Vinaigrette (see previous post).

Next, I look for the second and third legs of the meal: a main course, which is usually something with something else (meat, poultry or fish with vegetable, for example) or a single dish with several main ingredients (a hearty soup, stew or casserole).

So last night, I followed the salad with another great recipe: flavorful fish and vegetables steamed in foil (see recipe earlier on this blog).

Sometimes, especially in the winter, I might start or finish with a soup, which will generally include several different foods. Or we might have a salad, with a variety of ingredients, as the main course. Or I start with a simpler soup and finish with a meat-and-vegetables combo. There are a million possibilities. I try to vary it at much as I can. There have been plenty of times when it hasn’t been all that great. But every night, I get a new opportunity to try again.

Something Old, Something New

My goal is more variety in each meal with less cooking: leftovers without boredom. I always try, often unsuccessfully, especially since my children are big, active and eat a lot now, to make enough of at least one of my dinner dishes to have plenty of leftovers the next day. That leaves me just to come up with the rest of that second meal.

Today, for example, we have enough salad left from last night for two small lunch servings, and enough fish and vegetables for three small lunch servings. Ideally, I’d make enough salad for us to be able to eat it again the next day along with, say, a hearty soup.

The least desirable plan is to make only one thing and eat it twice or more times in a row. That’s way too boring for those at the table. It’s better to freeze the rest of a cooked dish and bring it out later.

Questions: Do you have a good method for planning meals? What tips have you discovered for making the process successful for you?

© French Kids Don’t Get Fat / Anna Migeon / 3 March 2009 / All rights reserved