How do you meal plan if you have an unpredictable schedule?

Well, the short answer is you don’t (but I’ll tell you what you can do instead).

We’re talking about how to plan meals when you have an unpredictable schedule.

Which really comes down to how to eat well, nourish yourself, nourish those around you – even when you don’t have control of your schedule

You don’t actually need a routine, but you do need micro habits and to be able to place them in your day in a way that allows you to feel good.

In this episode of The Feel Good Effect podcast, I’m giving you the step-by-step for how to plan meals in busy seasons.

Here’s a glance at this episode

  • [01:54] Understand the challenges of meal planning during periods of unpredictable schedules and the lack of discussion around this in the wellness space.  
  • [02:40] Learn the strategy of capsule meal planning and how to use it to create ease during periods of unpredictability.
  • [5:23] Learn how to create your own “if this, then that” lists so you have a game plan for what to do for dinner on busy days.
  • [12:33] What the best types of recipes are for busy or irregularly scheduled days.
  • [17:29] What to cook when you’re exhausted and have no energy.
  • [07:01] Understand how our schedules may be unpredictable or different than previous seasons & how to work with this season.

More episodes on meal planning

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Read the Transcript


You’re listening to the feel-good effect. So how do you meal plan if you have an unpredictable schedule? Well, you don’t, but I will tell you what to do instead. Let’s make it happen.


Radically simple and ridiculously doable. The feel-good effect will help you redefine wellness on your terms. Hi, I’m your host, Robyn Conley Downs. And I believe that wellness isn’t about achieving another set of impossible standards, but instead finding what works for you, drawing from cutting edge science on mindfulness, habits and behavior change. This podcast offers a collection of small mindset shifts that allow for more calm, clarity, and joy in everyday life and allows you to embrace the idea that gentle is the new perfect. I invite you to listen in, as we cut through the clutter and find the small shifts that create huge changes in your life. Less striving, more ease. It’s time to feel good.


Well, Hey, feel good fam. I am so glad you’re here. We’re talking how to meal plan when you have an unpredictable schedule, and really how to eat healthy and eat well, nourish yourself, nourish those around you. Even when you don’t have control of your schedule, or it’s very unpredictable. This is a follow-up from last week’s episode, where we talked about routines with unpredictable schedules. And just like this episode, I told you in the last one, you don’t actually need a routine, but you do need micro habits and you do need to be able to place them in your day in a way that creates ease and allows you to feel good and allows you to stay out of all or nothing where you waiting for perfect versus allowing things to be the way they are right now, but still finding those micro moments, those micro habits to take care of yourself.


So here’s the thing. Last week I talked about routines and how a lot of people who teach about routines don’t have life styles that are very relatable. And so I often wonder why they’re giving advice to people, because if we all had lives like theirs, where we didn’t have to work outside of our own house, or we had jobs that we worked for ourselves, never had a boss telling us what to do, or we didn’t have kids or home responsibilities, pets, or parents, or any of these things, then yeah, we could do exactly what they were saying. Similarly, I think a lot of people that teach meal planning are in a different scenario, different situation than a lot of us, especially with the rise of food blogging in which I count myself. Part of that industry. You have people that their job every day is to cook recipes.


And so sometimes I think maybe they’ve lost a little bit of touch with what it’s actually like to be a normal person in the real world where maybe you have a job outside of the home. You leave the house, let’s say 7, 7 30, 8 o’clock you get home at five. And the idea that you can somehow magically meal plan your way into the perfect eating every single night is really, really good. but hard given your circumstances. So instead of teaching you typical meal planning, when you don’t have a predictable schedule, I’m going to give you an alternative that I think is going to work better. So first, if I want to talk about capsule meal planning, which we’ve done several episodes on, I’m not going to go into that here, but we did a whole episode on summer capsule meal plan and also fall. So as we’re right now, if you listen in real time, I would definitely recommend listening to that one in conjunction with this one, you can go back in the archives from last fall and find it in your podcast app.


