At my house, the days are full and sometimes hectic (I’m guessing your days are like this too).
That’s why I am huge proponent of systemizing as much of the regular tasks as possible.
Like meal planning and grocery shopping.
It’s pretty simple: I just don’t have time (nor do I want) to be running to the store every few days. I also don’t want to answer the question every night, “WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE WE GOING TO EAT?!?” And let’s not forget the fact that every time I set foot in the store I find new ways to spend money.
That’s why, for a good four or five years now, our family has done once a month meal planning and grocery shopping. It sounds impossible, but I pinkie-swear-promise-you it is completely do-able.
My goal is to show you how to, realistically, do once-a-month planning and shopping. I’m not talking about creating a rigid, inflexible schedule, but instead a guideline and helpful tool lined with grace.
Here are my top tips to make it happen:
1) Streamline the process. I used to handwrite my monthly meal plan (and the subsequent grocery list). This did work, but, got cumbersome after a while (“How many onions do I need for the whole month?!”). But now I use PlanToEat.com—a fantastic meal planning, recipe storing and grocery list website. Plan To Eat makes it so, so much easier (and faster) to put everything together!! I simply input my recipes (either manually typing them in or importing them from the web), move the recipes to the days I want, and the site auto-populates the grocery list! When I go shopping, the list is right there on my phone, and I can click off items as I grab them. Awesome!!
(By the way—PlanToEat.com did not pay to be included in this piece, and is not affiliated with my site at all. I have been their customer for over a year now and I just wanted to share a good thing! At the very least, give their free 30-day trial membership a try!)
2) Plan the meals around the month’s activities. I identify the regular activities (like the nights we have lessons or practices) that happen every week, and plan leftovers or “easy” meals on those nights so that dinner isn’t so hectic.
Next, I add in any other events that will happen that month: planned vacations, date nights, special events, holidays, out-of-town guest-visits. I also include any other foreseeable events that may be happening where I may need to make something special: potlucks, a meal for another family, parties, church events… you get the idea. Do I need to make something special for these nights? Are we planning to go out to eat? For example, I made this fabulous-looking recipe as our family’s Valentine’s Day breakfast. So when I sat down to plan out February’s meals, I imported the recipe into my recipe list, scheduled it for February 14, and it added the needed ingredients to my grocery list.
Including these activities/events into the meal plan is a pivotal first step because these are the occasions that are unusual and that can easily trip up our dinner plans.
3) Plan meals with the most perishable items at the beginning of the month. If I’m planning something with fresh mushrooms or herbs, for example, I plan those at the beginning of the month since I know that these are highly perishable. Or, if need be, I assemble the meal and freeze it until I need it for later in the month (this only works for ingredients/recipes that freeze well, obviously). I also plan end-of-the-month meals that take advantage of pre-made sauces, frozen meats in my freezer, and/or canned goods. For example, an easy end-of-the-month meal for our family might consist of sauteed frozen veggies and frozen chicken sausage served with bottled marinara sauce over pasta.
4) Consider freezer meals and cooking in bulk. Once-a-month planning and freezer meals go perfectly together. A few years ago my regular monthly habit was to plan out all the meals for the month, gather the ingredients and then take a few weeknights to pre-assemble them. This did require some work up front, but oh… what a wonderful payoff! My meals were planned, determined, and pre-assembled, and all I had to do was pull them out at the beginning of the week to defrost and then cook them that evening.
Now I do a combination of some freezer meals and some “regular” meals. I like to make double or triple batches of some recipes and stick them in my freezer for those nights that I know dinner will be tough. For example, today we are out of town and tomorrow we will be traveling back home, so I have a now-defrosted Mexican casserole in my fridge that I will pop in the oven tomorrow night for dinner. That Mexican casserole was a recipe that I tripled from last month.
5) Consider making enough of a meal for leftovers, and then having that meal another night that week. I prefer to not have to cook every night, so whenever possible, I make enough of a dinner meal for us to eat two nights. We don’t eat the meal two nights in a row, but I instead interweave it between another meal. If we have lasagna on Monday night, we might have enchiladas on Tuesday night, and then leftover lasagna on Wednesday and leftover enchiladas on Thursday.
6) Make the most of each item. If one meal calls for an unusual item (especially one that is perishable like sour cream), I try to plan other meals throughout the month to use up any extra. Plan to Eat also helps with this because each item in the grocery list is linked to a specific recipe. So sometimes I see an ingredient and I think, “Well, we’re using this very similar ingredient in this other dish… I’ll just plan to use that same ingredient in this dish.”
