Realistic Meal Planning For Busy Unpredictable Lives

blank meal planning calendar & Pen

There are lots of advantages to meal planning including eating better while saving time and money. But like with most everything in life, there is no one-size- fits-all solution. The key is to find the approach that is right for you and your age and stage of life. 

So when Carol wrote to me seeking guidance with meal planning when you have a busy unpredictable schedule I could totally relate….

“Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with me. I have a challenge for you? I get the planning piece; however, my husband and I have crazy, busy lives and eat out A LOT!!! So every time I plan to plan and buy what I need to do that, we get bombarded by unexpected evening meetings and eating out and either freezing or tossing what went bad….help!” ~Carol

Realistic Meal Planning For Busy Unpredictable Lives

We’ve probably all been in Carol’s shoes at one time or another. We’ve planned and shopped for every meal from Sunday to Saturday but then there’s a last-minute dinner invite from a friend or lunch opportunity with your mom or you end up having to work late. Before you know it there’s a fridge full of limp soggy vegetables and expired chicken staring back at you from the fridge. So much for saving money, not too mention the stress of tossing out spoiled food!

If something is overwhelming you it’s time to readjust your plan. 

So what is the solution? 

Part of meal planning is staying flexible for life’s ups and downs. Having too many meals mapped out isn’t just a lot of work, it’s also likely to lead to wasted food.  You’ve got to factor in the unexpected including spontaneous meal(s) and what to do when you’re too tired to cook. 

Here’s the approach that I take when my life is busy and I’m eating out several times a week: 

Restaurant food is often fancier and heavier than the kinds of recipes I prepare myself at home. To maintain my sense of balance and keep my clothes from getting snug I usually want lighter, simpler foods the nights I eat in. I also usually end up bringing home part of my meal when I eat out providing a steady supply of leftovers to use as a jumping off point. 

Make a Meal Plan Using Only Two or Three Recipes

Often small busy families only need to plan two or three meals each week. Leftovers from those meals along with leftovers from restaurant meals is usually more than enough food for the week. 

Chose 2-3 dinners that you can cook in bulk each week. Soups are perfect for this. I often cook one big pot of soup every week, usually in the slow cooker. There’s nothing better than coming home after a long day and having dinner ready in minutes with a simple re-heat. Stews, chilis, roasts, whole chickens and other larger cuts of meat are great for cooking once and then eating two or three times too. Portion out and freeze whatever you won’t use during the week.

My husband and I have been known to enjoy a week’s worth of meals from a rotisserie chicken, refried beans, tortillas and a tray of leftover vegetables. It’s amazing how many different combinations can be created from these few ingredients, along with whatever else you find in the fridge like cheese, salsa, salad greens, etc. 

Well-stocked pantry shelf with cans and jars of food and a package of dry pasta

Simple Meals from Pantry Staples

Keep a list of simple recipes that you can whip up in minutes from a few healthy pantry/fridge/freezer staples. With a supply of dried pasta, quick cooking whole grains, canned tomatoes, beans, tuna, eggs, cheese, frozen peas and broccoli it’s always easy to create light and healthy meal in minutes. Some of my go to simple recipes include

More Easy Meals That Don’t Need a Recipe or Meal Plan 

When all else fails, you can always have grilled cheese or pancakes for dinner! I actually like breakfast food for dinner and know many others who do to. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional convenience meal. Keep things simple and give yourself a break. Some of my favorite quick and easy “cheater” meals include: 

Leftovers from last night’s restaurant meal

Sandwich, Wrap or Lettuce Wrap stuffed with your favorite lunch meat, light cheese and veggies

Quesadilla made with a small amount of light cheese and whatever odds and ends you have in the fridge. Some of my best quesadillas have been made with restaurant leftovers like grilled steak, pork, shrimp, fish or chicken. 

Cereal, fruit and milk (I always have a couple of high fiber low sugar cereals and oatmeal in the pantry.)

Toast with avocado and fried egg

Soup (Favorite boxed, canned or defrosted homemade)

Microwave healthy frozen meal (Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, Smart Ones, etc.)

Microwaveable ready to eat meals (I especially like the ones from Tasty Bite such as Indian Madras Lentils (affiliate link) and Vegetable Tikka Masala (affiliate link)

Day by Day Meal Planning Works

Taking a day-by-day meal-by-meal approach can be very effective for folks who lead busy unpredictable lives. At the end of day, take a look around at what you have on hand and decide what you will make for tomorrow’s dinner. If you need to pick up something at the store to complete your plan make note of it and grab it on your way home should your plans not change. Getting dinner on the table can really be as easy as that!

Martha McKinnonMartha is the founder and main content writer for Simple-Nourished-Living.

A longtime lifetime WW at goal, she is committed to balancing her love of food and desire to stay slim while savoring life and helping others do the same.

She is the author of the Smart Start 28-Day Weight Loss Challenge.

A huge fan of the slow cooker and confessed cookbook addict, when she’s not experimenting in the kitchen, you’re likely to find Martha on her yoga mat.

More about Martha McKinnon

This post contains affiliate links to products I like. When you buy something through one of my Amazon links or Craftsy links, I receive a small commission that helps support this site. Thanks for your purchase!

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