Today I wanted to address some common challenges people face when it comes to consistently planning and prepping food for the week, and my suggestions for overcoming those hurdles.
As a working mom trying to build my dream business on the side, and a budget to stick to, I completely understand and can relate to the struggle that being consistent with meal planning can prove to be. It’s not all sunshine and daisies and shopping lists and recipe calendars. I’m right there with you. I get it. But I promise you that as overwhelming as the days and weeks can feel sometimes, having some sort of structure and plan in place for at least one controllablearea of your life does make a big difference. And today I’m going to discuss how to stop road blocks before you run into them.
So, without further ado, here are the top 10 challenges we face when it comes to meal planning and how we can best avoid or overcome them.
1. Not having a goal. Although I’ve gone more in-depth about the importance of the why and how of goal-setting in my newsletter, (all the more reason to subscribe, if you haven’t!) I might not have stressed its importance here on the blog.
Having a goal is so crucial to sticking to your meal plan week after week and getting back on “the horse” after you’ve fallen off. You need to be ever-aware of whysomething is so important to you, and why it’s worth it to keep working towards. It doesn’t matter how seemingly small your reasons are. They aren’t small. They are important because they contribute to making you a happier, healthier person.
Your goals give your day to day direction and purpose, and it’s so important to keep them at the forefront of your mind when you sit down to plan your week. Whether it be logged as one single word, or sentence, or whether you have a list of your reasons “why,” keeping some sort of record as to the reason you are meal-planning in the first place is key to motivating and accomplishing when the week gets tough and you’d rather just hide under a rock as opposed to having to cook dinner again.
Need some inspiration? Check out my Top 10 Reasons to Meal-Plan post here
2. Not being real with your real life. Another big reason we stop before we’ve even started when it comes to meal-planning is that we don’t plan for the way our weeks actually go. If you’re working late, or going in early, or if you’re ferrying children to various after school activities most of the week, it’s just not realistic to plan for elaborate, sit-down dinners every night. It’s a waste of time, energy, and money. It just isn’t going to happen.
On the same note, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t have time for heavy-duty shopping or cooking sessions, it doesn’t make sense to plan meals that require a ton of specialty ingredients or trips to the farmers market for the freshest whatever.
When it comes to meal-planning, it’s best to plan for the life you have, not the life you’d like to have. How do we do this? By planning out the week before we plan out our meals! You can accomplish this however you like: by using a monthly calendar, a daily/weekly agenda, or an online scheduling service like Google calendar.
Pick your poison; utilize whatever planning method you like to keep track of your appointments, schedule and obligations. Then when you can look at your week from an “overhead” point of view, you can make note of what days would work best for home-cooked meals, sit down-dinners, takeout, or dinners out at a restaurant. When it comes to meals made at home, you’ll be able to best see what will work for more “labor-intensive” dinners or quick meals. (Tacos versus a whole roasted chicken, for example.)
3. Not being real with your budget. On a similar thread as Meal-Planning Challenge #2, not being realistic about your budget can definitely have a negative impact on sticking to your meal planning goals. There is nothing more discouraging than going through the trouble of selecting recipes to cook for the week, making a list, filling your cart with everything you’ll need, and then getting to the checkout only to discover you went wayover-budget. (It’s happened to me a time or two. Or three.)
How do we overcome this? By planning for the life, we currently have, and not the one we aspire to.
(Although dreams are important! Not to go off on a tangent here, but I think that setting goals and dreaming about where you want to be in life are critical to achieving success. However, that doesn’t mean we should spend beyond what our current means allow us to. That only leads us down the rabbit hole of debt.)
Anyways, to get back on track, you can do a few things. Be wise about your recipe plan. Shop your fridge, freezer, and pantry to see what you already have on hand. This will help you to use up current stock, do some easy quality-control andyou’ll save money by both avoiding buying repeat items and minimizing the items you’ll need to purchase.
Take advantage of store sales and coupons. Remember to only shop for things you’d be likely to buy anyways. This means planning your meals based around the store flyer but selecting the items you will definitely eat or were already planning to try. If quail eggs are on sale, but you have no real desire to cook them, they’re a waste of money no matter how good the deal was. The same idea goes for coupons. Use coupons for items you need or were planning to buy anyway. A bargain isn’t a bargain if it’s going to collect dust sitting on your pantry shelf.
One last tip for sticking to your budget is to select recipes that feature inexpensive cuts of meat, use ingredients that can do “double-duty,” or be used for more than just one meal, or can become great leftover meals. Be wise about the ingredients you choose. Keep track of and take advantage of the stuff you already have on hand, and don’t let the allure of a sale trick you into spending money on things you don’t really need.
For more ideas and inspiration, check out Part Two of My Grocery Store Game Plan, where I go in-depth about my favorite ways to save money and time when grocery shopping!
