Simple Meal Planning for Special Needs (or other busy) Families

It’s 5:30. You’re tired. The kids are tired. They are whiny and difficult. You’re totally out of ideas for dinner.

Sound familiar?

This is the nightly or almost nightly routine for many, many families. But it doesn’t have to be!

I am not here to tell you WHAT to cook. I don’t have recipes for Green Veggies Your Kids Will Love. But I do have a handful of tips to help busy moms with meal planning so you don’t keep finding yourself in the kitchen at 5:30 trying to figure out what to make for dinner using leftover spaghetti and some eggs while your kids destroy the house and whine…

I am a huge proponent of planning ahead. Why?

  1. Saves time. You only have to think about what you’re making for dinner (and breakfast, lunch, and /or snacks as relevant) one time for the week, month, season, whatever, instead of doing it every night. This means searching for internet recipes, digging through your recipe cards, etc., once.
  2. No thinking when you’re tired. I check the menu in the morning to confirm when I need to start dinner, set an alarm in my phone to remind me, and then at dinnertime, I just make whatever the schedule says.

I personally plan out meals 1-3 months at a time, and there’s no reason you can’t do this, as well. But I actually recommend starting slow. Try to plan all of next week to start. Do that a few times before you do two weeks. Then try a month. Two months. And so on.

So how do you plan that far ahead? Read on, my tired friends!

  1. Let go of the idea that you need infinite variety in your meals. You do need variety in what you eat. But nobody’s going to die of malnutrition if you eat the same meal more than once in a month. Let go of this idea that you’re failing at parenting if you don’t serve your family unique dishes every meal.
  2. Let go of the idea that you can’t know what you’re going to be in the mood for in advance. Well, actually, we’re letting go of the idea that it matters what you’re in the mood for. First, you can always make a last-minute change (more on that later), but saving yourself stress trumps cooking exactly what you’re craving at that moment.
  3. Honesty. You’ve got to be really honest with yourself to make meal planning work. Didn’t know you were signing up for soul-searching, did you?

And now for the practical how-tos.

Plan to plan.
The first step is to decide how you’re going to record these planned-ahead meals. On a paper calendar? In a notebook? Electronically? Whatever works for you. I use a spreadsheet I made myself that has space for Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Dinner, and Groceries for one week per page. I print them out and stick them to the fridge. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the phrase “meal planning sheet” here to refer to “however you decided would work best for you to record your planned meals.”

Check your Calendar.
Get out your personal calendar. Mark down onto your meal planning sheet anything that might impact any of the meals you intend to plan. Appointments, school breaks, out of town guests, clinic days, therapy, whatever. At my house, pretty much everything might impact my meal plans, so I tend to basically copy my personal calendar onto my meal planning sheets, using abbreviations. The purpose isn’t to use the meal planning sheets as a calendar, but rather to remember the other things happening in my life as I plan out meals.
I think this is one of the primary steps that most people leave out. Your daily schedule really does impact your meal planning – don’t skip this.

Greatest Hits Recipes
Grab (either physically or mentally) your list of sure-fire hits and mostly sure-fire hits. Meals you have tried that most people ate more or less willingly, and that use ingredients you either commonly have or can easily get.

Take a Minute to Honestly Consider Yourself
Be honest about your ability and willingness to cook. I don’t mean whether you’re a good cook, though obviously you should only pick meals and recipes within your skill set unless you love cooking and learning new things at 6:00 at night with your kids being terrorists.
I mean subjective ability and willingness. For example, after long clinic days, my ability to actually cook is near zero. I’m just wiped out. I plan take-out on those days. Days when we have five local appointments, all spaced just far enough apart to mean that we’re spending the whole day entering and exiting the house impact my willingness to cook much – I plan really easy meals for those days. Grilled cheese with tomato soup, for example. You may notice that certain days of the week are harder for you – I can’t ever seem to cook much on Thursdays, for example. I don’t know why. Our Thursday schedule is usually pretty easy. I’m just kind of over it for the week on Thursday. I have to plan easy things for Thursdays.
This is the other place I think people tend to run into trouble. There’s no shame in admitting “hey, this day looks like it’s going to be a humdinger. I can’t manage more than cereal for dinner.” It’s fine.

