Monday
Jan162012

The Weekly Menu

The quick answer:  To improve health and happiness, write a weekly menu and shopping list.

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I’ve Never Been Happier

Two women, friends who had not seen each other for many years, sat down to a leisurely breakfast at a lovely restaurant overlooking the ocean.  It was a warm, sunny Saturday morning.  They admired the view, talked about the happenings in their separate lives, and caught up on shared friends.  I came late to the meal—was really only there to pick up the bill.  As they said their good-byes, the older lady said something I won’t soon forget:  “I’ve never been happier in my life than I am now.” 

Why is her statement so memorable?  She is dying—painfully—of cancer. 

She had previously sold the home where she and her deceased, husband reared their children, packed what she could fit into a few suitcases, and come to live by the beach.  Her apartment is small and simply furnished, plain enough to suit Thoreau, though it does have a lovely view of Catalina Island.  Her plan, it seems to me, is to sit by the sea in the warmth of the sun, compose music (her avocation), and await her passing. 

So I’ve thought about her words, and how we can find joy through living in harmony with our truest values.  There's a hint here, I think, about changes all of us might consider.  It requires that we listen more to the voices within.

The Voices Without

Food Inc. spends over $30 billions annually to get us to buy their food-like concoctions.  Why do they spend so much?  Because it works.  Humans, the researchers say, fuss over the infrequent decisions in their lives, like what car to buy.  But we tend to outsource the simple, daily decisions, like what to eat, to the culture around us.  We just find it easier to go with the flow. 

A century ago, in 1911, a food that people had used forever, lard, was driven from the market by a massive well-organized advertising campaign.  The campaign promoted Crisco as the modern replacement and suggested that those who resisted weren’t “progressive.”  It was a very successful campaign.  Crisco turned out to be a terrible mistake, but it would take a century to assemble the proof and convince the public. 

Food companies didn’t miss the lesson of Crisco's market launch:  You could sell almost anything with a skillfully done advertising campaign.  This seems arrogant, but we know from sad experience that it works.  Imitation food products continued to replace traditional foods all through the 20th century.  Clever advertising created a new food culture:  the modern American diet (MAD). 

One purpose of our 52 Healthy Changes is to restore real food to the American dietary.  We must tune out the siren song from the billions spent on advertising and quietly rediscover olden ways.  To regain conscious control of our daily food decisions we turn to the simplest of tools—the weekly menu. 

Weekly Menus

Few people write regular menus.  A basic menu, covering four or five dinners, plus, perhaps, Sunday supper will simplify your life.  The few minutes it takes to write a weekly menu will free you from the frantic scramble to come up with something for dinner.  If you use a menu, you’ll throw out less spoiled food.  If you make a shopping list part of your menu plan, you’ll reduce shopping trips, saving time and money.  If you save old menus and organize them in a binder by season, your life will be even simpler next year.

The popular blog Inchmark is written by our daughter Brooke.  Brooke wrote a great post on grocery lists and provided an editable menu planner and grocery list.

Five Steps for Menu Writing

Here are five steps that work for us in menu planning:

  1. Set aside a regular time for menu writing.  Consult the family the night before to get their requests.  Involving them in planning builds family support for the outcome. 
  2. Check your inventory.  We look in the refrigerator for food that might spoil, in the freezer to see what needs turnover, and in the pantry for ideas.
  3. Write down your meal ideas with links to recipes. 
  4. Review the menu for needed ingredients and write a shopping list.  In our best weeks, using a menu-driven shopping list, we only need to shop twice.
  5. Share the menu with the family and save it in a binder.  Keep a blank menu in the binder as a place to collect ideas for next week. 

In the first two weeks the Healthy Changes were aimed at reducing sugar intake and eliminating hydrogenated trans fats.  This week’s Healthy Change is designed to protect you from impulse buying and the hassle of last minute shopping. 

Please comment:  How do you write healthy menus and simply grocery shopping?

