A Busy Mom’s Tips for Easy Monthly Meal Planning

Intrigued by the once-a-month cooking strategy but don’t know how to start?

As a registered dietitian and busy working mom, I’m a big supporter of the convenience of meal planning. Preparing meals in advance can be healthier and cheaper than dining out. I managed once-a-week cooking for years until it began interfering with weekend family activities. 

As my family and work life got busier, I found it harder to cook dinner most nights after switching from cooking all day Sunday to mini-meal prep sessions throughout the week.

So I decided to revisit Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg’s books, “Once a Month Cooking” and “Once a Month Cooking Family Favorites”, a strategy I hadn’t tried before (I thought the project was too daunting. Spoiler: it’s not).

In this article, I’ll share insights from the books and my experiences to help you tackle once-a-month cooking. First, let’s break down the myths that initially held me back from trying monthly meal planning–myths that might also stop you from trying this potentially game-changing strategy. 

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PIn image for article about monthly meal planning.

Myths of Once-a-Month Cooking

While spending one or two full days of cooking and prep may not be a great fit for every family, don’t let common myths prevent you from experimenting with once-a-month meal planning. Implementing some elements might take some pressure off cooking dinner daily. 

Here are common myths: 

It’s too time-consuming

Yes, the prep and cooking days are intensive. However, this meal prep method saves time throughout the month by reducing daily cooking and cleanup. 

On cooking day, I spent about four hours cooking and another hour (or two!) cleaning up after making dinner for two weeks. That averages to a little over 15 minutes a day for 14 days. During the week I spent a few more minutes reheating and on cleanup. Ultimately, I felt it was worth the initial effort.

It requires a huge freezer

I stacked the prepped meals in freezer bags. The freezer space in my side-by-side refrigerator is small. Two weeks’ worth of prepared dinners took up less space than packages of uncooked meat for the same amount of meals. So, cooking for the month maximized my available freezer space.

Food quality suffers

Partially cooking meals and assembling them on the day they’re served helps maintain food quality—it didn’t taste the same as reheating leftovers. On the night we served the meals, all we had to do was defrost and heat the prepared ingredients. It tasted like a freshly cooked meal. 

The key is to choose recipes and ingredients that freeze well. If your family doesn’t like to eat leftovers, consider prepping most ingredients in advance and storing them in separate bags (tape the freezer bags together into a meal kit). 

It’s too rigid

A common worry is that there’s no spontaneity with once-a-month cooking. It’s the most flexible meal-planning method I’ve tried since we could choose from a large selection of prepared meals. It was easy to swap days if we wanted to eat something else. 

It’s only for large families

You can scale monthly meals to any household size. And in some ways, it’s less work to cook ahead for just one or two people. 

By packing meals according to portion size, you can almost double the number of dinners you have for the month. So, you can either scale the recipe size down and make 30 meals or prepare 15 meals (four servings each) and have enough dinner for the month. 

It’s too expensive

It can be, depending on your food shopping strategy. Making a shopping list based on a menu can raise food costs. I always plan meals from sales and what I already have in the house. But, for this experiment, I made a grocery list from the book’s recipes and my monthly grocery total was higher than average. 

Combining the two strategies, cooking once a month and creating a menu from the pantry and sales, would cut grocery expenses. You can make a big once-a-month grocery shopping trip or take advantage of weekly sales and then make a meal plan for the next month. 

Freezer bags containing prepped meals.

Meal Prep and Cooking—My Experience

I admit I’ve been putting off this meal planning strategy for years. Cooking for the week became too much work for me so the idea of cooking 30 meals was overwhelming. So, I started with a 2-week menu.

By the end of my cooking day, I felt exhausted but cooking multiple meals was easier than I expected. The trick is to use the same type and cut of meat for different dishes. This way, you can use the same main ingredient across several meals without cooking a completely different meat each time.

Plan & Shopping

The books provide two done-for-you, 2-week and 1-month menus with shopping lists and prep instructions. Since I needed to accommodate my family’s food preferences, I didn’t use the done-for-you menus. 

I needed to avoid these ingredients:

  • Beef and pork
  • Cream sauces
  • Peas
  • Mustard or mustard powder
  • Mayonnaise

That left chicken recipes or recipes that could be changed to use ground turkey or chicken. I found seven meals I thought my family would enjoy, which should be enough dinners for two weeks including leftover nights and two of my family’s favorite meals: Chicken tacos and Chipotle chicken.

Recipes I used from “Once-a-Month Cooking”:

  • Karen’s barbequed Chicken (page 26)
  • Chile Verde (page 41)
  • Blackened Chicken Breasts (page 50)
  • Mandarin Orange Chicken (page 51)
  • Chicken Cacciatore (page 53)
  • Taco Pie (page 106)
  • “Asian-inspired” Chicken (page 151 – recipe name altered from book)

Recipes I used from “Once-a-Month Cooking Family Favorites”:

  • Marinated Barbecued Chicken (page 34)
Two week menu used for cooking ahead.

Day Before

The day before, I prepped by setting out the kitchen tools I needed to prep. I didn’t review the recipes the day before the cooking day, which was a big mistake. Most recipes I selected called for cooked chicken, which I wasn’t prepared for.

I might block off two days next month: one for cooking and another for assembly to finish the meals and organize them for storage. I didn’t use the ready-made menu from the book, so I didn’t have a prep list to follow. Although I’m an experienced cook and thought I wouldn’t need to make a prep list for my chosen recipes, which was another mistake.

Cooking Day

Even though I didn’t fully prepare by making a list of the prep and cooking tasks in order, I still cooked nine dinners in about 4 hours.

