Practically every dieting and budgeting expert is in agreement: planning your meals helps you eat better and spend less time and money on food. Everyone I know has made some sort of attempt at mastering it. However, it’s hard to find a meal planning schedule that actually works with your busy lifestyle.
I’d been meal planning with limited success for a few years. I had the best of intentions, but my plan never seemed to serve me as much as I thought it would. Meal planning takes time and work. I often didn’t have the energy to make it come together.
When I failed to plan properly, I’d end up grabbing fast food night after night and hating myself for it. Why couldn’t I get my act together? Why was I spending money on unhealthy food when I had all the tools I needed to plan healthy, budget-friendly home-cooked meals?
The truth is, I was going about meal planning all wrong.
I was looking at the short-term picture. I was treating my life and schedule like each week was its own micro-universe. That it wasn’t affected by the days and weeks that came before or after. Any tiny upset to my weekly schedule threw off my whole plan for that week. And there was always a tiny upset because, you know, life happens.
I started looking at meal planning on a larger scale. I wondered if planning my meals at the start of each month might help me stay on track and save time and money. It sounded crazy, even to me. If I couldn’t plan properly for a week, how was expanding to a month going to help anything?
But I gave it a shot, and it worked. Meal planning for the entire month does save both time and money, not to mention stress.
How to meal plan for the month
Looking at the entire month allows me to account for patterns. Some weeks I have time to cook elaborate meals, but some weeks I really don’t. Instead of trying to follow the same meal plan structure each week, I’m able to look at my monthly schedule and craft a plan that works with, not against, all my other obligations.
The upfront effort might take a little getting used to. But once you get the hang of it, it’s actually a lot easier than you think. Here’s how to meal plan for the month:
1. Gather your materials
Get any calendars, schedules, or day planners you use, along with grocery sale ads and coupons. You’ll probably also want some paper and a pen to write everything out. If you have a planner that has space to write your meal plan in each day, perfect. (That is one of many reasons I love this planner from Living Well Spending Less.) Spread everything out in one centralized location.
One of the easiest ways to meal plan is to have other people make your meals, right? Delegate this task as often as you can. Look over your schedule and take note of any meals that you won’t have to prepare.
Maybe you’re going out to dinner with friends next week, attending a birthday party in two weeks, and attending a church barbecue in three weeks. Unless you’ve been asked to bring something, those are meals that require no effort from you.
If you have a spouse, or children who are old enough to cook, designate one night per week when they are in charge of providing dinner. If you’re budget allows for it, plan one night a week to be takeout night .(If you’re budget doesn’t allow for it, plan one night a week to be ramen or PB&J sandwich night.)
Once you’re done delegating, you’ll have an idea of how many meals you need to plan for.
3. Take stock
Before you begin planning your meals, take an inventory of what you already have. Is there anything in the freezer or pantry that needs to be used soon? What about perishables like produce? How many meals can you make with ingredients you already have on hand? Make a list of those first. Next, make a list of meals you can make that would only require you to buy one or two additional ingredients.
4. Make your menu
Use the list of meals you already have the ingredients for to begin building your menu. Look over the sale ads and coupons you have, and think about what produce is in season. In spring, I know I’m going to be making asparagus; in fall, I’ll buy squash, etc. Use what you know will be cheap or on sale and build your meal ideas around that.
Most of us tend to make the same things over and over. This actually works in your favor, because it allows you to use things you normally buy and saves you the time and energy of having to follow a new recipe every time. Feel free to include those tried and true mainstays in your monthly plan, and don’t be afraid to keep it simple. There’s nothing wrong with a salad or turkey wrap for lunch every day.
The great thing about meal planning for the entire month is it gives you the breathing space to try something new. Look over any recipes you’ve saved recently and decide on one or two you want to try in the next month. If they require any ingredients you wouldn’t normally buy, think about other things you can make that will use up those ingredients. For example, I recently bought a small jar of sun-dried tomatoes to make a new corn muffin recipe. I don’t normally buy those, so I planned to use them to make a veggie pizza for dinner a few nights later. It was delicious, and I didn’t waste a pricey ingredient.
