Meal planning mistakes are inevitable for beginners. But with a little patience, you can turn those first missteps into a meal plan that’s easy for you to follow and fits you and you family.
Any new endeavour, habit or routine takes time to master. Meal planning is no different. Slip ups are bound to happen along the way. The key to success is what you do next.
When I first started meal planning for my family, my main goal was to save time and money. My family didn’t jump on board right away, and I daresay, resisted my attempts to organize our meal plan and grocery shopping. As I learned to adapt to them, and them to my new system, I became proficient in creating a meal plan that worked for all of us.
If you are struggling or just starting out, don’t fret about it! You can learn how to avoid or flip those first mistakes into something that eventually runs like a well-oiled machine. You will be so thankful you pushed through those first few wobbly weeks.
Why meal planning doesn’t work for you
- Your meal planning expectations are unrealistic. Listen up. Meal planning is not going to all of a sudden make you a French gourmet chef like Julia Child or have you singing in the kitchen like Pasquale Carpino. Especially if you were anything like me before meal planning. I was a fast food junkie. My only goal was to not have take out as much and to try to mimic meals that I would usually go out for, at home. Be realistic and don’t set yourself up for failure. Especially if you are the type of person that gives up easily. (I may or may not be looking at you!)
- You don’t choose the right recipes for your family. Do you have a picky eater in your family? I do. Actually more than one. That is why take-out food used to be my meal plan. A different place for each person. That was exhausting. Maybe someone in your family won’t eat certain vegetables or has a food allergy. Believe it or not, you can make meals that everyone will love while respecting the needs of each individual family member. Let Pinterest be your friend. It is amazing how many recipes are on there that are adapted for every kind of specific diet. You know what your family will like and how far out of their comfort zone they are willing to go. Choose those recipes that everyone already loves, even if that is pizza or burgers.
- You schedule too many new or complicated recipes every week. The bulk of your meals should be made up of recipes that you have made many times over and can pretty much do without a recipe card. Especially if you work full-time or are busy with kids all day. You need to be able to whip something up without a lot of stress or mental energy. If you try to incorporate too many new or complicated recipes into your meal plan, you will become frustrated or worse, not be able to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour because you got home or started dinner late. Schedule new or more complicated recipes on days when you have more time. And don’t try more than one a week.
- You are not flexible. Your meal plan is not set in stone. You don’t have to have tacos on Tuesday if you really feel like it on Monday when it rolls around. The meals you will eat over the entire week are planned because you shopped specifically for them. But you don’t necessarily have to follow the meal schedule exactly. You can move them around. And if a certain meal doesn’t work for you one week, don’t be afraid to take it out of your rotation altogether.
- You don’t plan for eating out. Just like it is important to plan rewards when you stick to a diet or new workout routine, it is imperative that you plan nights when ordering out is ok or as a reward or for busy nights where you are running around taxiing kids here and there. It is also a great way to appease everyone so that they aren’t asking for fast food every night. When they can see there is a planned day for take-out, they will adapt to your weekly meal plan easier.
- You don’t have a leftover day. You may think that creating a meal plan and shopping once a week for groceries will deplete your food resources before your week is up but let me tell you from experience, that is not true. I had so many leftovers during my first two weeks of meal planning that I ended up throwing some food out. And I hate waste! Now I plan a leftover day close to the end of the week. Everyone may not have the same thing as there may be only one serving left over per day but that means everyone gets to choose, which is really nice. If that doesn’t appeal to you, leftovers make great lunches or can be frozen and served as a single meal for someone that needs to eat outside of the family’s normal dinner time.
- You repeat the same meals too often. “Not that again!” Ugh! No one wants to hear that. Personally, I am very boring and can eat the same things week after week. But my family, not so much. Four weeks is a good rotation cycle for recipes. If that sounds like too long, try 2 weeks and see how it goes. And just so we are clear, you are not repeating recipes but that doesn’t mean types of food. You can make chicken or have a Mexican night every week, just change how you prepare it.
