If there’s one thing I’ve done over and over and over, it’s meal planning. Weekly, biweekly, monthly and everything in between.
Then finally, I spent some time creating a set of rotating meal plans – and I don’t think I will ever go back to planning “from scratch.”
It’s like meal planning on autopilot.
If you constantly struggle to find the time or energy to meal plan – reusable, rotating meal plans are your answer. Make one or several sets of meal plans, SAVE them, and simply reuse the meal & grocery lists again and again.
Too good to be true?
You may have a LOT of questions and maybe even some concerns of why it wouldn’t work for your situation.
But I promise there are a million ways to make this type of system work for you, and I’ll show you how!
*If you’re already set on creating a rotating meal plan, skip straight to the workbook and tips here.
What you need to know about rotating meal plans (or rotating menus)
Before we get started in the details, I want to unpack the idea of rotating meal plans a little further. There’s a lot of good news here!
It has all the benefits of regular meal planning with probably 20% of the work 🙂
Like any meal plan, you continue to:
- Save money
- Eat healthier
- Reduce food waste
- Minimize the “mental load” and stress involved with last-minute meal decisions
But instead of taking hours to think of meals, organize them to your schedule, transfer all the ingredients to a list, add extra items you may need, and get ready for the store (only to do it all again next week) — you START with almost all of that done for you.
If you are familiar with my 7 steps for better meal planning, the process looks like this:
Choose your meals. Organize your meals appropriately or the week/2 weeks/month. Transfer all ingredients to a grocery list.
- Add any additional items you need (breakfast, snacks, etc.)
- Shop your pantry & inventory your staples.
- Go to the store
- Prep food for later.
So you can see, with those 3 steps gone, most of the hard work is done before you even start. This means that even during the busiest seasons of life, you can reap the benefits of meal planning without a huge time commitment or drain on your mental capacity. 🙂
Since I’ve switched to rotating meal plans, my planning time has dropped from about 2 hours (for a whole month) to maybe 20 minutes. It is so efficient!
It is not one-size-fits-all.
The one thing I value more than an efficient system is a personalized system. Anything less probably won’t work, and it certainly won’t last.
I want you to know that this type of meal plan can absolutely be tweaked to work for your situation.
We’ll dive into the details later on, but I have tried probably 15 different versions of reusable plans and feel sure there’s a right approach for you.
Whether you plan for 1 week, or 2, 4, 6, 12 weeks at a time –
Whether you shop once for the whole plan or every week –
Whether you want to cook every night or include lots of freezer meals –
It can all be used in a rotating meal plan.
The main principle remains the same: Creating a plan that can be used over and over saves you the time and energy in redoing that work, or reinventing the wheel, each time.
It is not as rigid as you think!
You may be wondering –
- What about sales, discounts, or bargains?
- What about seasonal foods?
- What if I want to try new recipes?
- What if we have a special occasion to cook for?
- What if there are multiple diet requirements in my family?
There are easy ways to accommodate ALL of this. Once we get the main process down, I’ll share how I’ve learned to incorporate flexibility into my plans for each of these areas.
Creating a flexible plan is absolutely essential to this system working in “real life” and being a long-term solution for you.
How to choose the right kind of rotating meal plan
Before actually creating your plan, it’s important to evaluate what type of rotating meal plan will work best for you.
Meal planning “frequencies” can include:
- Biweekly (2 week plans)
- Even longer stretches, such as 6 or 12 weeks
With shorter meal plans, you may plan & shop for all meals at the beginning of the plan. With longer meal plans, you may shop more than one time during the length of your plan.
With rotating meal plans, I suggest you consider different combinations of planning & shopping to find the right fit for you.
For example, the meal plans I currently use each month include:
- 4 weeks of meals
- A food prep list (I “batch prep” components at the beginning, to make meals easier throughout the month)
- A grocery list for the first week & food prep items
- Then grocery lists for Week 2, Week 3, and Week 4
It’s like a hybrid of monthly planning & prepping, but combined with weekly shopping.
(Mainly because it is just too much to do monthly shopping with a toddler. Those pre-kid trips were a lot easier!)
So I want to propose some considerations to get your wheels turning and open your mind to how reusable meal plans could work for you, no matter your situation.
A quick personal note: I don’t want this to get overly complicated for you! Perhaps the best way to start rotating meal planning is simply to make 1-week sets of meals and the groceries needed. You will learn a lot as you go!
How often will you plan?
How often do you want to sit down, print off your meal plan set, and go through the planning process?
Things to consider:
- Schedule – What is your predictability factor? Shorter timeframes work for more unpredictable schedules. More predictable schedules allow you to plan further out.
- Sales & discounts – Do you live for a good sale? If you want to tweak your list to take advantage of sales (more on that later), also consider a shorter timeframe.
