Grocery shelves out of stock? Try these flexible meal plan ideas for when you can’t get your usual list. (They’ll help you save on groceries, too!)

It was one day since our governor made the COVID-19 stay-at-home order and day 8 of our unexpected new homeschooling routine. I’d long since given up on finding toilet paper.

But I put in my monthly bulk grocery order anyway, only to find that almost none of what I requested was available.

I’ll admit, this freaked me out a bit.

  • Cornmeal…out of stock
  • Flour…not shipped
  • Oats…no dice

The ONE item that actually shipped, well, it hardly seemed worth picking up:

  • One 4-oz packet of Oregano

That’s not going to get me far on dinners this week.

In times like these, we all have to get a little more flexible with our expectations, especially when it comes to meal planning.

And I know I’m not alone in this dilemma.

To help, I want to share with you a technique I teach to my Five o’Clock Fix students.

Keeping your meal plan flexible helps you use what’s on hand and save on groceries—without shopping at several different stores. Here’s how…

The 5 S’s of Flexible Meal Planning

The concept is this.

Include these 5 flexible recipe types in your meal plan. Then, you can put a broad category of items on your grocery list and select from the least expensive while you’re shopping.

Thus, you save money by picking the cheapest items, without running around to multiple stores.

At the moment, you’ll probably use this strategy by selecting whatever is still on store shelves. But it’s a great skill to build for future grocery savings.

So what are the 5 S’s of Flexible Meal Planning? They’re five broad recipe types that can be easily adjusted based on what’s available:

  1. Soups
  2. Smoothies
  3. Salads
  4. Stir Fry
  5. Spaghetti

Keep reading, and I’ll show you how to work these into your meal plan, depending on what ingredients you can get your hands on.

1. Soups

There are a million different ways to do soups and stews. You can pick a general theme for your soup, but then vary the ingredients depending on what you find.

For instance, does it matter if I only have 2 carrots for chicken noodle and bulk up on onions and celery instead? Not really.

What if you have a bag of potatoes that’s starting to sprout? It might be time to make minestrone.

But what if you don’t happen to have chickpeas, could you substitute white beans instead? Of course!

Most soup recipes are utterly flexible. Here are some ideas to get your wheels turning:

  • Start with some broth or stock, bullion, or water if you don’t have it:
    • chicken
    • veggie
    • beef
    • tomato sauce
  • Next, add veggies:
    • onion
    • carrot
    • celery
    • potatoes
    • tomatoes
  • Some more ingredients to fill you up:
    • Beans
    • Sausage
    • Chicken
    • Beef
    • Rice
    • Pasta
  • Seasonings

Here are a few of my favorites (includes affiliate links to some of my favorite cookbooks):

I made this easy pho recipe and my son called it the best soup ever. #momwin
Soups are one of many meals that allow you to stay flexible with the ingredients. Here are some more…

2. Smoothies

Smoothies are a great breakfast option, and like all of these recipes, they’re incredibly flexible, so you can use whatever you have available.

  • Any Fruit, frozen will give you a nice thick chilled consistency:
    • Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc.
    • Bananas (cut up and freeze over-ripe bananas for future smoothies)
    • Cherries
    • Mango
    • Pineapple
    • Citrus (Clementine, Blood Orange, etc.)
    • Pumpkin Puree
  • Veggies:
    • Spinach
    • Kale
    • Cabbage
  • Fillers:
    • Nut Butter
    • Coconut oil
    • Oatmeal
    • Yogurt
    • Beans (if you’re brave)
    • Ice
  • Liquid:
    • Milk (Regular, Almond, Soy, etc.)
    • Kefir
    • Green Tea
    • Orange Juice
  • Toppings
    • pumpkin seeds
    • Hemp seeds
    • Granola
    • Dry Cereal
  • Add some flavor:
    • Salt
    • Vanilla
    • Cinnamon
    • Honey
    • Maple Syrup
    • Pumpkin Pie spice
    • Nutmeg
    • Cocoa Powder
    • Basil

The options are infinite, but it does help if you pick a general direction. Will you do a tropical smoothie or a decadent peanut butter chocolate faux-milkshake?

