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Control what you can control: Meal planning for the overwhelmed

If you’re currently overwhelmed—whether facing a new diagnosis or just surviving life in a pandemic—the idea of taking on a new task like meal planning may seem downright laughable. But in the vein of “controlling what you can control,” being intentional in one area often boosts your mood and confidence and can have a ripple effect on other areas of your life. And in the case of meal planning, it also has the added benefit of saving money, stress, and time.

Keep it simple.

If you’ve never created a meal plan before, it may feel intimidating, but the truth is, it can be as simple as a piece of paper, a pencil, and your calendar. Why the calendar? Before you start planning the meals for the week ahead, you need to know what activities your family has on the docket. The night where one child has soccer practice and the other is at play rehearsal might not be the best night for trying out a new recipe. And late-afternoon treatment calls for something simple like tacos (or even takeout—you can make a plan for that!) or a rotisserie chicken.

If you’re more tech-inclined, you can use a spreadsheet or your Notes app—or even a meal planning app or service like Plan to Eat or eMeals. (Note: Many of the apps do have a monthly or annual fee, but many people find they get back their investment and more by not eating out as much or wasting groceries.)

Keep it realistic.

If you’re a whiz in the kitchen, then, by all means, pull up Food Network and get to work! But if your idea of cooking is peeling the plastic off the frozen meal, don’t fill up a meal plan with intricate recipes. Start with a few simple meals—spaghetti, tacos, even pre-grilled chicken on bagged caesar salad—and maybe try one adventurous recipe on the weekend.

Keep it sustainable.

Pencil and paper are great, but you might want to create your plan on a spreadsheet or email. The benefit of using technology is that you can just copy and paste your meal ideas. If you make a meal that’s a win for your family, put it in regular rotation on your plan. It will take a little more time up front to create a sustainable system, but once you have it going, you will save loads of time (not to mention money and waste) as you’re able to just replicate meals, even a week at a time.

Also, sometimes it’s easier to come up with ideas when you’ve got a box to create in. Picking theme nights can give you just enough limitations to make decisions easier. Some popular ones are Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, and Soup Sundays (a good one for doubling up on for quick weekday lunches).

Keep it real.

If you know that you’re always tired on Friday evenings, maybe building a regular pizza/movie night into the budget is the best thing you could do for your mental health. Or if treatment days or scan days are the hardest for your family, you could plan on picking up your favorite takeout on the way home. Meal planning doesn’t need to mean you can’t ever eat out or be spontaneous—in fact, it can enable you to do that guilt-free with the margin you’ve created in your budget and your health!

Lastly, don’t be afraid to accept—or even ask for—help when it comes to your family meals while your child is on treatment. It’s highly likely your family, friends, and neighbors are looking for a way to support you and providing meals can be an incredibly practical way to help. Websites like Meal Train can allow people to sign up to drop off food, and friends can even send restaurant or DoorDash and Uber Eats gift cards if they’re not local.

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