“Banish the onion!”

by Richelle Wright on August 15, 2014

If you “google” family menu planning, you end up with over 87 million results in just a fraction of a second. I guess a lot of people really like to plan menus.


Menu planning used to be a pretty big deal for me. Once upon a time, I grocery shopped once every two weeks, with a very specific list developed from a monthly menu plan. I loved the plotting, planning and probing – devoting, sometimes, several hours a week to those activities. It forced me to be intentional about the food my family ate. I enjoyed searching for new recipes to try. One of the best pieces of advice I’d been given as a soon-to-be missionary living on the back side of the desert, responsible for preparing something more or less edible for my family to eat – was to learn to cook from scratch… The veteran missionary who gave me that valuable piece of advice meant like totally from scratch, as in learn how to make your own tomato paste… and yogurt… and buttermilk… and marshmallows… and all sorts of other things that I didn’t even know you could make. I took that missionary’s advice very seriously.

I spent a couple of years perfecting my strategy. By the time we moved to Africa, I had a great reservoir of menu plans with things that I’d been told I’d be able to find locally and I knew how to make them all… from scratch. They were even edible, most of the time.

We landed in Niger that very first time at the beginning of the lean season… the time of year when all the expats who could left town so stores and shops that imported food were only doing so sparingly… also the time of year when all crops were planted but not much was being or had been harvested.

Except for onions.

“Banish the onion!” became the cry of my children. They cried buckets of tears while chopping onions, until they figured out that swim goggles served a great second purpose. I considered writing a cook book entitled “201 Ways to Eat Onions.”


Okay… so that is a bit of hyperbole, but it certainly felt true, then and every other August we spent in Niger. At least once the cooking started and those onions were sauteing, it always smelled like something delicious would be on the table in the immediate future.

Then, there was the week I went looking for butter… the store owner thought the trucks had been held up at the border.

Or the several weeks surrounding the bird flu scare? Niger stopped importing chickens and eggs, and the price of eggs (a staple in our diet) skyrocketed to no-longer-affordable for us.

How do you bake a birthday cake for a birthday party where 20 five to seven year-olds were coming… without eggs?

I quickly discovered that all my hard work learning to prepare meals from scratch was really just the tip of the iceberg. And all of that recipe research? It wasn’t working out as I’d expected.

I’d learned to make a menu, to plan amounts, to cook the food without shortcuts and conveniences – but I didn’t know how to adapt for African snags in that plan: converting measurements I could handle, but I was clueless what to do when several key ingredients in my menu plan just weren’t available that week.

Preparing food became an adventure of sorts.

I had to learn purposes of those missing ingredients. Take eggs, for example. Was the egg functioning as a binder, a leavening agent, or both? If it was a binder, then applesauce, squash puree or mashed banana would often work. So would a mixture of corn starch and water. When it’s purpose was to make a cake light and fluffy, vinegar and baking soda… or water, oil and baking soda tended to be more effective. If the eggs were there to bind and to leaven – well then sometimes I’d have to play around and figure out some combination of the above… or something else altogether.

Most of the time, we managed to finagle a happy ending. Or, perhaps more accurately, an edible ending where bellies were full even if we decided the dogs might be more likely to eat the leftovers than we would. Of course, that also depended on just how hungry we were, too! And I learned: Sometimes you make changes because you have absolutely no other choice

Still, I tried, for a very long time – several years, in fact – to keep up with my menu planning/list making/big shopping trip habits. In fact, when I returned to the States for the birth of our youngest, I 4.5 months worth of menus, shopping lists and recipes for my husband to give my house helper.

Then, suddenly, it was like someone flipped a switch. I just couldn’t do all that any more. Maybe I’d lived long enough in that place, been a mama preparing meals for many for long enough… I suddenly realized I no longer need a script. I could improvise. I could go to the stores and the markets with a general list of staples we always tried to keep on hand, see what was there, buy sufficient food for my family, and bring it home having a rough idea of a wide variety of meals that I could possibly prepare. Then, the day before or even the day of, I’d decide what we’d be eating. Our grocery budget decreased, less food was wasted, and my children were more able to get involved in the food prep and kitchen work – so much so that at least three nights a week, different ones were doing the bulk of the cooking. Not only that, they too have learned to look in the fridge, see what is available, and whip up something edible – even if it isn’t gourmet.

Now, the point of telling you all this isn’t just to give some nuts and bolts about how I functioned as the one responsible to feed my family on the backside of the Sahara Desert. Nor is it to imply that one way of grocery shopping/menu planning is better than another. 

I wanted to share because I learned an important lesson.

Sometimes, I venture off into a new season of life, thinking all the things that have worked in the past for me will continue to work in the new season

Often, that is true.

But what about when it isn’t.

Do I continue stubbornly following the same path when I really need to change directions? Even though I may recognize that current procedures and/or policies aren’t the only way, do I consciously or unconsciously consider my way the best… or holiest way? Even if the need to change comes in an area as mundane as how I go about my shopping, why do I hang on to the old when it isn’t working, when something new really would be better?

Sometimes, I really just need to amend my ways and reform my doings to better thrive as I dwell in the land where God has placed me. Sometimes, I need to make a choice to change.


How about you?