More Smoothie Ideas: 17 Cheap Blender Smoothie Recipes

3. Salads

Salads are the ultimate in flexible meals, assuming you can get your kids to eat them. And the best part is, you don’t have to cook anything.

Consider including:

  • Greens
  • Other Veggies
  • Grains or beans
  • Nuts or seeds
  • Meat, eggs, or tofu
  • Cheese
  • Dressing

And voila!

Any mix or proportion will work, so use whatever you have on hand or is the cheapest this week at the store.

A friend posted her meal plan on Instagram this week, and I thought it was pretty brilliant. Here’s what she wrote.

Sample Covid-19 Meal Plan. When trying to save money on groceries (or in your normal everyday worldwide pandemic) flexibility is key.
My friend’s Covid-19 Meal Plan. When trying to save money on groceries (or in your normal everyday worldwide plague) flexibility is key.

I was grateful for the much-needed dose of laughter in the midst of this crisis. And she does have one thing right.

Whether in times of scarcity or when you just want to save some money on your regular grocery budget, flexibility is key.

These meal ideas will allow you to write “some fruit” and “veggies of some sort” on your grocery list and come back with the genuine makings of a meal.

So let’s keep going.

4. Stir Fry

Here’s what you need for a flexible stir fry:

  • Mix of any veggies. Some that work well are:
    • Broccoli
    • Green beans
    • Onions
    • Carrots
    • Cauliflower

Frozen veggies make this a speedy meal to throw together because they’re already washed and chopped for you. Fresh veggies work great too.

  • Add some protein, if you have it:
    • frozen shrimp
    • chicken
    • beef
    • tofu
    • edamame
  • Mix up some sauce:
    • soy sauce/tamari
    • peanut or any nut butter
    • rice vinegar
    • sesame oil
    • garlic
    • ginger
    • broth
  • Add any type of grain like:
    • brown or white rice
    • quinoa
    • rice noodles
  • Top with nuts or seeds if you have some, maybe:
    • Sunflower seeds
    • Cashews
    • Peanuts
    • Sesame Seeds

5. Spaghetti

Grab any basic spaghetti recipe for a start. My favorite comes from the Nourishing Traditions Cookbook. But then, modify based on what’s available and inexpensive at the time.

This is especially true for produce. I love to pack as much veggie goodness as my kids will tolerate into my spaghetti sauce. Some ideas include:

  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Zucchini
  • Kale, Spinach or Collard Greens

And yes, you can make spaghetti even without tomatoes (use carrots for bulk and a beet for coloring).

Don’t have pasta? Put it over bread or hamburger buns and call it Sloppy Joe’s.

Want more? Here are a few more flexible recipes to add to your repertoire:

You have permission to get experiment and stay flexible

Baking is a science. You need exact ingredients and proportions to make flour into bread, cake, or cookies.

However, the simple meal ideas above are more like an art. (But we don’t have to go for fine art here, more like paint by number or an adult coloring book.) These meal ideas are pretty hard to mess up.

You can mix and match what you have on hand, what you can get for cheap at the store, and what sounds good, and it will all come out all right.

So don’t be afraid to stay flexible when making your meal plan.

I also love to use these five recipe types because they’re mostly one-pot meals that don’t require a lot of extra dishes to clean up.

Next time you’re trying to meal plan, remember the 5 S’s of Flexible Meal Planning:

  1. Soups
  2. Smoothies
  3. Salads
  4. Stir Fry
  5. Spaghetti

So, your grocery list really can look something like this:

  • 4 pounds of veggies, under $2/lb
  • Some meat, maybe
  • 5 pounds of any fruit, whatever’s cheapest
  • 2 pounds of some grain

And you’ll still be able to get a healthy dinner on the table without wracking your brain too hard for meal ideas.

I’m heading out to pick up my one packet of Oregano now. I wish someone could tell me what type of dinner I could make with that?

As for you

Include these in your plan, and then head to the grocery store. See what’s least expensive and choose from there.

And if you’d like a complete system for stress-free meal planning, sign up for Five o’Clock Fix Workshop. Inside I help moms take the fuss out of getting dinner on the table while saving big on groceries.

$128/week Grocery Budget & Meal Plan
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