Plan It- Don’t Panic Meal Planning Challenge Week 4 (And What to Do If You Mess Up Your Meal Plan)

The other night, I went to make dinner after a very busy afternoon out, and realized that most dreaded of mistakes. The meal plan on the fridge said “Roast beef”.

The large roast was sitting downstairs. In the freezer. Frozen solid. Did I mention it was 5pm?

Despite my best intentions (like planning for meal prep and trying to look regularly at my meal plan throughout the week), mistakes still happen. Meat doesn’t come out of the freezer. We forgot to buy pasta at the store. We accidentally used all of the broccoli in a dish earlier that week and now there isn’t enough for the Broccoli Cheese Soup we’ve planned.

Obviously, the point of all this meal planning is to try to prevent these kind of situations. By and large, it works. Sometimes, things slip through the cracks, often because of our own oversight or because of unexpected events.

At this point, it might be tempting to throw in the towel and say “why bother?”, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Meal plans can be forgiving creatures in various ways, and mistakes can be overcome.

Here are a few options to consider if (or rather when!) you find yourself in a meal planning bind:

1. Switch meals.

Just because I’ve overlooked the fact that the roast I planned to cook needs an entire day to defrost doesn’t mean that dinner is now mission impossible. There may be other days in my meal plan where I’ve planned a vegetarian meal, a dish using some pre-cooked chicken from the freezer or canned salmon from the pantry, or maybe a sausage-based dish that requires 30 minutes, not 24 hours, to get the meat sufficiently thawed.

I know, I’ve said it a thousand times at least, but a meal plan needs to work for YOU, and not the other way around.

If you need to switch a meal with one that’s intended for a different day, just do it. You can always make that roast tomorrow instead. I won’t tell if you won’t.

2. Make something different.

What if it’s Friday already and neither the Saturday or Sunday dinner options will come together easily at this point?

Just throw the meal plan out the window and make an impromptu meal. Check the fridge for something that you happen to have available and get a little creative.

For example, I had some cooked chicken and chicken broth in the fridge that I hadn’t bagged up and frozen yet. With them, I created a random chicken and veggie pasta dish (with cheese on top, which covers a multitude of sins). It wasn’t the most amazing thing we’ve ever eaten, but hey, it was dinner and it was nutritious and they even went back for seconds. Works for me!

3. Make a super simple meal.

There is nothing nutritionally wrong with a wholesome plate of eggs and toast for dinner. Or a bowl of yogurt with fruit and nuts. Or a grilled cheese sandwich (if made with real food ingredients) and some dill pickles. Or some organic popcorn with butter and nutritional yeast, paired with a fruit smoothie (my kid’s personal favorite).

I’m not saying we should eat like this every night, not at all. But every once in a while? Go ahead and don’t feel guilty about it.

4. Raid the fridge for leftovers.

Sometimes there is a meal lurking in your fridge and you didn’t even realize it. I occasionally plan “leftover night” when I know that the fridge has been building up with bits and pieces of various meals. This can also work on some occasions when you’re in a pinch for quick meal.

I find the best way to make use of them is to create a leftover buffet or smorgasbord. Dig through the fridge for everything you can find (big or small). Spread it out on the counter. Heat up the toaster oven, pull out a pot and pan, and start heating up various combinations of the available food. Let family members choose what they want their meal to consist of, out of the options given, heat it up and serve it. It’s fast, it cleans out your fridge, and it fills up tummies with remnants of other decent meals you’ve made!

5. If all else fails, take the night off, and announce a family dinner out, BUT…

We probably resort to this option about twice a year, usually when I have a terrible, very bad, no good day. My husband will sense my stress level and kindly decide that going out for dinner is worth Mommy’s sanity, and we ultimately have a really pleasant family night out.

Here’s where the BUT comes in, and it applies to all of the above options…

Pick up your menu plan where you left off, the very next day.

No guilt trips allowed. No telling yourself that you’ve screwed it up or that there’s no point.

Simply cross off the missed meal (or a different meal, if you still really prefer to make that particular meal) and move forward. Faithful meal planning doesn’t make dinner time (or any other meal time) perfect, but it does make it that much better and it’s worth it to just pick up where we left off and try again.

