I don’t know about you, but I’m not a good “grab random ingredients at 5:00 and turn them into an amazing dinner” kind of cook. I do best when I have a meal plan and a recipe. Making a monthly meal plan helps me stay on track so we don’t end up eating pancakes for dinner too often—which disappoints my kids if I’m being honest.
What is Meal Planning?
Meal planning is scheduling your meals so you can always answer the question, “What’s for dinner?”
When you meal plan, you do all the thinking at once instead of standing in front of the fridge wondering what to make every. single. night while there are whining kids in the background.
Benefits of Meal Planning
- Saves time — you get all the thinking out of the way ahead of time, plus grocery shopping is a breeze with a specific list.
- Saves money — you are much less likely to order out or let food go bad if you’ve got a plan
- Reduces stress — there’s so much less pressure, especially helpful when everyone is hungry
- Is healthier — you can plan balanced meals and skip the fast food
- Reduces food waste — you buy what you need and then cook it instead of just buying a ton of things you might cook
- Saves pantry space — you can still stock up if you’d like, but there’s no need when you’ve got a plan and shop based on that
When Should You Meal Plan?
Meal plan as often or as infrequently as you want. Many people plan weekly. I like to plan monthly because I can’t commit to sitting down every week. I have friends that plan once every 6 weeks. The timing can be flexible as long as you’re consistent!
When I meal plan monthly, I have 30 fresh meals planned in 10-15 minutes. The monthly system allows me to not repeat meals unless I want to. It also allows me to balance proteins, so we eat a variety of foods. It also helps me to break out of my dinner rut. It’s easy to keep track of, too, because I just do it during the last few days of each month for the next month.
My Monthly Meal Plan
Step 1: Gather Materials
To start out, I gather my materials.
- A Family calendar (no sense in planning a meal when you’re invited to a barbeque, right?)
- List of favorite family meals/recipes or a cookbook
- Paper and Pen (or computer/phone if that’s how you roll)
I use my Limelife Planner – this has blank pages and my meal list and my calendar, so it’s all in one spot. You could definitely use a wall calendar and a sheet of paper just as easily. I also grab a cookbook or two if I’m feeling like something new.
Step 2: Write Out the Dates
Next, I write the dates of the month out on my paper 1 through 28, 30, 31, 29… whatever.
Step 3: Fill in the No-Brainers
Setting up a few routine meals a few days a week is ESSENTIAL to my meal plan. I call these routine meals “no brainers” because I don’t have to think. By filling in up 8-10 no brainers on specific nights, you’ve cut out a third of your meal planning in seconds.
Using my calendar for reference, I find all the Fridays and write ” pizza.” Pizza and a movie are a Friday night tradition in our house.
On Tuesdays, I usually alternate between tacos and taco salad (make your own seasoning). Who am I to argue with Taco Tuesdays?
Bam. I’ve got eight out of about 30 meals figured out in about 15 seconds. These 8 meals are the basis for my entire month. First off, they’re quick meal planning wins. Second, they’re simple, crowd-pleasing dinners that I know my family will be excited about. While this won’t ensure a smooth dinner with well-behaved children it can’t hurt.
Step 3: Complete the Meal Plan
For my remaining 22-ish days, I look at my calendar, flip through my favorite meals, and look at my cook book. I schedule more elaborate meals on days where we don’t have evening plans and keep meals super simple and quick when we have activities or I lack prep time.
Meal Planning Hacks
I try to cook a whole chicken once or twice a month. We eat chicken with sides the first night, then make meals from the leftover chicken two other nights. Some of our favorite meals using leftover chicken are stir fry, fajitas, quesadillas, chicken casserole, chicken noodle soup, and white chicken chili. 5 or 6 more meals, done.
Bank on Double
Earlier in the month, make a double batch of a meal that’s simple to freeze, like baked ziti, soup, or shepherd’s pie. Eat one and freeze the other. Later in the month, defrost the 2nd batch and enjoy. Dinner doesn’t get much simpler than that!
Meal planning allows me to be more intentional. We are trying to incorporate more vegetables into our daily routine—which is reflected in our meal plan (lots of salad). I’ve added salad once or twice a week (that’s 4-8 more meals checked off!). We change the toppings, dressings, and proteins to keep things different.
Schedule a Night Off
Don’t forget to give yourself a break — schedule at least 2 nights for “dining out” if it’s in the budget.
Finding Meal Plan Inspiration
I keep some cookbooks handy and try to include two new meals every month — I usually add it on a less-busy night because new recipes usually take more time and focus. Yes, I know the internet is full of recipes, but there’s just something about flipping through an actual book. You can borrow cookbooks from the library or purchase one or two a year for some fresh ideas. The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook is a book I purchased last year. It’s full of non-fussy, family-friendly meals. I picked up a pre-owned copy of Half Baked Harvest Super Simple last month and am looking forward to trying some recipes.
I go through my cookbooks another time and use post-it’s to mark recipes I’d like to revisit. If I write meals from cookbooks in my meal plan, I use parentheses to remind me which cookbook they came from.
Sticking to Your Meal Plan
As I plan each week out in my planner, I write the meals for the day at the bottom of each day’s column. Writing them on a display board in your kitchen is also helpful, plus family knows what’s on the menu.
When when I’m planning my grocery order, I refer to my weekly menu and make sure I have the ingredients I need. When I’m planning the next day, I refer to this and make sure I defrost any frozen meat. Check this blog post for more tips on Sticking to Your Meal Plan.
Monthly Meal Plan – Made Simple
So there you have it. The key to this whole routine—what makes it manageable and quick—is the eight nights of “no brainer” meals and two nights of dining out. When those are completed, the rest of the month — just 20 days — can come together rather quickly.
Overall, I find creating a monthly meal plan well worth it. It keeps my evenings calmer and more predictable so I can save my energy for the important things, like fighting over homework and making kids take showers and clip toenails.
Want to try it? Download the step-by-step guide or get your own blank piece of paper and give it a shot! Leave a comment and let me know if you think this is something that could work for you and your family. I’m always up for changing systems, so I love your input.
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