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5 Meal Planning Mistakes That Are Causing You to Fail

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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Amazon Is Offering Free Same-Day Shipping to Prime Customers for the Holidays
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The holidays are arriving early for Amazon Prime customers—along with every gift they’ve yet to order through the online shopping behemoth. Amazon has put all of its Prime members on the “Nice” list this year, and is rewarding them with free same-day shipping from now through Christmas Eve. While that may be cutting it a little too close for some shoppers, the limited-time perk has perpetual procrastinators singing “Joy to the World.”

“We are continually investing in Prime, adding more selection and making delivery faster and more convenient,” Greg Greeley, Amazon Prime’s VP, said in a statement. “In fact, in 2016, the last Prime Free Same-Day order from Amazon.com delivered in time for Christmas was ordered at 10:23 a.m. on Christmas Eve. The order included Venum Contender Boxing Gloves, and was delivered to a Prime member in Richmond, Virginia at 2:42 p.m.—the very same day, for free.

(Whoever received those boxing gloves last year: now you know.)

This year’s holiday shipping schedule will allow gift-givers to push that deadline even further. While two-day shipping is always free for Prime customers, if that were the only option, they’d have to be done buying all their gifts by Friday, December 22. This year’s shipping perk means that you can push your shopping all the way to Christmas Eve, as long as you live in one of Amazon’s Same-Day Delivery zones (you just have to order by 9:30 a.m.). Even better: If Prime Now is available in your area, you have until 9:14 p.m. on December 24 to place your order and still have something fabulous to stick under the Christmas tree.

Of course, zero-dollar shipping costs are far from the $99 service’s only perk: unlimited streaming of Prime Video movies and TV shows—including Amazon-produced series like The Man in High Castle, Mozart in the Jungle, One Mississippi, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—is there for the bingeing. Free Kindle books, photo storage, and grocery delivery are among Prime’s many other benefits.

Not a Prime member? No problem! “Even if you are not currently a member, holiday shoppers can try Prime for free for 30 days and get two-day, one-day, and same-day shipping for free,” says Greeley.

It’s hard to argue with free.

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The Most (and Least) Expensive States for Staying Warm This Winter
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It’s that time of year again: Temperatures outside have plummeted, while your monthly heating bill is on the rise. If you want an idea of how much heat will cost you this winter (perhaps you blocked out last year’s damage to your bank account), one reliable indicator is location.

Average energy expenses vary from state to state due to factors like weather, house size, and local gas prices. Using data from sources including the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, WalletHub calculated the average monthly utility bill totals for all 50 states plus Washington D.C. in 2017.

Source: WalletHub

The personal finance website looked at four energy costs: electricity, natural gas, car fuel, and home heating oil. After putting these components together, Connecticut was found to be the state with the highest energy costs in 2017, with an average of $380 in monthly bills, followed by Alaska with $332 and Rhode Island with $329.

That includes data from the summer and winter months. For a better picture of which state’s residents spend the most on heat, we have to look at the individual energy costs. Michigan, which ranks 33rd overall, outdoes every other state in the natural gas department with an average bill of $60 a month. Alaska is close behind with $59, followed by Rhode Island With $58.

People living in Maine prefer oil to heat their homes, spending $84 a month on the fuel source. All six New England states—Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts—occupy the top six spots in this category.

So which state should you move to if you want to see your heating bill disappear? In Florida, the average household spends just $3 a month on natural gas and $0 on heating oil. In Hawaii, on average, the oil bill is $0 as well, and slightly higher for gas at $4. Of course, they make up for it when it comes time to crank up the AC: Both states break the top 10 in highest electricity costs.


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