- You don’t have a go to or favourite recipe list. I bet you have recipes pinned on Pinterest, some stored on your phone and a few loose sheets of paper jammed in your junk drawer. You may even have a few cookbooks with the corners turned. It is a pain looking for the recipe you want isn’t it? That’s why you need to organize your recipes in one place. Not all of your recipes. Just your favourites, the ones you make often. A binder and a three hold punch will do the trick. And if you want to get real fancy, use dividers. Having your go to recipes in one place will help you not only meal plan effortlessly but also help you to create your grocery list quickly. Organizing your recipes can be done while you are watching TV or it is a great project your kids can help you with.
- You don’t have a stocked pantry. Have you ever been envious of the hoard those extreme couponers have in their homes? I have. While I don’t encourage you to go that far, a well stocked pantry and freezer really comes in handy when you can’t go to the store for a few days for whatever reason. Or when you (or your kids) need to make a quick meal. Things like soup and crackers or a frozen lasagna are a great backup. Everyone’s “must keep in stock” list will be different depending on their needs. Create one and then do an inventory of what you have right now. Add the missing items to your next grocery list. Once your pantry and freezer are stocked, you only need to replace the items as you use them.
- You think there is only one right way to meal plan. Spoiler alert: there isn’t. The only right meal plan is one that works for you, be that digital, fancy printables or scribbled on the calendar in your kitchen. It can involve lots of prep or instant choices, frozen dinners or fancy feasts. The only thing that is important is that your meal plan saves you time, money and headache. That is the ultimate test of any meal planning strategy.
Myth : Meal planning is hard and you must be super organized
I am going to let you in on a little secret: you already meal plan. Unfortunately, you probably do it an hour before dinner needs to be on the table. You somehow manage to do it. Every. Single. Day. Now that is what I call hard.
You have proved you can work under pressure so imagine how much better you will be at it if you do it when you aren’t under the gun. All you have to do is shift your process from daily to weekly. Set a time block, grab a piece of paper and get to it. Trust me when I say it will get easier and you will become more organized. But it won’t start out that way. It didn’t for any of us so being organized from day one is not a pre-requisite for meal planning success.
Still over-whelmed with meal planning? Here’s what to do:
- Start small. I mean really small. See if you can pre-plan and shop for 3 dinners ahead of time. Next week, do four. And so on and so on till you have every meal, snack and drink planned out for an entire week.
- Stick to your favourites. Don’t try anything fancy or use any appliances, like your crock pot, in the beginning. Your goal is to be able to plan and execute your meal plan in it’s entirety.
- Give yourself grace. If things don’t run smoothly this week, try again next week. Don’t fall off the wagon and give up. Mistakes will be made. Your will manage to feed your family somehow anyway.
How do I make meal planning easier?
- Use pre-packaged meals. I am not embarrassed to say that I buy frozen lasagna and burgers. Meal planning does not mean you have to make everything from scratch. If you can find good quality pre-made food, go for it.
- Make it a habit. Schedule a time every single week to meal plan and then do it!
- Involve your family. Ask them what they would like for dinner over the coming week. It is amazing how accepting they become of the whole process when they are asked for input. Plus, they can’t complain about meals they chose now can they? (insert evil laugh)
- Prep ahead. Once you have been meal planning for awhile, you can supercharge your system using some prep ahead of time. Use that crock pot to make chili on the weekend and freeze it to use on Thursday. Better yet, double the recipe and store one away for another week. How about washing and chopping some vegetables so that they are ready to go throughout the week? If you find yourself crunched for time at night, meal prep will be your best friend.
- Use food delivery services. I hate grocery shopping. I am always tempted to buy things I don’t need and always end up spending more money. The great thing about meal planning is that I end up with a very accurate grocery list of everything I need. That means that it is super easy for me to use a food delivery service. That can be anything from automatic ordering with Subscribe & Save on Amazon, to curbside pick-up with Walmart. Once you start using this type of service, you will wonder why you didn’t start sooner. It saves you oodles of time not to mention having to drag your kids with you shopping.