4. Attempting to overachieve. Allow me to set the scene: you pour through food magazines and websites, find an assortment of delicious recipes to cook and shop for all the ingredients. You choose nutritious, whole foods; the thought of peeling carrots sounds relaxing, doesn’t it? You come home, unload your bags and freeze. The kids are climbing the walls, the dog needs to be taken for a walk. The dishwasher needs to be unloaded. “And now I actually have toprepall of this?”
Does this sound familiar? Maybe it’s happened to you, or someone you know? It’s all too easy to be lured in to the romantic ideal of cooking and serving homemade meals. You think back to families around the table. A perfect chicken soup made from scratch. But what if your real life doesn’t look that way? How do you make a plan that’s realistic and enjoyable?
It’s easier than you think. Look to your lifestyle. If you’re brand new to meal-planning, select recipes that have less than ten ingredients and/or steps, or can be prepared in under 30 minutes. Build up a collection of “tried and true” and family favorites that you become confident and comfortable with. This is no way means you can’t ever try new recipes, though! As you become more comfortable with the plan and prep process, slowly begin to incorporate more complex recipes on the weekends, experiment with leftovers and take advantage of “double-duty” proteins if you want to make something elaborate. That tenderloin you’re planning to use for Beef Wellington will also make an awesome roast.
Another tip to incorporate, if your budget permits, is to take advantage of precut vegetables if you’re feeling especially unmotivated. Yes, you will pay a little more. Yes, you will compromise just slightlyon freshness, especially if you don’t use them right away. But if a few minutes saved and an extra task handled is what it will take to get you started, then it’s more than worth it, my friend.
One great alternative to fresh precut produce that will save you dollars, is to utilize frozen! More often than not, you’ll be able to find exactly what you’re looking for in the frozen produce section, and it’ll more than likely be quite a bit cheaper than the fresh stuff. Two other advantages to shopping frozen are that you won’t have as many time constraints or pressures to use the ingredient up before it goes bad, and your frozen produce is likely to be just as nutritious, if not more so, than the fresh precut produce. Most frozen fruits and vegetables and frozen at their peak freshness; and this translates to flavor and quality in your food.
Want more inspiration for taking advantage of your grocery store? Check out Part Three of The Grocery Store Game Plan where I go department by department through the store telling you how to get the best value (and convenience!) for your money.
5. Not having the right tools for the job. What do they say about the carpenter who shows up to work without his tape measure, hammer, and saw? I’m not entirely sure, but I bet it’s not very nice! No matter what they say about that guy, not having the right tools to accomplish the tasks that you need to do in the kitchen is the equivalent to showing up to work unprepared to do your job.
How do we overcome this? It’s simple really; make sure you have basic kitchen equipment on hand so that you can get the job done! From cutting boards to containers, and a good, sharp, set of knives, before you begin your meal planning journey, make sure your kitchen in first stocked and ready to go with the tools you need to get the job done.
Although I’m a self-confessed kitchen tool dork, I will be the first to admit it’s easy to go way overboard here when it comes to stocking up on kitchen equipment. There are so many fun and useful gadgets out there! But for every useful, practical tool sold, there are at least five that are big wastes of space and money. Be mindful of what you’re purchasing. Stick to the essentials at first, and then as you become more confident in your kitchen, be aware of the tasks that are either taking too much time to accomplish, or that youreallydon’t enjoy doing.
I also strongly advise that you spend the money where it matters and save when it doesn’t. It will do you no good to skimp on a set of basic kitchen knives. Measuring spoons and cups, however, all pretty much do the same thing (provided they’re accurate!) and it won’t hurt you in any way if you buy the dollar store version over the $20 set. When you put thought into your purchases and stock your kitchen with the right tools to do the job, you’ll be that much more motivated to getting in there and getting it done.
6. Not taking advantage of pantry and freezer staples. In the same light as not having the right tools to do the job, not having the right supplies can be equally detrimental to your progress when it comes to meal-plan and prep.
Having a pantry and freezer that is stocked with items you use frequently will help save you time and money in the long run, because you will be able to throw together meals in no time andyou can better control your inventory than with fresh stuff. Condiments, canned and frozen goods, and dried pastas and grains will keep for much longer than fresh, perishable items and they are major components of many types of meals.
Now I can’t tell you what is going to be the best purchases and stock up options for your particular pantry, but I can suggest how you can determine this for yourself. Simply keep track of a month of meals that you serve your family, exclusive of the occasional “trying-something-new” recipe. Brainstorm or keep a list of what meals you cook regularly and what you most enjoy eating. Now think about what non-perishable (pantry or frozen) items are needed to create those meals. Make a list of the items that you cook with or use frequently. These areyourpantry staples. Take inventory of your pantry and freezer every week or so. Make sure you always have these items on hand.