- Personality – Be honest with yourself! What is your usual preference – planning long-term and looking at the big picture, or taking it day-by-day and allowing for spontaneity? What initially feels right to you?
How often will you shop per plan?
Consider how often you want to shop for groceries. This can be more frequent than your planning sessions! If so, you will simply have multiple grocery lists to break up each meal plan.
Things to consider:
- Food needs– Does your diet or food preferences rely heavily on fresh produce? Or do some meals use more dry, canned, or frozen ingredients that can last until the end of a longer plan?
- Location – How close are you to your favorite stores? Is it easy to pop in, or do you have to make a long trip? Are there things you have to special order?
- Storage – How much room do you have? Consider how much food can reasonably be stored in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Would 1, 2, 4 or more weeks of food fit?
- Cash Flow – When do you have the cash on hand? Shopping once per month can be a large expense at one time. Consider if several smaller trips would work best for you, or if fewer trips help you stay on budget.
How many sets of meal plans will you rotate?
Of course, you will need to work up to having multiple meal plans, but it is worth thinking about here.
The real question is: how long do you want to go before repeating a meal?
Some people may not mind eating the same thing every 1-2 weeks. (That’s what all the geniuses do, right?)
But others, who have LOTS of favorite recipes and love variety, may prefer a longer rotation.
Depending on how long your meal plans are – 1 week, or 2, 4, 6, 12 – you can have multiple sets of meals to rotate so that you space out meals according to your preference.
So, what is the right combination for you?
As you can see, you can create a very specific type of rotating meal plan to serve your needs.
- Plan AND shop every week
- Plan every 2 weeks but shop every week
- Plan for the whole month and shop weekly
- Plan AND shop every 2 weeks
- Plan monthly, but shop every 2 weeks (an initial trip, and a mid-way trip)
- Plan AND shop once a month
And you can vary it even further by planning for longer periods like 6 weeks or 12 weeks, and shopping however often makes sense for you.
If this feels like too much to consider right now:
Remember, you can always start by planning and shopping for ONE week at a time. This is a great way to practice saving your meal plans and using them again.
How to create your reusable meal plan
Now to the details.
The best way to create a reusable meal plan is to follow the same tried-and-true techniques as usual – but simply stop your process at a point that will allow you to pick up there, over and over.
(For in-depth instructions on these strategies, see 7 Essential Strategies for Better Meal Planning.)
To walk you through the process, the following sections teach you how to:
- set up your meal plan to reuse
- how to use it each time
- plus, some tips I’ve learned along the way!
And don’t miss this – download a FREE 16-page workbook that breaks down each step with handy instructions and worksheets. Simple, easy-to-use templates are also included.
I want to make sure this is as easy as possible for you!
Creating Your Reusable Meal Plan
1. Given the number of weeks you’ve chosen to plan for, determine how many meals you typically need.
It is common to not need a meal every day, depending on how many people you are cooking for. Build in room for leftovers, meals with others, or eating out based on your typical week.
Assume that most of your meals will make the same number of servings. This makes it a lot easier! When planning your ingredients, buy for that serving size. For example, I scale all of my meals to 4 servings – unless it’s a rare meal that is an exception.
Consider using meals with many longer-lasting or nonperishable ingredients as “back-up” meals. This will allow you some wiggle-room if you need or don’t need to use this meal! For every 1-2 weeks, I include one meal in my plan that uses only dry, canned, or frozen ingredients (examples here). If we need it, it’s there. If not, nothing goes to waste and we can use it another time.
2. Choose meals to meet your number.
Think about meals that use the same ingredients. This allows you to buy larger or bulk packages, which are often cheaper, and nothing goes to waste.
3. If you are planning to shop multiple times within your plan, separate your meals based on those trips.
For example, if you have planned for a month but plan to shop twice, make a meal list for the first 2 weeks and another list for the last 2 weeks.
If you will only shop once per plan, skip this step! 🙂
Within each list, organize your meals so that the most perishable ingredients are used earlier in your plan. This will help nothing go to waste!
4. Make grocery lists with ingredients needed for each set of meals.
In the example above, you would use an initial grocery list for the first 2 weeks and then another grocery list for the last 2 weeks.
Once you’ve compiled the items, reorganize them in the order of the store for faster shopping. If you shop at multiple stores, or order some items online, make separate sections for each store.
Leave room in each section of your list to add miscellaneous items you might need when you plan each time.
5. (Optional) Make a note about food prep.
I am a STRONG believer in prepping food as part of your meal planning process.
Whether you cook entire meals to freeze at the beginning of the month, or if you “batch prep” shared ingredients to make individual meals quicker & easier – preparing items beforehand makes it WAY easier to stick to your plan.
So, if you incorporate this into your plan, consider: What items or meals will I prep at the beginning? Make a list of these tasks, and be sure to include these ingredients on your first trip!!
At this point, this is where you STOP and SAVE these documents for later. I highly recommend saving these as typed documents.
- It is quick & easy to print each time you need the plan.
- You can update and tweak as needed.
- It makes your list so neat and organized.
Using Your Reusable Meal Plan
Any time you need to use the meal plan, you just need to follow your normal routine.
According to my 7 “best practices” of meal planning, I recommend:
1. Adding any items to your list that aren’t included
- This might be breakfasts, lunches, or snacks – unless that is in your plan already
- This could also include items needed for special occasions coming up
You can use a special worksheet or checklist for these items (included in the workbook).
2. Checking to see if you already have anything on your grocery list in your pantry, fridge or freezer.
If so, cross it off!
3. Using a staples checklist to check for things you always need
Explanation and set-up included in the workbook. You can also learn more here.
See how much faster & easier the planning process will be each time? With nothing slipping through the cracks 🙂
How to address common issues or concerns about rotating meal plans
As I mentioned before, your meal plan should accommodate your preferences, your lifestyle, and life’s constant changes!
To make your meal plan more flexible, realistic, and sustainable – here are 5 simple adjustments for common issues.
What about sales, discounts, or bargains?
If you are great at saving money through sales at your grocery store, there is a simple way to work this into your process.
Make your plan more general on one or several meals. Include “meat on sale” or “veggies on sale” in place of a specific item, based on whatever you most commonly purchase discounted. Use this more general description in your meal list AND in your grocery list.
When it’s time to plan, look up what is on sale that week and change your general placeholder to the specific item you want to buy (steak, ham, pork; asparagus, broccoli, carrots).
I like to do this by not using specific recipes, but using a “meat and 3 approach” to a meal. Maybe I’ll say crockpot “meat on sale” with potatoes and frozen veggies. When I plan, I know to check for any meat that I can throw in the crockpot, and I just add in some seasonings when cooking. 🙂
What about seasonal foods or recipes?
This is a very common question, as most people don’t want chili in the hottest months of the year, or gazpacho when it’s snowing. Others who love local, fresh produce – or may even grow their own – want to plan for those ingredients in season.
I think the best solution for this is to simply create meal plans specific to each season.
Leigh Ann at Intentional By Grace has a wonderful system for this. Basically, she creates 4 weeks of meals for each season, and rotates those over the 3 months. Then she moves on to the next season. So simple!
She is even so kind to include sample meal plans for each season here. Scroll down half-way, starting with the Spring Sample Meal Plan.
What if I want to try new recipes?
Such a valid question, and one that is very important if you are easily bored or just love to cook new things!
Similar to the approach for sales & discounts, I suggest simply leaving 1-2 meals open for “Try a New Recipe”.
As part of your planning process, choose the meal you want to try and add those ingredients to the appropriate grocery list.
This will allow you to save the time of doing this for ALL your meals, and cut it down to just 1 or 2 – while still giving you lots of flexibility!
What if we have a special occasion to cook for?
An important thing to remember about rotating meal plans is nothing is set in stone. You are still in control!
If I have a special occasion to cook for – a birthday, a date night at home, a holiday – I will do one of 3 things.
- Sometimes, it may just be an “extra” meal I need to cook. I choose the meal, add it to the list, add the groceries, and move on. 🙂
- Other times, I can tweak a meal I already have. I may change the main dish, or add on something special. Again, just add a note to the meal list and add the groceries.
- Lastly, I may REMOVE an existing meal altogether (and the ingredients on the grocery list) and REPLACE it with a whole new special meal & its ingredients.
Since these don’t come up very often, it doesn’t take long and isn’t confusing.
Just make it a part of your usual planning process to check for any special meals needed, and make one of the 3 adjustments above.
Otherwise, try to stick with the meals you’ve planned.
What if there are multiple diet requirements in my family?
Due to allergies, sensitivities, goals for weight loss or gain, or general preferences, I know that finding meals that work for the whole family can be difficult.
As you find your approach to accommodating these differences, I recommend using your meal list to include notes for each family member.
For example, you could have “burrito bowls” as the meal with notes for:
- Mom & Dad – chicken, black beans, and cheese
- Son, lactose intolerant – no cheese, add avocado
- Daughter, currently vegan – no chicken or cheese, add avocado
The rest of the system – adding groceries, etc. – would reflect these nuances and could be used the same way.
Get started with your free guide! In 16 pages, it’ll walk you step-by-step to setting up your reusable meal plan as quickly as possible – with plenty of extras for troubleshooting and improving your plan.
This is easily the MOST valuable free resource I’ve created, and I can’t wait to hear how “meal planning on autopilot” makes a difference for you.
By subscribing, you’ll also receive a monthly email called This Month on Purpose. If you’ve ever struggled with having GREAT ideas but losing the motivation or interest to implement it, this is for you.