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Save Time, Money, and Your Sanity with an Annual Meal Plan

Guest post by Lisa of Lisa Tanner Writing:

Do you dream of lowering your grocery budget? Have you ever wander aimlessly through the kitchen, wondering what to cook? Are your kids always asking, “Mom, what’s for dinner?”

Yes…I can relate to all three of those questions! But don’t worry, I have a solution for you!


I used to hate meal planning. In fact, I hated it so much I just didn’t do it. Then when meal times rolled around, the kids were hungry and wondering what we were going to eat… so was I!

I wasted so much time looking through cupboards, Googling recipes that use, “whatever ingredients I have in kitchen,” and then doing the actual cooking thing.

My grocery budget was out of control, because I wasn’t sure what I was going to cook — which meant buying a whole lot of everything, just in case. All that food sat in our pantry for who knows how long, and some of it eventually expired or spoiled. What a waste!

My Solution = Make an Annual meal Plan

Thankfully, three years ago, I discovered a better way. I tried an annual meal plan and a corresponding shopping list.

Now I always know what I’m cooking, the kids know what’s for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack on any given day, so they’ve stopped asking me, and I’m saving money because I’m buying with a plan!  If I find a great deal on something on my master shopping list, I can stock up.

How to Make an Annual Meal Plan

Creating an annual meal plan isn’t nearly as complicated as it sounds! By using a combination of meal rotations and themed dinners, it comes together quickly.

I typically have my kids help me pick meals, because I’ve learned they complain a lot less if they have say in what we eat.

First, we tackle breakfast. Each child suggests a possible meal for breakfast. I mentally evaluate each of these options, looking for ideas that are:

  • Easy
  • Inexpensive
  • Tasty enough to eat once a week for a year

If the idea meets all the requirements, I add it to our list. We keep brainstorming until we have seven, one breakfast for each day of the week.
On a piece of paper or a meal planner, I assign each breakfast to a day of the week. I try to match quick, or make-ahead breakfasts with days that tend to be busiest.

Lunch planning follows the same process, except I always have a day devoted to leftovers.

You can plan dinner the same way. But I don’t.

There’s something about eating the exact same dinner each week that I didn’t enjoy.
I needed a longer rotation period for dinner, so I decided to plan with themes. By picking four or five meals for each theme, I created a monthly rotation.

Wondering what themes to try? Here are some of my family’s favorites:

  • Noodle Night
  • Soup & Sandwich
  • A variety of ethnic themes
  • Seafood
  • Crockpot Day
  • Casseroles

For noodle night, we might enjoy these meals throughout the month:

  • Beef stroganoff
  • Spaghetti and Meatballs
  • Chicken fettuccini
  • Baked pasta
  • Pasta salad

They’re all noodles, but it doesn’t feel repetitive!

NOTE: If you’re making your plan on the computer, I recommend linking to the recipes you find for each idea, to save time.

I’ve included copies of my own annual meal planner below — maybe it will help you get started!

  • PDF version (it will open in a new window)
  • Word Doc. (it will download to your computer so you can open and edit it with Word)

Making Your Shopping List

The real time and money saving magic happens through making your shopping list.

It typically takes me three hours, BUT then I’m finished for the year (except for a quick glance each month before I shop).

I go through each recipe, and write down every ingredient needed. By doing it in an Excel document, I don’t have to worry about writing something down twice, because I just filter out the duplicates.

I determine how much I need to buy each month of each ingredient, and put that on my spreadsheet. Using my best guess, I use another column to record prices for each. Then when I multiply the quantity by the cost, I have a pretty accurate budget for each month.

While taking the first shopping trip with the new list, I make sure to note price differences to update when I get home. I always round up to give myself a little buffer.

Benefits of an Annual Meal Plan

My favorite thing about an annual meal plan is that I only have to do it once every year! Other benefits include:

  • Cooking faster. When you make the same thing every week or every month for a year, you learn to streamline each step.
  • Less meal time complaining. Everyone knows what to expect, and they enjoy it!
  • Fewer decisions to make. I’m all for freeing up brain power for more important things!
  • Saving money. I’ve cut out grocery budget significantly.
  • More opportunities for kids to master cooking. They help me cook the meals they pick each week, and have lots of practice by the time we switch.

