I originally posted about meal planning back in January of 2015. I felt that it was a good time to drag it out and post it again. With the new year, I’ve heard lots of resolutions for meal planning. Here’s the thing that doesn’t work with most meal planning systems – they are difficult to stick with. Like a new years diet, we meal plan for the first 3 weeks with enthusiasm and abandon. “This is great!” we think. But the fourth week we have a distraction – a sick baby, a project at work, or a business trip that takes us away on shopping day. We wing it, semi-planning. It’s the beginning of the end. Within a month, we are back to almost no planning at all because life gets in the way and planning a week at a time takes too much time, forethought, and organization.
That’s why my meal planning works – you plan once, maybe tweak once or twice a year (yes, a year!), and you are done. Distractions do not derail us!
I know that, to some, planning on having the same meals month after month may be a turn off. Please tell me, I want to applaud the working parent who is making different recipes day after day, week after week. It’s impressive! My hunch is that you – like most of us – are making the same things, family favorites, easy week night staples. Hey, the point is that we serve a home-cooked meal and sit and eat with our family, it doesn’t have to be gourmet. And, my plan leaves plenty of space for creativity and spontaneous meals.
So, without further ado, here is the original post (with minor alterations – if you want to see the original, it is here.)
I’m not going to show you how to meal plan for a week.
I’m going to show you how to meal plan for a month! (Or two).
If you read this week’s Monday Musings, you know that I have a priority of having dinner with my family. I have three children and my mom lives with us, so we are often a family of six eating dinner. I like to cook, even though it can be a chore sometime, it’s important to me to cook a balanced meal for my family and that we sit down at the table and share that meal.
Still, it wasn’t until I found this way of planning meals that I was able to have some organization and take some of the stress out of shopping, prepping, and serving a meal every night (after working a full day). This is one of those tips that has a high return on investment – you will spend maximum of 2 hours planning, and you will get back hours (not to mention $$$) on using your new planning system.
Ok, this is starting to sound like an infomercial! I will tease you no longer. You are going to set up a four*-week rotating meal plan. If you already cook a lot, this will not take you long at all – if you don’t already cook, then you might have to spend some time (and trial and error when you start) finding the meals you will plan. Here are the step-by-step directions to creating your meal plan:
- Make a list of all the meals you make today – make sure to include the family favorites, and even the “out of the box” meals you serve (frozen chicken pot pie, or store-bought rotisserie chicken, etc.). You don’t have to put them in any order. Ask your family for input – they may remember some meal that you do not. They may have suggestions that they want on the list. Whether you realize it or not, if you are a working parent, you probably make the same 10-12 meals throughout the month.
(Note: if you don’t have a meal inventory because you don’t cook often, but you want to, there are lots of resources online that have great suggestions for quick and easy week night meals. Also, stay tuned on my blog because I’m going to be sharing all my tried and true week-night suppers.)
- Using a spreadsheet (preferred) or a Word table (or Google docs) or just a piece of paper, label 4 columns with Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, and Week 4. For your convenience, here is an Excel template: MONTHLY MEAL PLAN TEMPLATE
- From your first list, start slotting in your meals in each week – when I started, I only had three meals with one optional/swap meal for each week. Now I have 4 meals, with one optional/swap that I typically use. I put a chicken dish in each week, a beef, a non-meat, a casserole, etc. so each week would have a variety.
- To each meal, add your typical sides – if you usually serve noodles and carrots with your steak, for example, or if you want stuffing and potatoes with your rotisserie chicken. By now, your plan should look something like this:
- Once you have all your meals slotted, you can start making your shopping list. Under each week, enter all the ingredients that you would need to buy in order to make those meals – add everything, even if it’s an ingredient that you wouldn’t normally need to buy often (for example, breadcrumbs).
- If you want, separate out your grocery list into categories – this usually makes it easier to shop. I use “Dairy/Cheese”, “Vegetables/Fruit”, “Canned/Dry Goods”, “Meat/Fish” , and “Other”. Also, don’t forget to leave some space to add in items, staples like milk and bread, or type them in now.
- You now have a four week rolling meal plan!
*You can use the same concept for 6 or 8 weeks – if you have that many meals to be able to slot.
How to use your meal plan:
- Pick a week when you are going to start. I added a reoccurring appointment to my calendar for each week so that I never lose track of which week I’m in.
- Plan for 5-10 minutes – that’s all it will take. On the day of your choice (I usually do this Monday at
work, but it works out best if you are going to shop within a day of your planning, (and it’s better if you are at home so you can check your pantry/inventory of groceries), look at your calendar to see what commitments you have for the week, and then slot in the meals the way they most make sense:
NOTE: Not all your meals have to be from the list, I like to cook things that take more time on the weekends, and we also have one or two nights a week when we have take out or eat out. My husband usually takes leftovers for lunch, but there are some meals I make specifically so that we eat them more than once in a week.
- Once you have your meals slotted for the week, quickly run down your shopping list. Scratch out items that you don’t need to buy because you already have them. Add items that you need to buy that are not on the list (other dinners and breakfast and lunch items). Make sure you choose your sides and have them on your list.
- That’s it! You are done planning.
Benefits of using the 4 week rolling meal plan:
- You don’t have to come up with a new plan every week.
- You shop for exactly what you need, no more, no less – this cuts down on waste, and it kept my grocery budget very reasonable. When I started doing this, I was only spending ~$65-80 a week in groceries because I wasn’t buying a bunch of stuff that I didn’t need or wouldn’t use. I now spend closer to $150 a week, but it’s 16 years and three additional family members later.
- You don’t shop the sales – this actually works in your favor because you are keeping a “just in time” inventory, and you save more money in not throwing away unused produce, meat, or dry goods that you bought on sale, but never found time to cook.
- You can still make new recipes and recipes that take more time, just plan for those.
- You don’t end up repeating the same meal too often (only 1x every 4 weeks – although, there are some meals that my family would not mind eating every week – like tacos, they love tacos!).
I have been using this way of meal planning for almost 19 years now, and I have a few things that I’ve learned:
- Don’t be afraid to revisit and tweak the plan – some meals just don’t end up working out. For example, I originally had lamb shoulder chops on the list, but it wasn’t long before they were consistently $6.99 a pound and I just could not afford them.
- During the summer, I find that I only half follow the plan. We do a lot of cooking out on the grill, take out, etc. I have always meant to create a “summer” rolling plan, but never did get around to it. The break from the regular routine works out for us.
- If someone can take the leftovers for lunch, it makes this even more economical.
If you don’t have a meal planning routine already, I strongly recommend that you give this method a try. The initial planning should not take you more than 1 hour, and the weekly planning should only take about 10 minutes, so it is SOOO worth the investment in time to save you time, money, and stress!
Do you have a meal planning method that you use successfully?