Back in the spring, my neighbor, Cheryl, inadvertently issued me a challenge. I don’t think she even realized it until I mentioned it to her a few weeks later.

As organized as I am, the one thing that I was never organized about was meal planning. Specifically, I always struggled planning for dinner. Oh, I would try to get organized. I would plan out an entire week by writing a list of possible meals. Or, I would pick a few meals to make over the course of a week and fill in other nights by winging it. I would write them on a slip of paper and stick it on the refrigerator with a magnet. I would buy most of the ingredients that I needed. Then, during the course of the week, I would forget to reference the list. I would wing it. My family wouldn’t be in the mood for what I planned. We would resort to ordering out too many times just because of a lack of planning. For a variety of reasons, we were never able to stick to it!

One day, Cheryl mentioned to me that she plans her meals for the month. A month! I thought she had to be crazy. I couldn’t manage a week, let alone a month! She went on to convince me how easy this process gets to be. Once you plan a couple of months, you now have a list of various meals to pick and choose from when preparing the menu for the following months. Each month, you can introduce new meals and build up your repertoire. Still thinking she was crazy, I decided to give it a try for the last two weeks of March.

I started by downloading the 2011 Microsoft calendar template for Word. I created a high-level list of “nights” to choose from: pasta night, Mexican night, sandwich night, crock pot night, chicken night, breakfast-backward night, pizza night, etc. This helped me introduce variety from night to night. Then, I started adding actual meals to the calendar: waffles, white pizza and a salad, chicken broccoli in the crock pot, etc. As I added the meals to the calendar, I added the necessary ingredients to the shopping list. While adding meals, I tried to plan as best I could for activities I knew were coming up: baseball night, a late work night, company joining us for dinner. By the time I was done, I had the list of meals and a list of ingredients I needed. I surveyed my kitchen for what ingredients I already had and crossed them off the list. I added any staples we would need: milk, bread, juice, cereal. Then, I shopped.

The last two weeks of March went pretty well. But then again, it was only two weeks. I wasn’t quite convinced. So, I followed the same process for April. At the end of March, I took about an hour or so and planned my April dinners, typed them into my Word document, and made up my shopping list once again. April was a very busy month so I found myself having to swap a couple of meals to accommodate our schedule. But, it still worked! The month-at-a-glance menu plan gave me so many meal choices that it was easy to swap a couple of nights. It also gave me a sense of satisfaction that I didn’t need to resort to wasting money and calories by ordering out.

I just finished August’s menu and did my monthly shopping. After 4 ½ months, I love this process! We are eating healthier, ordering out less, and saving money! I have one big shopping trip at the beginning of the month. Then, each week, I pick up necessary staples and possibly a handful of ingredients that would have gone bad if purchased any earlier in the month. So, I am even saving time! I can only end this by saying, “Thanks, Cheryl!”