Have you ever tried meal planning in the past, only to get frustrated and quit? Trust me, I’ve been there. Then I started to realize that it’s not that we can’t meal plan. We were just making some mistakes! Here are the mistakes many of us make, and how to create a meal plan that we’ll actually stick to!
Whether you’re planning a menu for your household of one or two, or for a large family, these meal planning tips can work for you.
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For some meal plan help, check out the reasons many of have tried to meal plan and bailed.
This post may contain affiliate links. You can view my full disclosure policy here.
How to Create a Meal Plan That Works: 17 Common Meal Planning Mistakes to Avoid
1. Having Pinterest fantasies
In other words, choosing over-the-top complicated recipes that you’d never make normally.
When it comes to choosing what you’re going to cook each week, you really have to be realistic.
Realistic about your time, energy, budget, and actual desire to cook.
Taking on too much just sets yourself up for feeling overwhelmed. Plus food goes to waste when you buy a ton of ingredients for a meal you intend to make, but don’t.
Instead of overcomplicating it all, just pick some easy dinner ideas that you can quickly make in the time frame you have.
2. Not shopping your stash first
Before creating any type of meal plan, you should first check to see what you already have.
Come up with a few ideas for your menu based on what is in your pantry, fridge, and freezer.
Not only will you save money, you’ll save time trying to think of ideas.
Related: Check out How to Create a Cheap Grocery List for a full walk-through of how to do this.
3. You don’t use themes
Themes? What the heck is that?
Using themes to plan your meals just means that you choose different meal categories.
Think Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc.
It doesn’t need to have cutesy names like that, but try having one Italian night, one Mexican meal, one slow cooker night, and so on.
By picking one theme for each meal, it just takes so much of the ‘thinking’ out of it.
Save that brain space for something else!
Here are some ideas for themes to choose from:
- Sandwich Night
- Breakfast for dinner
- Pizza Night
- Slow cooker
- Kids choice/Kids cook
- Sheet Pan Supper
- Take Out
- Potluck with friends or family
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4. You aren’t being realistic about your schedule
Be sure you to look at your calendar before planning your menu. If you’re going to be super busy or super tired on certain days, pick something super easy.
It doesn’t have to be homemade to be on the meal plan, either. Incorporating a pizza, leftover or take out night is perfectly fine.
The issue is when you don’t have any plan at all, and you’re left scrambling for an idea at 6:00.
5. Not using your Crock Pot
Ok, so this isn’t really a mistake of course. But the slow cooker is SO convenient that I think it makes creating an easy meal plan simpler.
The beauty of it is that it cooks the meal for you! Tons of crock pot recipes are set up so that you just dump the ingredients in, turn it on and wa-la!
As an example, if you put a few chicken breasts in with some salsa, a few hours later you can shred it up and have chicken tacos. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
There are other time-saving gadgets that I love as well. I wrote an entire post about it!
6. Not eating leftovers
Leftovers are so helpful when it comes to meal planning, because they really cut down on the amount of meals you actually have to plan and cook.
You can eat the leftovers from dinner last night for lunch today. Or you could have a leftover night in your meal plan where everyone raids the fridge and has their favorite leftovers for dinner.
You can also repurpose what’s left into another meal. The chicken taco meat from above could be made into chicken salad, quesadillas, nachos, a casserole, etc.
This method really helps keep your grocery budget low, and means less cooking for you!
7. Forgetting to include all the food you’ll need
I don’t know about you, but snacks are a big part of my life.
When making your meal plan and shopping list, don’t forget to include food for snacks.
If you know you like a sweet treat at night once in a while, be realistic and buy something for that.
That way you don’t find yourself sending your husband out for ice cream at 10 PM.
Remember to include the beverages you like as well!
8. Not reusing meal plans
When you come up with a weekly meal plan, don’t throw it away! If you just come up with 4, 6, or 12 weekly or monthly meal plans, you can reuse them.
Four weekly meal plans means you would eat each dinner once a month.
You can even save the coordinating shopping lists.
Talk about making your life easy!
9. Not having a list of meal ideas on hand
Keeping a list of your household’s favorite meals makes planning so much easier as well.
