Menu planning isn’t rocket science, and it doesn’t have to feel like torture, either. Here are step-by-step instructions, plus super helpful tips and tricks, to make once-a-month menu planning work for you.
Before You Plan
Make a Pinterest Board (or two)
Menu planning is so much easier if you have a bank of recipes to draw from. I get that thinking up 25 or 30 recipes in one sitting is tough. When you have those recipes already gathered in a couple places, it just becomes a matter of assigning recipes to each day. That’s much more doable.
This is where Pinterest comes in. I have two boards that I regularly reference when I create our monthly menus: a tried and true recipes board, where I pin recipes we’ve tried and love, and a recipes to try board, where I save recipes I definitely want to try in the next month or two.
To get yourself ready for month-at-a-time meal planning, make a couple boards similar to mine. Take a bit of time to go through your other food boards and repin applicable content to those new boards, and keep the boards in mind as you browse Pinterest throughout the month. You want a hefty amount of recipes to draw from when you sit down to make your menu.
While You Plan
Fill in What You Know
Start by filling in the nights that are already set. If you eat supper every Wednesday night at church, or Sundays are extended family dinners, write those in.
Next, take care of special events. For instance, last month was December. I knew we’d be eating Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners with family. In addition, we had at least a couple other family gatherings thrown in.
Just doing that will probably take care of at least a few nights throughout the month. Go ahead and add in pre-planned meals, too: Taco Tuesday, Homemade Pizza Friday, etc.
Hit Up Pinterest
Visit those boards you made and begin to assign a recipe to each day. Begin with new recipes you want to try and add in as many as you feel comfortable with. I aim to try one new recipe each week; don’t plan more new recipes than you can realistically tackle.
Next, fill in every remaining blank days with recipes your family has tried and loved. I plan supper for every night, even though I know we’ll resort to frozen pizza or eating out at least once or twice throughout the month (more on that below).
After You Plan
Take a Look
When you’ve scheduled a meal for every night of the month, it’s time to display your menu in a prominent place. You can hang it on the fridge, you can make a DIY dry erase calendar, or you can buy a magnetic monthly calendar. Just make sure you can see it easily (if you want to avoid that pesky “what’s for dinner?” make sure to hang it where everyone can see it.)
Make a List
Now that you know what you’re cooking for the month, make a grocery list of every ingredient you need, minus the ones you already have on hand. At the beginning of the month, shop for everything for the whole month, leaving off anything perishable that won’t be used before it spoils. The only trips you’ll have to make to the store throughout the month will be for those perishables, plus things you’ll likely run out of, like milk or eggs.
Tips and Tricks
- Use what you have. To maximize the money-saving aspect of meal-planning, you’ll want to take stock of what you have and plan meals around that. Check out your pantry and your fridge and make sure you include recipes to use those items, especially the ingredients that need to be used in the next several weeks.
- Plan for the whole product. To ensure I don’t waste food, I plan more than one recipe using the same product. For example, if I buy Texas toast to make French toast, I’ll plan club sandwiches as well, to use the rest of the loaf of bread. If I buy buttermilk to make homemade ranch dressing, I’ll also plan pancakes to use the rest of the buttermilk.
- Don’t plan for leftovers or eating out. Even though we’re bound to have leftovers at least a couple times a month, and we always end up eating out at least once, I don’t put those things in my menu plan. For one, I never know when we’ll have leftovers. Sometimes we eat more than I anticipate, or I end up packing leftovers for my lunch. The reason for not planning eating out is simple: the choice to go out is often spontaneous, so I’m not able to build it into my menu plan.
- Plan with your schedule in mind. No one knows your family like you do, so keep those quirks in mind as you plan. For example, we’re all so tired by the time Thursday evening rolls around. Even more tired than Friday, for some reason, probably because by Friday we’re invigorated by the weekend. With that in mind, I always plan something easy on Thursday, like breakfast-for-dinner or green chile chicken taquitos from the freezer.
Don’t miss the rest of the posts in this series, like: Cooking Tips for People Who Don’t Like to Cook and Tips for Getting Dinner on the Table (When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking).
What’s your menu-planning strategy? If you don’t menu plan, what’s holding you back? I’d love to hear from you!
(this post contains affiliate links; to learn more, see my disclosure policy)
Angela @ Setting My Intention says
I am actually starting to enjoy menu planning – I never thought the day would come when I said that! I only plan one week ahead though – that’s good enough for me! I really like the idea of a “tried and true” Pinterest board. I have a notebook that I write our “tried and true” recipes because I prefer that to constantly refreshing screens. These are great tips Abby – thanks!