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (24)

I write a menu, but it is usually for every two weeks. I don't always do all the shopping at once, as fresh produce won't last the whole two weeks. I find that when I really stick to writing the menu and following it, we spend less money and eat healthier. What I need to do now is set up a baking day each week so I don't run to the store to get bread for the kids' lunches at the last minute.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

To help with mean planning, my husband and I assigned each day of the week a theme.
Monday : Meatless
Tuesday: Themed (Mexican, Chinese, Indian)
Wednesday: Water (Fish)
Thursday: Chicken
Friday: Pizza/Italian
Saturday: Scraps (leftovers)
Sunday: Splurge (Nice sit down meal)

It's easier to plan a dinner, when I know that every Wednesday is going to be a fish dish or every Monday is a vegetarian meal.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

Karen, that's a great idea! I think I'm going to have to adopt that one.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I love Karen's idea!

On Sunday nights I sit down with coupons, recipes, and the weekly circulars for local grocery stores. I plan out my menus and where to buy what according to what is on sale in whichever grocery store. It works great! I used to shop on Mondays, but I've since changed it to Tuesdays. I feel like there's much better produce then and less people at the stores!

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRik

I love to get out cookbooks when I meal plan and challenge myself to try at least one new recipe a week. If I physically write the title of a new recipe on my meal plan and shop ahead of time for the necessary ingredients, I'm more likely to try something new. Last time it was Skip's Bacon Potato Soup - and it was a big hit!

You've already addressed this on your blog - but soup is a staple for our family. I make a big pot of one our favorite soups at least once a week and it lasts over a few meals!

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZane

I'm a total believer in planning out a menu. I also have a "theme" for each night although I don't know if anyone in the family realizes it . Menu planning helps me to balance out the meals for the week and get a variety. I have lots of recipes flagged in my cookbooks and I try to add a new recipe each week. The best reason for menu planning for me is that our nights are so crazy with little kids that if I don't have a plan and the ingredients in place then we break all kinds of healthy habits.

Thanks for this great blog!

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie

I hate menu planning and grocery shopping, so I want to do it as little as possible. I find planning a monthly menu works well for me. Usually included in this are items for our weekend breakfasts, where I often make something more interesting than on the weekdays. I used to do a two-week menu and occasionally would shop for three weeks at a time as well. I noticed that I spent the same amount shopping for three weeks as I did for two, so figured I'd try extending this to four weeks. I shop for non-perishables (or things I can freeze) for the entire month then go back weekly for produce and milk. I try to plan items early in the week that will make leftovers, which we eat for lunch the next day (or two). We try to keep tabs on our meat consumption (one or two meat meals per week), which I find easy to do if I'm planning the whole month at once. Like Zane, I pull out the cookbooks or pull up some online recipe sites and try to find several new recipes to try each month.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

What a beautiful story. I think I might know that lady:) It was nice to visit her and meet you as well. As a family we feel so grateful knowing that she is surrounded by loving people. Of course we will love coming to visit her as often as possible. what a wonderful placel!!!

Menu planning is a great idea! My neighbor put together a 2-week shopping list complete with menus and sent it to me. My kids have been amazed at all the great meals we've been having lately--which just proves that the menu system is much better than what I was doing (wingin' it every night) I do add my own style to it which is--to start the meal with a vegetable and end with a fruit. Tonight we had salad, sticky chicken, and baked sweet potato fries with pears and berries for dessert. I'm excited to check out your daughter's blog for more menu ideas. Thanks!!

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLC

I think that this is one of the hardest things for me to do. I love Karen's idea and I think that maybe this is a way that I can plan a menu. I do have to say that if I don't have meal ideas in mind when I go to the store I just buy some stuff and then when I get home I look at my fridge and think there is nothing to eat. Then I end up going and getting pizza or fixing mac &cheese or ramen noodles for my kids. I know that this is a healthy change that I need to make for me and my family. Thanks for the post.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda A.

Thanks all for the excellent suggestions on meal planning and shopping:

Laura--writes menus for two weeks at a time. Erin writes a month of menus.

Karen--have a theme for each night of the week, including leftover night.

Rik--gathers coupons and lists of what's on sale for use in menu writing.

Zane--makes soups a staple in menu writing. The position of this blog is it doesn't cost more to eat healthy, even before you consider the medical costs of the MAD diet. Homemade soups are tasty, healthy, and a great value.

