5 Meal Planning Mistakes That Are Causing You to Fail

iStock
iStock

Meal prep seems like a no-brainer: You write down what you’re going to eat, make a shopping list, go to the store and, um, make the food. In the process, you consume less junk, save money, and vastly increase your family’s chances of sitting down to dinner together.

As a mom of two, an inveterate list-maker, and a lover of cooking blogs, I should be amazing at meal planning. And I have been really good in the past—for about 10 days at a time. But without fail, the wheels would come off during particularly busy weeks, or when I decided I just couldn’t stomach the chili I had planned for Wednesday. My best intentions devolved into a flurry of takeout and organic frozen pizzas until, a couple of weeks later, I vowed yet again to become a perfect planner.

Luckily, I’ve gotten a bit better this year, after a lot of trial and error. Turns out I was just trying too hard. If you’re similarly overwhelmed by the effort of creating healthy meals every night, the secret lies in figuring out how to be flexible and “good enough” instead of perfect. Here are five mistakes I needed to break in order to nail meal planning once and for all.

MISTAKE 1: TRYING TO FIND THE PERFECT SYSTEM

Meal planning calendar
iStock

I’ve tried every approach, from scribbling everything in a notebook to using apps like MealBoard, which generate a grocery list based on the recipes you enter. Here’s the secret: They all work. But as with any lifestyle change, the only thing that matters at the beginning is consistency. I realized that by constantly switching my system, I wasn’t letting any of them solidify into a routine.

Research has shown that it takes a habit far longer than we think to stick: A University College London professor found that it took a whopping (and depressing) 66 days before a new behavior became more or less automatic. And as Gretchen Rubin, author of bestseller Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, points out, convenience is key to getting over that mastery hump.

So at the beginning of the year, I decided to go back to basics and write everything out on computer paper that can be posted on the fridge. One sheet was devoted to meals, a second to my shopping list for the week. I committed to doing this for two months, until it became second-nature. By the end of February, after forgetting my shopping list one too many times, I realized I wanted to switch over to an app. By that point, though, the basic habit was ingrained.

MISTAKE 2: STARTING FROM SCRATCH EVERY WEEK

Every Saturday, I’d sit down with my computer and a stack of cookbooks, prepared to discover delicious new ways to feed my family. Two hours later, I’d be deep down a Pinterest black hole with no clear plan. These days, I stick to a tried-and-true rotation of about 12 meals. I always slot the simplest one for Monday nights, as everyone eases back into the week. Like with exercise, it helps to have a manageable goal (I’ll walk 10,000 steps on a busy day, rather than promising to wake up at 5 a.m. for a killer bootcamp). And once I get that first dinner of the week on the table, I find it’s far easier to keep going.

MISTAKE 3: THINKING I HAD TO PREP EVERYTHING ON SUNDAY

Woman preparing dinner in the kitchen
iStock

In the perfect world that exists only in my head, I would run to the grocery store before lunch on Sunday and then spend four hours chopping veggies (with my just-sharpened knives) and portioning everything into (BPA-free, glass) containers labeled by the day of the week.

In reality, the chances I will devote an entire precious day off to food prep are approximately nil. And that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. I’ve realized the key is to doing just enough prep work that I’m not starting from zero at 5:30 every night. Yep, that might mean chopping a couple of onions on Sunday, but it can also mean simply pulling out the nonperishable ingredients I’ll need or washing a head of lettuce before I run out the door in the morning.

MISTAKE 4: ASSIGNING A STRICT MEAL TO EACH DAY

With all due respect to Taco Tuesday, having meals spelled out for every single night made me feel like a prisoner to my routine—which, of course, led to rebelling and heading to Chipotle. At the same time, though, a week of entirely uncharted food menus leaves me feeling adrift and overwhelmed. These days, I stick instead to meal templates. I assign a theme to each weeknight, generally devoting winter Mondays to “slow-cooker night” (because it’s the easiest) and Thursdays to leftovers. In between, we might have a casserole night, a “kitchen-sink salad” night, a fish night, and so forth.

MISTAKE 5: NOT EMBRACING SERVICES THAT HELP

Woman reading a recipe on a tablet
iStock

For the longest time, I turned up my nose at meal planning services. In my stubborn mind, I was going to do it myself, or not at all. This all-or-nothing mentality, of course, is the enemy of creating good habits. After trying out Cook Smarts, I found the service not only holds me accountable, but it also provides fun inspiration that makes me actually look forward to meal-prepping.

Here’s how it works (and I promise, they're not paying me to say this): For $6 to $8 a month, you can access the site’s weekly meal plan, updated on Thursdays. (I’ve played around with the vegetarian, paleo, and gluten-free options.) Cook Smarts creates your grocery list based on your choices and serving sizes, tells you how to prep ahead of time and—amazingly—offers videos that take you step-by-step through each recipe. The site also has a million tutorials about everything from the basic pots and pans you should own to how to eat healthily with kids. With its encouragement, I’ve found myself expanding my cooking repertoire and learning how to chop fennel. At less than the cost of a Netflix subscription, that’s a win in my book.

Why You Should Never Charge Your Phone in Public USB Ports Without a USB Data Blocker

Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images
Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images

The USB charging ports that have popped up at airports, coffee shops, and even outdoor stations around cities in recent years are definitely a lifesaver when your smartphone is down to its last bit of juice. A dead phone is annoying at best and downright dangerous at worst, so it’s totally understandable why you’d jump at the chance to revive it at your earliest opportunity.

However, those public ports might not be as benevolent as they seem. According to Afar, hackers can load malware onto those stations—or on the cables left plugged into the stations—which can then deliver passwords and other data right from your device to the hacker’s. If you have used a public port recently, don’t panic; TechCrunch reports that these cases are fairly rare. Having said that, it’s definitely better not to risk it, especially considering what a nightmare it would be to have your identity stolen.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office explains that the easiest way to prevent becoming a victim of this type of scam, often referred to as juice-jacking, is simply to abstain from using public USB charging ports. Instead, invest in a portable charger, or plug your own charger into an actual AC power outlet.

But unoccupied power outlets are notoriously hard to come by in public places, and portable chargers themselves can also run out of battery life. Luckily, there’s a small, inexpensive device called a data blocker that will enable you to use public USB charging ports without worrying about juice-jacking. It looks a little like a flash drive with an extra slot, but it lacks the two wires usually found in USB chargers that can download and upload data. That way, your device will charge without transferring any information.

You can get two of them for $11 from Amazon here.

[h/t Afar]

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER