The Weekly Menu

The quick answer:  A weekly menu will save money, reduce waste, improve your diet, and protect your family’s health.  Failing to plan (by writing a menu), is planning to fail.


Order and Chaos

Savvy housewives and busy executives know what to do when the chaos of life threatens to overwhelm:  Make a “to do” list.  There’s something comforting about just writing it all down.  If the written list is impossibly long, take the next step:  Prioritize.  Lists—whether written on a Big Five pad with a #2 wooden pencil, or spoken into the latest smart phone—protect us from the chaos of life. 

In our home the essential lists are the daily “to do” note and the weekly menu.  We’re not perfect, but when we slip we suffer the consequences.  Everyone knows what happens when there’s no menu—you fall back on fast food or factory foods.  One reader revealed the family fare if there wasn’t a menu: take-out pizza, Mac ‘n Cheese, or Top Ramen.

If you want to eat healthy—it’s essential to write a weekly menu.  That’s sufficient reason to make writing a weekly menu our #3 Healthy Change.

 Five Menu Steps

  1. Invite requests.  To convert the family to healthy eating, get them involved.  There’s power in participation.  If they don’t give input, they can’t complain about the outcome.  
  2. Make menu writing a ritual.  Set a time, like Saturday morning.  Use routine to simplify, like a theme for each day of the week.  (Examples: Mexican on Monday, pasta on Tuesday, soup on Wednesday, fish on Thursday, or a roast on Sunday.)  Having a baking day each week is another helpful ritual.
  3. Check your inventory.  The two most wasted foods are fresh meat and produce.  So note what’s about to go bad in the refrigerator.  Then check the freezer—the biggest problem with frozen food is maintaining turnover.  Finally, check the pantry.  Last time we cleaned the pantry we were amazed at how much food was past the “use by” date. 
  4. Compose the menu.  Check past menus for ideas.  Newspapers or food blogs feature seasonal foods (the time when they’re cheapest).  Some cooks have one day to try new recipes.  Post the menu for all to see.
  5. Make a shopping list.  We’ll talk more about shopping lists next quarter, but a menu-based shopping list saves money and trips to the store.

Menu History

The classic cookbook of the late 19th century was the Fanny Farmer 1896 Cook Book.  The book, still in print, is a snapshot of food tradition in the late 1800s.  Menus are based on whole foods—there was little processed food available (refined flour was a recent innovation). 

What did a typical dinner look like in 1896?  It was a substantial meal: soup, a meat dish, some form of potato, two vegetables, finished with a cooked dessert.  Cooking was a big job in those days.  The book includes instructions on how to build a fire and bring your stove to cooking temperature—no easy task.

There’s an important point here:  Cooking is a lot easier now—but we shouldn’t make it too easy.  The big mistake of the 20th century was too much convenience in the form of easy-to-serve factory and fast foods.  You must remember this: If you want to be healthy you have to cook, or be on good terms with a cook.

Per W of W Living, what might the 21st century diet look like?  First of all, there’s a lot less of meat and potatoes. There would still be 2-3 servings of vegetables, but in a variety of colors reflecting our longer seasons, with just an occasional potato.  There would be more seafood, often served with salad, plus meat and cheese would be used more to garnish vegetables.  Any bread or pasta would be whole grain, and fruit would be the most common dessert. 

That’s the 21st century W of W menu:  A variety of vegetables with a little meat or cheese to add flavor, whole grain pasta or bread, and mostly fruit for dessert.  It’s a fraction of the work that Fanny Farmer (or their maids) had to do, but it’s definitely healthier.

Please comment: Sometimes we get busy and fail to write a menu, but then we realize life is less hectic when we do the planning step of weekly menu preparation.  Got a favorite way to write menus?  Tell us about it, or share one of your favorite meals.  In the next post we’ll share our menu for this week. 

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Reader Comments (10)

I like the suggestion to "invite requests". I cook for a family of 6, including 4 young sons (5 and under, there are twins in the middle) and the other day when my husband and I were making the weekly meal plan I asked them what they wanted to eat and the older three all said that their favorite dinner was chili. I was so surprised, but they really do love chili! They sure get a heapful of beans and vegetables and they really love it. I thought I was going to get the same old answers kids give: pizza, mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, etc. But chili with "dinner cake" (cornbread) is the favorite.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I have a menu paper I keep in the front of my recipe binder. It lists my favorite meals in different categories: Meat and Potatoes, Mexican, Asian, Pasta, Casserole, Vegetarian, and Other. I don't have each category assigned to a specific day, but I try to have a recipe from each category each week, plus one night for leftovers.

Last week we had
Sun: Leftovers (burritos, so Mexican)
Mon: Spaghetti (Pasta)
Tues: Sweet and Sour Meatballs (Asian)
Wed: Salad (Vegetarian was an option, but so was bacon)
Thurs: Chili and Cornbread (Mexican again)
Friday: Breakfast Burritos (Other)
Saturday: Macaroni and Cheese (another Pasta)

As you can see, I'm not very strict on having repeats of different cuisines. I do like to keep my schedule flexible. Hardly a week goes by that I don't cross out one dinner on my calendar or switch it with another night. I keep my calendar on the fridge, and it's very handy to look over the past few weeks to make sure I'm not having mac and cheese again the third week in a row.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie B

I have only been good about meal planning for a few months now but it makes all the difference! Having a plan makes meal time so much less stressful, and I always have leftovers for my husband the next day.

I like to try new recipes each week so my favorite way to make meal plans is to set aside a little time each week to look through pinterest, my google reader with food blogs, and foodgawker. I pick five meals and make a printable shopping list and print it out. I try to do this at least a day before I plan to go grocery shopping so I don't feel rushed.

I share my meals plans at my relatively new blog rainbowdelicious.com

I agree, too much convenience in the kitchen is not a good thing, but it definitely is the norm.

The other night I made a wonderful dessert that the whole family loved: healthy apple crisp. I used to make it a lot with oats, but try to only eat oats now when they have been soaked, because of the phytates. So, I adapted my old recipe a bit. Here it is:

4 apples (I used fuji) peeled and chopped
1/2 c. finely chopped pecans
1/4 c. unsweetened shredded coconut
1 t. cinnamon
3 T. melted butter
3 T. maple syrup

Spread the apples in a baking dish and mix the remaining ingredients together and spread on top. Bake at 325 for about 25 minutes. I served it with whipped cream sweetened with maple syrup.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Yes, I love the theme nights, too. And I also polled the family for their favorites from our theme nights. But my best tip for menu planning is Google Calendar. I have a separate calendar color for the menu, and I have it repeat any given dinner plan every 5 or 6 weeks (you could definitely repeat more often). This way, when I face a new week full of hungry people, there is already a menu there. It has taken a lot of tweaking (like I don't really enjoy red enchiladas the night after lasagna) but it's really becoming a work of art, and I love the readiness of it now.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

I have been meal planning for over a year now. It started for financial reasons. My husband and I have been married for 3 years now and grocery shopping used to consist of us going up and down each isle just grabbing whatever looked good (like I did all through college). Often when lunchtime came it seemed like there wasn't any food in the house, so we'd go out to eat. When we realized how much we were spending on food I decided I needed to shop with a purpose - and set a budget. Making a menu and corresponding shopping list has definitely helped the wallet, and we eat healthier. We almost never bought fresh produce while "isle" shopping. It's so much cheaper than anything in a box or can that now that's what half of the shopping cart consists of. Now we eat out for special occasions only, and our regular home meals are filling and healthy and when mealtime comes I'm not like,"AAHHH! What is there to eat?!"

January 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHollie

I got so excited writing about the why of the menu I forgot the how. I'm not very decisive and planning the menu took me forever. So I wrote all the meals we like to have on pieces of paper, put them in a jar, and when it's time to plan the menu I just pick papers out of the jar. Fast and easy. If I don't like something I picked for whatever reason, just set it aside and pick again. When we find something new we like, add it to the jar.

January 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHollie

Hollie, your "pick from the jar" method of deciding what's for dinner is a clever escape from having to choose. It makes me laugh. Did you ever play "spin the bottle" when you were younger? Just kidding.

January 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I have 5 children left living at home. Each child is assigned a day of the week. They get to choose the meal for that day (with some Mom guidance) and then they are also in charge of helping to cook that day. I figure if they help plan it, they will be more excited about learning to cook it and eating it. It takes dedication on my end, but the end result is worth it.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShantell

In reading this post I was reminded of a past article you wrote Skip, that made reference to a shopping list your daughter made. I LOVE the layout and use it often! Here is a link for those who missed it:

This past fall I had an idea for a Christmas present I wanted to give my sisters, cousins and mom. A personalized shopping list using the same general design your daughter created. I asked a design savvy friend to help me make it pretty then made them each their own notepad to stick to the fridge. Here's the link to the modified design for those who, again, might be interested:

P.S. At the end of the day, I think I may stick with your daughters original design because I need all the extra writing space I can get. :)

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElisa

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