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Associated Press
Milk and other dairy are important for balanced diets.

Meal times used to be anything but stress-free for Kaleen Jerman, a mother of six from American Fork, Utah.

"I have six kids, and I teach preschool, which are big, full days," Jerman said. "Kids are arriving home from school and need help with assignments, and someone needs a ride to ball practice and oh yeah, very often I would get to wow, its five o'clock and I have no idea what is for dinner."

But then she learned about a stress-free dinner plan that makes her "most important job" of putting a hot meal on the table for her family a lot easier.

The master menu Jerman uses was created by Marie Calder Ricks, a professional organizer and creator of House of Order — a series of books, worksheets and a website (houseoforder.com) full or organizations tips (free registration is required for the menus). Ricks' meal management layout allows women to create a personalized menu of balanced, healthy meals they can prepare for the rest of their lives.

"It's the decision-making process that wears us out," Ricks said. "It isn't that we are stressed about cooking, it is the decision-making process and having the resources on hand to cook easily and efficiently."

Once Ricks implemented the master menu into her own life, the Highland mother of five said the time she had to do other things besides cooking significantly increased.

By creating your own master menu, you'll not only know what you're making for dinner, but also what to buy when you go grocery shopping.

Main dish

The first step in creating your menu is to pick seven types of meals you generally prepare, for example Mexican, Italian, beef, poultry, soup, easy and quick meals.

Now, assign one type to each day of the week. If your Mondays are generally busy, you may want to assign the quick type of meal to Monday; if your Saturdays are lazy, you may want to assign the easy type of meal to Saturday, etc.

According to how you assigned your meal types, you'll now have quick meals every Monday, Mexican food every Tuesday, beef dishes every Wednesday, etc.

"I love just being able to think that today is chicken day and then going with what is on the menu or subbing in some new recipe I want to try," Jerman said.

It makes life easier to have an idea for dinner and be able to take meat out of the freezer or start planning ahead in the morning, she said.

To continue with the master menu, pick four main dishes for each type of food. For example, if you chose Mexican food for Tuesdays, pick four Mexican main dishes, such as tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas and burritos. If you do this for each day of the week per each type of food, you will have come up with 28 meals.

"I don't think it's repetitive at all," Jerman said. "I've read somewhere a lot of us use the same eight to 10 basic recipes over and over, so to me, 28 sounds good."

She said a way to mix it up is to focus on the fact that the day is Italian day and then chose from a variety of Italian recipes rather than rotating between two or three recipes.

Bread

Now, you've got the main course planned, so it's time to fill in the gaps with side dishes; having a healthy amount of a grain product is a good way to do that. But this time, we don't need 28 items, just seven.

The best way to choose what bread to go with your meals is to look at what food types you assigned for each day of the week. Then, you can decide what type of bread goes with the main dishes you planned. For example, say Italian food is for Fridays. What four Italian dishes did you pick? Spaghetti? Lasagna? Pizza? Breadsticks go with each of these. Assign breadsticks to your Fridays. Think cornbread could go with your Mexican main dishes? Label cornbread for Mondays. Do this for each day of the week.

Jennifer Ricks, the daughter-in-law of Marie Ricks and mother of one, said she doesn't use the master menu yet but has incorporated some of the layout into her life already.

Planning ahead really is important, she said, even if its just mixing up the cornbread in the morning so she doesn't have to worry about it again until dinnertime.

Fruit and Veggies

Eating fruits and vegetables is a sure way to stay healthy, but it isn't something most people tend to do enough of.

"I found that most people eat the same seven or so vegetables and the same seven or so fruits every single week for their whole lives," said Ricks, the creator of the master menu. "So why not always have corn on Tuesday?"

Think of seven fruits and seven vegetables, and assign one to each day of the week. You may want to coordinate with whatever food genre that day of the week is. For example, serve corn with Mexican meals and salad with Italian entrees.

"Foods that are repetitively served, especially if they are liked, become comfort foods, and they reduce the stress in a family's life," Ricks said.

So far, your menu should have four main dishes planned for each day of the week, each including a type of bread, vegetable and fruit to go with it.

"Fresh vegetables are very, very important in our diet," Ricks said. "I suggest you experiment to find just the right amount for your master menu, and even if you have to spend a little bit more to get smaller quantities."

Dairy

The last food group you need to assign for each day of the week to keep your meals balanced is a dairy product. Again, like fruits and vegetables, assign a dairy product to each day of the week, coordinating with whatever main dishes you've planned. For example, cheese and sour cream go well with Mexican food, cottage cheese with Italian food and yogurt with breakfast food.

"There are five different kinds of food that should be on the table to be nutritionally balanced," Ricks said. "There needs to be a fruit and a vegetable, a bread, a milk and a protein. And if they do that reasonably consistently, no one is going to die."

Planning a master menu not only allows you to be stress-free when grocery shopping or when dinnertime is near, but it creates a mealtime tradition of enjoying a delicious dish with the ones you love.

"There is a feeling of unification, tradition and celebration with even the simplest meals that are shared together," Ricks said. "Those are precious moments of communion that cannot be ignored."

Jerman said the master menu has helped her transform, as well.

"I've gone from being the mom at five o'clock who started thumbing through recipes to knowing in the morning what dinner was going to be that night and being able to work on it in advance if I need to, even its just getting meat out of the freezer," Jerman said. "I think it is super important to get the family together and be able to sit and visit, and I think a good meal encourages that, especially if its a hot meal that mom cooked."

Keri L. Stevens is a reporter and editor at the Daily Universe in Provo. After learning about the master menu, she incorporated it into her own life.