LC--It was nice to meet you also, though I didn't realize I was meeting the "LC" who regularly comments on this blog. Sorry for the lack of time to visit, but you'll be back.

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

My blog started unfocused and when I pared it down, I realized the one thing that was working, on and off line, was the menu planning. It has saved us money every month (because things don't go bad because I know what I'm doing with them) and saves me time every day. It has illuminated patterns for me that I was or would have been slow to realize otherwise (eg, on Wednesdays, I'm tired from work, the kids have an activity, and a meal from the freezer or slow cooker is the only way to avoid takeout and have dinner on the table before 7pm). I resisted for a long time--"who knows what I'll feel like eating on Thursday?"--but really--the fact is, I know what I like and it's really convenient to have it all in one spot, online.
I also review recipes I try and keep links to my favorites there so when I'm casting about for inspiration, I really can just read the "Recipes That Worked" list, click over to the recipe, and make the shopping list.
"Life changing" is a little strong but it was a game-changer for our family's nighttimes. I highly recommend adopting some form of it, and in blog format, even if it's something you'd never share with the public. My relief every day that at least I've done the thought-work and shopping for dinner is still huge.

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMemeGRL

I love menu planning. I've done it ever since getting married because it seemed like the best way to know exactly what to get from the grocery store to stay within a reasonable grocery budget. I pull out all my cookbooks (collected over the years), and I keep an eye on the wall next to my computer where all of last year's healthy challenges are posted. It's been worth it to keep the menu planning habit, especially as I've been eating healthier.

My parents and some of my siblings have noticed that I work hard on a healthy menu and am seeing results in my health so they asked if they could have a copy of my menu plan. I don't know if they're using it but I post it (rillsmenu.blogspot.com) for them every week. I decided it would be one of my new year's resolutions to help others as I have been helped by WOWL.

Thanks skip! ^_^

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRill

In support of menu writing, I'm repeating the URL for Rill's and Meme's menu blogs:

Meme is at--http://memegrl.blogspot.com/

Rill can be found here--http://rillsmenu.blogspot.com/

We'll return to the subject of men writing, and shopping lists, two more times this year. By the end of the year we'll make a menu and shopping list format based on everyone's best ideas. It's not quite the creation of the world, but it does bring order out of the household chaos.

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

We got a white board that is made for writing in the days of the month. So there are 5 rows of seven blocks each. Instead of using it for the month, we use the top row for a week of breakfasts, the second row for lunches, the third row for suppers, the fourth row for meal ideas for the next week (if an idea strikes us early) and the last row for the grocery list. The white board hangs in my pantry right next to the fridge, so I can easily see what we already have when making the grocery list. I also hang the store flyers on the bottom of the white board so I can plan my meals around what produce is on sale.
As for choosing what to put on the menu, we set aside Saturday evening to make our weekly menu. We look at our pantry and fridge to see if there is anything we need to use up. We have a stack of cookbooks we will occasionally thumb through looking for new ideas. But one of my favorite places to get meal ideas is on Facebook. I started a group called "What's for Dinner?" and invited all my friends to join. Every night we just post what we had for dinner. So each week when I make my menu, I look through that week's posts to see what everyone else is eating to get ideas. It's worked out really well. People can invite their friends to join too, so now there are about 145 members. When people try out new recipes you can get their opinion of it before trying it yourself. You can post your old favorite "standbys" for others to try. It's great! I know we've certainly tried a lot of new things since the group started.

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

It's funny, but I know that creating a menu can save me time and money, but for sheer laziness, I forgo it. I think not only are we slaves to convenient foods, but I think we also think that we need all this variety in our lives. It's one of the reasons I gave up creating menus. I couldn't think of anything new to make week after week. No one likes to eat leftovers, which were a staple for me in my single parent home. I ate cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch everyday growing up. But now as a mom, I feel like I have to keep it fresh and spice it up everyday for my family. Does anyone else feel similar?

January 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTequitia

Tequitia, there is a quiet revolution in how we get groceries. Costco and other big box stores offer basic groceries at very low prices. Health stores like Whole Foods offer local produce and healthy versions of many foods at a fair price. On Saturdays we have farmers' markets. And Trader Joe's offers better-tasting low-cost versions of big brand foods.

