Friday, November 14, 2008

How to Create a Monthly Meal Plan 101

A few people I know have said that they would very much like to stop running to the grocery store so often and would like to try a monthly meal plan. I will also say that several other people I know just think that monthly meal planning is plain crazy. I love it for so many reasons but regardless of my reasons I’m probably not going to talk anyone into doing it if it does not appeal to them. I can guarantee you that monthly meal planning will save you time, money and get your family eating healthier and more of a variety of foods. Don't think that it is inflexible. It totally is. You will have the ingredients to make anything on your menu for a week. It is not so different than planning weekly in that regard. So if you don't feel like having hamburgers tonight, if you've planned for the month and shopped your produce for the week then you probably have several dinners to choose from.

(1) So the first thing to do to get started is to list all the meals that your family enjoys regularly. Of course you will want to do this in word document on your computer. Under each meals list all the ingredients that you would shop for that make up that meal. I call this my “Master Entrée Ingredient List.” I like to organize my entrée list by beef, chicken, pork, seafood and vegetarian categories so that when I am filling in my menu I can easily find the dish that I am looking for. This step may take several nights after the kids are tucked in bed and an hour here or there but it is worth it because it will save you SO much time in the end. This is the step that takes the most time.
I also like to make the produce or parishable food items on each meal ingredient list in green type at the top. That way when you go to make your grocery list from your Master Entrée Ingredient List you will easily be able to pick out your weekly produce runs and once a month shopping trip items.

I haven’t updated my Master Entrée Ingredient List in a few months and I have several new recipes that are keepers to add to it but here are several pages of mine to give you an idea:

(2) Once you have a list of several meals with their ingredients you can pull up a calendar to start planning your month. I download the free calendars at and then save it in a folder for menus. Or you can save it wherever it makes sense in your word document file list so you can retreive it later. That calendarsthatwork website only allows you to get one month in advance for free so I just use one I have and change the numbers on it if I want to plan more ahead. KWIM?

(3) I have found that it is easiest (if you want to get a variety of foods in your family’s diet) to label each day of the week with a kind of dish like chicken, pork, beef, etc. That makes plugging in your meals easier. For my fellow Catholic folks, this meal planning technique also makes it quite simple to revert back to pre-Vatican II practices of abstaining from meat on Fridays which is an added bonus on many levels. Then you simply start plugging in your meals in the squares of your calendar and copy and paste from your Master Entree Ingredient List on the second page (3 or 4 columns at 8 pt font so it fits on one page) to make up your corresponding grocery list. Be sure to break out your regular calendar to look at dates for things like Christmas concerts or sports activities and such. This way you can be sure to plan a meal that either cooks fast, travels well or is done in the crockpot for those days. You can also double or triple freezer friendly meals on days that you know you will have time to assemble them. Also be aware of meals that require you to defrost things from the freezer. In my calendar I type the items that need to be removed from the freezer in blue one or two days before I need to us them.

(4) If you find that you do not have enough meals initially to plug in a 30 day calendar don’t be discouraged. It’s difficult to come up with 30 meals off the top of your head in the beginning. As you do this month after month it gets easier and faster because your list gets longer and then you find yourself wanting to try new recipes. We always fill up the calendar with one leftover day per week and at my husband’s request a pasta meal once a week. This not only fills up the calendar but it is also budget friendly. Other ideas to fill up a calendar when you are struggling is homemade pizza or a breakfast for dinner night.

I also try to get everyone in the family involved in the menu planning. I fill up our calendar as much as I can and then I start asking everyone for ideas. Last month Carter came up with fish sticks when I told him I needed a seafood dish. I never made fish sticks so I tried a new recipe and Carter loved it and was excited that he had come up with our dinner idea that day.

(5) Once you have a monthly menu with the shopping list on page two, print two copies out, each with the calendar on one side and the shopping list on the back. Keep one in a handy place in your kitchen and the other stick in your purse. Before you shop, be sure to look to see what you have on hand in your pantry and cross off the things you do not need to buy.

Some other things I have found helpful since I started monthly meal planning is making sure that the first two days of the month have meals with items that I already have on hand or that are quick and easy. I do my monthly shopping usually in two days at the end of the month when we get paid. For the best prices I hit Sam’s Club first, then Aldi’s for whatever Sam’s didn’t have and then Giant Eagle (similar to Piggly Wiggly, Stop & Shop or Krogers elsewhere) for the items that Aldi’s does not have. Dragging little ones with me is no fun so I usually do one or two stores over a two day period. So I don’t want something on my menu on December 1st that I will have had to hit all 3 stores in order to make because I might not have made it to Giant Eagle yet, KWIM?

Another very important tip is to start your monthly meal plan EARLY. It's too difficult to get a whole month together in two days. I get sick of looking at it and take a few days break and then I look at the month fresh the next time I sit down with it and come up with new ideas. It's better to do it a few minutes here and a few minutes there. Eventually you will find that you sometimes have TOO MANY entrees and your ideas will spill into the next month.

I also try to plan my meals that use produce that parishes quickly at the beginning of the weeks and meals that use produce that lasts longer at the end of the week so that I can do my weekly produce runs successfully. That is really for advanced menu planning, but something to keep in mind. Scallions for instance may not be in the best shape for Sunday if you purchased them on the Monday before.

It's also good to keep seasonal produce in mind when creating a meal plan. I put the seasonal items at the top of each of my menus for meal planning purposes and for when I am shopping for a veggie at the grocery. In season produce is usually what is on sale and travels less. Produce that travels less is most nutritious.

To best utilize an ingredient that you may not cook with very often (and is not likely to be completely used with one recipe) it can be useful and economical to plan another recipe to use the leftovers of that ingredient. For instance in October I wrote about how we used ½ can of pineapple chunks for two different meals and the pineapple juice from the same can for a third marinade recipe.

There are always ways to improve a menu plan I am sure but in the beginning you just want to get it together. Improvements can be made later. Happy monthly menu planning!

Oh, and if you want to see my October and November Menus just find "Monthly Menus" on the articles list or click here: