Catholic homemaking · Food · Homemaking · Mary Mary and Martha · My world

Serving sizes, serving less and eating better

Jan Steen — Wirtshausgarten

Recently I have been reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by  Michael Pollan.   At the moment I am about half way through, but it has been expanding and reinforcing my growing concern about food.  Not just what and how much we eat, but also how the actions we take as individuals in acquiring our food shape and change the world around us.  It has also given us our latest running joke.  “hey, guess what you’re eating”  — “CORN”.  It will eventually get old, but we will run it into the ground and stomp on it a few times before we give it up.   But back to diner. 

Gestational diabetes has been the worst part of my last two pregnancies, but it has also been positive in helping me focus on two important facts.  I need to eat better and I need to exercise more.   These facts were drilled how when I met with the nutritional councilor who talked about managing the carbohydrates I eat and balancing my menus for better nutrition.  The other item she highlighted was serving size.  Portion control is important.  Not just to my waistline, but to the family budget as well.  

Rethinking serving sizes for health: Portions have gotten larger over the past 20 years.  To see this in a compelling way check out Portion Distortion from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.  (They also have a nice menu tool  where you can input your menu and see a breakdown of the calories, fat and carbohydrates. )   I know as I have gotten older I have seen this on my own plate.  I have allowed myself to be tricked into the idea that  more is better with regards to food, but that is just not true.  More is unhealthy.  The most expensive calories you buy are the ones that you over eat.  They cost money to purchase, time to store and cook, and money down the road dealing with health problems, they cost time to burn off, and they hurt your quality of life.  They are not a good deal.

Reason dictates that children need less food than adults, teens need more, older adults need less, but when I look at most serving suggestions (including those on packages and in reciepies) there is one serving size.   Menu recommendations for children usually reduce the number of servings, but this doesn’t work so well when I am cooking for the whole family.  So instead of changing the number of servings I am changing the portion size.

My typical family diner serves two adults (one serving each), one teen (1.5 servings), one older child (1 serving) , two younger children (.75 servings each)  and a toddler (.5 serving).  So basically I need 6.5 servings for the family for breakfast and dinner and 4 servings for lunch and snacks and box lunches for 2.5 plus “on the go” snacks for 2.5 serving.   But these can not be the bloated serving sizes that have crept onto our dinner plates, especially on the higher calorie items.  I will admit my visual judgment on what a serving is isn’t so great.  I need to measure and weigh items so that I can train myself to better judge what a serving is.  The Clevenland Clinic has a good resource for determining serving sizes.  I have a small kitchen scale and measuring cups and that pretty much lets me see what a serving size really is.  One of the fun things I did with the children we to take their favorite breakfast cereal and measure out one serving.  It was significantly less than what they had  been pouring out for themselves when they had the chance.  

Increased serving sizes leads to waste: When I cook too much it is almost guaranteed that at least some of it will go to waste.   Studies have shown that children under five won’t on their own eat more no matter how much you put in front  of them.  They stop eating when they are full.  But children older than five will eat more if there is more in front of them — to a point.  Too much food served up means food that is brought to the kitchen that need to be tossed.  Leftovers are great for boxed lunches especially, but more than one or possibly two days worth is a complete waste.   It will sit in the refrigerator until it resembles some misbegotten science experiment and then be tossed.  The second most expensive calories that you buy are the ones you don’t eat.

The sweet things in life: We are not machines.  We don’t just consume our food for energy.  We have a complex relationship with food, it is part of our culture, our family life and a real pleasure.  Or at least it should be.  Fast food, eaten quickly, on the go and alone doesn’t have anywhere near the same satisfaction as a well cooked meal, eaten with friends and family around the dinner table while talking over the days events.   Likewise we can’t eat ourselves into happiness.  While we might enjoy a piece of chocolate cake are we really going to enjoy a huge piece more than a small severing?  What is better, the small piece savored slowly or the huge piece eaten quickly?   A friend of mine once said, “With thing that you eat just for the taste just a taste should do.”  Smaller servings, prepared carefully and served in pleasant surrounds have a satisfaction that super-sized bloated servings just can’t match.   Taking the time to make food special has the double benefit of making less food more satisfying.

