Several months ago, I started bulk-shopping and prepping our monthly meals. I designed my first one month meal plan around the autumn seasonal fruits and veggies available. Since we live on a food budget of about $600 NZD/month ($360 USD, give or take at the current conversion rate), I am always look for ways to keep my food spending low.
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Why build your own one month meal plan?
I have been working on improving my system for my one month meal plan strategy. So, I wanted to share my process for building my own one-month meal plan. Personally, although it is handy to look at other people’s meal plans for ideas, I don’t like to just copy someone else’s meals. I prefer to build my own for several reasons:
- Dietary preferences – if I was to put a label on our family’s food preferences, I would call it Nutritarian–Flexitarian. We look to maximize the amount of nutrients we get for any given meal whenever possible. And we eat MOSTLY-plant-based – with meat and cheese as flavoring.
- Allergy/food intolerance needs – my body reacts poorly to dairy. I am definitely mostly dairy-free just for simplicity. And our family eats mostly that way, too.
- Flavor/favorite food preferences – my family isn’t too picky, but we like a decent variety of flavors. I don’t make special dinners for my kids. They have always been required to eat whatever we’re eating, and they’ve mostly developed a diverse palate as a result.
- Budget reasons – we try to stick to a relatively modest monthly food budget. And the reality is that we do make food choices based on our budget. A generic 30-day meal plan doesn’t necessarily factor in seasonal costs we face here in New Zealand. (For examples, zucchinis can swing from $2.99/kg to $39.99/kg depending on the season. Fresh tomatoes are anywhere from $2.99/kg to $13.99/kg depending on the season.)
My Monthly Food Planning Strategy:
Although my monthly strategy is all about simplifying, (our spending, my time in the kitchen, the mental load of “what’s for dinner tonight?” etc) that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require some intentionality. I prefer to front-load the mental load of the month up front. And I also prefer to front load the physical work of the month up front.
I’ll walk you through this the process I take, but first, I highly recommend that you check out Amy Cross’s blog, www.thecrosslegacy.com, all about how to store your food in order to keep it fresh longer. I have begun using her strategies for washing her produce, and I’m slowly working toward overhauling my kitchen to store things in glass containers and jars to help elongate the life of my grocery haul.
Because, let’s be honest: if I can keep produce fresh longer and stay OUT of the grocery store, I’ll save money AND time!
I like to plan my meals as a month-block that runs with the calendar month. Our income comes in at the beginning of the month, so it works well for me to do a one month meal plan usually involving one big grocery shop and then one smaller grocery run sometime about week 3 of the month.
Step 1: Taking Inventory of Food in the House
As I’m nearing the end of a calendar month, I will check three different spots in our house for what is currently in my “food inventory.” I like to pull out my trusty “life organization” notebook to take notes. This notebook is just a super straightforward school notebook, but it works great to keep myself organize! I use the same notebook for weekly to-do lists, these inventory notes, basically anything that I need to remember!
First, the fridge:
This is usually pretty quick and easy because my fridge is usually starting to look pretty bare at this point. I love that – I get a thrill out of seeing how clean I can get my fridge! (And that’s when I actually CLEAN my fridge, too – wipe down the shelves, vacuum out the bottom, etc.) Usually, I already have a plan to finish up anything that is left in the fridge at this point because it’s typically just what I need for the final meals of the previous one month meal plan. But if there is anything extra, I make a note on my “Next Month Meals” spread in my notebook.
I also take note if there is anything I usually keep in stock that is running low – such as mayonnaise or mustard or sriracha.
Second, the freezer:
We have a freezer in our fridge/freezer unit, and then I also have a 5-foot standing freezer in our sleepout. I take inventory of our frozen fruit (for smoothies), our frozen veggies, and any frozen meals already made up that are NOT on the plan for the remaining meals during the current one month meal plan. I also note anything else – frozen broth, frozen yoghurt, frozen herb ice cubes, frozen meat, frozen sauces, etc. My goal is to shop my freezer FIRST before buying new. This keeps the rotation going so nothing gets too old, and it keeps my monthly grocery budget to what we are actually consuming.
