Making a meal plan can save your sanity, and it doesn’t have to be difficult.
You can plan a whole month’s worth of dinners in just half an hour once you get a system going that works for you and your family.
With four kids, two with allergies, and one who has ongoing ‘picky eating’ issues, a husband who works day and night shift in a stupid eight day rotation, and several after school activities that keep us out till late… figuring out what to have for dinner almost kills me at times.
The only thing that makes dealing with the dinner nightmares a little more bearable is making a meal plan.
I plan a month of meals at a time, and although that sounds like a lot, it really doesn’t take me very long. I can plan a whole month’s worth of meals in around half an hour.
Tips for planning a months worth of meals in just half an hour:
Find an awesome printable meal planner
I created my own printable meal planner so it is exactly how I like it!
It has spaces for five weeks, and you can add your own dates so you can plan for whatever date range you like. The weeks start on a Monday because that’s the way I like it (but there I also have a version that has Sunday at the start of the week), there is space to write in any events or appointments as well as meals, and space for extra notes at the bottom (I usually write a list of breakfast and lunch options here)
There are lots and lots and lots of printable meal planners online (you can find our weekly and monthly menu plan printables here), so find one that works for you.
Put all activities and events on the planner.
It’s no good planning to have a roast dinner on the 17th only to discover you have an extra dance rehearsal that night! So put all those events, activities, shifts, appointments and anything else that might affect meals on the meal planner. That way you can easily see in advance what you need to plan for, or work around.
Use a master list of meal ideas.
I have a big list of meal ideas that I keep adding to over time. It’s got breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas, and I get the rest of the family to help come up with ideas. This is my secret weapon, and my sanity saver. It’s what makes planning out a whole month of meals at a time quick, and easy. I don’t waste time trying to come up with meal ideas, I just go through my list of meals and slot them into each day. You can find our free printable meal ideas planner here.
Use a rotating system.
Meatless Monday, taco Tuesday, grill on Wednesday, pasta on Thursday… I wish this sort of system worked for us, but with my husband’s two days, two nights, four off shift cycle (whoever came up with an 8 day cycle didn’t have a family!!!) it just isn’t workable. But it’s a brilliant way to make meal planning easier, and we’ve come up with our own, weird, but similar system, based around what shift Dad is on. So my advice is, work out some kind of rotating system that works for you, and use it.
Repeat meals that work.
I used to try not to have any dinner more than twice in a month, and I used to go insane doing it. Now I know better, and I’ve let crazy stuff like that go in favour of my sanity, so you’ll find the same dinners on my menu again and again. These are the dinners that everyone eats and that are easy to prepare and easy on the budget. If it drives you bonkers to have Tacos every single week, then break up the monotony a bit by varying the delivery – tacos one week, chili the next, then enchiladas, and then burritos… it’s really the same meal but it won’t feel so boring. And if you have a picky eater, you’ll take boring and repetitive, over food struggles any day!
Be prepared to make changes.
Use a pencil to write on your meal plan, or be prepared to cross things out, add arrows, and have it look less than perfect, because while a meal plan is awesome, it’s not set in stone, and you need to be prepared to go with the flow and make changes when you need to. It’s a lot of plan meals four weeks in advance, sometimes I’m not certain exactly how things will be in three days time, let along three weeks time! But I still slot in meal ideas that far in advance, I just do it knowing that I may have to be flexible or make changes. It’s much easier to switch meals around in a week, or change out one meal for something else, if I’ve already got a plan in place, meal ideas on paper, and ingredients in the cupboard.
So that’s how I manage to get a month’s worth of meals on my menu plan in around half an hour.
I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for meal planning.
Have you got a favourite meal planner that you just love?
Where do you find meals to put on your plan?
Do you meal plan monthly? Fortnightly? Weekly? What works for you?
Leave me a comment below, and feel free to link to meal planners, recipes or ideas. Let’s help each other make the dinner nightmares a little more bearable!