Or if you go to you can search for capsule meal plan and it’ll pop right up. So the idea of a capsule meal plan is that you assign a meal type to each night of the week. So for example, Monday might be crockpot. Um, chicken in the crockpot Tuesday might be tacos, Wednesday, chilly, Thursday, pasta, and Friday super stew. And that’s actually our fall capsule that you’ll find on the site. And so once you have those meal types, then you just rotate different, tight, different recipes for a little bit of variation. So if you have crockpot to get Monday, which is in our fall capsule meal plan, you might do a lemon or a chicken one week and the next week you’d do peanut chicken with veggies. Then the next week chicken ranch Crock-Pot and then the fourth week salsa chicken stuffed potatoes.


So you’re keeping one variable constant on Monday nights, you’re having chicken in a Crock-Pot, but your switching out a few things to keep some variety. So again like Tuesday would be tacos. So maybe one week would be slow cook or refried bean tacos, then an enchilada chicken taco Turkey tacos, and then fish tacos. We have this all laid out for you. If you go and search “capsule meal plan”. You’ll find this episode on fall capsule meal plan the summer one, and also links to all the recipes for each meal types. So I think that if you have an unpredictable schedule, a capsule meal plan can be a really great strategy for you because you’re not putting so much thought into it. You’re keeping one thing, constant, you know, every Monday it’s always going to be chicken and a Crock-Pot and you can kind of use what you have on hand and make that work.


So I’m a huge proponent of capsule meal plans. I think I coined the term. If you Google it, it should take you to my site. I’m here for it. It works. Many of you have had it changed the way that you cook for the better. However, I think that that’s going to work in some cases, and there are some seasons where life is just so changed from changing from day to day, whether it’s your schedule or the people around you, that you need another strategy. So that’s what I’m talking about today. And the strategy I’m teaching is “if this, then that” I learned if this, then that back when I was doing my behavioral work, and then I was just looking it up, see the research around it. And I guess it’s also used in like the computer coding worlds, but we’re going to use it in meal planning naturally.


So if this, then that, if that, if something happens, then you do that. It’s a decision role. It’s a way to reduce decision fatigue and help you kind of get through these seasons where you don’t really know what’s going to happen, you know, on a typical week, like planning Monday through Friday, ahead of time, just really doesn’t make sense. So in order to use, if this, then that with meal planning, you have to know two things. One, you have to kind of no, the scenarios that might happen and I’ll give you some examples. I know that’s kind of hard to imagine at this second, but you need to know that if this, so what might happen in your team, and then you need to know then that. So you kind of need to have a list of go-to fall back meals or recipes. So we’re going to break this down and talk about if this, and then we’re going to give you some ideas around and backup go to then that recipes.


So if this is what might happen in your school schedule, that would impact dinner. Now this is definitely a, you know, how to meal planner, how to think about food for unpredictable schedules for dinner, we can do a whole other one on breakfast and lunch. If you want, let me know. You can hit me up at @realfoodwholelife on Instagram, or jump on our email list. And that’s as well. If you get on the good list, you can email us there as well. So I want you to make a list of if this, so if this could be, if we have sports and drop off and pick up after school. So if I’m running around dropping people off at lessons and picking them up, literally not home until six o’clock, that’s an emphasis. So if this day would be you’re running around in the afternoon, obviously this is an example for those of you with kids, I’ll give you some others for not, but not having any kids.


But if you’re, if you have kids that are in the like shuffle of activities, you would have an, if this, for days that you are doing, doing pick up, drop off after school, not home at dinner time until it’s too late, right? Until six or seven o’clock at night. Another. Yeah. If this could be working late. So this happens to me sometimes, even though I work for myself, I might have a meeting get scheduled at four in the afternoon or five in the afternoon. Usually I have a hard boundary on that one, but I know a lot of you don’t have the capability to tell your boss that you’re not getting come to a meeting late afternoon. So maybe you have a meeting late in the afternoon. It pushes your return time home well into dinner time. So that’s an, if this, if I have to work late, if I have to be running around, picking up kids another, if this is just, you get caught up in running errands or whatever it is that you’re, maybe you’re not working, maybe you’re a stay at home parent, or you’re retired and you’re just running around and doing errands all day and time gets away from you.


