Meal Planning

Meal Planning Mistakes That Set You Up To Fail

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

  1. 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!)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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. Here are 10 reasons why meal planning isn't working for you right now and how you can fix that.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. Make it a habit. Schedule a time every single week to meal plan and then do it!
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Understand that you will make meal planning mistakes in the beginning. If you persevere, you will get better at it. When you do, dinner time will no longer be stressful but filled with quality family time like it should be.


Grocery Substitutes When Shelves Are Empty

We’ve all had that moment of panic before. You walk through the grocery store with your list only to find the shelf completely cleared. Perhaps there was a great sale on your favourite brand, or you can’t seem to find it in the store. At some point, you will find yourself in the store unable to buy something that was on your list! If you find ourself in this situation, I have a few handy substitutes that you’ll want to have handy. Here are items to buy when the grocery store is entirely out.

Out of Dairy Milk? Buy Plant-Based Milk Instead

If there is a dairy shortage in your area, or the price of milk goes way up, then you will want to have something handy to substitute it for! If you can’t find any dairy milk, look into some plant-based milk alternatives! Soy milk, almond milk, and coconut milk can usually get the job done in any recipe you’re looking for! The shelf life is also a lot longer on these kinds of milk if they are unopened. Before you start whipping up recipes using plant-based milk, make sure that you do some research first. Not all plant-based milks will be a one to one substitute.

Out of Butter? Buy Margarine Instead

For a lot of recipes, you can use either a plant-based alternative or margarine without noticing a significant difference in your recipe. If your store is entirely out of butter, you can probably safely use margarine to get you through until you’re able to find butter again. Margarine is best when used in cooking over baking, so if you plan on doing a lot of baking, use a plant-based butter substitute instead.

Can’t Find Canned Veggies? Buy Fresh Instead

Canned veggies are great when you are looking for something a little more shelf-stable. They also are typically pre-cooked and cut so you can significantly cut down on your cook and prep time. However, fresh produce can usually do the same job! You can even learn to can it yourself if you want to have something a little more shelf-stable. Some vegetables can also be frozen, so you don’t have to worry about them going bad.

Out of Tomato Paste? Try Canned Tomatoes Instead

Small cans of tomato paste are easy to miss in the store. However, I have not been able to find it countless times! Tomato sauce and canned tomatoes are not as concentrated as the tomato paste you’ll find in a can. So, if you want to substitute this properly, make sure that you double the amount to get your flavours just right. The ratio is about two tablespoons of strained canned tomatoes for each tablespoon of tomato paste you would have used.

Can’t Find All-Purpose Flour? Try Using a Different Flour

If you can’t find regular flour, you may still be able to find gluten-free or even whole wheat flours in the store. Depending on what you’re making, you may be able to use chickpea flour or even self-rising flour. Adjusting your recipe slightly or going for an unconventional flour can help you get the job done in a pinch. While some recipes are one-to-one, not all of them will be! Make sure to look it up online before you buy so that way you don’t buy the wrong kind of flour for your recipe.

Out of Eggs? Try Using Aquafaba

Aquafaba, also known as chickpea juice, is made from the juice from a can of chickpeas. This can work very similar to eggs in most recipes to help you get by until you need to get more eggs. Sure, you won’t be able to whip up a batch of scrambled eggs with Aquafaba, but you’ll be able to bake your cakes still and use them in recipes pretty seamlessly.

Can’t Find Bread? Try Tortillas or Pita Bread

Bread is one of those staples we don’t appreciate until it’s too hard to find. If you want to make a one-to-one swap for your store-bought bread, you can always make your own! It costs pennies to make your own bread and will get the job done just as well! However, if you still want to buy something for the store as a bread replacement, you may be able to always find tortillas or pita bread. These can work great as bread substitutes in many situations. You can make roll-ups instead of sandwiches or make a pita grilled cheese. It’s not the same, but it can help you add some healthy carbs into your diet when you can’t find any bread.

If you can’t find something in the store or don’t want to drive around town looking for it, then these substitutes can be a lifesaver in the kitchen! These work great for nearly any recipe, and will help you out in a pinch!

Meal Planning

What Is Meal Planning And How To Start

Nothing is more satisfying than a great meal. Except maybe someone else making it for you and cleaning up after. Am I right? Let’s be honest here: being responsible for meals in your home is a chore, mentally and physically exhausting and thankless, most of the time. In an effort to relieve some of the pressure on me, I began meal planning back in January. And holy moly guys, it has been a game changer for me!

  • No more rushing to stores at the last minute to grab ingredients.
  • No more fast food just because I’m too exhausted to do anything else.
  • No more complaints from the peanut gallery about what I made for dinner.

