Photo: Rebecca Green

Every time I share a new monthly meal plan on my blog, I get a lot of questions about how I manage to pull off cooking dinner for the fam on a regular basis.  I don’t think there is any one formula that works for everyone—we all have our different schedules to juggle. But I do have a method to my own particular madness and I thought it might be helpful to share how I get it done. I

know that planning meals a month at a time can seem a little daunting at first. But I’ve found it to be the most efficient and cost-effective way to cook for our family. Planning a month at a time helps me visually balance our menu, pool a large number of recipes from which I can pull, and make sure our meals match up with our schedule in a realistic way.

So here are my five tips to monthly meal planning:

1. Plan alongside your family calendar. At the beginning of each month (or 30-day stretch), I sit down with our monthly calendar and make sure I’ve noted all our regular activities (e.g., weekly sports activities) and planned special events. That way, I have a sense of how much time I’ll have to cook on a particular night and whether I need to at all. On nights where I know I’ll be short on time, I either plan a slow cooker meal, a quick one, leftovers, or a night out. And we almost always eat out at least one weekend night a week. So that helps.

2. Pick a few regular themes. Yes, Taco Tuesday is a little hokey. But the kids like the regularity of themes and it narrows down the recipes I need to sort through for a particular night. We don’t always have tacos on Tuesday, but we usually have some sort of tacos once a week. I also plan for brinner once a week. Sometimes I make a special breakfast recipe, but usually that’s my opportunity to use up things we have on hand. Whatever theme interests you, pick a few and count on them each week.

3. Plan for leftovers. I am a HUGE lover of leftovers. Even if I have to slightly tweak them to get a second meal, they are always a big time saver. I eat them almost exclusively for lunch during the week too. To make sure I get them, I pick one or two meals each week and double the recipe when I cook it. That way I have enough for at least one dinnertime meal out of leftovers and all my lunches for the week.

4. Make sure you have variety. I probably go overboard on this because I seem to be a constant hunt for new recipes. There is nothing wrong with having several stand-by recipes to use each month, but I do like to make sure I vary our proteins, cooking techniques, and cuisine throughout the week. I aim for a good balance of beef and chicken recipes, and try to add in a turkey, lamb, or fish every now and then (although, I hate cooking fish so I rarely do). I find everyone can get bored if I just bake every meal in a week, so I try to plan for a mix of grilling, sautéing, baking, etc. My kids are pretty adventurous eaters, so I also aim for a mix of cuisines throughout the week.

5. Don’t be overly rigid. Just because you planned for a particular meal on a particular night doesn’t mean you need to stick to it. I review each week as it comes up and adjust whatever I need to depending on changes in schedule, how everyone is feeling, etc.

Having a month of meals pooled ahead of time means it’s easier to shift things around too. It doesn’t always work out perfectly and we have our fair share of time periods where we eat out too much or aren’t quite as healthy as we’d like. But, overall, monthly meal planning has worked wonders for our family dinners. I hope you find this helpful—I’d love to hear how you make diner happen in your house!