Meal planning: It’s being touted by every food-related platform as the single greatest way to simplify life in kitchen, but if you’re feeling kinda iffy about the whole concept, you’re probably not the only one.
And we totally get it. At first, mapping out how you’re going to shop, prep, and eat for the whole week ahead can seem like a whole lot of logistics and not a lot of fun. But once you settle on a system that works for you, meal planning really is an incredibly helpful way to stick to healthy-eating goals, not to mention save both time and money.
And while there are tons of guides out there with tips on how to do it, we’d argue that if you want the meal-planning process to go from dreaded chore to organizational life-saver, it’s just as important to know how not to do it. Whether you’re a complete newbie or just struggling to find your rhythm, make sure you keep in mind (and then avoid) these seven all too common meal-planning missteps.
1. Going Formula-Free
The situation: You’re not exactly a whiz in the kitchen (few of us are!) so this whole meal-planning thing has you confused, overwhelmed, and in a tizzy about what to make before you’ve even started.
The solution: Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays aren’t just cute phrases; they help create a sense of routine. Come up with—and stick to—a weekly formula that’ll help get you into a groove. That doesn’t have to mean making exactly the same meals every week, but starting with a blueprint could provide much-needed structure to designate certain days for certain types of food, making meal planning even more of a no-brainer for beginners.
2. Being Too Ambitious With Recipes
The situation: You could technically slot in Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon for Wednesday night, but once you’ve gathered the 20 ingredients and slogged through the bajillion steps (and three-plus hours) to make it, you’ll be more ready for bed than for dinner. We’re all for dreaming big in life, but in the kitchen, getting super complicated with your recipes can set you up for intimidation and failure, especially when you’re just starting out with meal planning.
The solution: Meal planning can absolutely be an opportunity to try new ways to enjoy food, but that doesn’t have to translate into elaborate dinners during the week—who has time for that?! In the beginning, stick to easy favorites that don’t call for, say, more than 10 ingredients and 30 minutes (or even 15!) to make.
Once you’re more comfortable with the planning process, you can start incorporating more complex recipes, but remember, even the most experienced planners plan for no-cook chicken salad sandwiches once a week—no guilt!
3. Not Keeping a Stocked Pantry
The situation: It’s stir-fry night. The veggies have been chopped, the rice has been cooked, the chicken has been diced. And then you realize you’re out of soy sauce and sesame oil. Um, whoops?
The solution: While you can’t exactly buy fresh produce or meat a month in advance (hello, mold), pantry items like spices and condiments can go months—even years—without spoiling. Set a calendar reminder for once every few weeks to take inventory and make sure you’re stocked up on commonly used essentials like cooking oils, spices, healthy condiments, and even canned beans or dried grains. This way, you don’t have to worry about being short on those staples when the time comes to use them.
4. Racing Against the Clock
The situation: You spent several hours planning your meals but left no time to actually shop and prep to make them. Next thing you know, it’s 6:30 p.m. on Monday night, and you’re at the store in a mad dash for ingredients while famished and frustrated. You now hate meal planning.
The solution: In the beginning, it’s easy to underestimate the time it takes to meal plan. Don’t get us wrong—it’s not going to take over your life, but you will have to put more than just 10 minutes into the process to ensure smooth sailing through the week (worth it, we promise).
Prevent unnecessary stress by using some weekend time to cook grains, pre-chop veggies, and schedule reminders to take prepped ingredients out of the freezer the day before they’ll be used. It might cost you an hour or two on Sunday afternoon, but the prep will save you a ton of time and headaches in the long run.
5. Being Listless
The situation: You insist on storing your grocery list in your brain when you shop for ingredients, which inevitably means that a few things don’t make it into your shopping cart and leave you in a pickle when you’re ready to cook.
The solution: We’d all love an impeccable memory, but when it’s hard to even recall our Facebook passwords these days, let’s not put extra pressure on ourselves to remember every last item on our meal plan.
The simplest way to make sure you have everything you need? Put it on paper (or an app)! List out the ingredients you need for each of your meals for the week, then grocery shop with said list in hand. It’s that easy, but you’d be surprised at how much the practice is overlooked. As a bonus, writing down your meal plan also makes you more likely to stick to it.
6. Ignoring Your Calendar
The situation: So you’ve dutifully planned, shopped, and prepped for the entire week ahead, but come Monday, you remember that this is the week you’ve got that work dinner on Tuesday, an evening CrossFit class on Wednesday, and your friend’s birthday bash on Friday night. You’re now stuck with an unfortunate equation: three days’ worth of food + no one to eat it = a whole lot of wasted ingredients.
The solution: Look at your calendar before you begin planning and factor in which days you won’t be home so that you’re not stuck buying ingredients that you won’t use or will go bad quickly, essentially wasting both food and money.
Got a workout date one evening? Make sure you schedule a low-maintenance meal for that night (maybe a slow-cooker meal that you can set and forget in the morning or an easy Instant Pot dish), and save the more time-consuming recipes for the days you know you’ll be home.
7. General Overplanning
The situation: You’ve planned and shopped for every meal from Monday to Sunday, but then there’s a last-minute dinner invite from a friend on Saturday. You’re now considering turning down a chance to catch up with a pal just because you’re afraid those asparagus spears waiting in the fridge will go brown and soggy.
The solution: Believe it or not, part of meal planning is not planning—flexibility is key. Having all seven days of dinner mapped out isn’t just a lot of work, it’s also likely to lead to wasted food. Even if you don’t have a clear idea of your agenda for the week yet, leave at least one day open to factor in unexpected events, whether that’s a spontaneous meal out or relying on a freezer meal or leftovers because you’re simply too tired to cook.
Although you might make several attempts—and maybe even some of these mistakes—before achieving success with meal planning, remember that above all, the process is supposed to help reduce stress, not create more of it.
While some people prefer to map out their menus in detail, others prefer a simple framework that allows for plenty of flexibility. Some love using fancy apps with color-coded features to get organized; for others, a Magic Marker and a scrap of notebook paper will do. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to do it, but we’d encourage you not to let a few early snags, slip-ups, or snafus deter you. Once you find your groove with meal planning, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.