The 7 Most Common Mistakes People Make When Meal Planning

Planning your weekly meals and snacks can help save time and decrease stress during a busy week where you might otherwise be tempted to hit the closest vending machine or drive-thru for dinner. However, sometimes meal planning can do the exact opposite, leaving you feeling even more frustrated about this life-changing decision to eat healthier.

Meal planning is all about making your menu and scheduling work for you. With a little patience, planning and avoiding these seven common mistakes, you’ll be a meal-planning superhero in no time at all.

Mistake #1: Leaving everything for the last minute

Meal planning takes organization and enough time to select recipes and hit the grocery store for supplies. If you rush, you can end up sabotaging the entire process. There's nothing worse than getting ready to cook at 5 p.m., only to find that you forget to buy two key ingredients for tomorrow's lunch. You meal plan to save time, so heading back and forth to the grocery store during a busy workweek is the last thing anyone wants.

Avoid It: Schedule enough time over the weekend or on your day off to select enough healthy recipes. Give yourself enough time to sit in the kitchen and review the ingredients you need, double checking your pantry to make sure you don't purchase items you already own.

Mistake #2: Taking on too much

Meal planning can be overwhelming, especially in the beginning when you don't have the process down. You may not be used to shopping for five or more recipes at one time, and are put in a tizzy with all the food packed into your refrigerator.

Avoid It: You can successfully meal plan with only one or two recipes each week. Start at your own pace and build your way up. If you're someone who gets bored with meals easily, plan a couple of "bases"—salads you can change with different dressings or a grain base that can have different meats or veggies added in—that you can pull out throughout the week instead of committing to eating the same meals every single day.  If you like consistency, keep it simple with just a few recipes you know you'll love eating Monday through Friday. Do whatever suits your lifestyle.

Mistake #3: Having a disorganized shopping list

Rushing to make a shopping list without checking the pantry, refrigerator and freezer can end up costing you more money if you end up purchasing double of ingredients that are already sitting in your kitchen. If you do check your ingredients, but randomly jot everything down in no particular order, you're setting yourself up extra time spent running around your grocery store, back and forth to retrieve items that could have been picked up in the same aisles.

Avoid It: When I meal plan, I select the healthy recipes I want to cook for the week and then take each recipe into my kitchen while I check for the required ingredients. I organize my shopping list by the way the supermarket flows, breaking it down department by department. Creating an organized shopping list will minimize the time you spend at the market and you'll be surprised at how you're less likely to forget something you need.<pagebreak>

Mistake #4: Selecting overly ambitious recipes

Have you ever come across a scrumptious recipe that you just had to try? The recipe may have quite a few steps but you pay no attention and decide it's on the weekly menu. You give it a whirl on a very busy weeknight, only to find that there are several complicated cooking procedures that you've never tried. Suddenly you're frustrated, your family is getting hangry and you either end up calling the takeout guy or eating a ruined meal.

Avoid It: Select simple recipes to prep throughout the week. Just because a recipe has a ton of ingredients or looks great in photos, doesn't mean it will taste any better or be any more satisfying than something that can be ready in less than 30 minutes. Leave the tougher recipes—especially the first time you prep it—for a weekend or day off.

Mistake #5: Not planning for enough food

Meal planning takes a little practice. In the beginning, it takes time to gauge how much everyone eats. In some instances, you can underestimate portions for a man, growing teenagers or just for the number of people in your household. This will leave you scrounging to find food to supplement what you already made.

Avoid It: Before selecting a recipe read how many people it serves and read through the ingredient list to ensure that you have enough food to feed everyone. In some cases, you may need to double the recipe so you have enough food for the table.

Mistake #6: Not defrosting pre-frozen meals in advance

Some weeks you may have made a double batch of food and stored half for a busy weeknight. Then, your meal plan calls for eating that frozen meal, but come dinner time you realize you forgot to defrost the meal. Now you're faced with the dilemma you were trying to avoid in the first place: What’s for dinner?

Avoid It: In your schedule, plan for defrosting pre-frozen meals just as you would write down a meal you would cook for that night. Add a reminder on your phone or written on the calendar to put the frozen meal in the refrigerator one to two days before you plan on eating. Do not leave a frozen meal on the counter to defrost during the day, as it gives potential harmful bacteria time to grow on your food and make you and your family sick.

Mistake #7: Overpreparing

The last thing you want to do is prep meals that will go uneaten, only to be tossed in the garbage after a few days or weeks. It's not only a waste of good food, but also of your hard-earned money and time.

Avoid It: If you find yourself with too much food, freeze half to use later during a busy week. Make sure to label the container in the freezer so it doesn't overstay its welcome. A safe "use by" date for frozen food is two months. When defrosting, dishes like lasagna, chicken and pork can be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator and then reheated up in the oven or stovetop. Individual portions can easily be reheated in the microwave.

Meal planning is key in many people's healthy eating plan. Not only does it set you up for success in the kitchen, but you'll also be ensuring that stressful or bad days don't lead down a dangerous path where temptations and emotional eating are kings. Use these tips to master the art of meal planning and take one step closer to your goals.