Food · Homemaking · Mary Mary and Martha

Eating with the seasons

In my menu planning article I mentioned that one of my goals when planning my family meals was to use in season and locally grown food when possible.  The first question I am asked about this is “How do you know what is in season?”.  Portland, Oregon has a Department of Sustainable Development  and part of their mission is to promote Sustainable Food.  If you do a google search for  “in season produce” + “your state” or “your city” you (hopefully) will find something similar.

Some websites you might want to look at (I am not vouching for the content on these sites, but they look interesting and topical,  if you know a good site please shoot me a link):

Local Harvest 
USDA Farmer’s Markets


Homemaking · Mary Mary and Martha · My world

Menu Planning Part 2

In the early 1960’s my mother sat in a home economics classroom thumbing through her “Betty Crocker New Picture Cookbook” like so many young women her age.  It was the colorful 3rd edition, the reprint of the trusty classic.  She kept that old book, in fact she still owns it.  When I was a girl I used it to learn to make bread and cookies and read through it.  For years I had wondered why housekeeping was so difficult for me and then it dawned on my sometimes thick skull,  I had no idea what I was doing. As I mentioned in my last menu planning article I didn’t learn the skills I needed to have to run a home a my mother’s knee.  I actually had to learn many of the most important things later and on my own which has been rather daunting and something I am still working on.   One thing I did that helped me was to purchase my own “Betty” from e-bay.  I had love my mother’s old edition.  When I left home my mother bought me the 6th edition, which had been sadly gutted to fit the “modern woman’s” needs.  So I eventually bought the older edition for myself. 

It was then that I started to see how much I was really creating extra work for myself simply by running my household so inefficiently.  Menu planning was one of the first things that I set my mind to fixing.  I started by just listing the meals my family likes and randomly fitting them into meals over the course of a few weeks.  This was far better than nothing, but still had a ways to go.  Kyle and I used the South Beach Diet.  Its menu plan covers everything from breakfast to desert and I found this to be even more helpful.  So I carried it farther.  I have used my Betty Crocker cookbook and two nutritional sites to help me develop my new menu plan templates you can read about the process behind that here.  

For my family and our nutritional needs this is the basic outline I use:

·     Vegetables:  at least 5 servings per day
·     Fruit:  2-4 servings per day
·     Whole grains: 4-11 servings per day
·     Legumes: 1-3 servings per day
·     Soy: 2-4 servings per week
·     Oils, nuts, seeds, olives: 3-9 servings a day
·     Dairy: 1-3 servings a day
·     Eggs: 1 per day
·     Fish 2-4 servings per week, with at least 2 being omega-3 rich or having omega-3 in something else
·     meat 1-3 servings per week


That is the goal.  Each day we have three meals and two snacks to fill.

·     Breakfast
·     morning snack
·     lunch
·     tea
·     dinner


So over a week it looks like this :








Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast
vegetable Fruit vegetable Fruit vegetable Fruit Fruit
oils Dairy  Dairy Dairy Eggs Eggs  Eggs
Dairy Eggs Eggs Eggs Dairy Dairy Dairy
Morning Snack Morning Snack Morning Snack Morning Snack Morning Snack Morning Snack Morning Snack
Fruit vegetable Fruit vegetable Fruit vegetable vegetable
  Dairy oils Dairy oils Dairy  
Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch
vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable
Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit
Legumes oils Legumes oils Legumes Legumes oils
oils   oils   oils oils  
Tea Tea Tea Tea Tea Tea Tea
vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable
oils Legumes oils   Dairy oils Dairy
Dairy   Dairy        
Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner
vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable
vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable
Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit Fruit
Oils Legumes meat Legumes Meat Dairy Legumes
Dairy oils oils oils oils oils oils
meat Dairy Dairy Dairy Dairy Fish Dairy
  Fish         Chicken or Fish

Whole grain at every meal, work soy into the menu at least two or three times.