Give annual meal planning a try. It seriously saves time, money, and your sanity!

As a mom of 8, Lisa Tanner is skilled at finding order in chaos. She loves helping other moms find ways to minimize their decisions to maximize productivity and live the life they want. When she’s not homeschooling the kids or milking a cow, you’ll find her blogging at Lisa Tanner Writing, about balancing diapers and deadlines.

photo source

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  • Stacey says:

    Thank you for this post. I just took a leave of absence from teaching this coming year and was trying to figure more of rotation of meals. I already plan 2-3 weeks of meals at a time. However, I need to do more rotating as I found my family started to get bored with the current structure. Plus, with 50% of our income gone for the next year I need to more creative. Thank you for this post.

    • Lisa says:

      You’re welcome Stacey! I’m glad it gave you some inspiration. It’s one of the ways we were able to cut our grocery budget before I left the classroom a few years ago, so I hope it does the same for you.

  • Karen Dalfonso says:

    Such a great idea! My added suggestion is to inventory freezer and staples in pantry, then make a menu for whatever meals you can make with what is already in your kitchen. As you buy more items, add to your menu with additional meals. This would work for me, as I definitely buy sale items but the key is NOT to “lose” these items in the pantry or freezer. I try to inventory everything at least once a month.

  • Anne says:

    As a plan-ahead sort of girl, this sounds amazing! However, maybe not very realistic for someone whose hubby won’t eat whatever is put in front of him, and often comes home with grocery bags full of ingredients for a dinner he’s in the mood to eat that night! lol Our grocery bill ends up being huge. I’m not quite sure how to keep spending under control, or if I should just let our grocery bill run free like the wind. It doesn’t seem to bother him except for the times he sees the actual grocery sprnding at the end of the month. 🙂

  • Wow, this is a great idea! The thought of only having to plan once a year is pretty nice. We often use the same basic two-week meal plan over and over, and just make little adjustments.

  • Ginger says:

    I can see how annual planning could free up a chunk of time each week. The themed meal plans has sparked some ideas. Thx.

  • Elva says:

    Hi Lisa – This post is inspiring me to create an annual meal plan! I appreciate you sharing your ideas for Noodle Night dinners. Would you mind sharing more of your ideas for the breakfast, lunch, or dinner? I would be grateful for anything you are willing to share. Thank you!

  • Lisa says:

    I do a month at a time, but a year? How freeing would that be??! Such a great article: concise, clear, do-able, AND a worksheet!!! Fabulous! Thanks for putting this article in your newsletter, Crystal, and thanks to Lisa for writing it.

  • Ashley P says:

    We do something like this. Only instead of annually, we plan quarterly.

    Breakfast, we alternate cereal, eggs, French toast (with poached eggs for hubby because he hates French toast), biscuits, and pancakes. It’s usually cereal or eggs during the week and biscuits, French toast and pancakes on weekends because they take a bit longer.

    Lunch alternates sandwiches, pizza bites, and burritos. We change up the sandwiches to keep it from getting boring.

    Dinner is the fun one. We have a list of ~50 inexpensive meals. We play a sort of Russian roulette. Someone picks a number (say, 5) and we start counting off. Every 5th meal gets put on the calendar until we’ve used them all. The only catch is, you can only use 1 meat a week. So, if you land on a chicken dish, and we already have chicken scheduled that week, you move on to the next one down. Holidays are the only ones not subject to the rules. Every other night is by default leftover night.

    It’s actually kind of fun to plan.

  • Carolyn says:

    I really appreciate this idea, and I am going to try it. Meal planning for me is always one of those things I do great at for a few weeks, but then life gets busy and I drop the ball. A *yearly* plan is a great idea! Even if we get off track for a little while, we can always hop back on. Thanks for the tip!

    (I so know what you mean by Googling “whatever ingredients I have in the kitchen.” 🙂 But for me the search includes “from frozen!”)

  • Shari Lynne says:

    I LOVE doing themes and I too need a bigger rotation than weekly. Also over the years I’ve been meal planning I realize that we really eat pretty much the same things with only adding in one to four new recipes a month…to try! Great suggestions..thanks!

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