Find our free printable monthly and weekly meal planners here.
Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:
Meal planning saves me! I’ve been doing it hardcore for about 3 years now and my system is down pat. I do it weekly because I like to have that flexibility, but I can totally see where monthly works.
I have a 2 week rotation of themes, i.e. Mexican (yes, I do get sick of tacos but the kids don’t), Curry/ Asian, slow cooker, fish, ‘takeaway’ (usually homemade pizza). I have collected recipes and favourite meals under each of these headings in my master recipe binder, so it’s easy to pick something from the list, or even delegate to the kids to choose.
My routine is to write down the theme for each night, any appointments, check the week’s weather forecast (thank you winter in mid spring), then get choosy. I also like to try at least one new recipe a week – these are usually on a weekend when there’s more time to potter around. And the slow cooker is my friend: fill ‘er up in the morning, dinner is served! Oh, and I regularly have a freezer meal on the schedule, to keep the frozen stuff from being forgotten and wasted.
Oh yes taking into account the seasons and the weather is a great tip. So is the freezer meals idea – it’s great to note on your planner which meals you might make double of so you can put one in the freezer for later!
Thanks so much for sharing your tips!
Oooo!! I love these ideas!!
Yes! Meal planning is the best! I can only do it for one week, though, because otherwise I would notice the monotony of our meals too easily and that would drive me crazy… I had to laugh a few years ago when I read a book on nutrition and the author said, usually families have about 12 recipes they keep cooking over and over again… What? I thought: THAT many???
So I used to make an effort to introduce one new recipe a week, and that worked well for a while. And I had one veggie day a week!
Living in China has made things a bit more difficult. First off, getting the ingedrients isn’t always as easy as it is at home, secondly unfortunately have two kids who don’t particularly care for my efforts to try out Chinese recipes. Thirdly, I have to plan for recess snack, school lunch _and_ dinner — and that’s a lot! Also, I work one evening a week, so things have to be quick and I am opting for delivery (very easy in China) more often than not…
The good news: If I plan ahead of time, I get more sleep! Because that way I can either prepare the night before and get a little bit more sleep in the mornings, or I know that the next morning I will have to get up a bit earlier to make school lunches, so I go to bed a bit earlier, too.
The best part, however: if you do meal plans, you only have to wreck your head once a week rather than everyday, :-).
I will try your print out and see, if it helps organizing! Thank you!
Being in China must be a bit of an extra challenge! But you are so right… you only have to worry about what’s for dinner once a week instead of every night and that is a huge relief!
Sherry Reuter says
Great ideas! What about the grocery shopping system that goes along with it? Thank you!
I know this is a backwards way to do it, but we have a picky eater here too. I was so overwhelmed where to start and how to change recipes to fit us and our budget, to get started I wrote on the calendar that night after dinner the meal we ate (if everyone liked it) then over time I could see what our favorites were, seasonal meals etc. I could flick back a month and I would have a good handful of recipes.
That is a genius idea! Thanks for sharing!
As a single woman who works long days as a teacher, meal planning is the structure I need. I usually come home hungry, and if I don’t have a good plan ready, I grab the wrong stuff to eat. Cooking for one means I usually eats the same thing twice in a row, which can be annoying. I sit down every Monday morning (my day off), look at sales and plan my week. I’m working on collecting my favorite meals in a binder so it’s easier to plan different meals. I also plan a freezer meal on my longest workday.
I use the fridge as my meal planner
I draw the table up in permanent marker, then meals in whiteboard marker. Only a weeks worth though. But I also grab meals from a diet plan, so I cheat a bit sometimes:)
Lorrin @ embracetheperfectmess.com says
Meal planning is so crucial in a busy family! I have never had a rotating system, but I keep tossing the idea around in my head, and I am really thinking this is the route we need to go. I never think to put our activities in the calendar first. Ummm…helloooo… that is KEY! I don’t know why I haven’t thought to do that. Instead I just end up switching things around. Obviously, that’s going to happen once in a while, but this would make things significantly easier!
