How to Stick to Your Meal Plan

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So, you’ve got your fancy meal plan of carefully chosen and paired recipes. Either you or a meal planning service put time and energy into said plan. So, do you know how to stick to your meal plan?

place setting with large dinner salad

Recipe: Santa Fe Salad

Staring into the fridge, wondering what to make for supper? But, I thought you had a meal plan?

Having a meal plan and sticking to your meal plan are two entirely different things. 

The meal plan is one step toward a delicious, nutritious, timely meal prepared at home. There are a few things that need to happen between pen and table, especially if you want to save time and money.

How to Stick to Your Meal Plan

It’s true that meal planning can be a fabulous way to save money and time and improve your family’s diet. But, a list of meals to prepare does not exactly feed people. You need to take a few extra steps:

1. Make a grocery list of things you need.

Meal plan and recipes in hand, browse through your kitchen inventory, jotting down the groceries you’ll need. Where possible, consider substitutions based on what you already have. You’ll buy less at the story and save some money in the process.

Check your list twice to make sure you haven’t missed anything. If you forget a key element to a meal, it’s more likely to either send you to the store hungry, resulting in impulse buys, or send you off for takeout or restaurant fare which is a lot more expensive than eating at home.

grocery cart with food at store

2. Go shopping.

This should be obvious, but some people really hate grocery shopping. I know this because I used to bag your groceries. You know who you are.

Go grocery shopping when you are not hungry. This will reduce impulse buys and the increased checkout total.

Shop when you have time to browse just a little bit: read labels, compare prices, and otherwise make informed choices about what you’re buying. A grocery cart dash has a high probability of your buying the wrong thing or paying too much.

chopped ingredients for meal prep

3. Prep in advance.

When you get home, consider what you can do in advance. You might not be super motivated because you’re not starving at the moment, but believe me, meal prep work will pay huge dividends when you’re ravenous. It will also help you pull off this meal plan.

  • Chop onions, peppers, carrots, celery, and any other vegetables you’ll be using this week, with the exception of perhaps potatoes or tomatoes which turn brown or go soggy.
  • Saute ground beef or turkey to save a few steps later in the week.
  • Shred any cheeses that you’ll be using.
  • Read through your recipes to see if there’s anything you can do now to save time later.

frozen turkey and sausage

4. Thaw.

My nemesis: Mr. Thaw. It seems that things always take longer to thaw when I’ve forgotten to pull them from the freezer far enough in advance to defrost completely. I’ve messed with frozen meat a few too many times.

And I wrote the freezer cookbook!

Give yourself at least two days for a rock hard lump of meat to thaw completely. Consult your meal plan and your calendar and plan accordingly. Consider setting up an alert on your phone so that you don’t forget. Trust me on this.

As a fail-safe, consider stashing in your freezer a few freezer meals you don’t have to thaw.

weekly meal plan on the fridge

5. Check the plan daily.

Compare your plan and your day’s activities to make sure that they jive. If you aren’t going to be home until 5:30, tonight’s probably not the night for that elaborate chicken dish that takes three hours to prepare. Pair your plans with your days so that they work well together.

If you’ve done your prep work, you should be all set. If you didn’t get a chance to, try to do this the night before or the morning of. This will really make dinner preparations much more pleasurable.

I go so far as to pull out non-perishables and set them on the counter. If pasta is on the menu, I fill the pot with water. If rice, I yank out the rice cooker so that it’s raring to go. This reminds me that I do, indeed, have a plan, and that I will execute  it.

baked bacon on foil tray

Learn : How to Bake Bacon in the Oven

6. Get cooking.

Cooking will be easy if you’ve taken these steps to get there. Your meal plan will come off in a flourish if you’ve shopped, have all the ingredients on hand, have done some prep work, have thawed the meat, and have a daily strategy for meal prep.

It’s not rocket science, but it does take a little effort. However the dividends are huge: savings on food costs, a great tasting meal, a pleasurable cooking experience.

But what if that whole meal planning thing is elusive to begin with?

 Get help! Subscribe to the Kitchen Winner Meal Plans. 

