I was recently chatting with some friends and one of them was marveling over someone she knows who plans out their meals an entire month at a time. Everyone else in the room acted a bit shocked, until I laughed and noted that I also make a monthly meal plan! I started doing this a couple of years ago, and it has honestly changed the game when it comes to meal planning in our house!
My friends had a lot of questions about what my process looks like for monthly meal planning, so I figured it was maybe something others would be curious about as well! So, here’s my breakdown of the exact steps I follow to create monthly meal plans for our family.
How to Make a Monthly Meal Plan
First up, let me give you a quick rundown of why I love to plan monthly instead of weekly meal planning.
- I hate meal planning. Doing it just once a month instead of sitting down and doing it every Saturday afternoon feels so much easier.
- Once I have a basic template and plan in place, it only takes about 20 minutes for the whole month!
- It allows me to meal prep if I want to and plan ahead a little better.
- We eat healthier, we eat at home more often, and we try more new recipes when I plan monthly!
Step 1: Check Your Calendar
I always start by pulling out my planner and writing down anything we already have going on. Things like dinners with friends, birthday parties, trips, etc. Basically, any days that we won’t be home for dinner or following our normal routine.
If we’ll be out and about at dinnertime on those days, I plan to eat out. If we’ll be home but just super busy, I’ll usually plan a “fend for yourself” kind of night where the kids usually have sandwiches and Corey and I will eat something from the freezer. More on this in a second!
At certain times of year we’ll have specific things that can throw a wrench into dinner plans – like Wednesday soccer practice or Friday soccer games. Just consider how these will affect your mealtimes and plan accordingly!
Step 2: Pick a Leftover Day
Once I’ve noted all of the days where our dinner routine will be off, it’s time to fill in the calendar! I’ve found it works really well for us to have a dedicated leftover night each week. This helps us eat through leftovers that might otherwise go bad and gives us one night off from cooking each week!
For us, Thursday night works best for leftovers. At that point, we’ve had a few nights during the week where we’ve cooked and given leftovers a chance to build up, and it lets us clear things out before the weekend, when we’re more likely to eat out. Maybe you find Mondays are best because you cook a lot over the weekends – just think about what makes the most sense for your family!
Step 3: Add in Any Regular Meals
With your weekly leftover day planned, it’s time to think about the meals your family already loves doing on a regular basis. Maybe you eat breakfast for dinner all the time, or you have a weekly spaghetti night. Maybe Taco Tuesday is a thing in your house (or a thing you want to implement!).
Most families have at least 2-3 meals that they cook every couple of weeks, so just run with that! Plug in those favorite meals throughout the month and at this point you’re probably getting close to halfway done!
A few of our go to meals?
- Breakfast for dinner (usually biscuits, bacon, and eggs!)
- Homemade burgers
- Chicken and tortellini with pesto
- Grilled pork chops + a side (mac and cheese, veggies, cous cous, etc.)
- Homemade pizza
You get the idea!
Step 4: Brainstorm Based on the Freezer!
Next up, I always like to take a second to peruse through my freezer and pantry and think about what we have that we need to use up. Maybe there’s leftover pasta from a meal we made recently, or we have a ton of extra chicken breasts, or maybe there’s some random meat we tossed in the freezer because we planned on using it but never did.
I’m always looking to save a little money on groceries, and being thoughtful about what’s in our freezer, pantry, and fridge already when I’m meal planning makes a big difference.
Step 5: Fill in the Rest of the Meals
Finally, it’s time to fill in the rest! I know that brainstorming meals is where most people really struggle, so here are a few tips and tricks I utilize to make it easier:
- Keep a Pinterest board specifically for dinner ideas. Not just general recipes you want to try. A board just for easy, healthy weeknight meals that you would actually cook. Here’s a peek at mine!
- Pick a few food blogs that you really trust, and follow them closely. I use Feedly to keep up with my favorite blogs, and throughout the week if one of the recipe bloggers I follow posts something I’m interested in, I’ll flag it or add it to my Pinterest board!
- I love to challenge myself to try 2-3 new and fun recipes each month. This is when I ry to branch out and get creative. Try scrolling through cookbooks or recipe blogs to get inspiration. Then, I let myself keep things pretty simple and routine the rest of the month!
- It’s always really easy to just pick a protein and add a few sides. No recipe needed. Have a basic recipe or go-to brand for things like rice, beans, pasta, and other side dishes. Then, add in some vegetables like salad, potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms & peppers, etc. and you’ve got yourself a meal. Rinse and repeat that as often as you want – do chicken one time, pork another, and beef another! Your weekly menu does not need to be fancy or complicated.
If you need some ideas, my go-to food blogs for dinner inspiration are Half Baked Harvest, How Sweet Eats, and Damn Delicious.
Step 6: Plan Eating Out
Finally, I have found that we really cut back on eating out when we specifically PLAN IT! My family absolutely loves to eat out, and if I didn’t try to control it a bit we’d be at restaurants multiple times a week. It doesn’t work for us to say we’re just not going to eat out, so I’ve found that planning 2-3 nights out each month makes it intentional and cuts down on the random eating out.
Of course, it still happens from time to time. That’s normal! And, we’ll talk about that next…
How Do You Stick to a Monthly Meal Plan?
First of all, let’s be honest: it’s not perfect! Sometimes life gets chaotic and we end up grabbing fast food when we didn’t plan to, or we just don’t follow the plan closely.
Here are some tips for how I do my best to stay on track, and what happens when we don’t.
- I grocery shop on Sundays, and I always start by reviewing the week we just finished. Did we eat all of the meals we planned? Do we have ingredients left for a meal that we skipped? If we do and they’re still good, I’ll just move that meal to the following week!
- Any meals we didn’t make in the last week and aren’t going to make in the upcoming week get written down at the top of the calendar. That way, I can plug them into next month’s list. I’ve already done the work to brainstorm, I’m not letting it go to waste!
- I don’t let myself feel any guilt when we get off track. Life happens! Each week is a fresh chance to stick to the plan, and just because you’ve slipped up a bit doesn’t mean you can’t get right back on track.
Fend For Yourself Nights
This is a go to for us on chaotic nights or when my husband or I won’t be home. Basically, instead of cooking we just plan on everyone figuring out their own dinner. Sometimes this means leftovers but often the kids will want sandwiches or chicken nuggets!
For these nights, we also like to keep some staples in the pantry and freezer to make it easier. Here’s a few things we almost always have on hand:
- Ramen bowls (we love the Costco ones)
- Frozen turkey burgers
- Frozen shrimp & mahi burgers
- A variety of frozen meals from Trader Joe’s
I often plan a few Fend for Yourself nights into the menu when I know it’ll be busy. It makes life easier, for sure!
And that’s it – my simple routine for creating a monthly meal plan that works for our family and keeps us from eating out too much. It’s genuinely been a bit of a game changer for our family, so I hope you find it helpful, too!