In this post, I’ll show you exactly how to meal plan for a whole month (even if you hate meal planning). With 4 small children running around, I don’t want to spend a lot of time meal planning. So, I set up a system where I can now plan breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for an entire month in about 30 minutes! And most of our meals are healthy and cheap.
This post will:
- explain why monthly meal planning is easier and faster than weekly meal planning
- teach you how to set up a recipe cheat sheet system
- give you a simple, free printable meal planning template
- show you how to actually meal plan for the whole month quickly
- provide a sample 30 day meal plan that works on a tight budget
- give you tons of cheap, healthy dinner menu ideas that our family loves!
Personally, I have found monthly meal planning to be easier and faster than weekly meal planning for 3 reasons:
1. Batching your tasks saves time
Any time you can do a task in “bulk,” you eliminate the start up costs of getting the project going. Every time you meal plan, you have to:
- Look for recipes
- Grab a calendar or list of some sort
- Check your fridge, pantry, and freezer to see what you have
- Think through your calendar for the week to plan accordingly
Doing all of those things every single week takes WAY more time than sitting down once a month and making a meal plan for the whole month.
I promise monthly meal planning is less intimidating than it sounds!!
2. You can double & freeze meals which saves time and money.
Many ingredients are cheaper in bulk, and many meals don’t take THAT much longer to just double the quantity.
If I’m making something that can easily be doubled and frozen, I will put it on the menu twice and write “DF” near the first time I plan it. That way I know to buy double the ingredients in the recipe and freeze some of what I make.
3. Variety + Efficiency + Throwing less out
By planning monthly, rather than weekly, you can make sure to use up all your ingredients efficiently but not have to eat the same thing several days in a row.
It just takes a couple months to find your groove! Use pencil, and give it a few months to see if it’ll work for you.
If planning monthly just seems too daunting, feel free to ease into it. Just print my monthly calendar template but do my system one week at a time. After doing that for 4 weeks, you’ll have a whole calendar of meals you could repeat next month.
- Print several copies of my monthly meal plan calendar template & fill in the dates for the current month.*
- Create a recipe cheat sheet with all your go-to recipes in one spot.
- Look at your family’s calendar/ plans/ activities for the month – make a note on your meal planning calendar regarding activities or plans that affect dinner.
- Use recipes from the cheat sheet to fill in your meal plan calendar & print as necessary.
- Fill in 2-3 simple breakfast and lunch options. Think cereal, scrambled eggs, PB & J, salami & cheese.
- Make a list of food you need for the week’s meals.
- Order your groceries online.
*Note: Of course, you can choose to use the same general system on a weekly basis. But, like I said, we’ve found the weekly meal planning to be more time consuming overall.
Remember – any time you try something new, there’s a time period of figuring out what works best for you. Tweak your menu for the month as needed & give yourself grace.
You can watch or listen to my video explanation if you’d rather watch than read 🙂
Step 1 – Print This Monthly Meal Plan Template
TIP – Print several at once to put by your cookbooks or recipe binder – that way you won’t have to print them next time.
Step 2 – Create a Recipe Cheat Sheet
A recipe cheat sheet is an ever-evolving list of your easy, go-to recipes that you can use for monthly dinner menu ideas. It’s much faster to look at a piece of paper than thumb through a cookbook or browse pinterest… which we all know can lead to hours and hours of rabbit trails.
Many of your go to meals on the cheat sheet probably don’t even need a recipe (tacos, diy pizza, grilled cheese & tomato soup, etc), but most people find it helpful to have all their meals in one spot. If you just keep it somewhere prominent, then you can add a new recipe to it whenever you try something new that you want to save for the future.
Here’s mine for inspiration – as you can see, it’s very boring and basic. Just keeping it real around here!
I threw all my recipes in a binder and tucked this cheat sheet in the front along with a stack of blank meal plan calendars.
Step 3 – Make Schedule Notes on Your Monthly Food Planner/ Calendar
Some things to note when meal planning for the month are:
- Hosting or bringing something to a friend’s house for dinner
- Watching friends’ kids during lunch/ snack times
- Nights away from home
- Nights we need to eat quickly
Use a pencil (or my new favorite mom tool, these awesome pens that actually erase!) and jot down notes about your schedule for the month right on to your meal plan calendar. (I explain this more around 2:33 in this video.)