Third, the pantry:
This includes my canned goods (again, I make a list). And our nuts and seeds and beans and frozen fruit supply, our pasta and rice supply, and our flour and oils and vinegars/sauces supply. I don’t necessarily keep a “set” amount of anything on hand, but I do like to have plenty of flour, salt, and dried beans.
Step 2: Brainstorm A List of Meals that Utilize the Food Already In the House
If there are any meals already ready to go that aren’t going to be used up in the current one month meal plan, they go on the list. If there are ingredients for specific meals (ie: frozen enchilada sauce), then I add that specific food also to the list. For frozen veggies or canned goods, I try to think about what meals would go well with the things I have on hand already and would approximately use up the quantity. For example, if I have a bag of frozen corn, I will make a point to think about how I could use that – I can use some in the enchiladas, but I can also use some in burrito bowls or in a taco soup.
Hot Tip: I don’t make a list of 30 different meals for my one month meal plan. I make a list of about 10-15 different meals, because I will plan to have each meal on the list at least twice, and some will be three times. My family doesn’t mind some repetition over the course of the month. When it comes to grocery shopping, I save time if I have fewer items I’m purchasing. And when it comes to doing a one month meal plan meal prep, I save time if I am bulk prepping multiples of the same meal.
I usually plan about half of my dinner meals to be 100% vegetarian, and the other half to contain some meat. I try to mix this up between beef, chicken, and either pork or fish.
Step 3: Fine Tune the One Month Meal Plan
I prioritize the meals on my list that are using up food already in the house. The already-made meals in the freezer go on the list first, and then the meals that use up specific foods.
Once I have those meals or at least some key ingredients to use up on my list, I check the grocery story website to see what is currently in season and/or on sale. I’ll build the rest of my list around the sales.
Hot Tip: There are some meal ingredients that are budget friendly which I always utilize in my meal plan. They include:
- Whole Frozen Chicken. I always purchase one frozen chicken – I can get a 2.1kg chicken for about $12 NZD ($7 USD at current conversion rate). I will cook it in the crock pot and then pick all the meat off, and cook down the carcass into chicken stock. I divide the meat into thirds, bag them, and freeze them. This’ll go into three meals.
- Dried Beans/legumes: red lentils, green lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans are go-to’s. They’re cheap ($4-$7/kg NZD, which is $2.50-$4.15 USD per 2 lbs). If they need a long cook time, that’s easy to do in the crock pot in batches overnight and then drain and freeze in portion sizes for our family meals. And they are full of fibre and protein.
- Seeds or Nuts: we always keep raw cashews, raw almonds, flax seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, unsweetened coconut flakes, and pumpkin seeds on hand. Since we’re low-dairy, cashews are great to make creamy sauces. I also use nuts or seeds to make a dairy-free milk for baking. This is heaps cheaper than buying a lot of non-dairy milk.
Step 4: Finalize the One Month Meal Plan
I like to do this step in a google document with a table. First, I set up my table to include (from left to right): meal title, protein source, starch/carbohydrate source, vegetable source, pantry or freezer ingredients, special ingredient items, and the number of times I plan to make that meal during the month. I also keep a column for additional notes to jot down ideas for sides. (But I’ll be honest, I try to avoid having a lot of meals with complicated side dishes!)
I list the meal by name in the left column, and then I work my way across the table, filling in the information. If I have the ingredient in the house, I make note of that on the table so I can see at a glance what I’ll need to put on my grocery list to purchase. So, this is what it looks like for chicken noodle soup:
|Meal Title||Protein||Carbohydrate||Vegetable||Pantry/freezer Ingredients||Special Items||# of Times||Sides/Notes|
|Chicken Noodle Soup||1/3 frozen chicken, precooked||1 package pasta (500 g)||3+ carrots|
3+ celery stalks
3+ cubes frozen spinach (in freezer)
1 onion (in pantry)
|2 Litres chicken stock||Salt, Pepper, Dill, parsley, crushed garlic, 2 cubes chicken stock||x 1||bread or salad|
I do this with about 12-15 different meals. Once I have enough meals to cover the month, I start working out my grocery list.
