For a busy family, meal planning can significantly impact their collective stress and time and budget management.

Meal Planning is essentially writing down what you plan to prepare for meals in advance. Typically dinners for the week ahead.

By organising your meals in advance you can save money by avoiding overshopping and multiple trips to the supermarket, reducing the number of takeaway or convenience meals you buy. You will also reduce stress and decision fatigue around the question “What’s for dinner?” every night. And you may even find that you are eating more healthfully!

Getting the rest of the household involved shares the burden and provides an opportunity for others to learn and grow.

Often the meal planning and preparation task falls to the parent or partner who is home most. However, these days it’s not always clear who that might be and may even change throughout the week. This is when meal planning as a couple or better yet, as a household, becomes even more effective.

For example, my partner loves cooking curries and stews and being creative with “layering flavours”. If I had done all the cooking he might never have learnt these skills or uncovered his creative talent and passion for cooking. I like quick fresh and simple meals. Between us, we have something for any occasion! We also want to teach our children life skills such as cooking, food preparation, grocery shopping etc. and having them involved with meal planning is a great opportunity to hone these skills.

Recently I’ve been working with a mother of 4. Not just a mother of 4, but a mother of 4 *teens*. Make that 4 *neurodivergent teens*. And let’s throw some complicated health issues and multiple surgeries a year onto that plate too. Is it any wonder that I suggested this superwoman might like to share the load a little?

One of the ideas she’s tried was meal planning as a household. Great!

After months of trying to get her whole family to participate, running all over the house asking who will cook what and when, she felt more than a little discouraged. “Herding the cats” wasn’t feeling like sharing the burden at all, it felt an awful lot like just another ball she now had to juggle. Not to mention how difficult it can be to accommodate all the dietary and sensory needs and preferences of 6 people!

That just won’t do at all. I am not here for adding to the workload of already busy mothers.

So what to do? Should she give up and go back to just doing it all herself? That does seem easier. But what about sharing the burden and teaching life skills?

Time for a RESET.

Reverting back to the last point where things were going well and starting the process over.

We recognised that, regardless of whatever else is going on, dinner happens one way or another every night. The path of least resistance at the moment is likely to be “Mum cooks dinner” so that’s usually what happens. I asked her to stop trying to force this big shift from the norm and for the time being, just observe and record.

{Yes, this is clearly an additional task for super-mum, however, it is a means to an end. Therefore, approved.}

We’ll call this…

Reverse Meal Planning.

  1. Every night, write down what was served for dinner and how it was received. If possible, note what else happened during the day too. (This mum is already a diligent user of an online calendar, so I’ve suggested that she jot the meal and responses in the calendar.)
  2. After a week or two, we can review these notes and looks for patterns. Which meals are the most well-received? Is there a day that dinner was very late and poorly received due to a busy schedule? Are there more sensory complications after certain activities (for the ND families: if you know you know.)?
  3. Once “safe” and “easy” meals are identified, we can use this little library of meal ideas to populate her next meal plan and start to bring others on board.
  • If you’ve never included others in your meal planning, it can be a daunting task. Even more so if you don’t do it regularly yourself. Start by going it alone and asking for help to follow it. This may mean asking your partner to pick up a pizza on the way home on Friday, do the grocery shopping according to a list you’ve prepared, or taxiing the kids to soccer so you can make lasagna, or putting your teen in charge of Taco Tuesday this week. Even asking a younger child to “help” in the kitchen will lay the groundwork for easier meals in the future.

Easy meals for beginners:

Tacos or Nachos, Fried rice, simple pasta with premade or bought sauce, or toasted sandwiches! It doesn’t have to be fancy, the goal is to get something off your plate and onto the dinner table!

Ideas for little ones:

Shaking the salad dressing, grating cheese or carrots, buttering bread, sprinkling seasoning, passing utensils or spices. Obviously, start small and within their abilities, don’t have your child jointing a chicken until you know they know their way around a carving knife.

  1. Expect and allow for things to be imperfect. Nobody else has your experience, priorities, or knowledge. Life skills cannot be taught with words, they must be learned through trial and error. Give yourself grace, and give them space. Some nights you might all be eating vegemite and cheese sandwiches, but you can choose to be defeatist and disappointed or laugh about it together then try again tomorrow.

As always, there is no one-size-fits-all here. Never is it more true than when it comes to family meals. So please, don’t let “failed attempts” at meal planning by someone else’s system (even mine) stop you from reaping the benefits.

Lauren xx

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