Beccy May says
My husband has the same shift rotation! I usually plan for the easiest mealsfor when he is on shift, like to know what system you use in your house if I may?
It’s such a crappy shift cycle when you have a family isn’t it!
We meal plan with the 8 day cycle… So we do two nights of meals that are easy to cook and have leftovers for the two day shifts, as I’m on my own to cook them, but have my husband home to help with the clean up, and he takes leftovers for lunch the next day. Then we do two nights of quick easy meals because it’s just me and the kids so I need to be able to cook quickly and have something that is not a huge mess for the kids and I to clean up afterwards. Then for the four days my husband is off shift we share who cooks between both of us and our older kids. But of course that cycle also has to take into account what nights we are out late with afterschool activities too… there is always something to juggle isn’t there!
Ive just started weekly planning but really need to up it to fortnightly… These are all perfect tips to get me going! We live on a huge crop/sheep farm in WA and things can change veerrrry quickly so pencil idea is the best! I had my sister laminate a weekly planner for me and I use a whiteboard marker but found that the kids would rub half of it off!!
I think I’ll have to look into this ‘master recipe’ thing as it sounds awesome!
Thanks for all your tips
Ps is your husband a firey? that roster sounds similar to when mine was!!
No, not a firey… he just works in a plant/factory that runs 24 hours a day.
The master list of meal idea saves my bacon so many times… even when I’ve been too slack to meal plan I still have the list to fall back on when my brain fails me at 5pm LOL
I’ve been a silent reader of your blog for few years (since my boy was 1, now he’s 3).
Thank you for sharing the awesome play ideas!
I plan my meal in a 3-week rotation, because the number of meal ideas I have fits 3 weeks nicely.
I printed a table with days, wrote down the meals, and every 3 weeks I will just make simple modifications (e.g. if there is a public holiday, if the daycare is closed, etc). Every Friday night I make a grocery list and on Saturday morning we buy all that we need for the whole week.
It’s boring sometimes, but so far the system serves me well, and the husband and son have not complained so far :)
For what it is worth, both I and my husband work the normal office hours (9-6 — we are in Singapore) and our boy goes to daycare. So the weekend is the only chance we get to do grocery shopping.
A little bit of boring is fine, if it saves your sanity!
Thanks for sharing your system!
Christina Kinser says
I like the idea of meal planning also. My husband suffers from hyperthyroidism and one day he’s fine with whatever I fix and the next he cannot tolerate the smell or taste of beef or chicken, and some days any meat at all. So I understand the need for variety. Since fall has set in…and being from the south…things like pinto beans and large pots of homemade soups are a must…almost mandatory. So on those days of pinto beans and leftovers the next…a new creation happens on the third day. Homemade chili. All ya have to do is add tomato juice, chili powder, and veggies like onions and peppers and some kidney beans. 30 minutes…new meal. Same with a roast. Next day add all your favorite soup veggies.. We like onions,celery,carrots,potatoes, cabbage,peas,green beans and voila. An upcycled meal. No waste either.
I do a biweekly menu for our household of 6. Then I write my shopping list to go with it. I use a dry erase surface just in case. I work days and my husband works nights so easy meals on his nights to cook. This saves us time, hassle and confusion. This system really works for us and the kids like knowing what’s for dinner ahead of time.
Hi Ladies, just wanted to note that as a retiree with a hubby new diagnosis of high blood pressure, a calendar and schedule of meals is so handy for us as well. I see so many notes of busy working parents that are useful as well. Being retired makes not any less busy just priorities have changed. Thank you for all of your suggestions. Elizabeth
Brennan @ Our Home on Purpose says
These are great tips! After planning 1-2 weeks at a time, I finally made the jump to monthly and love it!
I’ve learned to make one big grocery trip at the beginning, but already have a list written for produce & perishable items I’ll need mid-month. It makes it a lot easier when it’s time to swing by again!
