When you get home from a long day of work, do you find yourself wondering what you should make for dinner?
Then you look in your refrigerator or freezer only to find out you don’t have anything in there you feel like making.
And your kids are telling you they are hungry and asking you what’s for dinner. Then you blow your food budget by ordering a pizza, getting curbside pickup, or fast food.
Let me tell you, I have been there.
It is no fun coming home from work when you are exhausted and trying to figure out what to make for dinner when all you want to do is sit down and put your feet up.
But ordering takeout really adds up. And if you want to save your food budget, then meal planning is where it’s at.
Prior to the pandemic, The Shelby Report conducted a study of more than 3,000 consumers and found that only 3-4 meals were cooked at home per week. Think how much money-saving potential was lost there!
I’ve been doing monthly meal planning for a few years now, and let me tell you, it is a lifesaver. Meal planning saves money, time, and of course, headaches!
If you are looking for more ways to cut back on your food budget, check out my post, 12 Easy Ways to Cut Food Expenses.
Monthly meal planning is actually quite simple, especially once you have a rotation of meals that your family loves.
I created a step-by-step guide to help you get started on monthly meal planning. This guide will make meal planning easy and help you stick with it to help your family eat healthily and, of course, save you money.
I call it monthly meal planning, but actually, I meal plan for four weeks at a time to keep it simple. We do our food shopping every two weeks. Also, I don’t plan breakfast and lunches because we don’t really need to.
We always ensure we have a variety of quick and easy breakfast foods for busy mornings when we are trying to get out the door. So we have cold cereal, oatmeal, bagels, bananas, & toaster pastries for the kids.
I also make pancakes and Belgian waffles over the weekend to either use during the week or freeze and use as we want them. Then we typically make a big breakfast on Sundays with eggs, hash browns, toast, etc.
We also are very boring lunch eaters!
I either take cottage cheese with fruit, oatmeal with a hard-boiled egg, or leftovers for lunch. My husband and kids take sandwiches with different lunch food items, like yogurt, fresh fruit or fruit cups, crackers, chips, nuts, pretzels, etc.
Keep reading to learn exactly how I plan our evening meals for four weeks at a time!
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The Easy Way to Make a Monthly Meal Plan for Beginners
Real Quick: Before I get started on how to create a monthly meal plan, I just wanted to tell you about this awesome service. If you have been trying to meal plan for a while and it just isn’t working for you, you could try $5 meal plan.
$5 Meal Plan is a meal plan service that sends you weekly meal plans right to your inbox, and you also get the grocery list for the meal plan already done for you!
All you have to do is check off the things you already have and head to the grocery store to get the rest.
Most of the meals work out to be around $2 per person. And the service is only $5 a month!
So if you would like to check it out, they have a free 14-day trial you can sign up for here.
You could use this as a last resort if you don’t have the time to meal plan on your own.
Alright, here’s how to create a monthly meal plan!
1. Stock your freezer before starting your monthly meal planning
Okay, so this will take some money upfront to get you started. But once you have some meal options in the freezer, deciding what to make will be so easy!
If you don’t already have a separate freezer, you may want to consider investing in one if you are going to start stocking up on frozen food items.
You could look on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for a used one if a new one is not in the budget.
Or you could organize the freezer so you have and utilize every last inch of it for storage.
Baskets or storage bins like these may help you get your freezer organized so you can see exactly what food you have at any given time.
Stocking up when there are sales or when you buy in bulk will save you some trips to the grocery store, which in turn will end up saving you some money.
We bought a small chest freezer on sale years back when I first started meal planning. Now we head to Sam’s Club once every 12-14 weeks to restock our freezer.
We stock it with things like tilapia, salmon, ground beef, meatballs, ravioli, chicken breasts, pork chops, and steaks.
If you don’t have Sam’s Club near you, try Costco, BJ’s, or watch for good sales at your local grocery store to buy in bulk.
2. Obtain a planner to use for your monthly meal planning
Now that your freezer is stocked, you need a place to write down your meal selections. I buy a planner every year from Dollar Tree for my meal planning. I find that the monthly planners work the best for me because I meal plan for four weeks at a time.
But even if you will be meal planning on a week-by-week basis, the monthly meal planner is nice because you can easily look back to see what you had planned the previous week without having to flip the page.
I personally like the monthly planners with the column down the side for “notes.” The notes column is where I write down my food inventory (more on that below). This planner is laid out just like the one I have and love.
I personally like using a planner because I like having the previous month’s meals to look at for ideas, and I also keep track of upcoming appointments, days that school will be closed, when my last haircut was, etc.
It really helps keep your whole life organized.
However, you don’t have to go out and buy a planner to start meal planning. I have created a Meal Planning Guide to help you create a monthly meal plan or weekly meal plan, whichever you decide!
My Meal Planning Guide contains a free monthly meal planner printable, a weekly meal planner template with a grocery list section, a sample monthly meal plan, dinner theme night ideas, an inventory list, and more! You can take a quick peek here:
3. Write in upcoming appointments, sports practices, events, etc.
Not only will writing in all your appointments keep your life organized, but it will also help you immensely with your meal planning.