You can just look at the list and choose what sounds good that week. Or if chicken is on sale, look at your list to be reminded of your family’s favorite chicken dishes.
If you discover and love a new meal, add it to the list so you don’t forget!
Want a list of 10 Cheap and Easy Meal Ideas that anyone can make? Sign up below for the instant download!
(Note: If you’re already a subscriber, it’s waiting for you in the Freebie Vault!)
10. Forgetting to plan for breakfasts and lunches
A lot of people just meal plan for dinners, which is totally fine. But it is also important to remember to include the food you’ll need for breakfasts and lunches.
When shopping on a budget, just brainstorm a couple meal ideas to have for breakfast and lunch that week, and buy the ingredients for those.
It’s okay to eat the same ones throughout the week.
11. Not stocking up on sale items
You don’t need to go all extreme couponing hoarder on the sale items. But if something you use regularly has a great price, buy a few extra.
Items tend to go on sale every 4-6 weeks. So if your family goes through a box of Cheerios every week, and it’s on sale for half off, buy 4-6 boxes to hold you over.
Or stock up on chicken breasts when they’re super discounted. You can use a Foodsaver to keep them from getting freezer burn for up to 2 years!
This little ‘stockpile’ makes creating your meal plans easier going forward, since you’ll already have some of the ingredients.
Stocking up on some seasonal items is a great money-saving idea too. For instance, baking supplies are usually on sale around the holidays.
You could buy enough flour, brown sugar, and chocolate chips to use all year. That is assuming you’ll really use it, and have the space to store it, of course.
12. Not planning your meals based on the sales
Whether you’re meal planning on a budget, or just want an easy way to come up with meal ideas, use your store’s sales ad.
The front cover of the ad will have the best deals on meat and produce.
If your store has ground beef and pork chops on sale, plan a couple meals using each.
13. You don’t prep some food in advance
I’m not into elaborate meal prep of course, but one of the easiest tricks is to freeze cooked meat.
Bake (or slow cook) a bunch of chicken breasts, or brown several pounds of ground beef, then freeze them in the portions you’ll use them.
You can pull out this ready-to-go meat and make some really quick dinners.
Or roast a bunch of vegetables on a sheet pan at the beginning of the week.
Use them as side dishes, quick snacks, or ingredients in other recipes. They’ll stay good longer cooked than raw usually.
14. Not sticking with it or to it
One of the main reasons that meal planning might not be working for you is that you’re giving up a bit too quickly.
It may take a little while to perfect your menu planning strategy, so please stick with it!
On the other hand, maybe you’re great at making a meal plan every week, but you change your mind when dinner time comes. Then you get takeout because what you had planned to make doesn’t sound good.
One way to combat this is to not assign meals to specific days. Just buy the ingredients for all the meals, and decide each night what sounds good.
15. Leaving everything to the last minute
When it comes to creating your meal plan, choose a time when you’re relaxed and have a few minutes. Ideally, it will be a day or two before you grocery shop, so you can make sure you have everything added to your list.
If you try to come up with your meal plan 5 minutes before you leave for the store, you’ll feel rushed and be forgetful.
You could make your meal plan on Saturday morning, and shop Sunday afternoon, for instance.
16. Having a disorganized shopping list
This is more a grocery shopping tip rather than a meal planning tip, but having an organized shopping list makes buying your food so much easier.
Arrange your list with like ingredients together. All the dairy, all the produce, etc.
Or print the blank shopping list from the master grocery list post. It’s already arranged by section, so just fill it in and go!
17. Not using $5 Meal Plan
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It includes the recipes, so you can print (or look at it on your phone), shop, and cook.
No need to create a meal plan at all.
There’s also a gluten free option, if that works best for you.
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Hopefully these tips for how to meal plan and prep helps streamline your process going forward.
If you’ve been making any of these meal planning ‘mistakes,’ try some of the ideas included in this post to change up how you’re planning your menu.
P.S. If you haven’t already, be sure to download the 10 Easy and Cheap Meal Ideas to make dinner time easier!
P.P.S. Don’t forget to sign up for Ibotta, and get your $10 welcome bonus!
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