Learn how to meal plan without making these super common, totally avoidable mistakes! Whether you're a meal prep veteran or a total newbie trying to figure out how to make a family meal plan, these meal planning tips can help!
Mistake #1: Winging it
If you take the time to make a healthy family meal plan, schedule time to prep and cook too!
There's nothing more frustrating than having a fridge full of healthy food and no time to cook it. Take a look at your calendar and block off a 2-3 hour time period to meal prep. It might sound like a lot of time, but you will save SO much time throughout the week. Perhaps more importantly, you will feel so much less stressed as the dinner hour looms.
Make sure you share your planned prep time with your family as well so they know you'll be unavailable.
Mistake #2: Forgetting snacks
I know many of you probably focus on dinner when you think about meal planning. That makes sense! Dinner is usually the most formal meal, the one where families come together and all eat the same thing.
But I'd argue that including healthy snacks on your family meal plan is just as important! Especially if you have kids around, snacks are key. No matter how healthy your dinners are, you won't feel your best if you're snacking on processed snack foods.
Don't be afraid to keep it simple though. Choose some veggies that don't require any chopping if you don't have time to make something more elaborate like energy bites that week. Sugar snap peas, baby bell peppers, baby carrots or a handful of nuts are all excellent, no-prep snacks.
Mistake #3: Ignoring the calendar
When you sit down to make your meal plan, make sure to consult your (and your family's!) calendar.
Maybe lasagna is a family favorite but your spouse is working late and your kid has a soccer tournament. A meal plan is only helpful if you can actually make the recipes!
We always include a bonus super fast menu in our monthly menus for just such occasions!
When thinking about how to meal plan, also consider how many meals you need for the week. Will you need to plan breakfasts or do you already have things on hand for that? Will you need to plan 7 dinners or will you get takeout one night? Thinking of all of these little details up front will help the whole week go more smoothly.
Mistake #4: Making it boring
When you think of meal prep, an image of perfectly portioned poached chicken and steamed broccoli may come to mind.
While there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, it would certainly get boring week after week!
There is no reason why meal planning has to be boring. You can incorporate different proteins and veggies throughout the week to keep things interesting, without getting complicated. All of the recipes on our Prep Dish blog are written to be prepped ahead. If you're not sure where to start, just choose a couple of those and get prepping!
Mistake #5: Neglecting your freezer
If your freezer is bare, I encourage you to include one extra meal each week to stock the freezer until it has a variety of options. The simplest way to do this is of course to make a double batch of one of the dinners you already have planned to stick in the freezer.
This may be a bit more work up front, but trust me, it feels SO good to know you have a few healthy options waiting for you in the freezer for those nights when you only have time to reheat.
I like to keep a couple of healthy breakfast options like gluten free muffins or banana pancakes, some single serve lunches like a frozen helping of soup or chili, and a full family dinner like a lasagna in my freezer.
Mistake #6: Thinking you have to do it all
When you're trying to form a new habit it's easy to get SO enthusiastic that you set yourself up to fail.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. I personally had to learn that lesson after my first son was born. There's no shame in asking a visiting in-law or even a babysitter to help with a little meal prep.
Also, don't be afraid to buy pre-made marinara or pre-cut veggies or fruit if it's in your budget! If it means the difference between a healthy homemade dinner and takeout, it's totally worth it.
If you don't like buying pre-chopped, think about stacking your meal plan with produce that requires very little prep work. Think clementines versus pineapple, baby spinach versus kale, cherry tomatoes versus beefsteak tomatoes. You can choose options that will be very simple to prepare to make your life a little easier.
Mistake #7: Forgetting to double up
I have been known to double, triple, or yes, even quadruple a recipe. Why? Because it usually involves very little extra work and can provide future meals for me and my family.
You can serve the recipe for dinner, have some leftovers for lunch the next day and then serve again for dinner later in the week. Store the rest in your freezer for a busy day! This is one of my favorite meal planning tips because it really is a gift to your future self.
Doubling up is of course best done with tried and true family favorites – you don't necessarily want a bajillion servings of a recipe it turns out no one likes 🙂
Mistake #8: Not overlapping ingredients
This is perhaps one of the biggest benefits of using Prep Dish – we make sure all of the ingredients you buy are used up. If one recipe calls for half an onion, the other half is used in a different recipe.
When you make a meal plan, think about overlapping ingredients. Try to avoid choosing one meal that requires two green onions without making a plan for the rest of the bunch.
Using overlapping ingredients will save you money at the grocery store as well as prep time – you don't want to spend time washing and prepping ingredients that will only wind up in your compost!
Here are three simple ways to use this strategy to simplify your meal plan (and save time!):
- 1. Double up on sauce – Choose a sauce and plan two meals around it. You might have pesto salmon one day and pesto chicken with zoodles another day. You might have grilled chimichurri steak one day and burgers topped with chimichurri another day. Some other sauces that work well for this strategy are stir fry sauce, spicy chili sauce, homemade honey bbq sauce and zesty citrus marinade.
- 2. Prep once, eat twice – This is one of my very favorite ways to make my meal plan easier – I actually made a video on the strategy here! Choose a protein and plan two totally different meals around it. Cook a bunch of chicken over the weekend and serve it with veggie sides one day and then bowl-style another day. This makes variety so much easier!
- 3. Choose a grain – If your family eats grains, choose a grain at the beginning of the week and make a big batch. You can do quinoa one week and brown rice the next. Serve that grain all week as needed with various proteins and mix it up the next week. If you don't eat grains, you can totally do this with starchy veggies too – prep a giant batch of roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes or butternut squash at the start of the week and enjoy in a variety of ways throughout the week.
Mistake #9 Forgetting an ingredient
Have you ever gotten home from the grocery store and realized you're out of olive oil? Or planned to make a stir fry and realized you're out of tamari?
There is nothing more frustrating than forgetting an ingredient or failing to realize you're out of a staple!
I do two things to avoid this meal planning mistake.
First, I use a grocery delivery service. I personally find it much easier to think clearly about what I need in my quiet home office than in the aisles of the supermarket with my baby and toddler in tow.
Second, I order all of my pantry staples from Thrive Market and keep a pantry inventory so I know when something is running low and I need to place an order. I walk you through my entire process in this video and even include a download of the pantry inventory spreadsheet I swear by!
Mistake #10: Thinking it's all or nothing
If you're new to meal planning, it can be overwhelming.
Staring at a blank calendar for the week and thinking of filling in all of those days with a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner can be a daunting task.
Don't feel like meal planning has to be all or nothing though!
Instead of getting overwhelmed and giving up before you really get started, try meal planning for just a few days at a time.
While I do think creating a weekly meal plan is ultimately the most efficient, there's nothing wrong with starting small. Plan out a few healthy dinners and see how it goes. Then tackle the next few days. You don't have to learn how to meal plan all at once, just take it one step at a time to set yourself up for success.
If you'd like a little help getting started with family meal planning, make sure to check out our free beginners meal plan! You can also find all sorts of meal planning tips on my YouTube channel and weekly podcast, Meal Prep Monday.
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