Dinner: if we’re not careful, it's the one thing that can catch us off guard nearly every day.
Isn’t it crazy that something that happens every night can be such a challenge?
The repeated queries of “Mom, what’s for dinner?” start around 3:00, and suddenly we’re shocked into reality: These people expect me to feed them too.
For me, however, it’s less about the fixing the dinner part and more about the deciding—the what-exactly-are-we-going-to-pull-from-this-kitchen-to-make-some-sort-of-a-meal part.
Then the next question is: Do we have all the supplies to make this dinner dish, or is it time for (another) trip to the store? No wonder so many of us end up at the drive thru or calling Mr. Pizza Delivery.
About 5 years ago that I found myself pretty much over this ridiculous cycle.
I finally began implementing monthly meal planning. Gone was the guesswork of what to eat and what we would make it with. The decision had been made and the supplies were there just wanting to be cooked.
The Two Great Secrets Behind Monthly Meal Planning
When people find out that I do monthly meal planning, I often get elevated to Supermom status.
Honestly I find this hilarious for two reasons: Number one, having a plan means I have less stress and less to do at that crazy dinner hour; and number two, I totally cheat when it comes to meal planning.
OK, so I do still make a monthly meal plan (no cheating about that). But I’ve found two secrets to making regular monthly meal planning so much easier and this makes me feel like I’m cheating. Here they are:
—Create your own meal plan (using an easy online software that stores your recipes and auto populates your grocery lists); or
—Have someone plan your meals for you and hand you an itemized grocery list.
Both of these are super solutions that making monthly meal planning so much easier. Not only will they save you time and mental energy but probably shave quite a bit off your monthly food budget too.
Let’s look at these options.
Option #1: the DIY Meal Plan
At first I resisted monthly meal planning because it felt so restrictive and limited. But, five years later, let me testify that it is possible to have flexibility and freedom… and a meal plan.
How? Plan To Eat is my secret weapon.
Plan To Eat is a incredible online software that manages everything from your recipes to your dinner schedule to your grocery list.
I have been a Plan To Eat member for a good five years now and I’m not joking when I say it’s revolutionized how dinner happens at my house.
Here’s what monthly meal planning looks like for me:
1) Once a month I gather any new recipes (plus any old ones) and make sure they’re in my Plan To Eat recipe list. By the way, adding recipes is easy because you can easily import recipes from any site into the Plan To Eat software with the click of a button.
2) Next, I drag each recipe to the appropriate day of the month. I try to note when my husband will be traveling that month (and we can have a lighter meal); and what nights we have outside commitments (and therefore a slow cooker meal or leftovers would be appropriate). I also try to schedule recipes that require quickly perishable items (such as fresh herbs) at the beginning of the month, and those with a longer shelf life (freezer meals or those consisting of mainly frozen foods or pantry items) toward the end of the month.
3) Then I auto populate my grocery list by choosing the date range for my meals. The software automatically takes the ingredients from each recipe and collects them together. It’s a beautiful thing to see (especially since I remember the days of having to manually determine all my ingredients).
4) Next, I clean up the lists. The software learns where you typically buy certain ingredients and automatically places them in the individual store lists, but there are often new ingredients that I need to place (it throws them in a default list) or I just need to remove some items (I don’t need to buy water and I usually already have most spices). I can also add in any extra items here that maybe didn’t show up on the list (toilet paper, snacks, etc).
5) Last, I go to all the different stores and buy the items! Plan To Eat is mobile-friendly, so not only can I access the recipes on my phone, but I can see all of my lists and check off the items as I shop.
Boom! Take that, dinnertime monster!
Plan to Eat offers a free month trial so you can try it for yourself to see what you think. And right now (from today to Cyber Monday only!) Plan To Eat is offering their annual 50% off all memberships sale!
I take advantage of this every single year (yes, the 50% off works for new and returning subscribers)!
Option #2: Someone Else’s Meal Plan
Here’s another great way to do monthly meal planning: buy already determined recipes and shopping lists!
There are several companies offering this service, but here are a few of my favorites.
Erin Chase (owner of $5 Dinners) offers two services to help with monthly meal planning. The first is a subscription service that delivers a weekly list of recipes and grocery list items (classic and gluten-free options are available), or a 6-week menu plan (slow cooker, Paleo/Whole 30 and vegetarian options are available).
The second option is to purchase a freezer meal-type list (such as “20 freezer to slow cooker meals for $160”).
With both options, dinners cost no more than $5 each, making this a cost-effective, pre-designed solution to monthly meal planning!
Learn more here.
Build-A-Menu offers a similar concept, but gives a little more flexibility in the meals you choose each week. Subscribers choose their favorite grocery store; select any recipes from the Build-A-Menu library; and then print the recipes and an organized shopping list. You can also add your own recipes, and shopping lists are available online or via mobile.
And then, just like the Plan to Eat site, you can drag and drop those recipes into a calendar for the month. Pretty cool. You can also download sample recipes and shopping lists to give it try before becoming a subscriber.
I also appreciate that a percentage of monthly subscriptions are donated to several orphan care ministries.
Learn more about Build-A-Menu here.
Meal Planning Central
Here's another great solution for monthly meal planning: Meal Planning Central. With this service, you're handed done-for-you meals and a grocery list every month. You can choose from different meal plans to fit your family's dietary needs as well (frugal, vegetarian, healthy, etc).
The coolest thing about this service is that they offer lifetime memberships! This means that you pay one price to have meals and shopping lists delivered to you each month… and that's it!
Get out from under that crazy dinner monster and take control of dinner again with monthly meal planning!
I’d highly encourage you to give one of these monthly meal planning options a try and see what a difference they can make in your sanity (and your family’s budget)!
Other posts on meal planning: