I started meal planning five years ago after my daughter was born and, y'all, I made a lot of mistakes. Some of these mistakes were small, like forgetting a key ingredient at the grocery store, while other mistakes were expensive and painful (pour one out for that marathon of freezer meals I made and never cooked).
In five years, my meal planning has gone from flailing to one of my favorite weekly tasks — not just because I've mastered what to do each week, but also what not to do when meal planning for my family. Here are the seven things I never do when creating a weekly meal plan.
1. I never meal plan without checking the calendar.
Checking the calendar for the week (or weeks) ahead before you begin meal planning is key for two reasons. One, checking the calendar will help determine how many recipes the plan needs. Obviously there's no need to plan dinner for the night you are meeting friends out. Two, your calendar will let you see schedule details that will determine which kinds of recipes (quick, slow cooker, vegetarian) that you'll need to fuel you and your family for this particular week. Calendars change weekly, which is why I also only plan for one week at time.
2. I never create a meal plan without peeking into the pantry, fridge, and freezer.
There are few things worse than thinking you have a can of chickpeas in the pantry and only realizing mid-dinner prep that your husband ate those last week. More than just verifying what you do and don't have, a quick check of the pantry and the fridge or freezer will help you use up ingredients before you buy more. This is one of the ways that meal planning saves grocery money and prevents food waste.
Need some pantry meal ideas? For 30-Minute Meals, Make Sure These Things Are in Your Pantry
3. I never plan for less than 2 recipes or more than 5 recipes at a time.
I never plan for fewer than two recipes at a time because my grocery shopping time is too valuable. If there's ever a week that I only need to cook two dinners, chances are I could pull those dinners together from the pantry or freezer.
I also don't plan or shop for more than a week (five recipes for my family) at a time. This one is more personal — many people meal plan for weeks or even a whole month at a time and that works for them — but I find my meal plans have a near perfect cadence if I plan and shop for just one week at a time. This cycle forces me to use up leftovers, gives me flexibility to changes my plan as needed, and prevents boredom.
My fail-safe meal planning template: 5 Nights, 5 Dinners
4. I never plan without at least one go-to, back pocket, Plan B recipe in the pantry.
This is my hardest lesson learned: No matter what, at some point your meal plan will go awry. What you have on hand for a quick and easy meal is just as important as your meal plan. Breakfast for dinner is always on hand for the days when my kids are cranky, I left work late, and the dinner I planned just isn't going to happen tonight.
5. I never get too ambitious.
When I first started meal planning, I tried too hard. Every week had a different meal plan. Every recipe was new. No two nights had similar ingredients. I burnt out on meal planning so fast that we spent a whole week ordering takeout after a manic meal planning meltdown. Know your limits and cook what you (and your family) love to eat. Save new and elaborate recipes for the weekend!
6. I never create a meal plan without a cocktail in hand.
I use Friday night, after dinner is cleaned up and the kids are in bed, as my meal planning time. When I mix myself a favorite cocktail or steep a cup of tea and sit down with my planner, cookbooks, and other inspiration (including Kitchn's recipe page) I enjoy meal planning. I don't treat the meal planning process as a chore for two reasons: One, habit researchers have found that partnering a chore with a pleasure makes it easier for that habit to stick. Two, meal planning is a means of stress relief — if dinner is planned for the week, I can handle almost anything else that gets stressful that week.
The 3-Day Plan: The Best Way to Use a Weekend for Meal Planning Success
7. I never hold too tightly to a plan.
My favorite rule for meal planning is plan your work, and work your plan. When your plan gets thrown off and you need to use your Plan B, you can still feel like a dinner superhero. And if your plan gets really wrecked and you order takeout, that's okay too. Meal planning is always a work in progress, and forgiving any missteps is the key to keeping up with this habit.
What don't you do when meal planning?