I enjoy it, too! I love planning new recipes I know my family will like, and I love knowing we’re prepared for the month. I’m with you on refreshing pages; I usually bring up the recipe on my phone and screenshot it to avoid that.
These are great ideas! I usually do two weeks at a time but I think a month might be amazing!
Thank you, Susannah! You should definitely give it a shot and see if it’s something that would work for your family.
Ashlyn @ A Mom In Training says
I like how easy you laid this out, Abby. It’s like boom, boom, bam, done, na mean? That’s so true about being tired by the time Thursday rolls around. We just want something quick and simple by then! Cute menu calendar by the way!
I’m so much less up for cooking on Thursday than I am on Friday, for some reason. I guess the weekend energizes me. And thanks, I made it myself!
Amy B says
I also menu plan for a month at a time! I keep a spreadsheet with all my recipes and the main ingredients (I don’t put spices or staples on there, because I always have those)
The spreadsheet saves loads of time planning a menu and writing a grocery list! (I add new recipes to try pretty frequently) Menu planning for the month takes about 35 minutes 🙂
I so need to make a spreadsheet! I have one for practically everything else, so I don’t know why I drag my feet when it comes to meal planning. Thanks for the nudge, Amy!
Great tips! I have been meal planning for a few years now and I feel totally lost when I don’t do it. I also meal plan for the month. I do a few things, differently, but I think it’s important to note that we are all different people and that there is not right and wrong way to do it. I am in a season of life, that making a completely new menu plan each month seems overwhelming so for the next few months I’m going to try using the same one. My plan is to switch once winter is over and more fresh foods are available.
Great point, Rosanna! I don’t even think menu planning a month at a time is right for everyone, but I do think there are a lot of people who don’t try it simply because they’re intimidated by the idea. Your suggestion to recycle the same plan is great!
I have been doing monthly meal planning for about six months and I love it! Since I started homeschooling in addition to the already busy schedule we have every day it’s so much easier to only have to make one big shopping trip each month and I’m pretty much done with it. I also keep my freezers fully stocked with freezer-crockpot meals which makes it all even easier! I also save tons of money, by the way 🙂
One of my favorite benefits of meal planning- especially the once-a-month kind- is the savings! Thanks for the comment, Kristina!
I do something similar, but we DO plan on leftovers. We have “must go” night every Tuesday. Why Tuesday? The trash goes out on Wednesday. I go through the fridge top to bottom on Tuesday pulling out any leftovers and allow the family to pick what they want. I keep chicken fingers in the freezer for the rare instance where we don’t have enough leftovers for the night. This cuts down on the amount of food we actually toss because otherwise food gets left in the refrigerator until it’s no longer edible. All veggies that don’t get consumed on Tuesday go into the bag of soup starter in the freezer, and homemade soup makes an appearance about every 30 days or so. I honestly have only had to toss one item in the last 2 weeks (takeout leftovers the oldest kiddo didn’t want to eat and no one else liked either), so this is what works for us. Also, my husband works from home two days a week, so if I want to have a casserole or meatloaf put in the oven before I get home, he’s usually willing to do so.
I love this, Marcia! I used to schedule leftovers in our menu plan, but I got frustrated that we never seemed to have anything left on the nights I was counting on it. The idea of using everything one night a week is brilliant! I think my family would love the buffet aspect of it!
Christina @ Martha, Martha says
Great tips! I have tried planning the whole month out, but it never seems to work out. There are too many impulsive eating-out nights, or I just don’t feel like eating what we I had planned, or I plan something complicated and want something simple. This 100 Day Challenge we are doing has me really changing some of those ways! http://www.marthamarthablog.com/100-days-of-no-eating-out-day-21/ I just may try your plan next month!
Thank you for the comment, Christina! I might plan our meals a month at a time, but I never follow the plan exactly. I’ll switch meals around based my mood, or we’ll eat out a time or two more than planned and end up saving a few meals for the next month. But at least I have everything I need to cook at home instead of eating out if it isn’t in our budget.
I’m so intrigued by 100 days of no eating out! I might have to try something similar.
There is a very good book about one meal working into the next (among other things). It is “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler. It cam out a couple years ago, so you should be able to find it at the library. She also has some great ideas on simple basic meals, and food preparation. Her book would work well ideologically with the clean eating movement.
Thanks for the suggestion, Kristie! The idea of one meal working into the next seems like what I try to do, but on a much more successful scale. I’m going to have to look into that book!
You have made this look so easy! So, have you noticed a difference in your spending when you plan once a month? Or is this strictly a time saving (and not eating out) endeavor? I am a terrible meal planner…terrible! But when I do plan, I try to base it around what is on sale. I am just wondering how that works out with a monthly plan?