And then you look at the clock and it’s five o’clock. So that might be another, if this, if you’re a student and you have a class until five o’clock, six o’clock, seven o’clock at night, that’s another, if this, if you have a chronic illness or other health issues, you might have an if this, if I get have a sick day, when I’m really struggling, I really feel sick. Another, if this is just, you’re just too exhausted. This is the number one. If this, I wish we would all plan in a little bit better, I do talk about it in the capsule meal, planning a lot that notice your energy through the week. And don’t be so ambitious toward the end of the week. If your energy is waning, I had took me forever to learn that like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I’m good. I’ve got it.


Generous dinners. Fine. And then by Thursday, I’m like, what was I thinking when I plan this and Friday, I’m like, no, not doing it. So now our Friday capsule meal plan is either frozen pizza or burger night that Andrew handles, uh, that was kind of a combo capsule meal plan. And if this, so I want you to have an, if this and the, if this is, I am so exhausted that I am not cooking, it’s not happening. So you’re, if this list might like to, for the mind likely it will, I try to give examples of different life circumstances. Not all of you have kids, not all of you are, some of you are retired. Some of you are in college. Like I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what you’re going through, but I think you could probably with a little bit of thought, not a whole lot of thought, come up with your, if this list, all of the scenarios that tend to throw off dinner, I think I, they gave some good examples there, like running kids around working with right, being too exhausted.


Losing track time are kind of a top of many, many people’s lists. So now you have your, if this list and now I want you to do, then that list. So on your, the, if this is like scenarios where you’re going to not be able to get dinner together, or it’s gonna, you know, one of those, those are nice that usually end up in, take out or drive through. Not that there’s anything wrong with takeout or drive through, but if you’re trying to do the sort of feel good, nourish yourself, real food cook at home thing, and you don’t want to end up in the drive through line, take out every single all night. Then those nights that are really difficult to get dinner on the table are your, if this, and then your, then that list is, is either recipes or just last minute meals.


And I am going to do another episode on last minute meals, sort of how to throw together these last minute meals without recipes at all in another episode. But for this one, it’s just make a list of what can you make or what can you like get takeout? Or what can you get in terms of a meal prep tips that will solve the problem of getting dinner on the table, even when things are unpredictable. So for example, uh, then that recipe for a Mrs. Getting probably better if I really showed you this all written down, but I think you can stay with me. So if this I’m going to be out and about either running errands, like a mad person yeah. Or I’m dropping off kids and shuttling them around, which means I will not be home from like the four to six o’clock window.


That would be the best for me to be making dinner. Then that is a Crock-Pot recipe. Right? So any time, you know, that you’re just in the, like the weeds of running kids around, and you’re not going to get home till six, just do a Crock-Pot recipe. It doesn’t matter. Or what the Crock-Pot recipe is. I am the slow cooker queen, and you can go to and get like a bazillion crazy, easy, really delicious, really, really nourishing Crock-Pot recipes. That will not take you any time to prep. So just shameless plug. But I think that’s, that’s where we go wrong. Sometimes with meal planning is we forget what our lives are like. And then we plan things to don’t make any sense. So if this, if you know, this is a day when I’m going to be shuttling and picking up and, and all those things, then you select a slow cooker recipe.


