Menu Mama

Do you remember what you made your son for his 16th birthday dinner? Can you recall the meal you prepared for your fifth wedding anniversary?
Lori Culp of Belden can. And it’s not because she has a fantastic memory.
For the almost 24 years she’s been married, Culp has kept spiral notebooks filled with her family’s weekly menu plans.
“What started out as a good idea has become some sort of historical record I didn’t intend,” Culp said as she thumbed through a notebook from the 1990s.
The early days of notebooks are not only filled with menus, but also phone numbers, random recipes and everyday notes, like, ‘Out walking the dog’ scribbled on a page.
“The current notebook always stays in the drawer with the phone book, so there are sometimes phone numbers and to-do lists included on the pages,” she said. “But those are mostly from the early days. Now, it’s mostly menus.”
The idea to keep the menus written in a notebook came early in her marriage.
When Culp and her husband, Rick, were newlyweds, he’d come home from work each evening only to be greeted by her with the age-old question: What do you want for dinner tonight?
“One day, Rick came home and said, ‘I don’t want to come home every day and have to figure out what we’re having for dinner.’ Then, he told me how his mother used to plan her menus out a month at a time,” said Culp, 47.
Turns out Rick was an Army brat and he grew up on military bases. His mother only got to the PX every so often for groceries. Plus, Lori said, her mother-in-law hated to shop.
“So I went and I purchased a spiral notebook and got started,” said Culp, a stay-at-home mom. “I don’t know what’s made me keep them all these years.”

What year was that?
On Monday evenings, you won’t find Culp on the couch with her feet propped up watching TV.
Rather, she’ll be at the kitchen table with three or four cookbooks, the Kroger ad from Wednesday’s newspaper, an old envelope she’ll make her list on and tuck coupons inside of, and, of course, the notebook.
“We eat what’s on sale and what’s in season, and what’s in season is usually what’s on sale,” Culp said. “It’s fresher and less expensive. Plus, it just doesn’t feel right to eat chili in the summer.”
Each week, Culp plans menus around chicken, fish or seafood, beef, pork, meatless entrees and leftovers. Then she shops on Tuesdays.
“I used to always do a meat, a starch and a vegetable,” she said. “As we’ve gotten more health-conscious, it’s now a meat and two vegetables. A lot of times we have a hearty soup, like minestrone.”
The “we” includes the Culps’ sons, Richmond, 20, and Ryan, 18; and 5-year-old Hannah Ruth.
There are no dates on most of the notebooks. Culp can usually tell the year by which boy was playing what seasonal sport, or from an age included with a birthday menu.
“You kind of have to do some detective work to figure it out,” she said.
Culp came across a menu for a meal she had prepared for some Zambian missionaries: rosemary pinwheels, leg of lamb, spinach and artichoke casserole, baby carrots, fresh pineapple, French bread and iced tea.
But to figure out what year that was, she flipped back a dozen or so pages and found her anniversary menu. Turns out, it was her 17th, which was six years ago, which means she served the missionaries in 2004.
“My family thinks this is normal,” she said of the notebooks. “They’re used to these. What they have learned over the years though is that not all moms cook.”

Leftovers play role
A recent weekly menu looked something like this:
Monday: Salmon in papillote with orzo, pesto, black olives and fresh tomatoes.
Tuesday: Pizza (Rick out of town).
Wednesday: Leftover red beans and rice from the previous week.
Thursday: Spiced pork tenderloin with sautéed apples, mashed potatoes and green tomatoes with Indian spices.
Friday: Spaghetti and meatballs for the kids, date night for the adults.
Saturday: Chicken and rice, maple-sage glazed turnips.
Sunday: Asian pot roast, brown rice, bok choy, fresh pineapple and rolls.
“Part of the planning is planning for leftovers,” Culp said. “Rick takes leftovers to work every day for lunch. He’s my biggest fan. He thinks everything I make is fabulous.”
Every Monday, as Culp is making her list, she asks the different family members if anyone has a meal preference. Most of the time, they don’t.
“I wish they did,” she said. “That would at least give me a place to start.”
And what happens when the family gets invited out to dinner or stays on the ballfield longer than expected?
“When something comes up, the stuff I have that’s fresh gets moved up and anything frozen can fall over to the next week. You may see the same meal on three consecutive weeks. That’s what’s happened there. Because always, there’s something that comes up.”
Culp admits one of the reasons she does the weekly menu planning is to save money. But that’s not the only reason.
“For me the bottom line is I don’t ever have to come home and say, ‘What are we going to eat tonight?’ because it’s already written down,” she said. “That’s one less thing on my ‘what’s-going-to-happen-next’ list.”

Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal