I have tried so many different ways to meal plan, and I found time and time again that I just couldn’t stick to it.
Last week was a “scrambled eggs and sandwiches” type of week in my house. My husband teaches several evenings a week so dinner needs to be on the table before 4:30 if we want to eat together.
My days with the boys turned into chaos like days with kids do, and before I knew it it was 4 o’clock and I hadn’t started.
Those are the nights where my 3-year-old eats PB&J, and my husband and I might have scrambled eggs around 9 o’clock. Romantic, right?
It happened to us all week. Mashed potatoes and meatloaf? Out the window. Chili and cornbread? Forget it. Chicken noodle soup? No way, not enough time. (By the way, can you tell I’m craving comfort foods?!)
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone! We all know that the key to a controllable grocery budget is a meal plan. But man, are they hard to stick to sometimes!
1. Trying to Follow Someone Else’s Meal Plan
There are LOADS of free printables out there. Just Google whatever you want to know and someone has made a printable that they’ll be happy to deliver straight to your inbox!
This means that some of us inevitably end up following someone else’s meal plan. While “The Ultimate Rotating Meal Plan” might sound like the answer to all of your meal planning woes, it’s not likely to work out.
First of all, those “Ultimate Rotating Meal Plans” usually have you cooking every night. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in the kitchen that often! And I actually like cooking, too.
Second, they give the impression that meal planning is an all-or-nothing exercise. If you miss a night, or two, or five, you feel like you failed.
You couldn’t hit the expectation you’d set for yourself, so now it feels impossible to continue. You tell yourself that you can’t stick to a meal plan. In your head, you convince yourself that it’s not worth your time because it won’t work out anyways, and just accept the fact that your grocery budget will never go down.
But whoever built that meal plan doesn’t have your life. She doesn’t have your schedule, or your dietary needs. She doesn’t have your kids, with their myriad of mysterious food preferences.
Only you can build your perfect meal plan. Your meal plan needs to work for your life. You shouldn’t be making your life work around the meal plan.
So what’s the solution?
Gather the recipes that your family loves to eat and you love to cook. Plan to cook only on the nights where it is convenient for you to do so. If your daughter has a volleyball game on Tuesday night, it’s not the best night to cook. Plan for leftovers instead.
Take your calendar–the one that has everything your family has going on for the month–and write your meal plan directly on that. I like to write my events in black ink and my meal plan in blue ink. You can even use sticky notes with your meals so that you can easily rearrange them.
Post it on the fridge where everyone can see it, and use it! If something changes, don’t stress. Just shuffle your meals around–no big deal.
Need some help? My free Meal Planning Kit can help you develop a meal plan that you can actually stick to. I will walk you, step by step, through the process of building a meal plan that works for your family.
Related: How to Avoid Food Waste at Home
2. Not Being Flexible
Perhaps you can’t stick to a meal plan because you’re being too inflexible.
This ties right in with what I said above. A meal plan should be adaptable and work for your life.
It’s important to remember, your meal plan is just that: a plan. And plans change.
If you’ve been viewing your meal plan as something that is set in stone, stop! Don’t feel like chicken tonight? Switch it! Does the thought of chopping an onion today make you wrinkle your nose? Pick something else!
If you’re not giving yourself permission to be flexible with your meal plan, you’re missing out. As long as you have all the ingredients for the meal you want to make, you’re golden. Change to your heart’s content!
So what’s the solution?
An important part of a flexible meal plan is what I call cross-over ingredients.
These are ingredients I have that have a variety of meal options. They’re the ingredients you use all the time, the ones that are a must on your grocery shopping list.
If the only perishable ingredients I have in the house are carrots, potatoes, and chicken, I have so many options, because those ingredients have a high cross-over rate in my house.
For example, I can make baked chicken, with mashed potatoes and balsamic glazed carrots on the side. Or, if I have rice (I almost always do!), I can make a great chicken stir-fry. I can also make soup, or roasted chicken over a bed of carrots and potatoes.
Of course, this type of variety does require you to have a pantry that is fairly stocked with basic meal staples. If you have that, you can literally pull a few ingredients out of the fridge and have at least half a dozen meal options!
Oh, and one more thing!
Don’t be afraid to change your plan, but make sure you write it down.If you don’t, you may come to the end of the month wondering where all your meal options are. And no one wants that!
3. Having Eating Out as Your Contingency Plan
It’s 4:45 and you forgot to thaw the meat. Or cut the carrots. Or you forgot to get that one, kinda key ingredient on your shopping trip.
Whether it was the meat, the carrots, or the “I really sort of need that” ingredient, dinner is shot. You grab your phone and google the menu of your favorite fast food, or maybe you just skip all of that and open UberEats.
Now you have to understand, our family has dietary restrictions. This means that we have a grand total of FOUR restaurants that we can all eat at. And since we live rural, all our safe options are at least a 30 minute drive–not exactly convenient.
So, our “contingency plans” have to stay in-house. But we have special circumstances. Unless you also have dietary restrictions or food allergies, you likely eat out way more than we do.
If dinner doesn’t get on the table, you may even feel like you have no choice but to order out. The kids have to eat, right? And hey, Happy Meals come with apple slices now so at least it’s somewhat healthy.
The problem is, your budget and your future self won’t thank you for eating out every time you miss getting dinner on the table!
So what’s the solution?
So how do you avoid eating out and keep your contingency plans in-house? You actually have a lot of options here so just pick one or two that work well for you and your family.
Pre-Packaged Meal Options
Your first option is to keep pre-packaged, quick and easy meals well stocked. Mac and cheese, ramen, or frozen meals like fish sticks or pizza are all fast and easy to grab in a pinch.
However, it’s also the most expensive way to have a contingency plan and your options here are generally pretty unhealthy. It can also be pretty tempting to grab those when not really necessary and you may end up deviating from your meal plan completely.
Homemade Frozen Meals
As an alternative, you can start doubling any meal you make. Once it’s cooked, take half and put it in the freezer. You still serve up the same sized meal you would have served anyways, and you now have a contingency plan in the freezer.
Granted, this option requires you to have a larger pot than you’d normally use, more ingredients, and some freezer space. But the time savings and convenience coupled with the fact that you’re still feeding your family wholesome foods makes this option a solid winner.
If you don’t have much freezer space, you can freeze your meals flat (as much as you can) in gallon (or 2 gallon) ziploc bags. Freezing flat opens up so much freezer space!
I’d also suggest, if freezer space is a problem, that you go through what’s actually in your freezer right now. How much of it do you actually use? And how much of it is pre-packaged convenience options that could be replaced by homemade convenience options?
Your last option is to keep the ingredients stocked for some quick and easy, throw-it-together meals. These are meals that are cooked from basic, scratch ingredients, but only take 20-ish minutes to get on the table from start to finish.
I buy eggs 5 dozen at a time, and it’s not unusual for our family to go through 10 dozen eggs or more in a month. Not because they are on the meal plan, but because scrambled eggs and breakfast burritos are two of my contingency meals.
My other throw-it-together contingency meal is spaghetti. I use it if I have just a little more time–it’s easier to make spaghetti in 30 minutes rather than the 1.5 hours that the meatloaf needs to bake for.
Plus, my son loves spaghetti so it’s a good way to avoid a dinnertime battle if it’s been a particularly stressful day.
Have you fallen prey to any of these meal planning mistakes? Tell me about it down below!