The supermarket is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Their defense seems two-pronged: offer more convenience, like a Starbucks, and deli foods, and more variety. I counted the number of items in the produce section of my supermarket and got over 250. I probably only buy two dozen or so of these items. We don't need all this variety.

One key to healthy eating is to value simplicity. It's OK to eat leftovers. It's OK to eat the same breakfast several days a week. And it's OK to make enough of tasty, healthy dishes to eat it for several days, and then for lunch. We don't have to be Thoreau at Walden Pond, we can find beauty and comfort in our own homes by turning back to a simpler way of living.

I hope other readers will comment.

January 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I love this healthy change, as I always need this reminder. I love the structure and simplicity of my week when I write out a menu on Sunday night. When I get lazy, or busy, or just unmotivated and don't do it, I definitely feel the frantic anxiety of what to make each night for my four hungry boys. I like what skip said about simplicity because that is what I have embraced in my meals. My kids and husband truly don't mind repetition, and I find that having one or two that I make every week (usually with some little variation) makes it less intimidating when meal planning than thinking I have to find seven new, amazing meals each week. I'll usually repeat some version of roasted veggies (plus quinoa, rice, etc) and some version of a pasta dish each week.

January 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolli

Hmmm, I have made a rod for my back by raising children that love ALL foods. They argue about who should get the last brussel sprouts, they BEG for broad beans and my son's favourite food is sardines. My little girl tells me it is her "best day ever" when I made green beans. However, they have this insane idea that they should be able to rotate their favourite foods constantly so they never eat the same thing twice (Weetbix for breakfast seems to be the exception to this rule thankfully). If I even think of making the same thing twice in a week they panic. I'm sure part of it is because at school they have been told they need all the food groups in every meal, and to have a large variety of foods in their diet. Personally, I think this is rubbish, but I'm out voted. At the moment I have everyone cook dinner one day a week just so they can see the effort it takes to make healthy food in the hope that they will come around to my idea about eating (deliberate) leftovers. My grandparents ate the same thing every day, year round and it did not hurt them (meat, potato and 2 vege for dinner, soup and a roll for lunch and bacon and eggs for breakfast)

January 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzy

I've done the menu planning thing when I had small children and was at home all day. Lots of good wholesome meals with very little 'convenience foods'. I remember one time my kids asking if they could have 'real' bread ie that bought from the store rather than homemade! Somewhere along the line they got older, mealtimes got more flexible and I started back to work so menu planning went out the window. Now I am retired and there is just my husband and I at home so I am trying to get back to the menu planning but at the moment am doing it in reverse ie writing down what we have eaten each day for lunch and dinner (I have the same breakfast every day, it's healthy and saves time). This is concentrating my mind on what we eat and where we need to make changes. I have always made casseroles and am now trying to add more homemade soups and breads to our diet.

The problem I have with menu planning is that some days I am just not well enough the spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I freeze some meals, but do not enjoy them as much as freshly cooked. Any ideas for what I can serve? I usally make something like jacket potatoes or scambled eggs but would like a bit of variety.

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCon

I started menu planning in 2010, and I fell in love with the structure and variety. Back then I decided to make a 28 day plan, and it worked really well. I shopped on Mondays, and I always knew what to buy.

Since then, I've become much more skilled in the kitchen, and I've found I'm able to be more flexible. I'm still working on my 2012 plan, but I think I'll do a variation of the 28 day plan. I like to do 28 days, because it's enough variety but keeps things familiar for the kids so they don't get nervous about new stuff!

I'm hoping to have themed days, but to plan out all four weeks accordingly. Something like Mon-legumes, Tue-rice/grain, Wed-pasta, Thu-potatoes....then on Friday a soup using all the leftovers. I also like to roast something on Sundays, then use the meat throughout the week for different meals.

It really helped me in the beginning to make my meals from a smart, basic recipe book. Now I understand how to throw together a basic soup without measuring, etc. Things that used to be a mystery to me have gradually become second nature as I've practiced the basics week after week.

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

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