7) Grab items for other meals and snacks. Naturally, dinner isn’t the only meal we have to plan for! Plan to Eat allows you to enter in miscellaneous items that aren’t part of a specific recipe, but are still needed. There’s also a handy “Staples” item list. This is a list of items that you buy every month. I quickly go through my “Staples” list and click on the items that I know we will need in the upcoming month.
8) Keep a clean and organized pantry, refrigerator and freezer. This is crucial when doing once a month shopping because no one needs loads of extra food hanging around or going to waste! Before choosing meals for an upcoming month, I take a quick inventory of what’s currently in the kitchen. A bag of uncooked beans languishing in the pantry could be a great side for my husband’s favorite dinner dish planned for next month. If I see some freezer meals that need to be used up, I will add them to the month’s meal plan. In addition, I usually do a good fridge “clean out” right before I go shopping–just to make room for all the food coming.
9) Make a realistic plan. Just because I plan our meals doesn’t mean our family never goes out to eat! I specifically plan nights to go out to eat (and switch them around, if needed, as the month unfolds). This helps me stay in the realm of reality, and to not feel guilty for skipping a planned “at home” meal.
10) Plan a few days into the next month. It’s just not realistic to expect the next month’s shopping to be done for the upcoming month. That’s why I include 3-5 days of the following month when I’m making my meal plan.
11) Do all grocery shopping in one or two trips. I have three main places that I get all of our groceries. Plan to Eat automatically separates the ingredients by store (or you can manually move between stores too). Then I pick a day… and head out. Ideally I would love to go to all the places in one shot (yes, I am that crazy!), but honestly, I run out of room in my car! So it usually takes two or three trips, often over a few days. But I definitely prefer to get it done quick–like ripping off a band-aid–so that all the food is in the house and ready to go.
12) Plan a simple meal (or leftovers) on big shopping days. Trust me, the last thing you will want to do on your big shopping day is cook a big meal! The Crock Pot is awesome for these times… or yes, I’ve even been known to grab a Costco pizza and a bagged salad for dinner. I work extra hard that day, so I definitely make dinner easy!
13) Consider buying an extra freezer. Our family of six goes through a lot of bread, tortillas and frozen fruit in a given month! And we just don’t have room for it all in our fridge. Our chest freezer in the garage has made all the difference in storing extra freezer meals and extra ingredients needed for an entire month’s worth of food. Craig’s List is a great place to find one on the cheap.
14) Be flexible with the meal execution. Inevitably, there are days when I look at that night’s planned dinner and I think… yeah, no. Sometimes that’s because everyday life has taken over and I would be unable to prep that type of dinner; and other times it’s because, honestly, that meal doesn’t sound appealing. So, that’s when I give myself permission to switch meals around: maybe I choose to switch next Thursday’s meal for tonight’s meal. Or, occasionally, to just chuck the whole thing and go out to eat. 🙂
Ultimately, this is your family’s meal plan. The meal-planning-police are not going to break down your door if you decide to switch things up. Promise. Life happens, and your meal plan is there to help you—not to cause guilt or stress.
15) Fresh fruit and veggies are still possible. We are fairly healthy eaters and so having fresh produce around is a must. Therefore, I am often asked: “If you’re only shopping once a month, what about fresh fruit and veggies?” To solve this dilemma, our family is part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable cooperative. This means that, every week, our family receives a box of organic vegetables and fruit from a local farm delivered to a nearby pickup location. The produce is fantastic and we love supporting our local farms. If you have the ability, another option is to grow some of your own produce. Now that we have more land, we’re hoping to make that a reality for our family in the next few years. If neither of these is an option, you can always plan one additional grocery trip mid-month to stock up on fresh fruit and veggies. Find what works for you. And speaking of an extra shopping trip…
16) Give yourself grace if you need an item or two over the month. Again, life happens! Sometimes I forget to grab an item, or an item isn’t available. Other times our family plows through the food much quicker than I’d estimated, and I need to grab a few more things to get us through the month. Or maybe we’re invited to a last-minute dinner party and need to grab an item or two. If I had a crystal ball to predict exactly how my month was to play out, then I’d have no excuse about going back to the store. The goal of once-a-month planning is to help a family’s food needs be met as efficiently as possible. We’re not striving for perfection here–just a system that (usually) keeps us on track.
17) Take it slow, if need be. If you’re a day-to-day-kind-of-meal-planner and the idea of even planning meals for one week is daunting, take this process one step at a time! Just plan meals for one week or two weeks, and once that gets comfortable, work up to a month. Remember that some planning is better than no planning! Baby steps, baby steps.
That’s it! I know you can do this! Give it a try next month and let me know how it goes.