Meal Planning 101: Creating a Monthly Meal Plan in 4 Steps

In our previous post, Meal Planning 101: Planning Ahead Saves Time & Money we shared how setting up a monthly meal plan rotation save’s time and energy, especially during those times when we are stretched for time, stressed and tired. Life can get pretty busy for all of us at one time or another and for parent’s, the school year tends to be some of the busiest months. Let’s not forget that with the upcoming holidays we will be stretched even further. Here’s a few suggestions and steps to help you set up your own monthly Meal Plan System.

Step One – Collecting Favorite Recipes

What you’ll need:

  • Cookbooks and recipe files
  • Sticky notes
  • Pen
  • Large flat surface for holding sticky notes (whiteboard or poster board)

The Process

1. Decide how many different meals you will need – Are you planning on cooking 7 evenings a week? If your meal rotation is for 4 weeks of dinners, you will need 28 different recipes. You can also plan for lunches & breakfast and build in for leftovers, if you like.

2. Determine how you want to vary your weekly meals – Chose seven different categories of recipes, such as: beef, chicken, pork, fish, pasta, stews/soups, and crock-pot recipes. (Notice how that’s seven different categories – one for every night of the week) Different categories help make sure there is variety in your weekly meal plan. 

3. Start collecting recipes – Go through favorite cookbooks and recipe files to find your 28 recipes. When you find a recipe you really like, write it on a sticky note and include the following information:

  • Name of the cookbook
  • Page number
  • Note any special ingredient from the recipe that you don’t ususally keep on hand (e.g. fresh cilantro)

4. Group sticky notes into categories – As you collect recipes, temporarily post them on a whiteboard. Put different categories of recipes (see #2 above) into different columns. As you come close to finding 28 recipes, having the recipes in columns helps to see if need more recipes in a certain category.

The Result…

You’ll have the number of recipes you need, organized into the categories of your choice.

Step 2 – Scheduling Meals

Now that you have your recipes collected in order to create a rotating meal plan, the next step is deciding side dishes and scheduling meals for each week of your rotation.

What you will need:

  • Your collection of recipes written on sticky notes and organized into categories (see last post)
  • White board or poster board (can be the same one you used in previous step)
  • Pen

The Process

1. Look at each sticky note and the name of the main recipe – Write which side dish(es) you want or typically eat with the main recipe. A vegetable and/or a starch like rice or couscous. If your side dishes are little more involved, then you will want to indicate any fresh ingredients you don’t usually keep on hand, much like you did in the previous step with the main recipes.

2. Next, you’re going to rearrange the sticky notes on your posterboard so you have a general idea which meals will be in which week. Each row across is a week. There’s no right or wrong arrangement, and you don’t need to decide what you will have on a particular week night, just what you will have during Week 1, Week 2, etc. Here are a few suggestions to help you in the process…

Look for common ingredients in your main and side dish recipes.  Have a few recipes that call for fresh cilantro? Clump those recipes together in the same 1-2 week period so that all the cilantro will get used and not go to waste. (This post, How to Store Parsley, Cilantro, and Other Fresh Herbs from Simply Recipes tells how to keep herbs fresh.)

Use your categories to vary your weekly menu. Use the columns of sticky notes for the different categories (beef, chicken, pasta, etc.). That way you won’t have a week of lots of pasta, a week of mostly pork, etc.

The Result…

Complete meals, scheduled for a month (or however number of weeks you decided on).

Step 3 – Creating Grocery Lists

At this point, we’ve created a month’s worth of meal plans by choosing recipes and scheduling them.  Now, it’s time to make the grocery lists!

What you will need:

  • Your collection of recipes on sticky notes organized by week
  • The cookbooks and recipe cards for all the meals in your plan
  • Paper and pen or computer

The Process

1. Decide on how often you want to go grocery shopping – If it’s once a week, then you will be creating one grocery list for each week. If you prefer to shop every other week, then you will only be creating two grocery lists to cover the whole month.

2. Start creating your grocery list(s) – You could do this with pen and paper or on the computer. At the top, list each of the meals (main dish, sides, etc.) that the grocery list covers.

3. Look up each recipe and write down all the necessary ingredients – (If you wrote down the name of the cookbook and the page number on your sticky notes, this will be easy.) As you are writing down all the ingredients, it will help your future shopping process if you break down everything into categories.  Categories such as: Meats, Dairy, Frozen, Produce, General Grocery, and Pantry Staples (items that you probably already have on hand but just need to double-check).

4. Make copies of your lists – Once you have everything the way you like it on your lists, make several copies. When you repeat a weeks meals in another month, you will have the list ready to go! If you have handwritten master copies, be sure to write “Master-Copy Only” in yellow hightlighter across the top of each list. (Yellow highlighter won’t show up in the copies but will prevent you from using your master copy.)

The Result…

Now, when it’s time to go to the grocery store, you can take a copy of that week’s list and cross off any items that you happen to still have in your fridge and pantry.  You can also add any other items needed at the time and non-food items to the bottom of the list. 

Step 4 – Assembling a Meal Plan Notebook

You’ve done all this hard work choosing recipes,scheduling meals, and creating grocery lists. Creating a meal plan notebook is a good idea to keep the months meals, recipes, and lists all together. It will also keep your meal plan organized, maintained and easy to use in the future! 

What you will need:

  • The cookbooks and recipe cards for all the recipes included in your meal plan
  • Copier
  • 3-ring notebook
  • Page protectors
  • Page protectors with section tabs (like these)
  • Label maker (or make your own. Online you can checkout

The Process

1. Print out your weekly meal plans – Week 1 on one sheet, Week 2 on a separate sheet, etc.

2. Slip each meal plan into a page protector with a section tab – Label each tab “Week 1,” etc. with your label maker.

3. Make a photocopy of each recipe included in your meal plan for that week.

4. Slip each recipe into a regular page protector.

5. Put the page protectors into the 3-ring notebook.  Week 1’s recipes following Week 1’s meal plan, etc.  (Can put your weekly recipes in the same order that they were listed on your meal plan, even if you don’t end up making them in that order.)

The Result…

Your recipes are consolidated and filed with your weekly meal plans.  No more hunting for the recipe in your collection of cook books!  Plus, your recipes are protected by plastic and can be easily cleaned off if you drip on them while cooking. 

Want more resources? In this short video, Meal Planning Services – Living Peace Tuesday Tip, Amanda, Living Peace Professional Organizing Alum shares 2 online resources to help you manage regular meal planning. Plan to Eat and E-mealz.

Do you plan your meals? What works and what doesn’t work for you? Share your questions or meal planning experience in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!


Reposted and updated from the original 4 part series by Amanda Darlack, Living Peace Professional Organizing Alum




About Danne Saring

Danne is the Virtual Administration behind the scenes at Living Peace. She lends a unique skill set, that combines her diverse organizational, accounting and administrative backgrounds with her heart’s passion for creativity – in art and life. If you were to ask her why she loves working at Living Peace, she would tell you – “It’s all about the people and the holistic approach that makes Living Peace; I work with amazing people and we do work with amazing people … Just having an opportunity to help others make such wonderful changes in their lives…to bear witness and share in the joy that follows – well it doesn’t get much better than that!”

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