This menu template covers the basics of good nutrition as I see it.  You might disagree or have some other important idea to work in.   But this more about practice than theory.   No matter what theory drives your menu plan at some point the theory has to work in practice.  Pretty much how I got the template was to list out what needed to be served, how many times per day or week then distributed the amounts over the day and week.   Any nutritional plan will lend itself to this method, though some will require more work than others.  

I list out my families favorite dishes and then place them into the menu.  Note that for vegetables the amount is unlimited the daily minimum is 5 serving.  A bean and vegetable soup for lunch with a whole grain roll with olive oil to dip and a piece of fruit will cover a legume, vegetable, whole grain, oil and fruit slot.  With that in mind it is easier to get all those servings in than it might at first seem.  Two vegetable servings can be covered as easily as having salad and steamed broccoli at the meal.  Peanut butter and celery or cauliflower bits with hummus for a snack fill both the slots for the tea-time snack.   I also don’t get overly stressed out about breaking the menu a little bit.  A slice of Canadian bacon at breakfast a couple times a week, a slice of lunch meat to make a veggie-turkey roll-up or even hot-dogs on a Saturday night is not something I worry about.  The menu plan is to serve me and my family with nutrition in mind, not become something rigid and painful.

All that said there is more to eating than vitamins and calories.  The Smart Homemaker of my Betty Crocker cookbook, of course she realizes that good nutrition is the cornerstone happy family meals, but she also knows that it takes more than just the “right” foods.  She stressed that our menus should be Appropriate to our situation, Be appetizing in appearance, be satisfying and that we should be mindful of cost.  To this list I personally add seasonal, local and as sustainable as possible.

Appropriate: Each family is different.  I am home during the day and this allows me to devote more time to meal preparation than some families.  We have a larger family, small children, we homeschool and we live in the city and we don’t have any allergies or food sensitivities.   If any of these things changed our meals might look different.

Menu planning has to also be appropriate to my brain.  For me it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel each week.  I am a thinking junkie, in fact I can over think just about anything as all my friends and anyone who has read this blog can attest to. I like to weigh every possibility and find out all the facts and making a commitment to a decision gets me a little nervous.  Consequently I can burn a lot of time making choices.  Knowing this about myself I realize that every time I can remove deliberation out of the process I am saving myself a lot of time.  Set menu plans are a good thing for me, going through a stack of cookbooks and searching online for new recipes each week is going to take me too much time.  It is much better for me to use set menus.


Appearance:  Betty’s advice is to prepare, serve and present each meal attractively.  Plan ahead so that you serve a variety of colors an textures.  This adds both nutritional value and visual appeal to the meal.   Take the time to eat together, use the good china more frequently, set the table for dinner.   I was listening to a discussion on food several months ago, it may have been Michael Pollen who was speaking about how food has become less satisfying us, and part of the decline in that is how we have made eating so utilitarian.  It requires a certain time commitment to serve  a lovely meal at an attractive table for the whole family, but it is worth it for so many reason.

 Satisfaction:  This section could have been called “prepare with care” and it is closely related to the suggestions of appearance.  Well seasoned, carefully prepared food in variety is more satisfying.  I remember having read the little poem as a girl:

Something soft and something crisp
Should always go together,
And something hot with something cold
No matter what the weather;
Something bland needs the complement
Of something with tang and nip.
Follow these rules and all your meals
Will have taste appeal and zip.

  It really does make sense and isn’t as complicated as it seems, warm bread, a crispy salad and a well seasoned soup makes a perfect meal that follows the above suggestions to the letter.   Macaroni and cheese with peach slices and cooked carrots lacks variety in color and texture.  I served this once and my children, who usually are not the type to protest about any of those menu choices all looked at me sort of funny and complained:  “Everything is orange, mom”  caught off guard I had to come up with a quick reply, “ummm, yes, it is ‘Orange lunch’ today”.  They thought that was cool and happily ate it, but it does illustrate the point:  Even my little ones prefer a little variety of color and texture on the plate.

