Do you often wonder what you will make for dinner? Are your cupboards full but you’re not sure what to make? Perhaps you turn to takeout because it’s easier than figuring out what to make each night. Wishing you could plan ahead and make dinner less chaotic? Good news! You can do just that. Creating a monthly meal plan is the best way to make dinner easier and it helps to keep the grocery budget down too.
How to create a monthly meal plan
So how does one meal plan a month at a time? There are a number of steps involved, however, they are vital to making this a successful endeavor. Each step is important to the overall process. They do not need to be done all at once, however, I prefer to do it this way.
Take an inventory
The first and most important step is knowing what you already have on hand. It’s so easy for items to get shoved to the back of the fridge or pantry. There they sit forgotten, until one day you find them. Perhaps they are still in date, but oftentimes they are well past the expiration date. Meal planning will certainly reduce your food waste if you stick to it.
Go through all your cupboards and drawers. Write down a list of everything that you have and the amount of each item. Next, go through your fridge and freezer and do the same. This will give you the basics of what you have to work with.
This may seem like tedious work. However, it will not only save on food waste but keep your grocery bill from getting too high. If you find some items that are getting close to their expiration date, be sure to prioritize those first when deciding on meals to make.
Start building meal ideas
Now that you know what’s in your house, it’s time to start putting together meal ideas. Start with the meals you enjoy making. Ensure that you have a variety of easy and more involved meals. Make sure to base these meals around what you already have. As you write down each meal on the list, tick off what you are going to use for it on the inventory list. Be sure to add in some leftover days if you know a meal will be large enough to feed you more than once. Leftovers can also be used for lunches. If you wish to have the same meal twice in one month, ensure that you have enough of the necessary items in your house to do so.
Our family also has what we call “Grabby Meals”. This can be leftovers or a day where we don’t have any specific meal planned, however, there is enough food in the house to eat whatever we want. We may cook these days, but usually, they mean something simple like sandwiches, soup or simply grabbing anything you want and eating it.
You do not necessarily have to come up with a full meal idea for each day. Simply choosing the main portion of the meal can be enough. This means some days may simply say ‘Chicken’, while other days will be more detailed, such as ‘spaghetti with a side salad’.
Have an overabundance of something? No worries! One good idea is to make a double batch of a meal. One for now and one to go into the freezer. This will provide you with an easy heat and eat meal down the road. This can help out for the current month, or for a future month when you may not have time to cook every day.
Part of the point of making a meal plan is to make life easier. The other part is using up what you have. This will lead to making some creative meals. Don’t be afraid to try something new, especially if it will help you use up those 16 cans of tuna that are hiding in the pantry. Make adjustments to meals you usually make to incorporate some atypical ingredients. Use beans instead of broccoli. Chicken instead of steak. Find ways to use what you have before running to the store for that one item – which inevitably turns into twenty items.
Adding in theme nights, or even a theme week, will make meals more interesting. While it may not lead to cooking things outside your regular meals, you can have fun thinking up of fun names for what you are making. Our family has done a few different theme weeks. In May, we did a week of Star Wars-themed dinners. In June we did a Jurassic World theme. These nights we made regular dinners and simply gave them fun names. It certainly made dinner more fun. You’d be surprised how challenging it is to come up with names for some dinners.
Create a shopping list
There is a very good chance that there will be something missing for meals along the way. You may not have any rice, are low on ground beef or perhaps need some vegetables. To tackle this, you will need to create a grocery list. Divide this list by week so that you know what you need for each week within the month. If you prefer to shop only once a month, then make a single list. Just remember, you aren’t buying things to make meals per se. You are simply supplementing what you have in order to make everything work.
Plan well in advance
Don’t wait until the first of the month to start your monthly meal plan. This will create stress and likely make you not bother with it. Plan the month out several days to a week in advance. This will give you and your family time to hash out the details.
Get a calendar
You can either use an existing calendar, one on your phone or print off a blank calendar page. I recommend having a paper calendar so that you can easily work with it. It is a good idea to mark any day that will be busy first. These days you will want a simple to make dinner. Obviously, you do not want to plan a turkey dinner with all the sides on a day you know you won’t be home much. Once you have these days marked, it is time to start filling in the meal plan.
Write each dinner idea into the day of the week you want to have it. As you go through your list of meal ideas that you make earlier, be sure to cross them off. I prefer to initially write on the calendar in pencil, this way you can easily change things around while you are still in the planning stage. Once everything is figured out, go through and write it all in ink. Stick your calendar where it is easy to see, on the fridge is best.
Stick to it
This is so important. There is no sense in making a meal plan if you don’t plan to stick to it. Life happens, and there may be days where the intended meal doesn’t happen. However, don’t allow that to happen too often. That’s why it is important to know ahead of times what days are busy, so avoid such things. Don’t be afraid to swap days as well. Those burgers that you planned to have on Thursday, well they just got rained out. But that’s okay because you can substitute a different meal from another day and move the burgers to that one.
How successful is meal planning
That all depends on how determined you are to stick with it. Our family used to plan one week at a time, and while it worked, we wanted to try doing a full month at a time. The main reason for this was to really use up what we had and lower our grocery bill significantly. So, in June we made our first full month meal plan. It didn’t take more than 20 minutes for us to figure out 30 days of dinners. We made sure that on the nights our son had soccer, that we picked easier and quicker to make meals.
We did have one deviation from the original plan. One day ended up being unexpectedly busy. That day we had intended to make a roast for dinner. With that no longer being an option, we switched to Kraft Dinner, a meal that was planned further into the month. On the day where Kraft Dinner was originally planned, we then put roast. This meant we still were sticking to all of our planned dinners, even if some happened on different days than intended.
This meal plan really helped keep our grocery bill down as well. Our weekly grocery budget is $100. Or at least that’s what we try to stick to. June 2 we spent about $149.18 on groceries. On June 9, we spend $37.02. June 16, we spend about $133.01, though that was my birthday weekend, so we splurged on a cake and a couple of goodies. Then on June 23, we spent $78.99. So even accounting for those two times we went over, we still stayed below budget overall. However, in June we didn’t 100% focus on what we had in the house already, especially in that first week. Plus I know we bought some meat that hadn’t been on the list because it was on sale. But it was our first month doing this, so there was a bit of a learning curve.
In fact, the monthly meal plan was so successful that we have decided to do one each month. We have already planned out what we will be having for July. Our grocery shopping trip for the first week of July will happen this weekend, on June 30. However, the list is very small and I am certain that we will stay under budget again.
Do you create a monthly meal plan? Are you looking to start?