Step 1: prep (last minute)

The two main speed bumps were moving my prep area back to the kitchen counter from the dining room table, and realizing the recipes required cooked chicken, which I hadn’t prepared. While I had more space on the large table it was too far away from the stove and wasn’t an efficient setup.

I wish I created a detailed plan for assembling the recipes. Without an assembly plan, I wasted time turning back and forth between pages as I cooked, which slowed me down. To compensate for the lack of planning, I set up three separate cutting boards for raw meat, vegetables, and cooked meats. I quickly reviewed the recipes, noting the amount, prep and cooking method of chicken for each one.

Step 2: cooking and storage

I cooked the chicken in batches using a large cast iron skillet. Some meals had an additional cooking step in a saucepan, while others just needed flavors during cooking or combined in a bowl afterward.

Then, I labeled freezer bags with the recipe name, page number and date. As each meal cooled, I packed them into the labeled bags, laying them flat so they could be stacked in the freezer.

Step 3: cleanup

Usually, I clean as I cook. However, making freezer meals for a few weeks in one day moved fast so there was a big mess to clean up when I finished cooking. Cleanup took about 1 to 2 hours from start to finish after all the cooking was complete. There were only a few pots and pans since most recipes used the same skillet.

When I moved the prep area from the dining room table to the counter I didn’t take the time to clear the counters. I could have avoided some clutter and mess if I had taken the extra step to clear the workspace before starting.

Pros

Once-a-month cooking means getting all the meal prep done in just one or two days, which frees up time for the rest of the month. This change significantly lowered my stress level in the evening and gave me more time for other things.

When I weekly meal plan, I plan meals around evenings I won’t have time to cook. With two kids in sports, I often have more busy days than not. Trying to coordinate my schedule with meal planning every week was exhausting. Shifting to once-a-month cooking was a pleasant break from that aspect of planning.

Also, having meals ready to go reduced impulse buys and spending on last-minute meals or takeout.

Cons

The major drawback is the significant time investment on cooking and prep days. Spending one or two full days cooking can be exhausting and may not be workable for everyone’s schedule. Plus, making a meal plan for the month requires careful planning to coordinate the recipe ingredients and cooking.

One challenge of once-a-month cooking, particularly when purchasing meat on sale weekly, is you prep and cook the meat before freezing, which adds extra time and planning on grocery shopping days.

mock up of meal planning templates.

My Takeaway

I plan to do monthly meal planning again and next time prepare meals for the entire month.

My biggest misconception was that once-a-month cooking meant preparing complete meals to freeze in trays. I worried about not having enough freezer space or the time to cook 30 dinners in one or two days.

Most of the recipes I chose required only pre-cooking and assembling ingredients. This method turned out to be less work than I expected. After a few hours, I had meals for about two weeks that neatly fit into the freezer.

I could stock up on dinners for a couple of weeks but also had the flexibility to cook when I had time or wanted to eat something else. That also allowed me to stretch how long the prepared meals lasted.

A few things that worked–

The experience taught me to think about which recipes I’d like to make as I shop the weekly sales. That way I can prep the meat before I freeze it and be a few steps ahead for next time.

Hanging the menu with additional cooking instructions on our meal planning whiteboard was a big help. Instead of planning a 2-week menu, I decided on dinner the night before and put the freezer bag in the refrigerator to defrost. Afterward, I just checked off the meals and kept a mental note of the ones my family did and didn’t like.

A few things that I could improve–

Usually, I build leftover nights into my weekly meal plan and use leftover ingredients to incorporate into new meals. With this method, I’ll need to figure out how many servings each meal provides and plan for nights when we’ll eat leftovers.

Some nights, my family ate more than I expected and didn’t have leftovers (usually that meant they didn’t like the meal and those leftovers ended up as my lunch for a few days).

But most nights, we had at least one serving left, and soon our fridge was full of miscellaneous one-serving meals. So, I stopped cooking dinners until we finished all the leftovers. The nine dinners lasted two adults and two kids for about 3-4 weeks, between reheating leftovers and cooking additional meals.

Tips from My Kitchen to Yours

Start with a plan – Choose recipes that freeze well and that your family enjoys. If the goal is to save time and money, consider making a monthly meal planning menu with resumes that use what’s on sale and in your pantry.

Inventory check – Assess what ingredients you already have to prevent food waste and unnecessary purchases.

Schedule your cooking day – Cooking for the month in one or two days takes several hours. Find a day when you have time to block out several hours for cooking and plan for someone to watch the kids. Or let them help with age appropriate kitchen tasks.

Organize your recipes – Batch recipes by ingredient and cooking method. If you’re adapting your recipes to this method, list prep and cooking tasks you can batch. Go through all the recipes the day before to find anything that needs to be prepped before cooking or assembly, noting ingredients that need to be cooked and cooled before assembly.

Shop smart – Buy in bulk and shop the sales to save money. Use a detailed shopping list to avoid forgetting items, which can add an extra challenge to the cooking day.

Prep before you cook – Instead of doing all the prep, cooking and meal assembly in one day, pre-chop, measure, and batch the ingredients by recipe the day before.

Efficient cooking strategies – To streamline the process use similar cuts of meat and cooking methods for several recipes. Prepare dishes that can cook at the same oven temperature or use the same pans one after the other to avoid washing pots and pans as you cook.

Proper storage – Cool dishes to room temperature before freezing and use high-quality, airtight containers or vacuum-sealed bags to maximize freshness and save space. And save time later by labeling containers and bags with instructions for thawing, reheating, and serving.

Adjust as you go – Be flexible and willing to adjust your meal plan based on what works and what doesn’t. Take notes on what meals were hits and which were misses to adjust future meal plans.

A monthly meal planning template can help you plan and organize once-a-month cooking. Get my free meal planning templates including a calendar and grocery list planner templates.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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