You can download my free Meal Planner Workbook for a printable fridge, freezer, and pantry inventory list to help keep your inventory organized and in-stock by filling out the form below!
7. Not making the best use of the time you do have. You’re busy. I get it. You don’t want to spend the extra bits of stolen time you find stuck in the kitchen, peeling, chopping, and cooking non-stop. Meal-planning is time-consuming after all, right? Isn’t that what it looks like?
Wrong! It doesn’t have to be that way! By breaking up the process of meal-planning into smaller “projects” and getting those things done on separate days, you totally can get a full week of meals prepared and ready to go in very little time.
What is involved in meal-planning? Determining what you’ll cook, what you need to shop for, shopping, prepping, and storing. How can you make this easier on yourself? Do it in increments. Make your plan on one day, shop on another, and then prep and store on a third day. Break what could easily be an all-day event into three 1 – 2-hour projects. Much more doable!
Another idea for actually cooking a meal in a specific timeframe is to plan backwards from the dish that will take longest and when you’re planning to serve the meal. If, for example, you are cooking a whole chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables and you want to serve your meal at 5:00, you’ll need to figure out how long it will take to know when you need to start. The chicken will take the longest, about an hour and a half to cook, for example, and will require 15 minutes of pre-cooking prep time. You’ll be able to take care of the potatoes and vegetables while the chicken is in the oven. This means you’ll need to start making your meal at 2:45, the latest. Make sense?
8. Not planning for the way you like (or don’t like!) to cook. Answer me this; are you more drawn to recipes that you’d like to cook, or ones that you’d like to eat? There is a difference! I might find myself drooling over a recipe for homemade buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken, but on your typical Monday night, do I want to find myself over the counter, pushing out the biscuit dough? Nope. Not particularly.
You can avoid overwhelm simply by being conscious of the meals you are planning, by being intentional with the recipes you choose to incorporate into your plan. This must be completely personalized; what your idea of “too much work” and another’s is will differ and that’s fine! Choose recipes that you will enjoy making and as a result, they will turn into meals that you enjoy eating.
9. Not planning for the way your family actually eats. This is a similar thread to reason #8 above, but still worth mentioning. What kind of family life do you have? If you’re always on the go, and as a result, “eating out of the fridge,” then it makes no sense to plan elaborate sit-down dinners.
Although it’s a nice idea to plan to have a couple of meals together as a family, it’s not always doable, and your meal-planning should be reflective of what’s doable in your life. If that means cooking up a batch of chicken breast and roasting some veggies to store for grab-and-go meals, then so be it. If your able to gather together every night for a whole roast chicken and sides, then that’s great too.
It’s also important to plan meals based on your family’s tastes. Although every family is different, for the most part I feel like there are a few main flavor-profiles or cuisines that every member of the family can get down with. Utilize those flavors! If you have diners that aren’t partial to spice or heat but you are, make half of whatever you’re cooking fully-flavored and the other half diluted down. Marinate half the meat in Cajun seasoning, and the other half in barbeque sauce. You get the picture.
10. Making meals for children and new-eaters. Children and toddlers can certainly prove to be a challenge to serve especially on the nights when you need to get everyone fed and out the door by a specific time. I feel like the nights we are rushing around are the nights little ones tend to develop a “picky” palate, and I’m not sure if it’s because they’re in need of a little extra attention or what but it sure can be frustrating!
Although toddlers and really young kids are in a league of their own, you can help cut down on debates and discussions over ingredients and what’s “touching” what with a few simple tricks.
First, get kids involved with dinner prep by having them do age-appropriate tasks. Little ones can stir mashed potatoes, or mash cauliflower. They can also set the table and take drink orders. By getting them involved, even in a small way, you make them feel like they are contributing to the meal and as such, have a stake in its success. Older kids can be a little more involved and do anything from seasoning the meats to taking pans out of the oven, to serving. Get creative with responsibilities and assignments to make everyone feel like they are part of the process.
Another idea is to “take requests” when you are making your plan for the week. Every night, someone gets to choose a component to the meal. This way everyone’s taste buds are appeased at least a couple of times throughout the week, and you’ll be able to minimize complaints because everyone knows that his or her turn is coming soon.
Lastly, be conscious when putting together your menu for the week by purposely seeking out recipes that are labeled “kid” or “family” friendly. These recipes are more likely to have less “controversial” ingredients involved, and you can always doctor up your portion with a little extra spice or seasoning.
For some helpful hints and suggestions on the topic of feeding your toddler or baby, check out my post Feeding Your Toddler: A Field Guide here!
And there you have it! The top 10 challenges I find people run into when it comes to meal-planning and cooking consistently throughout the week. I hope these suggestions and links proved helpful to you and will get you on your way to achieving your own meal-planning goals.
Please share with me what you think, or what tips/tricks/advice you have for overcoming hurdles in your meal-planning process!
Until next time!