5 Meal Planning Mistakes That Are Causing You to Fail

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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
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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
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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
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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.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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12 Smart and Simple Kitchen Hacks

Merlas/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Merlas/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Use these quick and simple tricks to save time in the kitchen and make cooking easier—and safer.

1. Put a damp paper towel under your cutting board.

Take a paper towel, wet it, wring it out, and place it under your cutting board. This will keep the board from slipping all over your counter and allow you to cut more safely. You can put a damp paper towel under mixing bowls to keep them from sliding around, too.

2. Use cooking spray on your cheese grater.

A person using a cheese grater
Whichever way you have your grater positioned, a little cooking spray will make the job easier.
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Before you start grating cheese, lay your grater down on its side, which keeps it from moving around and catches all of your cheese in once place. Then spray the surface with the cooking spray of your choice. The oil lubricates the surface and makes grating easier, especially for sticky cheeses.

3. Put felt glides under countertop appliances.

Not only will this save your countertops from getting scratched, but it also makes oft-used appliances easier to move when you need them.

4. Put a spoon on top of boiling pasta water.

A person holding a spoon with penne pasta over a pot of boiling water.
Foam be gone!
Andrii Pohranychnyi/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Does the foam of your starchy pasta water boil right up out of the pot? There’s a simple fix: Lay a metal or wooden spoon over the top of the pot. According to Gizmodo, this method works because the foam is “thermodynamically unstable," so when the foam’s bubbles reach the spoon, they burst, "breaking the layer of foam and sending all the bubbles collapsing down again.” If you opt for metal, though, make sure to use oven mitts to remove it from the top of the pot—it will be hot.

5. Keep dental floss handy.

You can use it to cut soft cheeses. “If the cheese is small, you can hold it in one hand while your other pulls the floss taught and does the cutting,” cheesemonger Nora Singley writes at The Kitchn. “For larger situations, place cheese on a surface, shimmy the floss beneath it, and simply slice up, holding both ends of the floss and crossing the two ends to complete the cut. Then repeat in equal intervals.”

You can also use non-minty dental floss to cut cookie dough, burritos, and hard-boiled eggs; slice melons and layers of cake; to tie things together; and get food unstuck from baking sheets.

6. Preheat your baking sheet.

A baking sheet in the oven.
Pre-heating your baking sheet saves time.
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If you’re making something like French fries or roasted veggies and your baking sheet is hot right from the get-go, you won’t have to go through the process of flipping your food later. Plus, both side of your food will be evenly browned and cook faster.

7. Save burnt pans with a dryer sheet.

Have you charred a pan so badly that the food you're trying to cook essentially became a part of the pan? Before you throw the pan out, try tossing in a dryer sheet, adding warm water, and letting it soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Then wash with soap and water as usual, and the burned bits will come right off. Karen Lo at Food52 writes that “It feels like an absolute miracle—because it is. But, according to lifestyle reporter Anna De Souza, it’s also ‘likely the conditioning properties of the dryer sheet’ that do the trick.” If the burn is really bad, Lo says you can use two dryer sheets and hot water for severe cases if you’d like, and let it soak overnight—use your judgment.

8. Leave the root end on your onion when cutting it.

A person holding an onion by the root end and dicing an onion with a knife.
Leaving the root end of your onion on gives you something to hold onto while you're dicing.
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This method is a game changer: It allows you to dice your onions safely and quickly. First, according to Real Simple, you should cut the top off of the onion; then lay the onion on the now-flat top and cut the vegetable in half through the root. Next, peel off the skin, being careful to leave the root attached. Take half of the onion and lay it, flat side down, on the cutting board. Holding on to the root end, slice the onion vertically in strips of your desired size, without cutting through to the root. Then slice in the opposite direction to dice. When you’re done, save the root end of the onion to make stock.

9. Use a Bundt pan when cutting corn.

When you’re cutting corn on a flat surface, the kernels tend to fly everywhere messily. But if you hold the ear of corn—pointy end down—on the center of a Bundt cake pan, then rotate as you cut, the kernels will fall neatly into the pan.

10. Put away your potato peeler and use this method instead.

A pot of boiling water with potatoes.
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Peeling potatoes is time-consuming and wastes delicious potato. Instead, use this potato peeling hack from Foody Tube: Make a small cut into the skin around the circumference of the potato, then boil it. Once the potato is cooked, peel the skin off. It’s that easy.

11. Keep your plastic wrap in the fridge.

When it’s cold, plastic wrap is easier to handle and less likely to get stuck to itself.

If getting plastic wrap to stick is the issue, wet the rim of whatever you’re trying to cover before putting on the plastic. The water will help it cling to the surface.

12. Use magnets to hold down parchment paper.

Two rolls of parchment paper on a white surface.
Keep parchment paper from rolling up on your baking sheet with this clever trick.
Viktoriia Oleinichenko/iStock via Getty Images Plus

To keep parchment paper from rolling up on baking sheets—and therefore making it incredibly difficult actually to put anything on the sheet to cook—Le Cordon Bleu-educated pastry chef Amy Dieschbourg uses magnets to hold the paper in place. Once everything is on the paper, remove the magnets and get cooking.