Meal plans can be life savers for busy families, easing the burden of always worrying about “what’s for dinner?” and saving you money on last minute convenience foods and restaurants. What do you do, however, if one or more of the meals in a given plan (whether in the free ALDI meal plans here, or in another meal plan you might be using) doesn’t meet your family’s needs this week?
Never fear: It’s much easier to modify someone’s meal plan for your family’s needs than to plan an entire week of meals from scratch. Think of any meal plan you use as descriptive rather than prescriptive — You’re the boss of your own family’s meals, no one else.
Make Meal Planning work for your family
When meal plans don’t work as written, you’ll need to do (just a little!) work to make them meet your family’s needs.
Modifying Meal Plans
There are many reasons a meal plan might almost work for you, so here are some of the most common reasons you might need to modify any meal plan you’re using — and some solutions to help you think about stretching a meal plan to accommodate different circumstances, rather than throwing in the towel on meal planning altogether.
My family won’t eat a certain ingredient
Look, I get it: I can’t stand coconut — the very thought of it makes me shudder, so I’m not likely to be making coconut shrimp or coconut baked fish fillets any time soon. You and other family members probably have your own triggers or un-favorite foods, so what do you do if a main dish in a meal plan features an ingredient you dislike?
Option 1: Leave it out
Look at the recipe and see how essential that ingredient is to the integrity of the dish. For instance, if you don’t care for jalapeño peppers because they’re too spicy for your taste, a chili recipe that includes both fresh jalapeños and chili powder might be at the perfect level of heat for you if you just leave out the peppers and only use the chili powder.
Option 2: Substitute something else
Does cilantro taste like soap to you? You can often substitute parsley with great results. Do you hate asparagus? Maybe this week’s chicken & asparagus stir fry would be equally lovely as a chicken & broccoli stir fry. Kale isn’t your friend? Try spinach. Don’t want to do ground beef? Substitute ground turkey. You can find a handy ingredient substitution list on myrecipes, or just think about what your family might prefer.
Option 3: Pick a different recipe
Think about what else you could make with the main ingredient in a recipe. Let’s say that the meal plan you’re following this week includes buying a large pack of ground turkey to make turkey chili on Sunday and turkey tacos on Tuesday… but, your family can’t stand tacos. You could instead shift Tuesday night’s dinner idea over just a little bit, using the other half of that pack of ground turkey to make turkey burgers instead and picking up a pack of hamburger buns instead of a pack of tortillas.
My family won’t eat meatless meals
Many meal plans include a Meatless Monday option, so what do you do with a family of confirmed carnivores on these nights?
Option 1: Add some meat
If your family (or significant other) truly doesn’t think a meal is a meal without meat… compromise. Throw some chicken into a veggie pasta; add smoked sausage to a kale and white bean soup; think of it as “less meat Monday” instead.
Option 2: Let the carnivore eat leftovers
My husband eats low carb, so on nights the rest of us are eating, say, pasta and salad, he might instead enjoy a leftover chicken breast and salad. Utilizing leftovers wisely can help you stay on plan for the rest of your family, and the confirmed carnivore can often enjoy the sides with everyone else.
Option 3: Play it by ear
Some meatless meals can help ease the meat lovers in your family into the idea, so don’t dismiss Meatless Monday out of hand. My low carb, carnivorous husband will bend as far as seeing eggs as a meal — so Monday frittatas can work! Put enough cheese in anything, and my kids will ask for more — they’re both bigger fans of, say, roasted veggie tortellini bake than they are of chipotle cauliflower tacos. Try easing meat lovers into accepting vegetarian options on meal plan weeks that include heartier recipes with eggs & cheese, easing them slowly into other meatless options.
We have food allergies
It’s more important to modify a meal plan around allergies than around picky eaters, but you often have options to make meals fit your family’s needs.
Option 1: Leave it out
If you can’t tolerate the corn that’s listed as a veggie burrito bowl topping in a meal plan you’re looking at, just leave out the corn and enjoy the rest of the vegetables instead. If dairy allergies prevent you from marinating chicken in yogurt and spices, try making a dry rub out of those same spices instead so that you can enjoy similar flavors without the dairy.
Option 2: Substitute something else
If your son is allergic to peanuts but one of these week’s recipes uses peanut butter in a sauce, would almond or sunflower butter work instead? If your daughter has a corn allergy, simply substitute flour tortillas for the corn tortillas listed in your meal plan’s fish taco recipe. If your husband is gluten intolerant, use gluten free pasta in a meal plan’s penne pasta bake recipe.