So on nights when you have to get your kid to a sports practice or nights when you have a doctor’s appointment, plan a meal that is quick and easy.
I love doing leftover meals or meals I had already made previously and had in the freezer for these nights.
Or you could even make your meal the night before and heat it up when you are ready to eat.
4. Write down your food “inventory”
As I said, I love using an actual monthly planner for my meal planning because they have those lines for notes next to the month that is perfect for writing down the things you currently have. I go to the freezer and write down all of the main course foods we have.
This is important to do at the beginning of each four-week interval that you will be meal planning for. That way, you know exactly what you have on hand.
Then you won’t go to pull it out of the freezer, only to find out you don’t have it anymore.
I also write down the number of bags of vegetables and other frozen foods we usually have on hand, like french fries, on my food inventory list.
This will help you when you go to create your grocery list based on your meal plan because you will know what you need to buy and what you already have on hand.
5. Begin filling in your meals
Now is the time that you want to start penciling in your meals. Definitely use a pencil because you will need to erase and rearrange some things as you are planning.
I would start with the nights when dinner will be tough, like those nights with appointments and sports practices.
So if you think you want to do a leftover night on those nights, figure out which meal will yield enough for leftovers and pencil that in a couple of days before the night with the appointment.
For example, I might plan to make an Instant Pot meal on a Sunday night since many of the recipes for that tend to feed our family twice. Then I would plan to have the leftovers on the busy night of the week.
By the way, we love our Instant Pot and highly recommend them because they are easy to use and cook delicious meals so quickly!
If you have a slow cooker you love to use and are thinking about buying an Instant Pot to try, check out this cookbook.
We have this, and everything we have made from it has been delicious. It gives you both the slow cooker version and the pressure cooker (Instant Pot) version for each recipe.
If you have a busy night, you could also plan a quick meal. Some examples of quick meals we have during busy nights are grilled cheese and tomato soup, baked tilapia, or cheese ravioli.
You can also develop a nightly meal rotation or themed meal night that works for you and your family. So, for example, Mondays are usually fish nights for us.
So the first Monday might be tilapia, the second Monday might be salmon cakes, the third Monday tuna melts, and the fourth Monday of the month salmon.
You could do the same thing with the rest of the days of the week to really make it easy. One night you could designate as chicken night, one beef, one pasta, one meatless/vegetarian night, one pork, one soup night, etc.
This ensures you get a nice variety of meals and your family doesn’t complain about having the same things over and over again.
Once you come up with the meals your family loves, it is easy to plan each month by filling in the blanks.
6. Fill in side dishes and vegetables
This is the easy part! Once the main courses are filled in, you can fill in the side dishes. Try to keep it super simple here.
So to use our fish night as an example, if we have tilapia or salmon, I usually will plan a side dish consisting of noodles.
We use Knorr Sides a lot because they have a nice variety of flavors, and they are easy and quick to prepare.
If we have chicken, I like to plan to have a rice side. If we have a sandwich, I like to have French fries or pierogies.
As for the vegetables, we usually buy romaine lettuce, a bag of spinach, baby carrots, celery, and green pepper to cut up for salads.
We cut some of the fresh produce up ahead of time and keep it in green containers in the fridge to save time when making salads during the week.
Since we only grocery shop every two weeks, I meal plan to have fresh produce during the first week. Then when that runs out, I use frozen vegetables during the second week.
7. Make a grocery list of items you need
The last part of monthly meal planning is creating your grocery list. You have to decide how often you want to go to the store. For us, every two weeks works the best.
First, we add all of the regular items we use for breakfast, lunches, and snacks.
It helps to make a list of all of your regular items so you don’t forget anything, especially if you are going to limit the number of times you go into a grocery store to try to save money.
Then you look at your dinner meal plan for each day you will be shopping for and write down the ingredients you will need.
Since you already stocked up on the meats and “main courses” for the month, you will only need to add any extras to complete the meals, such as side dishes, condiments, or seasonings you may need.
Side note: If you really want to make it easy to do your grocery shopping, I recommend trying grocery pick-up. We use Walmart’s Grocery Pickup, and it saves us so much time.
We start our grocery list early in the week and add things when we see we are getting low on them.
You can schedule the time you want to pick up your groceries in advance and continue to add things to your cart throughout the week.
You can now even use Ibotta in conjunction with the Walmart grocery pick-up app! Ibotta is a cash-back app that helps you save money on groceries without having actually to clip coupons.
Some of their offers on groceries don’t require you to purchase a name brand, which we love because you can buy Walmart’s store brand and still get cashback!
If you have not signed up for Ibotta yet, you can do so here.
You can get up to $20 in welcome bonuses by using my link to sign up!
As you can see, making a monthly meal plan for your family does not have to be complicated. The hardest part is choosing meals everyone in your family will love.
If you do find it too difficult or time-consuming to create a monthly meal plan, start with two weeks or even a weekly meal plan using these same steps.
It will get easier as you figure out your meals; before you know it, you will be planning for a month at a time!
How do you do your meal planning? Do you have any other methods that work for your family? I would love to hear them! Please leave them in the comments section!