Our Menu Plan for the Week

Monday

Tuesday

  • Breakfast: Eggs, toast and fruit smoothie
  • Dinner: Quesadillas with pinto beans (mine will be a wrap with veggies, since I can’t have cheese), sauerkraut, sour cream.

Wednesday

  • Breakfast: French toast and fruit sauce
  • Dinner: Roast beef sandwiches (using leftover roast beef), homemade pickles, raw vegetables.
  • Prep: Soak oatmeal.

Thursday

  • Breakfast: Soaked oatmeal with raw milk and honey (I’ll do mine with some fruit and cinnamon since I can’t have honey right now)
  • Dinner: Rice with leftover pinto beans, steamed cauliflower.
  • Prep: Thaw chicken. Soak brown rice.

Friday

  • Breakfast: Omelet with sausages and veggies (but not cheese for me and the toddler)
  • Dinner: Coconut-breaded chicken, brown rice, oven roasted veggies (potatoes, carrots, beets)
  • Prep: Thaw broth.

Saturday

  • Breakfast: Breakfast wraps
  • Dinner: Lentil Vegetable Soup

Sunday

  • Breakfast: Granola with yogurt/milk and fruit
  • Dinner: Fish cakes (Nourishing Traditions recipe), yam/potato fries, green salad.

It’s your turn to share your menu with the rest of us! And I would love to know… what do you do when you mess up your meal plan?

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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Comments

  1. Hi Stephanie,

    Nice article, we have a lot of the same thoughts. I actually developed my idea into an web application. It’s a meal planner that caters for the busy modern family. I think that cooking for the family every week is much more than just using recipes, there’s a budget, nutrition and food waste to consider. Meal planning makes us think ahead and list the family’s meals for the next few days, or even the month.

    Our aim was to make it possible again for home cooks to cook healthy meals regularly whilst reducing food cost and food waste. Modern home cooks can simply use siansplan.com to select the meals to be cooked, automatically producing a shopping list for the items needed to be purchased to prepare them.

    We would love for you to check it out. Let me know if you want to.

    Thanks again for the article. Meal planning is key!

  2. I linked up the meal plan for our allergy home. In that post, I also made “A Case for Meal Planning” as it particularly pertains to our allergy home. I call myself a “loose” meal planner because of many of your reasons noted above, but I sure have enjoyed have this “organization” in my life the last few weeks. Thanks for letting me share!

  3. I sat down today and did my meal plan for the next two weeks. I coordinated it with all the social events happening during the week so I’m not trying to get a meal into the crock pot at noon when I’m going to be a music class with the kids till 1:00.
    When in doubt, we do salsa omelets with cheese. I have done it since college and they are still one of my favorite meals!

  4. Sometimes I have “backup” meals for occasions just like this. My fallback meal tends to be omelettes or eggs and some kind of pancake/biscuit. I have noticed that by meal planning sometimes we end up with more food than we realize so we’ll have leftover nights more than I planned for — which is okay because it means less cooking and our food doesn’t go to waste.

    Certain meals really yield a LOT (like soups or chilis) so if I know I’ll be particularly busy during a certain week I might plan for more meals like that so I can cook less but still feed my family.

    Question: do you have any recommendations for smoothies that don’t involve bananas? They seem to upset my stomach these days but they are a staple in many smoothie recipes. I’d love to do anything to get some more probiotics in my system with kefir or yogurt! Thx!

    • @Megan, We really like smoothies with yogurt or kefir, and then just one type of berry. Our favorite this way is strawberry. Basically we add the dairy, a bit of water, a bunch of frozen strawberries, and then a natural sweetener (usually honey or stevia) to taste. A touch of vanilla is nice, too. We also do this with blueberries and raspberries, depending on what we’re in the mood for.

  5. Ha! I realized just this weekend that my plan wasn’t going to work out right due to my hubby’s work schedule changing. I swapped a few days around and we’ll do just fine now. I always plan for leftover nights and 1 meal out per week for our family on the night I work late. I end up cooking about 3 nights a week.

  6. No Stress! That’s what meal planning means to me. I regularly switch up my meals between days of the week and it’s so great knowing I have everything on hand to make any meal on the menu! That’s the beauty of meal planning.

  7. Kristen in MO says:

    This is such a basic question, but I grew up only making roast in a crock pot and we always used a package of onion soup mix and a can of cream of mushroom soup. How would you do that in a more “real food” way?