Ideally in the morning, you don’t have to plan this like weeks ahead. But that day, what kind of day is this? This is a, if this errand day or pickup day or running around day, then I’m going to put some things in the slow cooker in the morning before I leave, or at noon done. And yes, you can like fuss around with what kind of recipe, what kind of slow cooker recipe. I think I’ve done most of that work for you on the website, but it helps take the huge decision factor out of it reduces decision fatigue. It just simplifies things for you. You could also do an instant pot on one of those nights. I will say the slow cooker is beautiful because you put the stuff in, in the morning or in the, in the, let’s say around noon, if you are working from home or a stay at home parent, and then it’s literally done the second you walk in the house versus the instant pot where you still kind of have to start prepping things and throwing things in there when you’re feeling a little bit harried and everybody’s hungry and cranky.


So definitely think that a then that recipe for the, for those kinds of nights, it is to pick a slow cooker recipe. If you want to get even more into the feel-good effect, I would say like, just have a list of your five go-to slow cooker recipes. Don’t overthink it. Those are your go-to then that recipes to make on those nights. And if people we’ll have a problem with that, like not enough variety, I would say they can cook dinner. So keep it simple for yourself. You don’t have to make a different one every night, but all you have to know is like, when this happens in my schedule, I pick a slow cooker recipe. So the next one, if this, if this is a working late, then, uh, then that could be texting your partner or your significant other, or your roommate and saying, Hey, I need you to cover dinner.


Now, this never worked for me because I didn’t do the legwork to make it work. Um, so now when we have that, I’m going to work late and Andrew is home. He has a list of the recipes that I know we all, like, we have the ingredients on hand. He’s a lot slower in the kitchen than I am. He knows this is, I’m not like dragging him under the bus. It takes him about three times longer to make something than it takes me. So I give him like a 15 minute recipe and it takes him 45 minutes. Fine. I don’t care as long as he’s making dinner. So I pick like, if I have like three or four, 15 minute meals that he knows where to find the recipe, he knows that we have the ingredients. And when I work late, I texted him.


I said, make one of those things. We used to do this when I was pregnant too. And I’d have like a total meltdown at work. Cause I was so exhausted and then I’d want him to make dinner. But then I was mad cause he didn’t know exactly what I wanted. It was never good. So we had come up with if then, that list at that point with, we still use the other, other than that on nights when I have to work late is tacos. So if he’s not going to cover dinner, cause he might be working late too, then always if I’m working late, which doesn’t happen for me every day, I would say, this is again, unpredictable kind of thing. Might come up from time to time. Maybe once a week, then we have tacos period. So I always have the basics. It goes on hand.


Usually they’re part of our meal map anyway, but I know that I can make tacos and like under 20 minutes with anything, like regardless of what kind of protein we have, we always have some kind of tortilla. We usually always have some salsa and it takes me under 15 minutes to make that meal or 45 minutes, if you want Andrew and we eat and it’s good. Now your then that recipes might not be Crock-Pot might not be Crock-Pot like chicken. It might be like, uh, uh, soup in the crackpot and yours fall back then that recipe for working late might not be tacos. It might be something else. But I think I have to give you these examples so that you can, and kind of adapt for your own lifestyle then. And I have the whole category of, if this I’m so exhausted or I’m having a health issue.


So I’ve done a couple episodes on, I have endometriosis, I have pernicious anemia. I have all kinds of issues. And sometimes I either have a hell of a flare up or there’s just times when one of the symptoms of endo is intense fatigue. So I get through my, and then I just need to lay on the couch. So I kind of have those. If this being my health is having a health issue, I don’t have any energy. I just need to lay down then that on those nights is always pasta. Because again, that’s something that I can make in probably five minutes. I know everybody in the family likes it. So no one’s going to get me pushed back on, on anything when I don’t have energy. And also it’s something that Andrew could make when Elle’s a little older, she can’t boil water. I mean, she could she’s nine.