I do notice a savings in our spending because 1) we eat out less and 2) I’m not running to the grocery store several times a week for last minute items. I don’t shop sales because we live in a rural area and we have a small local grocery store that doesn’t have a weekly ad. I save money by making a once-a-month trip to Walmart, which is about 25% cheaper than the local store. I still shop in town about once a week for produce and dairy, but the overall savings from once-a-month planning is definitely there.
I notice a huge savings with meal planning. I tried to do the coupon thing. I actually did pretty well with it, but it was hard to keep up with. I find that by meal planning I am only spending on what I’m using. I end up saving quite a bit more than I even did doing sales and coupons. Our key was to be realistic in our plan. Not to feel like every meal needed to be a fancy recipe. It’s ok to plan quesadillas or tacos. If you can keep to your shopping list, you’ll be amazed what you don’t spend on.
Great tips, Angie! I’m with you: I used to enjoy couponing, and save quite a bit of money that way, but it just isn’t realistic right now. And we are all about some tacos, quesadillas, and breakfast-for-dinner at my house!
The planner posted in the picture, where did you get that?
It’s just a stock photo, so I’m not sure where the planner can be purchased.
Thank you Abby – very clear & encouraging, and what a clever & absolutely beautiful menu board idea!!! That, on it’s own, will inspire me to actually do this 🙂
Aw, thank you for sweet comment, Jennifer! I’m not much of a DIYer, so I’m pretty proud of that board 🙂 And you’re right, it does make menu planning time more enjoyable!
I plan once a week, and that works for us. I also build a leftover day into our plan. I purposely have at least one if not two meals that will give us leftovers. It gives me one to two nights in the week that I don’t have to worry about cooking. Sometimes we have a few different smaller leftovers to choose from. I haven’t tried once a month planning as once week gets changed all of the time. We are sort of empty nesters so there are nights when we don’t care and eat eggs. I just move what I had planned for that night to the next week. 🙂
Thanks for the comment, Deb! I love having flexibility, too. We rarely follow a our menu exactly, even for a week at a time, and we’ve been known to resort to breakfast for dinner, too 🙂
Great tips! I tried meal planning so many times before it stuck. Shorter meal plans were harder for me to keep up with. Doing a month is perfect for me. I DO leave 1 or 2 meals open each week knowing that something will come up at some point. It lets us see the freedom to adjust meals within the week and gives us the permission to just be too exhausted to cook some days. For us it leaves meal planning guilt free and keeps it from feeling like a burden.
I love your perspective of having a harder time with shorter plans, Angie! I love the idea of guilt-free planning, too; that’s exactly how it should be.
Thank you for the tips! My husband has been wanting me to do this for the longest time, but i always seem to get lost in the task. He also wants me to save the menus so that we can develop a rolling three month cycle. After seeing your post it actually feels like something I can do!
You’re welcome, L.S.! I truly think that, if you take the time to create a menu full of meals your family loves, you’ll enjoy having dinner mapped out for you. You can do it!
Tanya Smith says
I used to do this when I was a stay-at-home mom. It was GREAT! So very helpful! I highly recommend doing it!
Thanks, Tanya! Once-a-Month menu planning could totally benefit stay-at-home moms.
I linked over to this post from Money Saving Mom, and I was curious as to if you have a sample monthly menu that you could share? I typically menu plan one week ahead, and I’m trying to figure out if doing a monthly menu plan & accompanying shopping list would be even more helpful. With my family, I feel like I’ll still need to be at the store weekly for perishables – salad greens, veggies, fruits… I guess I’d like to see a sample meal plan & shopping list to help me wrap my head around what all I could buy up to a month in advance. All I can come up with on the top of my head is meat, and surely that cannot be all!
Thanks for reading, Jennifer! I don’t have a sample monthly menu, but I do have a few thoughts you might find helpful. I still go to the grocery store every week or two, even with my monthly menus. I have to buy the things you’re mentioning: milk, produce, etc. I think, though, with the right planning- and enough fridge/pantry space- you could reduce your trips to twice a month. You’d plan to eat the most perishable produce, like bananas and leafy greens, during the first week; you’d save the rest, like oranges or carrots or potatoes, for the second week. You could even buy a couple weeks’ worth of milk, assuming you have the refrigerator space.
I do think once-a-month planning isn’t for everyone, but if you give it a shot, you might find it reduces grocery store-related hassle. Even if you’re still hitting the store once a week, those trips would be easier and faster if you were only grabbing the few fresh items necessary for that week. I hope that’s helpful to you; let me know if you decide to give once-a-month menu planning a try!