It’s no secret that meal planning makes life easier, promising to keep a little extra money in our pockets and pounds off our waistlines, so why aren’t more of us doing it? Pinterest leads us to believe that it’s so simple, a busy working mother (and blogger) of five can do it. It’s as easy as “jot down your meals on a calendar” or “just cook everything in one day and forget it!” and BAM! Now you have food for the week and hey, you might even eat a vegetable or two! What could possibly go wrong?
Oh, I don’t know. Everything?
We prepare our steamed blends of this and our triple batches of that in hopes to save ourselves from, well ourselves, and it works for a while. Stacks of transparent, BPA free containers fill our fridges and we have absolutely no reason to worry about what we will eat for the next five days because it’s on the calendar!
Then, as our perfect plans are disrupted by the inevitable surprises of life and the occasional lazy Sunday, it happens. You failed to prep. But does that mean you fail to eat well?
Not exactly. There is one part of the plan that no one talks about when selling the idealistic principles of meal planning: what happens when life happens? Simply put, we don’t think about a backup plan because wasn’t that what the plan was for? Planning to fail seems counterproductive and honestly, pretty grim, but being successful calls for just that. Finding the holes in the plan and figuring out how to fill them before the proverbial boat sinks. Or worse, throwing away hundreds of dollars worth of uneaten produce.
Plan To Fail & Bounce Back
Let’s pretend that you intended to meal plan, but didn’t. What do you do? More importantly, what do you eat?
I’ve asked my best friends and Nutrition Professionals—Heather, Emily, and Jez—for practical advice about unplanned meals, unprepped food and figuring out what’s for dinner. These opinions are based on strategies, not recipes. We all have different eating habits, but the advice works for any diet!
Scenario #1- You didn’t meal plan and…
You Are Already Beyond Exhausted
Meal prepping is the saving grace for those days when you are too exhausted and overworked to cook. Meal planning is the other option—meaning you know what you will cook if you have any energy left when you drag yourself through the front door at 5:30 pm. Both take forethought, grocery shopping, and some sort of emergency preparedness protocol.
So when will you be less exhausted and appropriately worked to take on the five-hour grocery shopping and the cooking feat that is your meal prep? This is the moment when you become completely honest with yourself and realize that your meal doesn’t have to be perfect. Hello, chips and salsa dinner!
Be realistic about the amount of time and energy you can dedicate to preparing food and utilize convenience health foods. You may never get to the point where you feel fully energized and ready to plan, prep, and cook all day, and that’s OK.
Emily’s biggest tip for working families is taking advantage of the healthier convenience food options we have available today. It’s not all tater-tots and Kid Cuisines anymore, we have real options in the freezer section that can lend us a hand in the kitchen. Being realistic and knowing that you might only have 1 day a month (not a week) to do big-batch cooking means buying foods that get from the package to the plate quickly.
Emily’s favorites include Dr. Praeger’s Spinach Littles for her little guy, frozen flatbread for easy pizzas with prewashed baby spinach and jarred sauce. Always having hummus on hand is great for snacking and if you are really in a jam for time, most grocery stores sell pre-cut veggies (at a price). On that one day a month, she will make tons of mini pancakes and freeze them, plus a few containers of cooked ground beef that can be added to frozen veggies for chili or with beans for nachos. There’s still a bit of planning involved, but this also gives you the green light to stock up on some convenient frozen foods without feeling guilty.
Scenario #2- You didn’t meal plan and…
There’s Been A Life Emergency
Unfortunately, this is real life. Someone gets hurt, you get sick, your car breaks down, you have to work late—and the list goes on. Once you get off plan, or maybe you never had a chance to get started, it’s that much harder to regroup and move forward. Tomorrow turns into next week and before you know it, you’re telling yourself “I need to meal plan” as you dial up Dominos.
Give yourself a head start, get the takeout. Jez is the queen of beautifully crafted lunches, she always made us jealous. What’s her secret? Fortifying “fast food” and making it 1. a little healthier 2. last longer.
She may order her favorite Thai food after a late night of work and book club, but she does it with purpose. A double order of veggie fried rice can be repurposed into a lunch! She takes her favorite wrap (or lettuce cup) and layers some leftover rice with a little leftover tofu and avocado and lunch is ready.
She also isn’t much of a freezer-foodie and does better with fresh foods and pantry items. Things like Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese are easy in a pinch. She adds raw veggies right to the boiling pasta and once it’s tender, strains it and adds the seasoning. A double batch means lunch or a second dinner…and a punch on day 1 of your meal plan card!
Scenario #3- You didn’t meal plan and…
You Don’t Actually *Love* Cooking All The Time
Not everyone loves cooking, though most of us love eating. And even if you do enjoy cooking, that doesn’t mean you want to plan your life around it. Could that be the cause of your half-hearted attempts at meal planning? Something to think about. And though you may be tempted to solve your problem with Scenario #1 or #2 Heather has another unique solution that may be helpful—It’s not actually a problem.
Think about dinner in relation to goals vs reality. It’s fun to have a meal plan of new and exciting recipes you’d LOVE to try, but a Tuesday night during hockey season might not be the time to pull out your fantasy food list, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Don’t over think it. Save the marathon cooking for special occasions and just put something on your plates. The whole point is that it is just one meal. Your time isn’t well spent stressing over what you can piece together from the fridge/freezer/pantry and make it Instagram worthy. Heather can cook the heck out of just about anything, but that doesn’t mean she’s racing through the grocery store at 5:30 pm because she forgot to grab x ingredient for dinner tonight. Some meals will be perfectly planned, and others will be an assortment of raw veggies, cheese, fruit, and maybe a few nuggets for her kiddo. Her’s might also include wine. It doesn’t have to be culinary magic, it just has to feed you and your family!
What do you do when you can’t figure out what to make for dinner? Share your tips with us! Next week we’ll be talking about our favorite ways to eat more veggies 💚