And that was before the quarantine began…

If you would have told me last year to shop and meal plan for an entire month, I probably would have broke down crying. I could barely go two days without grocery shopping. How the heck would I go a week, let alone a month? Meal planning gave me the tools I needed to effortlessly plan, buy and stockpile everything I needed (no, I don’t mean toilet paper) so that I didn’t have to expose myself unnecessarily during the crisis.

If the thought of what’s for dinner tonight makes you feel stressed or anxious, maybe you should give meal planning a try too.

Let’s begin here:

What is meal planning?

Meal planning is just what it sounds like, a plan. A plan that makes your meal prep run more efficiently and smoothly by deciding what meals you will prepare everyday ahead of time.  And then shopping intentionally once for everything you need to fulfil your new plan.

Does that sound over-whelming? Don’t worry! I’ll break down the process for you further down.

First let’s get you committed to this new way of life:

Benefits of meal planning

1. Meal planning saves the time and mental energy you’d otherwise waste staring into the fridge deciding what to make, or aimlessly browsing the grocery store shelves, hoping for a flash of inspiration. No more getting to the end of a busy day and then having to pull together enough brainpower and ingredients to whip up something satisfying.

2. Meal planning makes healthier food choices automatic. The temptation to simply grab takeout is far less likely when you know you have something healthy, tasty, and easily accessible waiting for you at home.

3. Meal planning saves you money. When you plan ahead, you can shop around and take full advantage of sales and bulk prices. The impulse buying and overspending that go along with unplanned grocery shopping trips are naturally limited. And, of course, eating at home is nearly always cheaper than buying restaurant food!

And here is an unexpected benefit I discovered when I started to meal plan: no more complaining or arguing or saying, “I don’t want that, how about this.” Once my family discovered I was committed to meal planning, they knew what to expect every night. I hung the meal plan on the fridge for all to see. I was flexible in as far as much dinners could be switched around but that is as far as I strayed. Surprisingly, everyone adapted quickly.

What meal planning is not

  • Rigid-Your meal plan is not set in stone. I regularly switch meals around depending on how much time I have and what we feel like eating on a given night.
  • Eating in every night-In fact, I schedule in dinners out. It is a nice treat to look forward to!
  • New or complicated recipes-Meals should adapt to you and your family and not the other way around. If you are a soup and salad person or your family loves mac and cheese, so be it. Try something new if and when you want to.
  • Time-consuming-Meal planning and shopping in time blocks may seem like it takes longer because it is done in one go. But when you factor in all the little bits of time you used to spend going to the store or picking through your freezer trying to find something for dinner, you will find meal planning saves you time.
  • Over-whelming-Meal planning may take you awhile to master but if you start small, say planning 3 meals a week, you will soon master the process.

Meal planning mistakes to avoid

  1. Not adapting to your family’s tastes and likes-If they won’t eat it, what’s the point and you will just get upset and frustrated.
  2. Not planning around your busy schedule-Easy, pre-made meals or take-aways are best for dinner on nights when you don’t have time or are rushed.
  3. Forgetting to add snacks to your meal plan-Everyone needs a treat, whether that be cut up carrots or chocolate.

Meal planning tips for success

  • Start small-You don’t have to go all out all at once!
  • Be flexible-Build in flex and leftover days.
  • Post it-My meal plan is on my fridge so everyone can get on board.
  • Adapt-If something doesn’t work, feel free to pitch or adapt meals.
  • Keep a favourite recipe list-This is your go to recipe list and makes meal planning fast and easy.
  • Rotate meal plans-Once you have a month of weekly plans created, rotate them to save you even more time.
  • Have the right tools-If you have to pack lunches or store left-overs, make sure you have the right sized containers. And don’t underestimate the appeal of a nice recipe binder or meal planner binder that can make meal planning fun.
  • Keep a pantry and freezer inventory-Knowing what you have in stock will help you save money plus ensure that items never expire before you use them.
  • Make a staple list-These are items you always want to keep in stock, like salt or salsa. Review your inventory of these items when making your shopping list.
  • Add pre-packaged meals-No one says you can’t add these to your meal plan. These are great for packing lunches or for when someone must eat off schedule and dinner is not ready.

How to start meal planning

Once you figure this part out, you’ll be able to put your meal plans (almost) on autopilot. Keeping my old meal plans in a binder has helped me become faster at meal planning especially with rotating our favourite meals week to week. You may want to do that too.

1. Choose a plan that works for your life
First things first, you have to consider which types of meals appeal to you – to prepare as well as to eat!