The Kitchen Winner Meal Plans, based on the Good Cheap Eats you’ve come to know and love, provide you with the road map not only to choose recipes, but also in how to shop and prep so that dinner is ready when you are!

Get instant access to all the meal plans available (30 weeks’ worth and counting!) when you subscribe.

Head here for more details:

What do you do to stick to your meal plan?

How to Stick to Your Meal Plan | Good Cheap Eats

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. Donna says

    Great post, Jessica. I always have a better week when I make and stick to the meal plan! I usually plan 6 meals and then let the week dictate which meals I make each day… really helps to have everything in the house, all I have to do it pull out what I need for that day. Less stress, less $$ spent.

  2. Stephanie M. says

    Because I am still conducting a “freezer challenge” and trying to rid myself of an excess amount of meat, true meal planning is not what I have to do right now. My pantry is filled with a wide array of things to add to any meat I would take out of the freezer. Of course, I still need to buy produce and things like that but other than that, I’m pretty set. And I am happy to say I am finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I figure about 3 more weeks till I have to actually start buying meat again. That said, that will be the time when I do real “menu planning because I will have to figure out what I want to eat for the week and what I need to buy to make that happen. I have printed out some very cute meal planning sheets and I plan to make up menus for two weeks at a time since my husband gets paid every two weeks. I think I’m quite organized in the kitchen regarding prep work and making sure things are defrosted overnight and ready for me to cook the next day. Since I don’t work and our kids are grown and it’s just my husband and I, I am fortunate enough to cook at my leisure; most of the time, I start cooking about 2:00 or so. But there are times when I’m making something that takes a lot of time so I’ll cook whatever I can in the morning. When I decide to bake a cake or pie, I always do that in the morning. I always make my husband’s breakfast and lunch in the afternoon for the next day and when he comes home with his empty lunchbox, I just fill it up again. Because my schedule is not so rigid, I don’t usually do prep work the night before because I am alone during the day and can take care of everything the day I’m cooking. There was a time, however, when I was the mother of two young girls and my life was much busier than it is now and I did not do things the same way. I had to have a much stricter plan of what I was doing. I think meal planning is very important. It pays, in more ways than one, to know what you’re eating for the week, have everything you need to make those meals and stick to your plan. I always did that in the past and will start again once my freezer is empty.

  3. I’ve found that a dirty kitchen will throw me off my plan every time! No one likes cooking in a kitchen where you have to search for each pot and utensil washing it before you can use it. My latest goal is a clean kitchen AFTER each meal so I’m much more likely to want to cook the next planned meal.

  4. Annie says

    I so feel the pain of meal planning. One of my resolutions is to get better about planning and spending a 2 hour session in the kitchen really helps me out. Hubby and I decide the 5 main meals of the week (one night is leftovers and the other is breakfast), and I try to do all the chopping, sauces, etc. at once. It helps to have some pre-cooked meat frozen and ready for use on the nights where something goes amiss. If I’m going to brown up ground turkey, I throw in an extra pound and freeze and when (as it happens every once in a while) the meal plan just misses the mark, we have taco night. It helps to have a core of 2-4 recipes that you can always make when a meal plan doesn’t work out.

  5. Jessie says

    I find it easy to prep the main meal, but the sides get me! I need to think about the day, the night before, so I know my side needs to be prepared 15 minutes before I usually start my main meal. Otherwise, the cabbage works instead of being made into a coleslaw and I rely on frozen veggies.

    • I spent several hours today prepping veggies for side dishes. I’m hoping it will save time the rest of the week. Here’s hoping. 🙂

  6. Janet says

    I have several keys to getting dinner on the table each night. Number 1 is a clean kitchen. I cannot stand to cook in a dirty or messy space. If I have to clean the kitchen first it throws me off my game. Number 2 is having most of the fruits and vegetables prepped. Therefore, number 3 is prepping for the next day after dinner each night. I already have to wash dishes, wipe down counters, etc. Now is the time to pull out the cutting board and start cleaning, slicing and dicing. Finally, I try to keep a few favorites on hand for last minute requests. We came home from church today and my husband asked if we could deviate from the meal plan and have breakfast for lunch. Not a problem. I had pancakes and hash brown patties in the freezer and a variety of fresh berries cleaned and waiting in the fridge. I simply had to reheat the pancakes in the microwave, pop the hash brown patties in the oven and scramble a few eggs. Lunch was on the table in 20 minutes.