Step 5: Create a VERY specific grocery list from the one month meal plan
I usually write everything from my menu plan onto a shopping list, grouping like things together. To keep this simple, I’ll write “Carrots” and then start writing in the numbers that I need after that. If the chicken noodle soup uses 3 carrots, and I’m planning to use another 3 in an enchilada casserole dish, and another two in a Korean Beef bowl, then I just keep adding numbers until I’ve finished going through my list. At that point, I add up the total number of carrots.
I usually find it helpful to have the grocery store website up with an online shopping order set up. I can then add everything from my meal plan into an online order. Then I can see what the total amount is based on my menu plan and find out whether I’m close to being in budget. (Or if I need to make some adjustments). Of course, you can always just place your grocery order for click and collect if that’s easier. I like to save the $6 for service and bagging fee, and I like to pick my own produce, so I usually just do the grocery shop myself. But, I do think ordering online can save on impulse spending!
Since I like to organize my grocery lists in order along the route that I will travel through the grocery store, I typically divide my grocery list into two columns, and have categories of groceries according to my typical shopping route. They include:
- Fresh Fruits and Veggies
- Refrigerated meats
- Oats/Cereals, shelf-stable non-dairy milks, nut butters, canned fruit
- Spices/Herbs, oils, sauces, vinegars
- Pasta and Rice
- Canned vegetables
- Baked goods
- Household supplies (toilet paper, dishwashing detergent, etc)
- Frozen foods
Step 6: Add Breakfast Ingredients to the Grocery List
Since my one month meal plan only includes dinners, I add some additional foods for breakfast.
We make green smoothies three mornings per week, and have them with cold cereal or toast. We also make oatmeal two mornings per week. Usually for Sabbath (Saturday) mornings I make an egg casserole. And we usually make chia pudding one morning, too.
So, I check the current supply of our frozen fruit, oatmeal, chia seeds, and eggs.
I know I’ll need about 20 cups of oats for the month (5 per week). One cup of oats is about 100 grams, so 500 grams for a week. I typically buy one 2 kg bag of oats per month.
We buy chia seeds in bulk, getting a 3 kg bag. We’ve honestly had the 3 kg bag for several months and its still going strong.
I know we’ll need about 4 dozen eggs per month. The breakfast casseroles usually take 8-10 eggs, and then I have a few extra for baking purposes (cornbread, cookies, etc).
For frozen fruit, I like to freeze whatever we have in season to help carry us into the next season. If there is a really good deal on fruit at the grocery store , I’ll try to get some extra and freeze it. (Anything less than $3/kg I consider to be a good deal, other than bananas). So it depends month to month what we will need for smoothies. But I always get several bunches of bananas, and. I always get a kg of frozen spinach. And I usually need to get about 1 kg of some other kind of frozen fruit – mangos, blueberries, raspberries, etc.
We eat fruits and veggies as snacks, so I’ll plan to get several kg of any kind of fresh produce that is $3/kg or less.
Step 7: Add Lunch Ingredients to the Grocery List
For this, I make sure I get a 5 kg bag of all purpose flour and 4 kg of whole meal flour every month. We make our own bread, and I usually make a loaf about every four days. I use about 7 cups of flour for each loaf, which is about 900 grams of flour. If I figure we’ll make about 8 loaves of bread over the course of a month. The extra flour we’ll use in additional baking (cookies, muffins, cornbread, etc).
We eat a lot of leftovers for lunches, but peanut butter sandwiches or cheese sandwiches are always options! So I like to get a kg of peanut butter and a kg of cheese.
And lunches are also where we’ll supplement with fresh veggies, fresh fruit, and maybe some hummus or yoghurt. (I usually offer my kids yoghurt and cheese several times per week).
Step 8: Add Pantry Staples to the Grocery List
We usually need to buy a liter of olive oil and two or three liters of coconut oil each month. We don’t use butter, so coconut oil is our butter replacement in baking, spreading, and cooking.
Less frequently than once a month, we need to get some coffee, tea, spices, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, ketchup, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, nutritional yeast, etc.
