Health, Food & Nutrition

Happy Meals, Happier Children

Take the guesswork and complaining out of “What’s for dinner?” with this DIY meal-planning system, designed by a mom with ADHD.

Colourful wooden popsicle sticks on white background
Colourful wooden popsicle sticks on white background

As a mom with ADHD, with two children diagnosed with ADHD, there are two questions that bring me to my knees every day: “What’s for dinner?” and “What are we packing for lunch?”

I decided to eliminate them, once and for all, with a menu board. It’s now been 14 months since I’ve had to answer those questions. As a bonus, there’s dramatically less complaining about dinner, and my children pack their own lunches, too.

It’s not just “any” menu board. I’ve searched Pinterest and seen all those gorgeous, elaborate options. However, they all have one or two problems, especially for an ADHD home:

They are difficult to maintain. What if you want to add a new meal? What if the dog chewed your most popular meal card? Do you have to measure card stock, cut it to the right dimensions, then go back to the UPS store to have it laminated? In an ADHD home, that will be filed under “Never Gonna Happen.”

If a menu board requires more than one hand to use, you won’t use it. As cute as those clothespin menu boards are, they require two hands – one to pinch the pin and one to slide the meal recipe in or out.

[Free Resource: What to Eat to Improve ADHD Symptoms]

Making Meals a Game

My solution to these problems was making a menu board using a vinyl jewelry organizer and some popsicle sticks. The pockets of the jewelry organizer provide slots for lunches and dinners for each day of the week. The sticks have food items written (or illustrated) on them. The menu board hangs on my pantry door, along with a caddy that holds the sticks.

For lunches, I use regular-sized, colored popsicle sticks, and I label the sticks with a variety of lunch foods written in permanent marker. In our home: orange sticks = protein; green = fruit/veggie; yellow = snack. The children place one stick of each color (three sticks total) into each lunch pocket.

For dinners, I use jumbo-sized sticks. I put the name of a meal on one side and list all the ingredients on the other. This makes the grocery list a snap. Each child gets to choose one dinner each week. Mom and Dad each get to choose a dinner, too. The fifth night of the week is “Taco Night,” since everyone loves tacos. On weekends, we eat leftovers or order pizza.

Before I go grocery shopping each week, I ask the children to “play their lunch and dinner sticks.” From there, I make my grocery list.

[Free Meal Planning Guide for ADHD Families]

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to make a menu board, here are the ground rules.

> Once I make my grocery list, the kids are not allowed to change their mind. You eat what you selected.
> If you don’t play your sticks when I ask you, I play them for you. No second chances.
> If you don’t like what your sister picked for dinner tonight, sorry. She didn’t like what you selected last night. Just eat it. I’m not making special dinners for everyone.

Amazingly, as soon as everyone got to choose a dinner, complaining decreased a lot, even on the nights of eating someone else’s selection. Second, my children make their own lunches. The tangible nature of the sticks helps them manage the process of sorting through the steps to assemble their midday meals. For example, my kindergartner with ADHD pulls the sticks for her next lunch and sets them on the counter. She puts one aside, gathers that item from the fridge/pantry, grabs the next stick, and so on.

Assemble Your Menu Board

First, purchase a jewelry organizer. Ours has three columns and five rows:

Rows = Days of the week, M-F
Column 1 = Lunch for child 1
Column 2 = Lunch for child 2
Column 3 = Dinner for family

Next, stock up on popsicle sticks. As noted, I use three colors of regular-sized sticks for lunches. For dinners, I use plain, jumbo-sized sticks. The jewelry organizer hangs on my pantry door with a removable adhesive hook. I also use a removable-adhesive shower-caddy to hold four small cups of sticks.

Finally, label all of your sticks. I searched “ideas for school lunches,” and found lots of inspiration. For dinners, I used my family’s favorite recipes.

What happens when I want to add a new item? I have a quart-sized baggie in a kitchen drawer filled with extra sticks and a permanent marker. It takes less than 30 seconds to add a new item.

[The Benefits Of Breakfast Are Real — and Delicious]