Honestly Consider your Family
I talk more about picky eaters below, but on days when you know everyone’s going to be worn out and not at their best, probably don’t plan to serve something that you’re not sure they’ll like, or try something new. The days when everyone’s going to be extra tired and cranky are days for meals you know will go over well.

Use your Kitchen Appliances
Plan to use your kitchen appliances strategically. On days that are busy in the late afternoon but less so in the morning, plan a crock pot meal, for example.
Another way to use your kitchen appliances strategically is to group the use of infrequently-used appliances. If you don’t use the food processor much, but you have one recipe you LOVE that uses a food processor, plan another meal or two for that week that also use the food processor – if you have to haul that thing out of wherever you store it, may as well get some good use out of it while it’s out.

Don’t be afraid to repeat.
For many of our meal plans at our house, we more or less repeat every 4 weeks for a few cycles. All summer, we usually have grilled sandwiches with salad weekly. People do Taco Tuesday every week. I know a family that has soup every Wednesday. Repetition is fine. You’re not trying to win any international cooking prizes here.

Mix in Some New Recipes.
I like to go through my meal planning sheets once, sprinkling in the tried-and-true recipes as I go. Then I go back and fill in with new things that I find either in cookbooks or online.

Get Some Help.
Your spouse or older kids can take over cooking either regularly or occasionally. My oldest is a teenager now and is responsible for dinner one night every week. My husband takes weekends, and sometimes I also assign him other nights during the week. (My husband is a great cook, but even if your spouse isn’t that great, they likely know how to make basic, easy things – or can be taught. Sometimes this needs to be a whole conversation that starts with “Hey, I’m just exhausted. I’ve noticed I’m more exhausted on days when we have long clinic appointments. I just really cannot cook on those days, I walk in the door ready to drop. I need you to take over for me those nights. Do you want to plan what you’ll make or do you want me to find something for you?”

Plan Ahead for Groceries
Leave space in your meal planning sheets for groceries. As you decide what you’re going to make, write down every ingredient that isn’t one of your household staples. (Like, I don’t write down flour, because we always have flour. But I do write down Onions, even though we almost always have onions, because sometimes we run out.) When you’re preparing the grocery list for the week, just look at your meal planning sheet, compare the ingredients you need to the ingredients you already have on hand, and write down anything you don’t have.

Plan B Meals
Have a handful of “we always have the ingredients, we mostly all like it, and it’s really easy to make” meals in mind. For our family, it’s spaghetti with sauce (we literally always have these things) and egg sandwiches/rollups (we have chickens so we always have eggs). Even with the very best planning, you’re going to have the occasional day where you look at the planned meal and think “oh, gross.” or “ugh, I do not feel like making that at ALL.” Then you can fall back on your plan B meals.

Stick With Your Plans
Don’t give in to the temptation to cook your fallback meals very often. The key to successful meal planning is to stick with your plan. And it’ll get better the more you do it. Not only because it becomes a habit, but also because you’ll get better at planning. (It took me months to realize that I never followed my plan on Thursdays, for example. Then I was able to start planning easier things on Thursdays.)

Picky Eaters
You might be saying to yourself. “Well, that’s fine for you, but I’ve got a picky eater, I can’t plan ahead.” I’m not here to tell you how to run your house. I’ll just tell you what works at our house. At our house, I have a kid who’ll eat most things without complaint (not always with enthusiasm, but usually without much protest), a kid who would strongly prefer to eat just a handful of things over and over, and then a non oral eating kid. The kid who doesn’t like new things, we have a rule. She MUST clear her plate of what we put on it without whining, delay tactics, etc. We put usually very small amounts of everything we have, minus a few things we know are going to be hard nos. The amount of food varies with how likely we think it is the things will be eaten. After that, she may fix herself something else to eat as long as it has protein, or she may wait patiently until someone is available to make her an alternate food. Some meals, we just go ahead and make something we KNOW she’ll eat and have it ready. I stopped trying to cater our meals to her limits, because I got bored of eating only food she’ll eat. She doesn’t have the oral aversions and sensory issues that our friends with autism sometimes have, I’m not trying to pretend this is that. But this is how we handle it with her. When Teddy was eating more foods orally than he is now, I would make him a small plate every meal with just his food on it. I have zero problems with making separate meals for people, as long as those separate meals are easy and fast.