    • @Kristen in MO, I grew up sometimes following a similar path for roasts in the crock pot but here is what I do now:
      brown the meat for a few minutes in butter or bacon fat (or some other real food fat, like ghee, lard or tallow);
      place the browned meat in crockpot over 1/2 – 1 cut up onion;
      season with salt & pepper and any other spices you like (like garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, e.g.);
      add in cut up potatoes & carrots;
      pour in 1-2 cups of chicken, beef or veggie broth so that the meat is partially covered but not fully covered. Sometimes I add in a splash of red wine vinegar as well!

      Set your crockpot to cook on high or low depending on time & let it go!

      That’s the basic gist of my roast recipes these days.

  8. Great ideas! Glad I am not alone with the ‘sometimes messing up the meal plan’ problem! I don’t go by days of the week, typically either. I shop for two weeks and write it out with numbers. Also, if I am making something that freezes well, like casseroles, soups or stews, I will make some extra and freeze it for an emergency. I also buy my chicken and beef in bulk so if I really have to come up with a different or extra meal on the fly, I *usually* have something somewhere.

    It pays to be organized but flexible, just in case!

  9. I do all the things you suggested but do one additional thing: I have a list on the side of my fridge of meals that got skipped so when I’m doing a future plan, I can bump that meal forward to a new week, knowing that I already have all or most of the ingredients. If I don’t keep track of what I’ve missed then 3 or 4 months later, I end up with a bunch of stuff in my freezer that no one wants to eat.

  10. We *love* popcorn with nutritional yeast flakes and kelp sprinkled on it. Yum!

  11. Great tips! A couple weeks ago I had to make a quick switch at the last minute because I forgot it takes an hour to bake spaghetti squash! I just switched two days around. Last week, I forgot to soak my beans overnight. I ended up doing a quick soak instead (not as nutritious, not as good–but it worked in a bind). I had enough leftovers from chicken tortilla soup one night that I scratched the next night’s plan altogether and we had leftovers the next night! I like having a flexible plan!

  12. Just last night, I sat down and made an “Emergency Meals List” which was made up of items I have in the freezer or pantry and would be quick. Sometimes when I forget about dinner, or get caught in town longer than planned, I cannot think of what to make….I get either in a panic mode or am too tired to think. So I jotted down a quick list like: salmon patties, soup, popcorn and smoothies, breakfast foods, etc. So next time I can look at my list and get cracking. I also made a snacks list so I can offer my son something other than an apple or carrot.

  13. my menu plan does not have days of the week attached to it just numbers 1 – 7 +.
    I also try to only have two labor intensive meals a week, usually they end up falling over the weekend. I would love to cook more detailed meals more often, but hey I’m in the trows of toddlerhood and dinner prep hour is no pic-nic.
    I also try and keep at least one package of pepperoni and mozarella cheese aroung and in a pinch my go to quick food is a buisquit dough pizza, usually with a quick freezer veggie on the side. Its not perfect but its simple, quick and stil mostly real food.
    This also doubles as a lunch some times too.

  14. I have realized that this exact scenario happens to me regularly! I now make my weekly meals alternating quick prep (chop veggies) with other items that have longer prep (soaking beans). I swap nights and move on. As a back up, I typically will try to have a couple of meals in the freezer that will only require me to throw them in the oven for 20 minutes. If nothing else works, my husband is normally very sweet and will go pick up a couple items at the grocery store for dinner. I then take a meal from this week, and move it to next week so it doesn’t mess with our budget either. :)

  15. Last Saturday I was SO busy with kitchen chores (rendering tallow, making jerky, etc.) that our dinner plan went out the window. I ended up serving the kids melon, cheese cubes, leftover mashed potatoes and peas. It worked! If you can afford to, keeping good quality hot dogs around is great for these nights, or if you have homemade (or not-terrible storebought) tortillas and cheese for quesadillas, or sauce to make tortilla pizzas, these are last-minute favorites here!

  16. You can cook a grass-fed roast from frozen in the crockpot. I usually put it in early in the morning, sprinkle on garlic powder, add one cup of red wine and one cup of water, then turn it on high for 2 hours, and then back to low for anywhere from 5-7 hours. It always comes out moist and juicy.

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