Once you do this a few months in a row, you’ll start to notice your family’s schedules and rhythms more quickly.
For example, I try to have my babysitter do an easy dinner that can be made and thrown in the oven or on the grill on Mondays and Wednesdays.
On days I’m doing school at home with my kids, I want something fast and no-fuss. I either do a crockpot, pull from the freezer, or make something in the morning.
On Thursdays, I usually make a BIG main dish for our citygroup, and hope there are leftovers for the weekend.
On Fridays, we often do pizza with friends! I make sure to have paper plates on hand.
Step 4 – Add dinners for the month to your meal plan calendar
I focus on mainly planning dinners for the month… then, I add simple breakfast, lunch and snacks on a weekly basis. (Step 5).
Don’t over think this – your meal plan calendar should have schedule notes on it already (from step 3), so just write the first thing that comes to mind for each day. The clip where I explain this starts at 11:14 in my video.
IMPORTANT TIP: As you add a recipe to your calendar, print it out immediately and tuck it in the front cover of your binder.
Then, when week 3 rolls around and you see “enchiladas” on Wednesday night, you won’t have to go digging to find the enchilada recipe. You’ll just be able to glance at the pre-printed paper in your binder and quickly add what you need to your list for that week (step 6).
This is another example of when “batching” comes in handy… it is faster and easier to think about, find, and print recipes all at once for the month rather than to do this every single week!
4 Ways to Make The Monthly Dinner Plan as Simple As Possible!
1. Stick to specific type of recipes each day.
I.e. Grill on mondays, taco tuesdays, crockpot wednesdays, leftover thursdays, pizza fridays, soup on saturdays. Every other Sunday could be a freezer meal – double something oneSunday and thaw it the next.
2. Plan 2 weeks, then repeat.
When you sit down to create your meal plan, just plan 2 weeks worth of dinners, then repeat it the following two weeks. Win!
3. Start a potluck night.
We have grown to love eating with others once a week. Maybe you know some people from church or some neighbors or some co-workers to reach out to.
Something like, “Hey want to do a potluck style meal once a month on Sunday nights? What about in 2 weeks? It’ll be no pressure, nothing fancy. Everyone just bring something in their fridge to share.”
If you love it, suggest doing it every week! I saw an AMAZING idea for a casual weekly dinner with your neighbors over on @busytoddler’s instagram. She has an entire explanation under her “street dinners” highlight in her account.
4. Use supercook.com
The Supercook website lets you enter ingredients you have, then it spits out recipes that you can make with what you have on hand. Amazing for saving money by using what you have, and throwing less food out!
Step 5 – Fill in 2-3 simple breakfast, lunch, and snack options for the week
I do not plan out the breakfasts and lunches every day. Instead, I have a mental list of our favorites for breakfast and lunches and I just jot down 3 of them each week.
As you make your weekly grocery list in step 6, just make sure you have enough breakfast and lunch items on hand for the week.
Pause and think about your week and do what makes sense for you for breakfast and lunch.
If you are hustling in the mornings to get everyone out the door, maybe you can do self-serve bagels or cereal. Or make an egg casserole on Sunday that lasts half the week.
If you hate making lunch like I do, do snack lunches as many days of the week that you can. Pull out a bunch of somewhat-healthy food on a giant cutting board and leave it out for the kids to eat as they please. We do this with: lunch meat, cheese, leftovers, nuts, fresh fruit & veggies & some quartered quesadillas. The kids love it and there is ZERO “I don’t want that” drama because everyone just picks what they want.
My snack lunch trays never look quite this pretty, but you get the idea from @thebakermama on instagram. Hers is very inspiring! Ha!
Step 6 – Make a Grocery List for the Week Based off Your Menu Plan
This is pretty straightforward…
You should have all your dinners planned out for each week (step 4), plus you’ve jotted down some breakfast, lunch and snack ideas for just one week (step 5).
And you printed out the recipes you added to the meal plan during step 4.
- Just go one day at a time and list out ingredients you need to buy for each recipe. (Remember, your printed recipes are all in your binder!!) Check your freezer, fridge, and pantry as you plan and see what you already have on hand.
- Now, think back through breakfast items, lunches, and snacks. Add necessary ingredients to your list.
- Look at your fridge list (explained below) and add items from there to your grocery list too.
- Don’t forget your staples: coffee, cream, milk, eggs, butter, and cheese. All the cheese.
