Today I’m going to introduce something that has truly transformed the way I eat – my monthly meal planner. It might sound like a big deal, but it’s actually just a list of what I plan to eat for the entire month. It’s an answer to that daily question, “What should I cook today?”
Why a Monthly Meal Planner?
Why do I love my monthly meal planner so much? Well, it saves me a ton of time. I know exactly what I need from the store and don’t have to make rushed decisions about dinner.
Plus, it’s a great way to save money since it cuts down on unplanned take-out meals or extra trips to the grocery store. I’ve even noticed that I throw away less food, which feels really good.
The Basics of Meal Planning
Before we jump into the how-to’s of creating a monthly meal planner, it’s important to understand some basics.
Balancing the Plate
When I started meal planning, I quickly learned it’s not just about picking my favorite dishes. It’s also about making sure I’m eating a balanced diet.
That means my meals should have a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Plus, they should be filled with a good range of vitamins and minerals.
Considering Dietary Needs
Another important point is to remember any special dietary needs in your family. In my case, my daughter can’t have any dairy, so I have to plan meals that she can eat too.
Setting Up the Meal Schedule
I usually plan for three main meals – that’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I also add two snack times, one in the mid-morning and another in the afternoon. This way, none of us gets overly hungry during the day.
Bringing in Variety
I love to mix things up when it comes to meal planning. Different foods, different ways of cooking, meals from different cultures – all of these make eating more fun. Plus, variety helps us get a wide range of nutrients.
Getting Started With Your Monthly Meal Planner
Let’s take a deeper look at how I kickstart my monthly meal planning process. It may seem daunting at first, but with a little practice, it quickly becomes a fun and rewarding routine.
Jotting Down Your Favorites
To start my meal planning, the first thing I do is jot down all of my family’s favorite meals.
Whether it’s my daughter’s beloved chicken tacos or my husband’s weakness for my homemade chili, these familiar dishes provide a base for the plan.
As these recipes are tried and tested, they take the guesswork out of cooking and make my weeknights easier.
Factoring in Seasonal Foods
One of the fun parts of meal planning is getting to play around with seasonal ingredients. I make it a point to research what produce is currently in season.
Not only are these foods more likely to be at their peak in flavor and nutritional value, but they’re also generally more affordable. This adds a layer of variety to our meals and encourages us to try new dishes.
For example, sweet corn and zucchini might inspire a summer corn chowder, while fall’s butternut squash could lead to a hearty roasted vegetable salad.
Incorporating Different Types of Meals
Meal planning isn’t just about my favorite recipes; it’s also about exploring different types of meals and diets.
I like to incorporate at least one vegetarian day in the week to increase our intake of veggies. If there are dietary restrictions or health goals within your family, this is a great time to cater to them.
Maybe it’s low-carb recipes or dairy-free dishes, or perhaps you’re looking to experiment with more plant-based meals. The key here is variety!
Balancing Out the Week
Once I have a solid list of dishes and ingredients, I start to think about how to balance them throughout the week. I avoid having two heavy meals in a row or too many similar meals in a week.
For instance, if we have pasta one night, I make sure the following night features a completely different cuisine, like stir-fried Asian veggies with tofu.
Keeping Busy Days in Mind
Life gets busy, and I take this into account when I’m meal planning. On the days when I know I’ll be swamped, I choose dishes that are quick to whip up, like simple grilled sandwiches or a one-pot rice dish.
For really packed days, I might even plan to have leftovers. That’s right – cooking extra of a dish one day to ensure a no-cook evening later in the week is a life-saver!
Adding a Dash of Adventure
To keep things interesting, every week, I plan at least one ‘adventure meal’. This is a recipe I’ve never tried before.
It’s a fantastic way to discover new favorites and keep expanding our palette. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be a hit, it’s always a fun experience!
Planning for Leftovers
Food waste is a big no-no for me, so I always try to plan for leftovers.
If I’m roasting chicken for dinner, I’ll make extra so that we can have chicken sandwiches for lunch the next day. It’s all about being smart with your resources!
Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Monthly Meal Plan
Time for a detailed look into each step of creating a monthly meal plan. It may seem like a lot at first, but once you get into the swing of things, I promise it will save you time, stress, and money!