Wine: I know some people dislike wine or have some sort of objection to it.  We have wine, usually red, several times a week with dinner.  It is inline with most of the healthy eating plans I have seen and both my husband and I enjoy a glass with our evening meal.  It is a highly satisfying touch to the table for us.  As the children reach their teen years they are allowed a bit of their own on occasion and we are comfortable with this.  I have one acquaintance who drinks a small amount of red wine, for health reasons, but only when her children can’t see.  I suspect this sort of secretive behavior sets a worse example than pouring a glass at dinner would, but to each their own.

Technique: Cooking well make preparing your family meal more fun for you and more satisfying for everyone.  If you are new to cooking or haven’t had much success in the kitchen I highly recommend taking the time to learn basic kitchen techniques.  Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here for the Food” is one of my favorites; there are websites that illustrate basic techniques and possibly even classes through your local college or home extension office.  Don’t be afraid to try something new from time to time.  I try to work one new recipe every two weeks or so.  Food in addition to being prepared to be satisfying can be very satisfying to prepare.

Cost: Food costs have gone up rather sharply lately and there are many places where you can cut family food budget.  Menu planning just by itself will help you save money.  You can plan ahead what to eat, you can stock your pantry when things are on-sale, take advantage of seasonal food, coupons and “loss leader sales”, you can shop at bulk and discount stores and you can basically eat better for less.  You might want to try cooking ahead or freezer cooking in order to save even more.  But the biggest differences for us are cutting out what I call “Oh, crap, dinners”  — those times when it is 5pm and I have no idea what to cook and nothing quick in the house to prepare which results in a last minute trip to the store or drive through.  When I am on top of my menu planning we aren’t making last minute trips to the store (saving time, gas and not purchasing impulse items) and we aren’t resorting to fast food and eating out which are both budget and diet busters.

Appropriateness, appearance, satisfaction, nutrition and cost are Betty Crocker’s list of important menu planning considerations.  But a lot has changed since the 1950s.  We are more aware of the impact our actions as a society have on our health and the environment in which we live. The University of Michigan Integrative Medicine’s Healing Foods Pyramid states that it emphasizes (among other things) “Support of a healthful environment”  the way in which our food is grown, the amount of pesticides, hormones and fertilizers all affect the health-value of our food and health of the land it is grown on.  Supporting local farm families in turn supports our communities economically.  All these things matter when put together.  While I am certainly not militant about being organic or “green” I view these ideas as personal lifestyle choices and I offer them up for consideration.

Seasonal, local and sustainable: Eating food that is in season locally allows you to take advantage of what is available in your farmer’s market and in local u-pick and small farms near you.  You might even be able to grow some of your own vegetables and seasoning.  Herbs are especially easy to go and require no more space then a window box or small platter; salad greens, radishes, green onions require very little more and tomatoes will happily grow in a large patio pot.   Learning to freeze, can, dry and/or pickle is a great way to save money, support local your local economy and avoid pesticides and other unwanted chemicals.   You might even be lucky enough to be able to purchase eggs, meat and dairy from small operations.   A side of beef in the freezer can provide meat for a year.  For items beyond your local market keep an eye open for fair-trade options to help ensure that more of the profit goes to those who actually produce the product.  Consider researching the possibilities available to you, you might find yourself happily surprised at the variety and quality. 

On a seriously Catholic note, you might also, when possible try top purchase from religious orders. The Anchoress has been raving about her sponsor “Mystic Monk Coffee“.   Many orders have some sort of food items they sell.  Hopefully I will be able to work up a list soon.  If you know of one please send me a link.

I will be continuing this series.  Next in the works is an article on Pantry and Shopping Lists and I will start posting completed menus later next week. 


