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.