  7. Brighid says

    Google calendar. Our lives are busy enough these days that I need to know who is going where and when to plan meals. So our dinner menus go on the calendar too. That way when anyone says “What are we having?” the answer is always “Look on the calendar.” I make menus every Sunday and print it out then. That’s not to say that there aren’t any midweek reorganizations! Oh, and if you look ahead and see an entree you don’t like, you’re responsible for coming up with a replacement for yourself.

    • I have tried Google calendar, but it just doesn’t seem to work for me. A written list on the fridge does. I guess I’m old school!

  8. Cherie says

    great piece 🙂

    I have learned to include defrosting in my actual meal planning – when I decide what I’m cooking for Thursday and know it will include a freezer component I write ‘defrost x’ on Tuesday or Wednesday night’s plan depending on what it is – it REALLY helps me because I’m thinking of itthen – and the alarm and reminders on my phone and calendar, while fabulous, only help if I’m a) at the house when it happens and b) look at it and do it LOL – when I look at my meal plan I’m in food mode, so I just deal with it better

    • Yep~ If I make a list of things to thaw and keep to it, the week looks completely different.

  9. Nia Hanna says

    One thing I’ve been wanting to add to my meal plan is ham & egg bagel sandwiches. Since you make a lot of your own breads do you have a bagel recipe to share? One you’ve tried and liked. I really like your hamburger buns, so I’m hoping you’ve made some good bagels too so I can follow your bagel making footsteps!

    • I actually don’t make bagels too often. We’ve done pretzels more than bagels. Is that what you were thinking of maybe?

  10. Great post. I’ve always been meticulous about creating meal plans. Unfortunately, executing these plans is, as you said, an entirely different matter. Thanks for this.

  11. About a year ago, I revamped my menu plan. I noticed that my family kept asking when we were going to have their favorite meals. So, I printed out all the meals I make and asked them to tell me if they liked them or not. They settled on 21 of the favorite meals and that is 3 weeks of the month. The other week, I repeat their very favorite meals or try something new. I can’t tell you how much money and time menu planning saves us. I am a diehard menu planner, I don’t know what I would do with it!


  12. Heather M says

    Our lives are so busy after school/evenings that if I don’t at least have a plan, dinner goes out the window. I typically make a list once a week of dinner options, but I always have back-ups that we can go to if timing doesn’t work, I forget to defrost the fish, etc. These back-ups are in my head, not written down, since I have years of practice at this point. But I don’t always have a week’s worth of planning done. Which is ok. Because weekly plan or no weekly plan, I always think about the next night’s dinner while either making dinner or cleaning up after dinner or right after cleaning up. I figure out what is going to work for the next night if no plan exists, decide which meal is our best bet from the planned list (based on the freshness of produce, timing of life that next day, etc), and put things in the fridge to defrost or pull things out of the cupboard. If I have a crazy night and can’t do that, I do by lunchtime the next day so we aren’t doomed. I love to try new recipes, adapt recipes, or just create based on what we have. We eat lots of new meals all the time. Some weeks it’s mostly new meals, others it’s mostly standbys. Often a new recipe is so beloved that it becomes an old standby.

  13. I am a prep on the weekend person. Usually we shop on Saturday when we make the major grocery run. If we are having a week of heavy veggie meals, I try to have those prepped in advance. Usually I will begin thawing meats on the weekend or prepare the meal plan around a roast chicken on Sunday that gets used to make other dishes during the week. I try to have planned overs and leftovers throughout the week as well, so that sometimes it’s a matter of reheating and serving. I just try to remind myself (if the meal plan fails) to be flexible and forgiving. 🙂


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