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How I Build a Monthly Meal Plan

I used to think I was the kind of person who didn’t need to meal plan.

Or more accurately, someone who couldn’t manage a meal plan, since I always have a rotating and often quite random assortment of dishes to develop, test, or photograph for clients.

No month is ever the same, and with a husband who works nights and sleeps late, it didn’t make sense to try and figure out the logistics of it all.

chicken chili with overlaid text

But in an effort to rein in our grocery budget and make sure Dan had a hot dinner to eat at 9:00 pm each worknight, I started trying to give our meal plan some sort of structure.

Turns out that meal planning is a perfect amalgamation of my OCD tendencies: my love of lists, organization, and grocery stores.

(Yes, pre-pandemic, I actually liked going to the store. Instacart is a painful process for me.)

We started meal planning for one week, then two weeks at a time.

And once we were deep into our pandemic quarantine lifestyle, I realized I could do a monthly meal plan.

Truthfully, I find making a monthly meal plan to be much easier than trying to reinvent the wheel a week at a time. Looking at it big picture-style lets me see where we might be getting bored with one kind of meal.

lemongrass pork bowl with noodles

And it also stops me from feeling like I have to devise something completely new and exciting every single week. Turns out a routine is pretty good!

I honestly don’t know if my monthly meal plan strategy will work for any other family or household. We’re just two people and now that we eat our lunches and dinners together, it’s a pretty straightforward system.

However, I bet this basic structure could work if you’re starting out as a new meal planner, and once your skills are intact, you can build from there.

Here’s how I do it—with an easy downloadable template to help you get started.

How to Build a Monthly Meal Plan

1. Find a data entry method that works for you

I keep things basic with an Excel spreadsheet, tabbed into multiple lists (the monthly meal plan, a grocery list, a favorite dishes list).

monthly meal plan calendar template

You can download my basic template here and customize it.

If OneNote or Evernote works for you, or if you want to get fancier with a better-designed template, have at it.

The important thing is to keep the information in digital form, so you can make changes easily and copy/paste into a new month each time.

Note that I don’t meal plan for breakfast. If that’s something you feel you want to schedule, by all means add it to your plan. But I don’t need to be reminded I’m eating almond butter toast almost every morning.

2. Make a list of favorite dishes

These are your building blocks of the meal plan —dishes that you’re happy to eat every month or so. Not to be too basic about it, but I divide our favorites into categories based on flavor profile.

spaghetti carbonara

You can see the full list in the Favorites tab in the template, but here’s an idea of how I organize them:

PASTASMEX/TEXASIANISHOTHER
Bolognesetacosveggie fried ricegrilled cheese
penne vodkaenchiladaspad Thaipizza/calzones
pasta with red sauceburrito bowlsnoodle bowlschili
carbonarafrybreadsummer rollsCaesar salad

I also keep a running list of dishes I’d like to try out alongside the favorites, just as a brainstorming space.

3. Assign favorite dishes to regular spots on the plan

Take those building blocks and start slotting them into your calendar. You don’t have to use every single meal every month, but there will always be a few dishes that you’ll want to eat every 30 days or so.

For us, we’ll make pizza or calzones once a month, we’ll have some kind of pasta every week, and I’ll need a few Thai or ramen dishes to satisfy my cravings.

filling out a monthly meal plan

Dan gets a guilty pleasure meal every weekend, like burgers, nachos, or appetizer night with cheese curds.

It also helps to assign a specific day of the week: Taco Tuesday could be the first Tuesday of the month, enchilada Tuesday the next week, burrito bowl Tuesday the following, and so on.

mushroom avocado and tomato tacos

Not every single spot on the calendar needs to be filled with a favorite dish unless you want to make the same thing every month. I leave room for new ideas, riffs, and experiments because that’s what I like to do.

4. Make sure your meals can do double duty

The majority of dishes that I cook should either follow the “cook once, eat twice” rule where we reheat the leftovers, or to make sure there’s enough to get two slots on the calendar from each meal.

That means Enchilada Tuesday is also enchilada Thursday around here, or that I’ll make enough meatballs so we can have meatball parm sandwiches twice, or that we’ll be eating chili a few times in a week.

one-pot chili mac with black beans
Photo: Casey Barber

If you’re not a leftovers person, this strategy might change your mind. Because who wants to cook every single meal from scratch?

5. Leave room for “off nights”

Because even we food professionals get uninspired—and sick of doing dishes—I make sure to give myself a few nights off every month.

These can be open-ended so we can give in to whatever hankerings we’re having, or they can be structured so you can make sure to get your restaurant/takeout favorites.

Au Cheval cheeseburger in Chicago

For instance, when we go paddleboarding on summer weekends, I schedule in trips to the deli so we can bring sandwiches out to the lake with us.

And there will be days when I just really, really want the good panang curry from the local Thai place, but Dan hates that, so he’ll get Five Guys and we’ll both be happy.

6. Remember it’s not set in stone

This is why I keep all my meal plan (and all my household plans) in Excel. Things change!

I get a new set of work assignments, Dan decides he wants to splurge on buying his wife a clam strip platter, or maybe there’s a night where we just want to eat Cheez-Its for dinner.

No worries! I just adjust the monthly meal plan and print out a new copy.

And once Dan starts commuting into an office again, the plan will change once again.

chicken pot pie with overlaid text

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