Meal Planning

Secrets to Stress-Free Dinner Planning

Meds are wearing off. Homework battles have begun. Tummies are grumbling. And you’re exhausted. The lead up to dinner is never relaxing, but these expert tips should help parents get food on the table fast — and without meltdowns!

A woman with ADHD, stressed about planning an easy meal for her children
Depressed and sad woman in kitchen
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Dinner, with a Side of Calm

For adults with ADHD, dinnertime isn't always easy. Balancing grocery shopping, meal planning, and busy schedules can overwhelm even the most organized folks — but add ADHD to the mix, and evenings become a grumpy, tired, haggard routine. Here are some simple tips and tricks to make dinnertime easier thanks to a little creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

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Tuesday Spaghetti Night

Theme nights can be a lifesaver for adults with ADHD who struggle with quick decisions. If every Monday is Meatloaf Night, you’ll know exactly what you need to have in your kitchen, and exactly how long dinner prep will take. Plus, kids crave routines they can count on — they’ll love that their favorite meal (i.e. pizza) is guaranteed every Friday night!

A wheel at a carnival, representing a system of easy meal planning described here
Carnival Fairground Good Luck Sign
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Spin the Wheel!

ADHD coach Terry Matlen (who has ADHD herself) came up with a fun game to take the stress out of dinner decision-making. She connected two paper plates together, and wrote seven main dish ideas (grilled chicken, hamburgers, etc.) on one, and seven side dish ideas on the other (salad, baked potatoes, etc.). The family members take turns spinning the wheel, and whatever comes up is that night’s dinner! (To get started, check out this similar craft idea.)

[Click to Read: Fast, Healthy Recipes That Everyone Loves]

A woman grocery shopping, looking at her meal planning schedule for the week ahead
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Plan or Starve

Matlen also devised the “Plan or Starve” system — simply write down 10 full meal ideas on 10 index cards, complete with a shopping list on the back. Include in your stack a few “wild cards,” like ordering take-out. Keep one set at home and another in your bag, and pick one at random each morning. Having a meal in mind at the beginning of the day can help you plan any shopping you’ll need to do, and dinner can get cooking the second you get home.

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Many Cooks in the Kitchen

“If kids can be engaged, it’s easier to get them to eat,” says Matlen. Involving your children can be extra helpful if you have picky eaters, but it also takes some of the dinner-making pressure off of you. If your child can take charge of planning the meal, or is old enough to handle basic cooking prep tasks, they’ll be more excited to eat — and Mom won't have to worry about a tantrum from a fussy broccoli-hater.

A crockpot or slow cooker, a key tool for easy meal planning
Crockpot slow cooker
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Go Go Gadget

ADHD coach Jacqueline Sinfield recommends investing in some handy kitchen tools, like a George Foreman grill or a slow cooker. Slow cookers get a bad rap, she says, but they’re a brilliant invention for someone with ADHD. Just throw in all the ingredients before you leave for work in the morning, and by the time you get home, dinner is ready to devour!

A woman reading the label on a can of food at the supermarket to see if it can be cooked easily or fits in with her meal plan
Woman reading can in the supermarket, Beijing
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Stock Up

A well-stocked pantry is key to eliminating dinner stress. While it’s always a good idea to have fresh produce on hand, don’t write off all frozen or canned versions. Frozen vegetables can have more nutrients than fresh ones, and since they won’t spoil if you forget they're around — just steam and serve. Heat up canned beans in minutes and top with lettuce and salsa for easy burritos.

[Read This: 9 Strategies for Stress-Free Evenings at Home]

A family cooking together and talking about easy meal planning strategies they can use
Family preparing holiday meal in kitchen
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Get Help

Don’t be afraid to enlist a little help at dinnertime, whether from your spouse, your babysitter, or even a registered dietitian. Dad could handle dinner on Monday and Wednesday, for example, and Mom could take it on Tuesday and Thursday. Fridays are pizza night, clearly. The stress won’t be concentrated all on one person, and every family member will get a chance to flex his or her cooking chops.

A family enjoying the meal they planned together
Family having a meal together, girl putting spoon in mother’s mouth
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Don't Beat Yourself Up

Remember, it’s about figuring out what works for you and your family; don’t compare yourself to others who don’t face the same challenges you do!

[Read This Next: Grocery Shopping Is the Worst. Make It Better with These Tips.]