 Please share about a way living overseas has provoked change in you – in a way that is as mundane as how you go about your grocery shopping, or in a way that is much more significant.

first photo credit: D-Stanley via photopin cc

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About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. |ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com|
  • Ashley L

    This is great, Richelle! I love the overall message of your post. I have definitely had those “it’s time to change” revelations. I can especially relate with you on menu planning though! My situations is a bit different in that I have tried menu planning and always believed that it must be the best and most efficient way, but for some reason it has never really worked for me for an extended season. I think part of it is personality (I like to create with ingredients and I like to cook based on my mood rather than a plan), but a lot of it is that there are lots of unpredictable factors in my days and menus have a tendency to frustrate. Either we unexpectedly are having guests over and for some reason the planned meal won’t work, or my husband is going to be gone/home when I had expected the opposite, or the kids are needing lots of my energy and I don’t have the time to put into a certain meal, the grocery store was out of a key ingredient (kind of like you mentioned), or I just feel in the mood to make something that wasn’t in the original plan…. I think it was just this summer that I fully embraced the fact that I am not a meal planner and finally stopped feeling bad about it! =) I have discovered so many new meals because of my enjoyment of cooking on the fly… though I rarely measure ingredients so usually can’t repeat anything exactly as it was. Oh well!

    • Richelle Wright

      That’s also part of the flexibility I like about a more generic shopping list, seeing what’s available and what’s on sale and then creating with what I have in the fridge. Way back in the beginning, I wasn’t that confident or that skilled as a cook, though – so all that menu planning did serve its purpose – for a season. And I can hardly ever repeat a recipe either. I made a creamy roasted onion and garlic soup tonight and the kids LOVED it. Unfortunately, it will never taste just that way again. 🙂

      Glad you could relate with the message AND the specific example I used in this post. =)

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Richelle – I love this so much! I remember one Christmas having no butter, no flour, no sugar. I still don’t remember what we did. Or our first night in Egypt when the well-meaning but clueless people who oriented us said “I guess we should have told you this but rice, flour, and sugar are not available – you have to have a government ration card to get them.” I was so tired having flown 20+ hours with 3 under four years old that I just shook my head and thought I need to think about this in the morning. But to your point on insisting on doing it the same – this is such a good question and I ask myself this all the time. How much grief would I be spared if I didn’t insist on doing it my way? Thank you for the great reminder

    • Richelle Wright

      Funny how you don’t remember how you solved your predicament! We always found street food (hot, of course) to be a good alternative when all else failed!

      “My way…” That’s a dangerous mindset and so sneaky to creep into every area of our lives where we aren’t actively defending against it, isn’t it? Any strategies you fall back on to prevent that from happening?

  • AnneJ

    We arrived in Niger for the first time just a month ago. I was used to cooking from scratch, but the lack of veggies at this time has been a tough adjustment!!!

    I see you will soon move to beautiful Quebec. That’s where I’m from and long I go back to! Maybe someday. 🙂

    • Richelle Wright

      You did arrive in Niger right about the same time we did that first time. Thankfully, it did get easier. And just wait until November-ish up until the end of February. I loved going to the market then! Bon courage, Anne!

      We are moving to Quebec next summer – at least that’s the plan. What area are you from? I fell in love with Quebec City when we studied French there and have dreamed about going back. Never thought God would bring it about at this stage of our lives – but I’m excited. =)

      • AnneJisca

        Where in Quebec are you moving to? I’m from Sherbrooke, which is where we were, also, for my husband to learn French! Lord willing, we would love to settle back in Quebec for ministry at some point. My husband is a theology/Bible school teacher. With all my relatives in Quebec unsaved and “catholic”, we feel the burden for that area. Would love to receive your newsletters, if we could! annejisca(at)gmail.com

        • Richelle Wright

          We’ll be in Quebec City. How long is your commitment to Niger? Are you there with SIM? My email is richelle(dot)lynn(dot)wright(at)gmail(dot)com. Would love to continue corresponding with you. =)

  • Loved reading about your cooking from scratch! I, too, had to learn to do a lot of that when we were in Northern Laos. I (mostly) enjoyed it. OK, this is a totally trivial change, but I’m stuck thinking about food now… I had to learn to live without ice cream and nice white wine. And, that was actually much harder than making spagetti sauce from scratch and mixing up cookies with only a wooden spoon.

    • Richelle Wright

      Can you get sweetened condensed milk and whipping cream? If so, I’ve got an ice cream recipe for you that doesn’t require a machine or much work. Or pineapples and fanta/orange soda… that makes a pretty great orange sherbert. 🙂

      On the flip side? I’ve never been a big wine drinker… but I’m just about dying living in the States and not able to get a good, glass bottled W. African Coke… 🙂

  • Lisa

    Yes and agree to all! Landed in Nepal two months ago, and while there are enough expats here to ensure that I can find a few “normal” to me food items, I am so thankful that I already know how to make bread and soup and yogurt and beans and some of the basics….it is totally key..and fun if you like cooking. The extra effort required Is effort however, and depending on the day I am annoyed or happy about making that trip once mor
    e to the local veg stand/ shop/vendor….I’m still a bit lost on ideas since my meal planning at home was pretty consistent and I’m not enough going to try to make most of those things, but that’ small part of the adjustment I guess. Thanks for such a practical “normal life” post…funny enough we’re having French onion soup for supper b.c. I know my kids like it and yes there are certainly onions around!

  • I just stopped trying to make anything I recognized from home. I mean, I grew up learning to make everything from scratch and I can. But cheaper and more efficient is to go to the market with a local friend and then sit in her kitchen and watch her cook, and then go home and try to make it, or at least, make something else out of the same thing, now that I know that these greens are for soup and those are for sauteing etc.

    I make western food when I have a craving, or am homesick, or special occasions, but we usually don’t bother trying to eat like we did at home. It makes things simpler.

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