5. Leftovers are your friend
Some people seem to think that eating leftovers, or eating the same thing a few days in a row, is gross or weird or wrong. That is totally mystifying to me. Leftovers were a staple in our house growing up. In fact, some things taste better after they’ve been in the fridge for a few days (this is known as the Chili Phenomenon).
Now that I live by myself, I’m grateful I was raised on leftovers. Can you imagine if I had to prepare a fresh meal for just myself three times a day, every single day? Hard pass.
So, if you’re totally against leftovers, that’s your prerogative, but it is going to create a lot more work for you. Think of it like this: in an average month, you will consume about 90 meals. If you’re down with leftovers, the number of meals you have to prepare drops to 45 or even lower. So, yes, leftovers are your friend.
Plan to batch
When meal planning for the month, you may want to plan to double or even triple each recipe. You can freeze the excess and have it again a week or two later. This works with meal prep, too. Did you know you can freeze plain cooked rice or pasta to use later? You can!
Batch cooking will obviously save you time, but it also saves money, as buying larger quantities of ingredients generally translates to a lower unit price.
When building your menu, calculate how many meals you will be able to get out of a doubled or tripled recipe. Then, write when you will eat the leftovers into your plan. See? The number of meals you have to make is dropping like crazy!
6. Implement your plan
Having a plan in place is only helpful if you take the steps to adhere to it. Think about how you normally prepare food. Do you go to the grocery on a specific day of the week or every day? Do you cut up your fruits and veggies as soon as you buy them, or as needed? Do you prep ingredients in advance (for example, pre-cooking grains or meat)?
If you’re not already comfortable meal prepping or batch cooking, think about whether you need to tweak your schedule to save time and effort.
An ideal scenario for me:
I keep a magnetized notepad on the fridge. When I run out of staples, I add it to the notepad. Before I head to the grocery, I look over my meal plan for the next week and add any ingredients I will need and grab the coupons I plan to use. When I get home, I cut up my fruits and veggies. Sometimes I pre-cook the meat and grains I’ll be using that week and sometimes not. Then, when it fits my schedule, I batch cook my meals for that week, freezing anything that I won’t be eating in the next couple of days.
This schedule works for me because a) I’m cooking for one, so I only have to prepare a few meals that will last pretty much the whole week and b) I hate cleaning my kitchen, so I prefer to clean up one big mess rather than a small one every day.
Your schedule will probably look different
Just think about how it will work for you and your family. If you live with others, see if they can help with food prep. Even if your spouse or roommate is a terrible cook, they can probably manage to bake some plain chicken breasts and chop up a few veggies.
Is all this talk about meal prepping and batch cooking making you say to yourself ain’t nobody got time for that?
That’s okay! Take your time constraint into account when making your monthly plan. Keep your meals as simple and effortless as possible. The key is to make your plan work for you.
7. Roll with the changes
If there’s one thing I know about life, it’s that things are always happening all of the time. Occasionally, things are going to come up that throw your schedule completely off track. One way to avoid letting these hitches get to you is to plan for them.
I like to have a list of three or four alternate meals built into my monthly meal plan. These are quick and easy meals I can throw together using things I always have on hand. Scrambled eggs and toast, for instance. Oatmeal and fruit. Popcorn. Steamed veggies with black beans. They may not be the most balanced meals, and they won’t win me any Chef of the Year awards. They will keep me fed and out of the drive-thru line, though.
When it comes to meal planning, the only rule is that there are no rules. Do you have some sort of plan? Does it involve meals? Congratulations, you’re meal planning! Don’t be too hard on yourself if things get shifted around, or if it takes you a while to settle into a comfortable routine.
Give meal planning for the month a try! Organize your materials, delegate a few meals out to others, take stock of what you already have, plan your menu (including leftovers), and make your plan work for you. You’ll find that planning for the bigger picture saves you time, money, energy, and hassle.
What meal planning strategies have worked for you? What strategies have you tried that haven’t worked? Tell me in the comments! Please share this post on Facebook or Pinterest if you enjoyed it, and don’t forget to sign up for e-mails for even more planning and organizing tips.