I try to look at the meals I’ve planned and whether they ACTUALLY require an ingredient I’m low on. Personally, I really try to avoid the “have an extra one in the cupboard” philosophy of stocking a kitchen unless it is something I KNOW is a high-use item. I feel like items get lost in the cupboard too easily! If I run out of balsamic oil before the end of the month, I’m usually OK with that. I can usually substitute with red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, or lemon juice until the next scheduled grocery run.
Step 9: Add Household Items to the Grocery List
This is where I do actually like to keep an extra on hand! I know I will always use and get through laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, toilet paper, and paper towels. We also include white vinegar in this list because I use it for cleaning and in my cloth diaper wash loads.
So I try to make sure I get these items on the list BEFORE I’m almost out. That being said, my only space to store these is in my bathroom/utility room combo, so I don’t go too crazy on stocking up on them. One extra family pack of toilet paper is perfectly sufficient – we can always get some on the mid-month stock up.
Step 10: Hit the Store WITH the list, and stick to it [and have a plan for lunch and dinner!]
Once I’ve done ALL of that, I head to the grocery store. (After cleaning off all the counter tops and table top surfaces in my house. I know when I come in with the haul for the one month meal plan, I’m going to have a LOT of stuff to organize!)
Of course, the most important thing is to STICK to the list! So I try to make sure I’m well fed BEFORE I go. And I like to have a plan for lunch and dinner. It’s a lot of work to go to the grocery store with three kids in tow, shopping for a month. Once I get home, I’ll spend the rest of the day sorting, washing, chopping, repackaging, etc. I know my best chance at buying what’s on the list and no more is to have the rest of our food for the day planned… This avoids impulse snack purchases! And prepackaged snacks are EXPENSIVE!!
Once I’m home from the grocery store with my one month meal plan grocery haul…
I put away the frozen food first.
Then I put away refrigerated items that don’t need any further processing (yoghurt, cheese, tofu, etc).
I put away all my canned goods, pantry staples, past, rice, etc.
I start washing my produce (following The Cross Legacy method) and leaving it out to dry.
Then I process my fresh meat. 1 kg of hamburger, I’ll divide that into the amounts I need for each meal I have planned. Usually this is 500 grams per meal. If I have three chicken breasts, usually I plan one chicken breast per meal. So I’ll divide them into individual baggies. And if I know I’ll need chopped chicken breast, I’ll chop them before I put them in the baggie.
If I’m doing good on time, I’ll see if there are more steps I can complete to prep. Sometimes I chop carrots, celery, and onions and put them in a baggie to be base of chicken noodle soup. Even if I can’t prep a whole meal in advance, I usually take some time to start chopping things. I can freeze them and pull them out for easy meal prep when it is time.
Otherwise, once the veggies and fruit dry (usually several hours later, just before dinner), I’ll start packing them up.
Over the next day or two, I’ll cook up my frozen chicken in the crock pot. Once its cooked, I’ll divide up the meat and make bone broth. If I don’t plan to use the broth immediately, I’ll freeze it for later. I’ll also usually cook up a couple different dried beans in the crock pot. One they cool, I bag them into portions that will feed our family for specific meals.
Consuming the food!
I always plan to eat up the meals that have food in them that will perish most quickly. Usually these are my meals containing fresh spinach, lettuce, and other shorter-shelf-life produce. (Although with Amy Cross’s strategies, I’m getting more time out of my produce!). So our first week of the month is usually our most salad-heavy.
Meals that depend more on longer-lasting produce (such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc) I try to start rotating through during middle of the month. These veggies often get roasted, so this will definitely include some bowl-meals.
By the fourth week, we’re mostly eating meals that utilize frozen vegetables. This will typically be more soups and casseroles.
When I make a meal, if there are leftovers and it freezes easily, I’ll bag it and freeze it. However, if there isn’t enough left to feed our whole family, I’ll just keep it for a lunch option. Frozen meals will often reappear during that last week of the month.
For You: My One Month Meal Plan (Winter Season)
I’ve added some notes to my one month meal plan document, and am including it below as a PDF if you’d like to download it and be inspired! It includes my grocery list and basic directions for meals that I don’t have a recipe to accompany.
Let me know in the comments below how you meal plan, or if you’re going to try mine out!