Do you love coming home to the aroma of a crock pot full of simmering stew? Do you love the simplicity of frozen meals you can quickly toss in the oven to reheat? Casseroles, pot pies, chilli, soups, and lasagna are tasty examples of meals that will freeze well and yield multiple meals per batch. Another option is having veggies pre-chopped and meat pre-seasoned that you can whip up into a quick and simple stir-fry or a nice big salad at the end of the day.

If you are a take-out junkie like we were, find some copy cat recipes of your favourite restaurants.

Many people also find having theme nights helpful when it comes to meal planning. Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays are just two examples.

2. Get it down on paper
Make a master list of meals and ingredients that you already know you and your family will enjoy. Try to come up with at least 10-20 meals so you can rotate them and avoid getting stuck eating the exact same things every week (unless you are a particularly picky eater and that is what will make you happy, of course).

You can add in a few intriguing new recipes you’ve wanted to try, but primarily sticking to things you already know and love (especially in the beginning) can make your new plan easier to implement. Keep in mind that writing out a meal plan doesn’t set it in stone! It’s your plan and you can make changes at any time if something’s just not working.

3. Take inventory of your storage supplies
Make sure you’ve got enough pieces of Tupperware or Pyrex to store your weekly meals and/or prepped ingredients. While you’re at it, take this opportunity to purge all of the pieces with missing lids!

Go through your list of meals and figure out which shapes and sizes you’ll need. Consider whether you’ll be mostly packaging food in single-serving portions, or storing larger amounts to heat up all at once for family dinners. Make sure all of the containers you want to use will reasonably fit in your refrigerator and freezer.

4. Come up with a simple schedule
Some meal planners like to assign a different type of meal for each day of the week, such as soup on Monday, taco salad on Tuesday, stir-fry on Wednesday, roasted chicken on Thursday, etc. Of course, you don’t have to keep a strict schedule – no one’s going to stop you from heating up the lasagna you’re craving on Monday or saving tacos for Friday instead!

5. Get the most mileage out of your cooking
Whenever possible, incorporate versatile foods that can do double or triple duty. Large batches of rice, beans, soups, etc. can be incorporated into multiple meals throughout the week. Try to get creative by carrying leftovers from dinner into lunches for the rest of the week. For example, you could roast a chicken for dinner one night, and use the leftover meat to make chicken salad or top your lunch salad the next day.

6. Look for inspiration
If you get stumped on what to cook (or end up in a rut as time goes on), take a look through the indexes of your favourite cookbooks or browse Google and Pinterest. You can search for recipes by type of meal, cooking method, or even for recipes that require a certain ingredient (or group of ingredients).

It is possible to save time by having someone else do the meal planning and shopping list-writing for you. There are tons of cut-and-paste meal plans out there – from entire meal planning cookbooks to thousands of sites all over the internet. If you happen across one that calls to you, by all means, give it a try! Just be sure you’re always keeping tip #1 in mind, and don’t be afraid to play around with the plan to make it your own.

7. Create your shopping list
Once you have your meal plan for the week complete, it is time to make your shopping list so that you only have to go shopping once. I go through my meal plan, day by day, and shop my fridge and cupboards first. Then I write down everything I need on my shopping list. 

Additional Tip: On my meal plan I list everything, and I mean everything, I need for each meal. So if we are having a burger and fries dinner, I list all the condiments we would need as well. This prompts me to check my supplies when I make my shopping list.

That’s it! You are ready for the week. That wasn’t so bad was it? 

Depending on the meals you have chosen, you may be cooking every night but I encourage you to go a step further and try to cook ahead once you have a knack for meal planning. That will make your meal plan really shine and save you tons of time.

Make your cooking day fun!
Meal planning typically involves setting aside a large chunk of time (anywhere from an hour or two to an entire afternoon) to do all of the necessary cooking, prep, and cleanup for the week to come. The more fun you can make this process – and less like a chore or a burden – the easier it will be to stick with your meal plan.

Try to make your kitchen time feel like “me” time to look forward to. Make a ritual out of putting on your favorite music, an audiobook, or a podcast and having some coffee, tea, or wine while you work. And once you’ve gotten all of the dishes clean, treat yourself to some relaxation time – knowing that you’re starting a new week with minimal cooking and dishes ahead!

Once you get into the swing of it, meal planning really will make your life easier – and it can even be kind of fun. So give it a try! Start with super simple meals the first week or two. Once you’ve got that down, you can get creative and experiment with adding new recipes to your rotation. Before long, your new meal planning routine will feel like second nature – saving you all kinds of time, money, and mental effort!