I’ve also started saving my meal plans so that now I have 3 “sets” of monthly meals & the associated grocery list. While I definitely rearrange the meals as needed (for events or time away), I know that the meals work together and I don’t have to come up with them again. Since it rotates through 90 days, we don’t get tired of it either!
I enjoyed your post and love hearing other systems! Thanks for sharing, and I’ll be sure to save!
I’ve used a 4×6 index card system over the years to collect my “tried and true” recipes to keep in steady rotation for meal planning. On the fronts of the cards are the ingredient lists for grocery shopping, and on the backs are cooking notes. All of them are relatively fast and easy recipes, nothing too complicated. Over time I’ve added and subtracted from the card collection as our tastes changed or we’ve discovered new favorites, but there are always at least 20-30 recipes in steady rotation. I’ll grab 3 or 4 of the cards on the way to the grocery store, buy the ingredients and be ready to go for most of the upcoming weeknight meals (we love leftovers, too). Then those cards go to the back of the stack until next time. This isn’t saying that I don’t cook other things beyond the cards, because I often do. But having these regular favorites to rely on is very helpful, and the cards are excellent memory-joggers.
I used a large family planner calendar and some very small post it notes with the name of the recipe on them. If I have to move the night around I just pick up and move the post it note. Helps with shopping also because I can see what is planned and figure out what I need to buy.
Thank you for sharing! My husband is a firefighter and works the same shift as yours and we have two very energetic boys that do the after school activities most days of the week. I work four days a week, but my roster changes every week to work around my husbands. With the constant changing of shift and my working hours and I really struggle with getting myself and in turn my family organised and dinner and grocery shopping in general occurs often and without much planning. I must admit, I hate cooking so I go for very easy meals. What advice if any can you provide on getting started?
Definitely keep it as easy as you can. Family meals don’t need to be fancy and you don’t need a huge number of meals either… almost always the only one who cares about how often you eat tacos is you!
Whenever I fall off the meal planning wagon I always start by writing a list of meal ideas, and then I use that list to start writing meals on the calendar. Use a pencil, and don’t worry about changing things around, or leaving spaces on your meal plan, even planning a couple of meals a week is better than none! Good luck, the rotating shifts are super crazy!
I run a day care in my home, so meal planning is a must for me! Thank you for all the helpful tips!
I would like to add something that helps me greatly when grocery shopping. I usually shop at the same two grocery stores, so I created a shopping list for each store. I have labeled each section of my list (ex. Dairy, Meat, Baking, etc) by aisle so that I start at the beginning of the list in aisle 1 and end my list at the last aisle! It is very helpful for me!
Thanks again for all your tips!
I used to do this too… until Aldi changed their layout, and now I am completely lost! I really need to wrap my head around it again, so thanks for the reminder!
I used to meal plan back when my kids were in school and my husband worked a crazy shift like you described. I did very close to the same thing, a blank 5 week calendar, a master list (I made mine by listing everything my family would eat by main ingredient – chicken, ground beef, pork, soups/stews, etc) and then would pick from that list and fill in the menu. Slip it into a plastic sheet protector, and use a dry erase marker to X off meals as we ate them. That way it wasn\’t set in stone that we had to have spaghetti tonight and we could be a little more flexible but still stick with the groceries I bought :) Also always remember to shop your pantry first, and any leftovers after 2 days you can freeze, either individually for lunches, or wait two weeks and break it out again. You get a night off from cooking and they don\’t realize it\’s leftovers! Also if you save the old printouts you have a month\’s worth done already and it\’s probably already got your seasonal preferences (chili in winter and salads in summer).
I love the idea of just crossing off a master list! That is genius! Thanks so much for sharing!
Anne Harrison says
Meal planning is the only way to go. I always have a frozen lasagne or meatballs and a jar of sauce and noodles or something similar, just in case things don’t work on a particular day and these things are easy to throw together!