Homemaking · Mary Mary and Martha · My world · Uncategorized

Menu planning

One of my old stand-bys is my 1950, Betty Crocker Cookbook, 1st edition.  (Now, I know that Betty Crocker wasn’t a real person.. but I still find a bit of humor in thinking of the cookbook as “Betty” — my grandmother is another Betty so maybe this adds to the charm, but either way I hope you can bare my bit of madness here as I refer to her as a real person.) My tattered red friend is not the reprint, but the original with all its sexist little comments and admonitions on being an active and productive homemaker.   It is filled with good advice about work habits, entertaining, recipe short-cuts, meal planning and nutrition.  

One thing I find most useful is this book assumes nothing.  It starts from the idea that the reader is a complete homemaking ingenue and goes from there.   So it actually covers things that one would have assumed that a young woman growing up in the 30s and 40s would probably know.  Betty Crocker advises that the homemaker plan menus at least one week at a time and better to do two weeks or even a month at once, to shop only once or twice a week.  The second shopping trip should be for perishables.   She suggests keeping a “well stocked emergency shelf”  to deal with those unexpected guests or inordinately hectic days where the lady of the house is too busy for shopping and cooking.  All sensible and good advice and I think that the starting point is spot on,  nutrition.

Now, Betty Crocker, 1950, is a little behind on the scientific discoveries of today.  But, Betty and her counterparts knew full well that little Judy and Johny needed nutritionally balanced meals so they could grow up and become useful and happy adults.  In the 1950’s cookbook there is no fudging on who is responsible for seeing that happens. Mom is the “go-to” person for healthy meals, clean and tastefully decorated homes and family entertainment.  The world has changed a great deal.  The young homemaker of 1950 was held to a somewhat different set of standards but, she also wasn’t facing some of the same temptations and bad habits that we face.  In the chapter on short-cuts she mentions that in larger cities there are places where you can pick up whole meals and take them home as a modern marvel, almost experimental in their novelty.   It was 5 years before Ray Kroc would open his first McDonald’s, packaged food was almost non-existent,  the first Swanson TV dinner wouldn’t hit the store shelf for four more years.  So, while the details of what was then considered a healthy meal are dated, the principles and the application of planning and preparing are, if anything, even more relevant to today than when they were written. 

Betty Crocker quotes the “Smart Homemaker” saying, “My meals are more nutritious since I’ve been planning them ahead.  I check in advance the basic foods and the daily needs of my family.”   To get a good idea of what those basic needs are I use the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid.  It took more tweaking than I would have liked to figure out how to translate the pyramid into meals.  For some reason the geniuses at Harvard figured that spelling things out in “servings” wasn’t how people really eat.  To help out on this and to get a bit of a different angle I also looked at The UMIM Healing Foods Pyramid  which actually turned out to be more practical.  I finally got it worked out and could create a template for menus.  The raw template has “slots” for menu items that I can drop items from the different categories into to create meals.   

 I know there are many different food plans out there, with different claims to what is the most healthy way to eat.  And really, I am not going to sort that out or make any judgement for anyone else on that. Find what works for you according to your family’s tastes, your beliefs and culture and what makes sense to you.  What makes sense to me the two pyramids married with the idea of local and seasonal food and sustainable agricultural practices.   In practice we use too much red meat, I am not giving up my coffee and there are those Goldfish crackers. 

One thing that has surprised me is how much effort it really took to get to this point.  My grandmother learned menu planning in her home and while working as a cook for a ranch.  My mother has often told me how little she learned at home, her mother apparently shewed her out of the kitchen more often than not but mom did have a home economics class in high school.  My mother did the homemaker thing when I was very young then entered the work-force, never to look back and swore she wouldn’t be some 1950s housewife who’s greatest achievement was having the cleanest toilet on the block and by the time I made it to high school home economics was optional and sort of looked down on.  I came to adulthood ill-equipped to manage a family menu, much less a household and I have had to basically teach myself.  

My next menu planning article will break down into a little more detail about how you get from theory to shopping list.