By Guest Blogger Lisa Witherspoon

Remember back when this whole pandemic thing started? At first, many of us were thinking, “Yay! More family time! More reading/crafting/hobby/cooking time! Family dinners! Family game nights!” Well, here we are almost a year later and I think it is safe to say that whatever excitement we were able to muster up in those first few weeks has dwindled and disappeared.

Meal planning was already a challenge in my house pre-pandemic. Among the five of us, I have one teenage daughter who is a vegetarian, one teenage daughter with the palate of a toddler, and a third who is probably the easiest to please, but still has some unique quirks. Throw in my hubby and myself who are trying to eat healthy, low carb. PLUS, instead of just asking, “Hey mom! What’s for dinner?” now, they ask, “Hey Mom! What’s for breakfast AND Lunch AND Dinner???” That doesn’t even take in to account that they are home All. The. Time. which means they snack All. Day. Long.

So, when it comes to meal planning, y’all, I’m FRIED! (pun intended) Here are a few tips & tricks I’m trying to help alleviate some of the frustration. Obviously, it isn’t a 100% cure for the pandemic meal planning blues, but, hopefully, it will help a little!

  • Planning is a must. I usually sit down on Saturday morning and plan our dinners for the week. I make a grocery list for snacks, breakfast, & lunch items. Then, I order my groceries online for pick up. (Worth every single penny of the service fee – even in “normal” times!!) I actually stick the menu up on the side of our fridge, so when they ask “What’s for dinner?” I can just say, “Go look!” Now, they usually look before they ask. Planning will save you times, stress, money, and trips to the store.
  • Involve the family in the planning. Instead of wracking your brain to come up with all the meals, ask the family what they would like. If they are old enough, involve them in the prep, too! Give each family member a night to be in charge of the cooking or ask your teens to send you some recipes to try. Not only will this take some of the burden off the primary meal planner (i.e. YOU!), but, theoretically, it will help make your kids more willing to try new things and teach them more about cooking.
  • Make it fun. I have a friend who asked her family to help with menu planning and all the kids said “Tacos!” so they found recipes online and had a different type of taco every night for a week. Then, they rated each one to see which recipes they wanted to make again in the future. Pick a single recipe blog you like, choose a particular cuisine (like Mexican or Italian), or do a recipe exchange with another family (you each send the other a week’s worth of recipes) and let it guide your menu for the week. Also, Pinterest is your friend.
  • It doesn’t all have to be gourmet. I actually love cooking, but I’m no chef and a picky family can suck the joy right out of it! A jar of pasta sauce, a pre-packaged taco kit, a box of mac and cheese, some frozen chicken tenders, a frozen lasagna, or a rotisserie chicken can make life much easier and there is no need to feel guilty about getting a little “help.”
  • Use your tools! Pre-pandemic, I didn’t use my crock pot much because I would have to put meat in it at 7am before we all left for school & work. By the time we ate dinner at 6pm, the meat was overcooked and dry. Now, though, I’m home all day! I can put something in the crock pot at noon and it’s just about perfectly timed for supper. If you have an Instant Pot or an air fryer, put them to use!
  • Live into the “rut.” The point of this post is to help you get out of the rut, but, sometimes the rut is your friend. If your family has favorites that are always sure to please, make it every week! Why not?!? I keep a list of “go-to entrees” on my iPad, so when I am tired of figuring it out, I just go to the list.
  • Practice gratitude. This one may seem a little “cheesy,” but it really does help me. Right now, there are so many people struggling just to put any food on the table. The fact that I can plan meals for a week at a time and afford to the groceries to make all those meals is definitely something to be grateful for. When I get super frustrated, I try to remember that and keep my “struggles” in perspective.
  • Finally, give yourself a break. This pandemic has changed a lot. In the big scheme of things, family meal planning is small potatoes. In my opinion, there is no harm in ordering takeout as much as it fits your schedule, budget, and dietary needs. You can pick it up curbside or get it delivered and many small restaurant businesses could desperately use the support. I personally haven’t tried the meal services like HelloFresh or Blue Apron, but now might be a good time to give it a shot! We certainly don’t need any unnecessary stress in our lives right now. Family dinners should be a time of connection and laughter, not frustration and strife. No judgement if a curbside pickup makes your life easier, once a week or every single night!

No matter if you have toddlers or teens, we all have to eat, so figuring out what to put on the table will always be a puzzle that needs solving over and over again. These are some ideas that have helped me over the years and, especially, recently. I hope they are helpful to you as well and, if you have other suggestions, I would LOVE to hear them!

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