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
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
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
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.