how I failed at meal planning (and what finally made me start doing it)

I'm awful at meal planning.

Additionally, I hate being wrong.

So yeah, this is about how I both learned to do something I hate, and about how I was wrong for not doing it earlier.


I was a dyed-in-the-wool daily grocery store shopper. Back when I had just one babe to tote around in a ring sling, I professed a need, a very real requirement of sanity, in visiting the grocery store every day. I thought as a stay at home mom with days full of diapers and Dinosaur Train that I needed that daily trip to the store, if just to get me out of our apartment for an hour or less each day.

Add my second kid to the carload, and suddenly the trip to the grocery store becomes more than just mom's grand daily adventure--it became LUNCH for my toddler, who swung by the deli counter first for a free slice of cheese, then hit up the bakery after that to procure the token free cookie.

Add some free stickers from the charmed checkout clerks and bam. I've given my toddler an afternoon that rivals Sir Chuck E. Cheese.

Add a third baby to the mix and now I'm rolling three kids deep down the aisles with the double stroller and the preschooler walking alongside. People raise eyebrows at that. They also get out of the way, lest I run over their toes.

Then I added a fourth baby. The first week that school was out last summer and I had all four kids home all day, we went to Walmart.

When we got back to the car after shopping, I swore a parking lot oath to the children and told them to remember this day, remember it well, for they would never, NEVER AGAIN, see the inside of that store all together again, because MOMMY WAS NEVER NEVER NEVER repeating that experience. (I did repeat it. It was equally horrific.)

I came home full of wrath and fury, pounding out plans for meal planning, once-weekly trips to Costco (made on the weekend, just me, myself and childless cart) and meals based on "family-size" bags of assorted freeze-frozen proteins, 30-pack yogurts, 4-lb packages of meatballs and many, many prayers.

I failed. Never once even planned nor executed a meal based on that model.

I continued my haphazard, expensive, daily grocery store trips, continued to make dinner based on whatever I felt like making that day, and continued to bust our grocery budget.

Fast forward through the summer to August, when I started a part-time job at the boys' school.

I learned quickly that one cannot:
- care for a small army of small children
- be on-site at a job 3 days a week
-work from home an ungodly number of hours a week
- even have time to step foot in a grocery store.

It just didn't work. Something had to give. I had to get over my aversion to planning out our family's meals, and had to commit to one weekend shopping trip.

I had to face what had stopped me from meal planning. At the root of it was this stupid, stupid belief: Once you commit to planning out dinners, days in advance for your family, you've got to be innovative! You've got to try new recipes! You've got to take direction! You've got to have discipline! You've got to have respect for your director!

Or so I convinced myself.

The truth? The truth is that a "meal plan" can mean "I plan to have frozen pizzas for dinner."

What the what.

I realized: What (or who) was stopping me from doing that? After all, I'm the mom, right? I get to plan this stuff, right?

I was basing my concept of meal planning on someone else's life--someone who needs 7 new meals every week, based on varying world cultures and taste sensations; someone who doesn't have 4 kids under age 8, is working part time, and whose husband travels roughly 50% of the month.

Friends. This has been a life-changer for me.

I've begun meal planning for REAL LIFE. And instead of beating myself up for meals that aren't instagram-worthy, I'm cheering that dinner gets done, the dinner didn't break the budget, and the dinner wasn't an emergency $45 trip to Red Robin at 6:30 pm.

Here's my list of stuff that makes meal planning a reality for me, not just a guilt trip:

- buy a box of mixed salad greens, a container of my favorite salad-topping cheese (I love bleu) AND a bag of over-priced salad toppings. I love anything with a dried cranberry and a candied nut in it. It runs me about $2.75 at Walmart. Could I get those things way cheaper in the bulk bins at Winco? Yes. But Winco is a lot further from my house and I'm already saving money as it is by making a reliable salad side dish stretch over 3-4 days.

- raw veggies as legit side dishes for the kids. My kids love "cold carrots" as they call them and detest them when hot/cooked. They also love cucumber. I used to think serving either of those for dinner didn't really "count" as a healthy side dish. HA. Now I've let it go and I whip one or the other out with nearly every dinner.

-  frozen meals: they're way cheaper than takeout/delivery. My favorite is this one. And yeah, I'm stocking tater tots, chicken nuggets and gluten-free meatballs every week, too.

-  "no-recipe" dinners. I've stopped holding myself to some golden standard in which dinner recipes for my family must contain 3 fresh herbs, a 1/2 cup of bone broth, a boneless rib roast, assorted root vegetables and some leftover red wine.

No. You know what makes a simple, healthy meal? Baked salmon, steamed broccoli and a box of risotto. I can make that in 20 minutes, with the crawling-but-not-walking baby attached to my leg, with minimal swearing.

 There's a whole list of these at Fun, Cheap or Free.

Leave your best meal planning tips for me in the comments! Please!!


  1. Again, Amen! I never formally meal plan, but right now I have a rough schedule: pasta and something MW, mac/cheese and something F, and homemade pizza Sat. The other days are meat (what ever I have in the freezer or what was on sale on my big grocery run) , starch, and veg. And a Taco Tuesday or breakfast for dinner on any night when things are too hectic to think. In the summer, grill burgers or chicken every other night. Keeping it easy and somewhat boring is fine - the kids are happy and actually eat the food, and my food budget has less waste. I do experiment occasionally, but I'm not trying to win any contests, nor do I think eating 8 million different types of food is a virtue. For people who enjoy cooking different dishes with wildly imaginative ingredients each night, more power to them, but I'm saving my energy for other things.