Step 1: Choosing a Template or Method
The first step in creating a meal plan is to find a way to record it. You could use a physical calendar and colorful markers or choose a digital method.
I personally prefer a mix – I use an app on my phone to plan and track my meals because it allows me to access my meal plan wherever I go.
At the same time, I also keep a meal planner in the kitchen where I jot down the meals for the week so everyone in the family can see.
Step 2: Deciding the Meals
Next comes the fun part – choosing the meals. Here’s where my list of favorite meals, seasonal foods, and dietary considerations come into play.
I find it helpful to assign a theme for each day of the week like Meatless Monday or Fish Friday to add variety and make the planning process easier.
It’s like a fun puzzle, filling in each day with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks from the list of dishes I’ve prepared.
Step 3: Aligning the Plan with Your Schedule
This step is all about practicality. I consider the rhythm of my week. On busy days, I opt for easy meals that don’t require much time or effort, like stir-fries or slow cooker recipes.
On more relaxed days, I may plan more elaborate meals like lasagna or a homemade curry. It’s essential to be realistic about how much time you will have for cooking and to adjust your meal plan accordingly.
Step 4: Writing a Shopping List
Once I’ve decided on the meals, I write down all the ingredients I’ll need to cook them. I go through each recipe and note what and how much I’ll need.
I also organize my shopping list by grocery store sections – produce, dairy, meats, pantry items, etc. This makes the shopping process much quicker and helps ensure I don’t forget anything.
Step 5: Doing the Grocery Shopping
With my organized list in hand, I’m ready to tackle the grocery store. I try to stick to my list to avoid impulse buys and stay within my budget.
I’ve found that shopping for groceries with a clear plan significantly reduces food waste because I only buy what I need for the week.
Step 6: Meal Prepping
This step is optional, but if you ask me, it’s a massive time-saver! I take a few hours every Sunday to prep my meals for the week.
This could mean washing and chopping veggies, marinating meat, or cooking a big batch of grains. Anything that can save me time during the week gets done here.
Tips and Tricks for Effective Meal Planning
Meal planning can seem like a daunting task at first, but don’t worry – I’ve got you covered. In this section, we’ll explore some of my personal favorite tips and tricks that can help make your meal planning journey not just effective, but also fun and enjoyable.
1. Create a Recipe Bank
Start a collection of your favorite recipes. This could be a physical binder with printed recipes, a Pinterest board, a Google Drive folder, or even a note on your phone. Whenever you need inspiration, you can flip through these tried-and-true favorites.
2. Rotate Your Meals
Instead of starting from scratch each week, set up a meal rotation. Maybe you have a four-week plan that you rotate. This way, you’re not eating the same meals every week, but you also don’t have to come up with entirely new plans all the time.
3. Double Your Recipes
Consider doubling recipes and freezing half. This means you’ll have meals ready to go when you need them. It’s especially useful for those days when things don’t go as planned and you don’t have time to cook.
4. Use Theme Nights
Having theme nights can simplify your planning process. For example, “Taco Tuesday,” “Pasta Wednesday,” or “Fish Friday.” These give you a structure to work with but still offer plenty of variety.
5. Prepare Ingredients in Advance
Do as much preparation as you can ahead of time. This might mean washing and chopping vegetables, marinating protein, or making a sauce or dressing. This will make cooking throughout the week much quicker and easier.
6. Use a Meal Planning App
There are many meal planning apps out there that can simplify the process. They can help you organize your recipes, generate shopping lists, and even suggest meals based on what you have in your pantry.
7. Make Extra for Lunch
If you’re cooking dinner, consider making a little extra to pack for lunch the next day. This will save you time on lunch preparation and ensure you have a delicious, home-cooked meal to look forward to.
8. Review Your Calendar
Before you plan your meals, look at your calendar. If you have a busy day with back-to-back meetings, plan a slow cooker meal or something you can quickly heat up.
9. Incorporate a New Recipe Each Week
To keep things interesting, try a new recipe each week. This will allow you to explore new flavors and cuisines and keep your meal plan from getting monotonous.
