Who can imagine summer without summer food? Steaming corn-on-the-cob, each kernel bursting with sweet flavor. Burgers and barbecue. Ice cream sundaes. The crisp red smile of a watermelon wedge, dripping with sweet juice.
There's a darker side to summer meals. Food budgets groan under the strain of substituting quick-cook steaks and chicken breasts for thrifty stove-top casseroles.
Ravenous children make the refrigerator door thump-thump-thump like a dog's tail. Catch-as-catch-can mealtimes, eaten on the run, substitute convenience for nutritional value.
What's a summer cook to do?
With creative meal planning strategies, summer doesn't have to bust the food budget, toss nutrition to the winds, or reduce the family chef to a melted, quivering puddle reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Try these suggestions for simpler, cooler, more nutritious summer meals.
Plan your work and work your plan
Basic menu planning is useful in every season. Don't know how? Simple. Start with the weekly food sections and a half-hour of time (coffee optional). On a 3-by-5 index card, turned longways, note your supermarket's weekly specials.
Flip the card over, and list each day of the coming week. Take a moment and think about your calendar. No sense planning an elaborate gourmet meal when it's your day to work Cub Scout Day Camp!
Using the week's specials, match simple entrees with busy days, more elaborate meals with at-home evenings.
Pencil your choices next to each day, and go about your shopping—but don't finalize your menu plan until you get home. Who knows when the Great Grocery Gurus will send a beautiful bit of salmon or a mega-bargain on boneless chicken breasts your way?
Once home, match the food you bought with the food you've planned, and ink in the coming week's menus. Check pantry and vegetable crisper for salad and side dish components ... and relax!
For a final, sure-fire bit of motivation, post your menu plan prominently on the refrigerator door. Nothing like knowing the family is drooling for tonight's microwaved meatloaf to energize a reluctant cook!
Use everything but the oven
In summer, wedding-gift appliances earn their storage space. A rice steamer makes perfect rice, every time, with no excess heat to fog your kitchen. Spicy chili in the crockery slow-cooker is a super ending to a day at the park.
A pressure cooker can prepare family favorites in a fraction of the time—or kitchen temperature—needed by an oven. Hot bread from an automatic bread machine makes a light summer meal more substantial.
Finally, take a tip from our Southern friends, and cook chickens, roasts, or stews in a portable roaster, outside on the porch!
Make use of the microwave
Everyone knows that you can pop your Orville Redenbacher's in the microwave oven, but did you know that this versatile appliance can bake potatoes, cook a roast, or bake the moistest cake you've ever tasted?
Dig out the recipe book that came with your microwave and try a new technique.
The microwave's speed makes it a natural for summer cooking, and it won't overheat the kitchen—or the cook!
Enjoy summer's bounty
Children, even dyed-in-the-wool vegetable haters, love choosing dinner from vegetable gardens or roadside produce stands.
Serve a vegetable meal, with corn-on-the-cob, sliced tomatoes, and washed raw vegetables. Don't forget the fat-free ranch dressing for dipping!
When you do cook, make it count
Firing up the gas grill? Don't stop with just tonight's entree of barbecued chicken breasts. Add several more pieces and hold the barbecue sauce.
Next night, serve half of the chicken shredded, over salad, and add dressing made from walnut oil and raspberry vinegar. The following night, reheat the remaining chicken, shredded, with salsa, crushed garlic, a squeeze of lime juice and a dash of oregano, and serve delicious chicken fajitas, wrapped in steaming flour tortillas. Cook once, but plan to eat at least three times.
Even die-hard non-cooking spouses have an elemental attraction to the open flame, signified in our society by the barbecue grill. Let them at it!
Add vegetable kabobs and foil-wrapped corn-on-the cob to the evening's grilled entree for the full, flame-kissed experience.
Pick a packet
Children can help, too. School-aged children enjoy making packet dinners to cook over the grill.
For each family member, place a square of heavy-duty aluminum foil on the counter.
Peel a potato, then use the potato peeler to shave about half an inch of thin-sliced potato in a burger-sized round on top of each square of foil. Sprinkle the potato with pepper and a shake of dehydrated onions.
Shape ground beef into a thin patty, and place on top of the potato mixture. Top the patty with another half-inch of potato, some more pepper and dehydrated onion.
To enclose the packet, bring two sides of the tinfoil together and fold down at least three times. Do the same with each open end.
Grill for about 45 minutes over a medium heat, turning each packet once. A real child pleaser, packet dinners give the cook the night off!
Pre-pack a picnic basket
An organized home manager outfits a picnic basket with tablecloth, napkins, disposable plates and utensils and lots of plastic cups.
Add a can opener and some serving spoons, and include wheat crackers, and firm cookies like animal crackers.
Keep it in the car trunk, next to your ice chest. Next time it's dinner at the soccer field, toss peeled, washed veggies from the vegetable bin, the bottle of fat-free dressing, a can of barbecued beans, fruit, and sliced cheese into the basket, and go.
Take that, Colonel Sanders!
Does your freezer contain some of those marvelous, plastic-gel coolers? It should. A jug of iced decaffeinated tea or fruit juice, snuggled up against a gel cooler or two inside your auto-trunk ice chest quenches thirst without the calories and caffeine—not to mention expense—of fast-food sodas.
Consider, too, outfitting each family member with personalized plastic water bottles. Stored in the refrigerator, they'll help keep water consumption up, and they're easy to grab on the way out the door.
Outfit your car for summer
A summer auto survival kit makes it easy to enjoy the season.
An empty, lightweight ice chest is invaluable for bringing frozen groceries home from the supermarket.
Add a jug of water and a stack of washcloths or cleaning cloths in a plastic bag, and you can handle sticky hands and sandy faces anywhere.
Most of all, enjoy the summer fun. Say "yes" to your children, whether it's Ice Cream Sundaes for Dinner or Can We Have A Lemonade Stand?
Summer is a time for making memories. With a little planning and preparation, the organized home manager can create golden days that will light a child's mind for life.