The Top 10 Mistakes Meal Planning Beginners Make (and How to Solve Them)

published Mar 9, 2017
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The approach you take for meal planning makes all the difference in setting yourself up for success. Of course tips and strategies for getting started, choosing a week of recipes, shopping for your meal plan, and bringing it all together are crucial. But it’s just as important to identify all the points where it can go wrong, and then having a smart solution to avoid each and every pitfall.

1. Not giving yourself sufficient time for planning.

No matter how long you’ve been at it, meal planning takes time, and it doesn’t happen in an afternoon. Trying to pack the planning, shopping, and prep in as quickly as possible and not giving yourself enough time will make this process seem totally frustrating and overwhelming from the start.

The solution: Give yourself plenty of time for meal planning, especially if you’re just getting started. I recommend setting aside two to three hours each week for meal planning. Also, take advantage of the weekend to spread out the planning, grocery shopping, and meal prep. It will make meal planning feel more achievable and sustainable over the long run.

2. Not picking the right recipes for your needs.

To make meal planning work for you, the first step is understanding what you need from a recipe. Pick recipes that don’t fit that criteria and you’re likely to end up unsatisfied, frustrated, and hungry.

The solution: Pick recipes for the kind of meals you actually need. It seems so obvious, yet it can also be so easy to overlook. Before you even go searching for recipes, write down a list of what you want the recipe to do for you. Maybe it needs to come together in under 30 minutes, or be vegetarian. Perhaps you need to use up a head of cauliflower. Use these points to select recipes.

3. Being overly ambitious and unrealistic.

Remember: Meal planning is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s great that you feel so inspired and enthusiastic about meal planning, but making a plan that’s overly ambitious and one that doesn’t quite match your schedule or needs won’t be sustainable in the long run.

The solution: Start by defining your goals and assessing your schedule to see what feels most realistic to you, then make a plan that feels sustainable. Not quite sure what that looks like? Don’t be afraid to start small, maybe with cooking two to three nights a week. Give it some time to figure out what works for you (and what doesn’t), and remember you can always revise your plan.

4. Not stocking your pantry.

Seasoned meal planners know that the pantry basics are their helping hand for getting dinner on the table; they’re also the key to back pocket recipes. Not keeping a small stash of versatile staples on hand misses the benefit of making meal planning a bit easier.

The solution: Strategically stocking your pantry with the basic ingredients you use over and over again — think olive oil, stock, rice, and canned goods — will make meal planning a lot easier. Even on the days when you feel like there’s nothing to eat, these core ingredients turn eggs into a hearty frittata, pasta into a delicious three-ingredient dish, or rice into a one-pot wonder.

5. Not scouting the kitchen for food that needs to be used up.

Don’t forget to shop your kitchen and take advantage of the leftovers ingredients you already have. It’s a simple step that can help you prevent food waste, and maybe even save you a little money.

The solution: Before selecting recipes and heading to the store, scout the fridge and pantry for foods that need to be used up, then find a way to work them into your plan. Use that pack of chicken thighs you thawed but didn’t cook, or turn that bunch of greens into a simple side before they go bad.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

6. Not writing down or saving your recipes.

Organization is key for meal planning success. Not writing down your recipes for the week (even if there are just a couple) or when you plan to make them makes it easy to fall off track.

The solution: Remember your meal plan and stay organized by jotting down the recipes you plan to make each week. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — it can be as simple as a piece of scrap paper on the fridge, a white board in the kitchen, or a note in your planner or calendar.

7. Forgetting to take inventory of ingredients before grocery shopping.

After selecting your recipes for the week, don’t forget to see what ingredients you already have on hand in the pantry, freezer, and fridge. It may turn out that you already have some of the items you need.

The solution: Before finalizing the shopping list and heading to the store, always double check recipe ingredient lists with what’s already in the pantry and fridge. It will help you use up foods you already have and prevent overbuying.

8. Skipping upfront meal prep.

Meal prep is the special part of meal planing that gives your future self a helping hand. Skipping this hugely beneficial step leaves more work to be done on weeknights after getting home from work.

The solution: Don’t discount meal prep. It’s the step the prevents you from starting from zero every night. Set aside a small chunk of time (even 30 minutes will make a difference) over the weekend to prep ingredients, or even a full meal, for the week ahead. Tackling dinner prep in advance makes weeknight cooking faster, easier, and more efficient.

9. Cooking new recipes every night.

While I encourage trying new recipes, it’s also important to go about this strategically. Filling the week entirely with new recipes might sound nice, but it’s likely to prove overwhelming and unsustainable over the long run.

The solution: Don’t discount new recipes all together, though. Build most of your meal plan with recipes you know and have made before, then add one new recipe. It will keep each week feeling new and expand your recipe repertoire at the same time.

10. Not having a back-up plan.

Even the most seasoned meal planners get stuck at work late, miss the train, and have nights they’re just not feeling the dinner they planned. You know you don’t want to settle for that crappy slice of pizza because you don’t have a Plan B.

The solution: Have a back-up plan, and identify your back pocket recipes. These are the super-simple recipes that you practically know by heart that come together quickly, like an omelet, pancakes, or frozen tortellini and sauce.