10. Anticipate Changes in the Plan
Life is unpredictable, and there will be times when your meal plan has to change. Maybe you have surprise guests or an impromptu dinner out. The key is not to stress over it. It’s okay to shuffle meals around, use ingredients in a different recipe, or even freeze them for future use if you can’t stick to the plan.
11. Flexibility in Meal Planning
Flexibility is crucial in meal planning. While a meal plan provides a framework, it’s not set in stone. If I planned fish for dinner but I’m really craving the chickpea curry that’s scheduled for tomorrow, I swap them! It’s your plan, and you can adjust it to suit your needs and cravings.
12. Be Kind to Yourself
Remember, meal planning is a tool to make your life easier, not a test you have to ace. If things don’t go according to plan or you end up ordering takeout one night, don’t beat yourself up. The goal is to make your life easier and more delicious, one meal at a time.
Meal Planning for Special Diets
Whether you’re following a special diet due to personal choice or health reasons, meal planning can be a bit more complex. But fear not! In this part of the guide, we’ll look at how to adjust your meal planning for a variety of popular diets.
Planning vegan meals requires a little extra attention to ensure you’re getting all the essential nutrients. Focus on including a variety of plant-based proteins like lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, and seitan.
Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are all staples in a vegan diet. Remember to incorporate sources of vitamin B12, which are often lacking in a vegan diet, either through fortified foods or supplements.
A keto meal plan focuses on low-carb, high-fat foods. The majority of your calories in a day will come from fats, a moderate amount from protein, and a very small amount from carbs.
Foods like avocados, eggs, fatty fish, cheese, meat, and low-carb vegetables form the basis of a keto diet. Meal planning can help you balance these requirements and keep your carb intake in check.
The Paleo diet takes inspiration from our hunter-gatherer ancestors and focuses on whole, unprocessed foods. This includes lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
It avoids processed foods, grains, dairy, and sugar. When planning paleo meals, consider simple cooking techniques like grilling, roasting, and sautéing to highlight the natural flavors of the food.
When meal planning for a gluten-free diet, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with foods and ingredients that contain gluten. This includes certain grains like wheat, barley, and rye.
Instead, focus on foods naturally free from gluten, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, dairy, beans, legumes, and most nuts.
Also, there are many gluten-free substitutes available for bread, pasta, and other traditionally gluten-containing products.
A low-FODMAP diet is often recommended for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This diet restricts certain types of carbohydrates that are hard for some people to digest.
Planning meals on this diet requires careful consideration and often, the guidance of a dietitian. Your meals will largely comprise of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, certain dairy products, and low-FODMAP fruits and vegetables.
Helpful Tools for Meal Planning
Planning meals doesn’t mean you have to do it all from scratch. There are numerous tools out there designed to make meal planning easier.
1. Recommended Apps and Digital Tools
There are plenty of digital tools to help streamline your meal planning process. Apps like Mealime, Yummly, and Pepperplate allow you to plan meals, create shopping lists, and store your favorite recipes in one place. These tools can be a game-changer in managing your meal planning process efficiently.
2. Grocery List Apps
A well-prepared grocery list is key to efficient meal planning. Apps like AnyList, Out of Milk, and Bring! allow you to create, manage, and share your grocery lists. Some of these apps also have features to sort items by aisle or category, making your shopping trips quicker and easier.
3. Meal Prep Equipment Essentials
Proper equipment can make your meal prep a lot easier. Some of my must-haves include a good set of sharp knives, cutting boards, storage containers for prepped ingredients and leftovers, a slow cooker for set-and-forget meals, a rice cooker for perfect grains, and a blender or food processor for quick sauces and smoothies. Depending on your cooking habits and preferences, you might also consider other equipment like an air fryer, or sous vide machine.
As you embark on this meal planning journey, you’ll find that it gets easier and more fun with time. Not only will you discover new recipes and food preferences, but you’ll also find yourself saving time, reducing waste, and enjoying a variety of nutritious meals.
It’s okay to tweak your plan and adjust as you go along – flexibility is key in making this a sustainable habit. So, armed with these tips, get started on your meal planning journey and transform your daily meals into something you look forward to. Happy planning and bon appétit!