Over time, this monthly meal planning system will allow you to use ingredients more efficiently and throw less food out. Win!
TIP – The Power of the Magical Fridge List
I keep a magnetic pad on my fridge and any time I run out of something, I add it to the list. I almost NEVER make a special trip to the store for an item, with the exception of coffee or cream or medicine/ sick kid items. #momlife
Rather, I just add it to the fridge list RIGHT AWAY WHEN WE RUN OUT and try to make do without.
Of course, sometimes we run to the store, or forget to put something on the list. Such is life and no system is perfect!
If you don’t have a fancy schmancy magnetic pad, just tape a piece of paper up there this week and make the first item on your list, “magnetic list pad.” 🙂
Step 7 – Order Groceries Online!!!
For most people, time is money. The combo of saving time AND not impulse buying makes online grocery shopping* a financial win for almost everyone.
The exceptions are:
For everyone else, ordering online will save you time and money. It might be weird at first, but once you get used to it, it’s SO easy! And depending on where you live, you may even be able to get your food the same day you order it.
The internet is awesome.
*I’m going to recommend Walmart pickup, but if you don’t have it nearby, then follow these basic steps for any other grocery store in your area offering online ordering and pickup. If you use the same store a few weeks in a row, you’ll get used to the system and the app, and that will make your life easier!
Here are ideas for more than one month of healthy meals! They’re organized by category. Don’t forget to print any recipes you want to try & stick them in the front of your recipe binder now! 🙂 That way you don’t have to dig this post up later. Even if the rest of your binder is empty, you can print these recipes & my meal planning calendar template and voila! You’ll have a brand new recipe binder.
- brats – we love Costco’s brats available in the summers; I freeze half the package
- burgers – fun toppings optional (bacon, guacamole, fancy cheese, mushrooms)
- bbq chicken – marinade chicken breasts in plenty of Sweet Baby Ray’s, then throw on the grill & brush a little more sauce on top.
- cilantro lime pork chops – marinade in the morning, grill at night
- simply amazing chicken marinade
- best grilled steak
- pork chops – just brush with oil, add salt and pepper & grill
On the side with grilling, I like to do a salad or steamed veggies and some sort of potato. Our favorite potato options are: roasted garlic potatoes, homemade ranch fries, or sweet potato fries on the side.
The potatoes take 3x as long as grilling – so start those early or prep them in the morning.
- Burrito bowls – rice + beans plus taco meat & toppings of choice. We love fritos on ours!
- Easy cheesy salsa crockpot tacos – 3 chicken breasts raw + a 16oz jar of salsa in the crockpot on low for 4-6 hours. Shred in your standign mixer, mix back into the crockpot and add cheese.
- Standard ground beef tacos with homemade seasoning (I keep a big batch in a mason jar in the pantry so I don’t have to think about buying taco packets.)
- Crockpot pork carnitas
Don’t forget chips + guac 😉
This is my favorite pan/ fake wok for any large stove top sautéed dish… everything from giant egg + hash skillets to any sort of stir-fry meal.
- takeout or make your own…
- tons of fun homemade pizza ideas here
- our favorite homemade pizza crust & sauce recipe OR JUST BUY SOME AT THE STORE for goodness sakes
Soup or Sandwiches
Snack Dinner/ Clean out the Fridge/ Leftover Night
- Eat random crap from your pantry/ fridge/ freezer!
- Pull everything out, reheat as needed hand your kids a plate, and let them go to town 🙂
- Side benefit – your fridge will be almost empty.
- This is ideal for the day right before you grocery shop.
We have been here. Staring down a mountain of student loan debt, I set out to try to feed our family for $100/ week. This was 2015, we lived right by Aldi (my first grocery store love) and our 2 kids were really little and barely ate anything. I pinched pennies, often paid cash for groceries to avoid going over budget, and price matched at Walmart.
Thankfully, we aren’t on quite as tight of a budget, but I do try to stick within a certain amount on a weekly & monthly basis for food. (Here are 46 super cheap foods if you’re trying to save money on groceries!)
Your personal grocery budget depends on a few factors.
I wrote a 3-part series to help people figure out the right grocery budget for their families!
Good luck on your new monthly dinner menu planning endeavors! I hope this ridiculously long, step by step guide for how to meal plan was helpful to any meal planning beginners out there.
p.s. Feeling overwhelmed by daily mom life lately?
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