One of the most common New Year's resolutions I hear amongst my mom friends is that they want to start meal planning as they try to eat healthier and simplify their lives after the craziness of the holidays.
When I decided to tackle meal planning last year, I started with just a week or two at a time but found myself going through the same rotation of recipes every few weeks. Boring! That's when I decided that in order to add some variety, I needed to expand my planning out to a full month at a time.
Through trial and error, I found a system that worked well for me. I thought I'd share it for those of you who are putting meal planning on your resolution list!
Here's how to create a monthly meal plan that works:
1. Make a meal list.
It can be hard to imagine having enough meal ideas to cover the entire month without repeating any, so start by making a list of things you want to make over the next month. Be sure to ask the family what they'd like included. If you can't come up with enough ideas, now is the time to go through all of your recipe Pins, Macaroni Kid EATS! ideas, your favorite food blogs, and any saved/printed recipes you have stashed away. Remember, you'll need 20 to 30 recipes to cover all the nights you'll be eating at home.
Once you have a month of recipes, you can print out a blank calendar or use your family calendar.
I prefer to print a calendar just for meal planning because I do a lot of writing and rewriting as I plan in order to make the most of ingredients and leftovers. (That's why I highly recommend using a pencil for this step!)
How to plan your calendar:
- Note any nights that aren't typical. Think about nights when you'll be away from home, or have other family obligations that necessitate a quick dinner.
- Schedule "easy" meals on days you're in a hurry. Slow cooker recipes are great on evenings when you need to have food ready and waiting. Same for any meals that you simply heat up (or eat cold). If you always have leftovers from a particular meal, schedule that for the night or two before a busy evening.
- Don't forget taco Tuesdays! Or meatless Mondays, fish Fridays... you get the idea. If your family likes to have certain meals on certain days, write them down. If you're trying not to repeat a meal, be sure to note variations on the theme.
- Fill in the holes. As you work to fill the remaining days on the calendar, think about shared ingredients that will need to be used up in a couple days. Also, consider ingredients that you can prep on one day and continue to use over the next day or two in order to cut down on your prep time.
3. Stick to the plan!
You know what you're making on Tuesday, so if you need to thaw something out, make sure you leave plenty of time. Don't wait until that afternoon to do it and then decide you don't have time and pitch your plan out the window.
That being said, I highly recommend having meals on hand that you can use in a pinch if you do accidentally forget to prep something, or you get held up at work and don't have time to cook... or any other snafu you run into while parenting. I like to keep a precooked meat and a package or two of veggies in the freezer so that I can just warm things up quickly on the days that life doesn't go according to plan.
One time to consider more flexibility in your calendar is during the local growing season. I like to make the most of fresh fruits and vegetables during Wisconsin's growing season, but what's available changes week to week. Or sometimes an interesting ingredient catches my eye at the farmer's market and I adjust my plan to fit it in.
4. Keep the momentum going.
If you get too many complaints from your family about a meal, scratch it off the list. Occasionally my family will tell me that while they like a particular meal, they felt like we had it too often (it was ONLY once a month!) so now I put meals like that on the schedule every other month. Also, pay attention to what nights you have leftovers so you can expect them next month. (This is when having a separate calendar comes in handy -- you can make notes all over it for next month!)
Since I started monthly meal planning, I've found that we have a lot less food waste because I'm better about using up leftovers and I'm only buying ingredients that I'm planning to use. It also makes grocery shopping SO MUCH easier because I just follow my prepared shopping list. It also means that I'm not having to return to the store to buy something I forgot, so one shopping trip a week is all I need! But the best part is that I always have an answer to the age-old question, "What's for dinner?"
Laura Miller is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Appleton-Waupaca-Oshkosh, Wisc.