5 Ways to Salvage Dinner When Your Meal Plan Totally Fails

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Recipes clipped, shopping bags emptied, and ingredients prepped and ready — I always feel like a winner when I start the week with dinners planned. But, in all honesty, my meal plans usually change course a few days in. On Monday there’s an unexpected office happy hour, Tuesday it’s school spirit night at the neighborhood pizza place, and Wednesday I’m just too tired to cook. Suddenly it’s Thursday, and my meal plan is officially up in flames.

A recent thread on Kitchn’s Meal Planning Club Facebook page made me feel less alone, and got me thinking: What do you do when the meal plan just doesn’t work out? Here are some helpful tips.

Not a member of the Meal Planning Club yet? What are you waiting for? Head on over to join the conversation!

First, a Helpful Note When You’re Meal Planning

For starters, it’s good to be realistic about what you can handle in a given week. Some seasons of life are simply more hectic than others. If you are in that busy season, don’t make meal planning a source of frustration or failure. Instead set yourself up for success by filling out your weekly shop with foods you can mix and match. One Meal Planning Club member, Jeni, said that she keep lots of staples on hand and uses a general plan, rather than specific recipes, and shops her pantry and freezer to make meals using what she has.

What to Do When Your Meal Plan Doesn’t Go as Planned

1. Find a way to feed yourself tonight.

Let’s be clear — no one is keeping score, so go ahead and scramble some eggs and call it breakfast for dinner, pull a meal from the freezer, or just make a sandwich. There’s a reason why half of the freezer aisle is made up of frozen pizzas; find one you like and stash it in the chill chest for just such an occasion.

2. Figure out what you have and how long it will last.

The victims of a meal plan gone wrong are the fruits, vegetables, and meats you purchased with high hopes at the start of the week. The first step is knowing what fruits and vegetables can last another week (think: potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, citrus, and apples). Set those aside for next week’s plan. Extend the shelf life of perishable produce, herbs, and meat by storing them properly and focus on these foods to get your meal plan mojo back.

3. Regroup on the rest of the week.

When the week’s meal plan clearly isn’t working, it is time to reevaluate. Are there still meals that feel doable this week or are you better off closing out the week with recipes you know by heart? Forget that you bought ingredients for specific recipes and make everything fair game, with the singular goal of putting simple dinners on the table with what is on hand. There is no such thing as the meal plan police, so mix and match ingredients to create meals that will get dinner done.

4. Freeze what you can’t get to.

The freezer is your friend for the foods that don’t fit your (new!) plan. Grind herbs into pesto, toss the bag of spinach into the freezer for smoothies before it wilts, and divide meat into recipe-friendly (1/2- or 1-pound) portions. Now is also the time to use whatever you can’t eat this week in freezer-friendly meals. Make and freeze a frittata with the veggies you bought with another meal in mind. Add the limp tomatoes to your food processor with a few cloves of garlic and a glug of olive oil, then freeze flat in a zip-top bag for your future self to use on pasta or pizza. Make smoothie kits with speckled bananas and berries that won’t last another day.

Our Guides for Freezing (Almost) Anything

5. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

Listen — no matter what happens, none of your meal planning efforts are failures! Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned, but you pivot and figure it out as you go. At the end of the day, Meal Planning Club member Stacey said it best: “Order pizza and try again tomorrow.”

What do you do when the meal plan doesn’t go as planned?