Option 3: Pick a different recipe
Sometimes it’s just not possible to modify a recipe to be safe for your family’s food allergies, so simply substitute a tried-and-true favorite that night and go with the meal plan’s suggestions on the nights where it works for you.
I have other foods to use up
Give yourself permission to be flexible, whether you stumble across an unexpected meat clearance sale or unearth items in your freezer that really need to be used.
Option 1: Modify recipes
Be open to modifying recipes to match what you have on hand or ingredients you spot on sale. Let’s say the meal plan you’re using this week includes a chicken fajitas recipe — but then you run across some super cheap skirt steak at the grocery store. That’s steak fajitas for everyone, right? If the meal plan you’re using this week includes an asparagus quiche, but then you spot broccoli on sale for $.49/lb at your local produce store, you might enjoy a broccoli quiche just as much.
Option 2: And now for something completely different
Let’s say you get sucked into several beautiful fresh veggies at the farmer’s market over the weekend: That makes Monday a great day for veggie stir-fry instead of vegetarian black bean chili, or makes roasted veggies a beautiful substitute for the salad suggested as tonight’s side dish. Give yourself the space to be inspired by your impulse buys or clearance finds, then use the meal plan recipes on the nights you’re less inspired.
Ingredients are more expensive or harder to find in my area
Food prices vary across the country, and often vary seasonally in different areas. Green beans might be super cheap in Illinois and make sheet pan chicken thighs with green beans a logical choice for this week’s meal plan — but might be crazy expensive or wilted this week in Arizona. Again, be open to substitutions or using local ingredients where available.
We have events to attend this week
It hardly seems fair, right? You’re meal planning precisely because you are busy. Maybe your child has baseball practice for two hours right across your normal dinnertime twice this week. Maybe you got invited to a potluck and need to bring a dish to share, or maybe you’re having a birthday party and ordering pizza. Either way, this given list of meals on given nights isn’t going to work for you exactly as written.
Option one: Skip a meal or two
If your busy nights are seasonal, as with kids’ activities, give yourself permission to skip the meal plan that night and throw together sandwiches, scrambled eggs, or other quick & easy dinners that fit your schedule this week. If you’re invited to a potluck and want to bring a signature dish or one that travels well, just skip that night’s planned meal and substitute a potluck-friendly alternative. Planning can’t succeed without flexibility.
Option two: Cook ahead
Maybe Monday and Wednesday night are shot this week, but the rest of your evenings are more flexible. Why not cook Monday night’s meal on Sunday afternoon (as long as it’s something that will keep and reheat well), and get Wednesday’s dinner together while Tuesday’s is in the oven? This will make for a couple of busier nights, but keep you on track with homemade dinners for the entire week.
If this is too much work, just think about prepping ahead: Would chopping veggies ahead of time, say, give you enough wiggle room to throw together that night’s planned meal before you need to run out the door?
Option three: Make some freezer meals
Plan ahead for baseball (soccer, basketball) season by cooking up a couple of freezer meals each weekend during the off season. That way you can skip a planned meal if necessary and instead pull out a freezer meal to reheat on busy nights.
Option four: Switch meals around
Let’s say that on Tuesday night you have soccer practice from 5:30-7:30 PM, but the meal plan you’re using this week lists chicken fajitas on Taco Tuesday… and an eight hour Crock-Pot recipe for Friday. Switch the days around! This week, just plan to have Taco Friday instead — which lets you get ingredients into the slow cooker Tuesday morning and pull out a finished meal to eat before you leave for soccer. It’s easier to swap nights around than to come up with a completely different meal idea.
Remember why you’re meal planning to begin with
We might meal plan for different reasons, but most often it’s to: Free up time, free up brain space, save money, and/or eat better. That won’t work if you make recipes that aren’t right for your family just because you see them in a meal plan, so start thinking of meal plans as a framework to build this week’s meals around rather than as set in stone.
Every family is different, so there is no one meal plan to rule them all. Pick one you mostly like, whether because it’s affordable, because the recipes are easy, because meals usually match your family’s likes, or however else it matches your priorities — then use that meal plan as the foundation for a realistic individualized plan that meets your family’s needs.
Hope that this was helpful, and I’d love to hear your tips for using meal plans effectively as well!