I know there’s nine-year-olds that do that. She can’t handle a giant pot of water quite yet safely, but she could certainly get the other parts of the dinner ready. So I’m not on my own on it, but it’s just something I always have pasta in the pantry. Maybe it’s regular pasta. A lot of times we do like a gluten-free brown rice pasta, or even, um, a grain-free pasta in the freezer. I happen to love Capello’s grain-free fettuccine delicious cooks in 30 minutes. And then we would do always some kind of, I always have some red sauce on hand. I prefer I’m a huge fan of Rao’s pasta sauce. I’m not sponsored by them, but I would very much if you knows anyone at Rao’s. I’d love to partner with them because I think their sauce is like the best thing that ever happened. And I used to cook all my sauces from scratch and the whole thing, I’m Italian.


Like I did that, but theirs is just as good and it’s in a jar. So we’ll do like a pasta and a jarred sauce. Maybe we’ll throw some meat in there. Maybe we’ll throw some lentils in there. Maybe we’ll do a green salad. But even if we don’t do any of those things, it’s pasta with sauce and that’s it. So for us, we end up having a lot of them that meals like I’ll have my meal map. And then I also have this space. I hold the space for the days when things are unpredictable, which I think I’ve mentioned like 70 times now. So the last episode is like half the days lately. So, or maybe you’re going, you know, I’m traveling. I didn’t even cover that because it’s been so long since we’ve consistently traveled. But I know in the past I used to travel for work and that was a whole other thing.


Maybe you’re coming back from a trip, but even when I meal map, which I do pretty consistently, it works really well for us. We’ll probably be using that fall meal map again, this headed into fall, having the, then that if this, then that plan saves us when everything thing goes sideways, which is all the time, I would say there’s always also too. Other than that recipe categories, that would be really common. And one would be breakfast for dinner. We not, we just don’t do breakfast or dinner. I think it, for me, it’s like a whole other conversation. I don’t get excited about that idea. I realize I’m in the minority. So if you love breakfast for dinner, definitely have that be. If this, then that, uh, category for you being cakes, waffles, bacon, and eggs, whatever that your thing is. And then the obvious one also is just fridge foraging or someone once told me, I wish I always forgot who it was in my audience.


She, she calls it fridge Tetris, which I love, which is just taking everything that you have and putting it in a bowl and doing the leftover thing. You could do it then that I’m just using a rotisserie chicken. Okay. Now I’m going into like one last minute meals. That’s another episode I’m going to stop here and just kind of review what you do in order to meal plan. When you have an unpredictable schedule, which is to not meal plan it’s to have event then this, if this, then that rule. So if this have a list of like the things that could happen that are unpredictable, but that happened fairly regularly, right? That throw off dinner. And then at then that list of really simple recipes or just meal ideas for when that happens so that you’re not spending any mental energy, figuring out what happened, what to do.


You have a plan that either you execute or ideally someone else helps you. So if this picking up kids dropping off kids during the hall, after school shuffle, then slow cooker recipe, make it before I leave the house in the morning or at lunch, use a recipe. And we’re good. Or if this I have to work late, then that we have tacos, ideally that someone else makes, if this I’m too tired to cook just a week, just beat it out of me or I’m having a health flare then that we have pasta with jarred red sauce and maybe a salad. If we’re feeling really fancy. And this is how we maintain healthy eating. I think like people think that it looks away and this is much more of the reality, which is finding ways to do it consistently when things don’t go as planned and to keep us out of the drive through lane and the takeout, you know, line up every single day, which again, that that’s a totally great option too, if that’s what’s working for your life.


I know for me eating food that we cook at home, that’s like, you know, closest to real as possible, just makes a huge difference in how I feel. And it’s kind of, so, you know, healthy, happy life that I want to live. So no judgment, but this is an option for you. So if this is helpful, I’d love to hear about it at @realfoodwholelife on Instagram love would, if you would share this with someone else in your life, who you think needs, if this, then that rules, I’d love to hear what your rules are as well. And you can jump on the good list, You can email us there. And also we’re always sending out last minute meal ideas, including lots of slow cooker. I hope this is helpful. And I talk to you again next week as always. I want to thank you so much for listening, for being part of this conversation about what it really means to be healthy and part of this feel-good movement. Thanks again for listening until next time here’s to feeling good.

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