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Six p.m. Friday night. Screaming baby. Hangry toddler. Done mommy. I had to make something for dinner.
Oh, Fridays. Friday was the day my husband and I split working and childcare – I worked from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. at home. He worked from 1:30 p.m. until late night. I managed dinner and bedtime solo on those days.
I’m a dietitian. Dinner shouldn’t have been that tough for me, right?
Except it wasn’t just dinner. I worked full-time, pumped breastmilk at work, took care of the baby and toddler all the rest of the time, and did all the other things. I was also depressed and out of energy (thank you, pernicious anemia). There’s nothing like depression or overwhelm to make dinner a mountain of a chore.
When you’re overwhelmed, cooking can be so difficult. That’s why I created a few systems to help myself, and I share them (plus a free meal plan) with you below.
Of course moms and dads and all caregivers can be overwhelmed. I’m specifically giving a shoutout to moms today because many are taking on the lion share of cooking during the pandemic.
Here’s What It’s Like to Be An Overwhelmed Mom Trying to Cook
If you’ve ever been depressed or overwhelmed, you know that cooking can feel like a big thing.
There are so many steps. First I had to plan the meals, then write down all the ingredients and make a shopping list, then go shopping, then put the groceries away, then actually make meals.
This doesn’t even take into account all the baby/toddler drama going on during this whole shopping process: diaper blowouts, toddler meltdowns, kids chewing through food packages in the checkout line.
If you’ve got some depression or overwhelm in your life, even reading this list of things makes you want to take a nap. I felt like someone was asking me to organize an event with 50 people attending every week. I couldn’t.
The problem with depression and overwhelm is that I kinda didn’t care, but also still kinda did care. I cared that I didn’t have a dinner plan, because the kids still got hungry every night and I had to feed them. The less I planned, the more agonizing cooking and dinnertime was.
I constantly felt trapped between not having enough energy to stay on top of things, and making more work for myself because I couldn’t stay on top of things.
Harming Less When You’re an Overwhelmed Mom
So what did I serve that Friday night for dinner?
On more Fridays than I’d like to admit during that season, I served my kids O’s cereal for dinner.
That’s the capacity I had.
I’m technically a “public health dietitian” (I have a Master of Science degree in public health) and one of the things we talk about in public health is “harm reduction.” It means helping someone harm themselves or someone else a little less.
Giving ourselves a harm reduction mindset when we’re overwhelmed or depressed can help us SO much.
What Harm Reduction Looks Like for an Overwhelmed Mom
Take the example of Friday dinners.
On a bad Friday, I was pulled toward the option of only nursing the baby and letting the toddler fend for himself. Not feeding a toddler is probably the greatest harm in this situation. He would feel food insecurity because he hadn’t been given a meal, or he may have eaten something unsafe for toddlers.
In this scenario, making any food at all that is edible and safe for the toddler and serving it to him is less harm than not feeding him.
Those were my O’s cereal nights.
On many other Friday nights, I had more capacity. On those nights, I was able to make a simple dinner for the baby and toddler. Cereal helped me do less harm on bad days, but it could be harmful to my toddler to continue to eat such a low-fat, low-protein, low-calorie food for dinner every night. On normal days, I could put together a very simple meal that provided more nutrients to my kids.
- A meal out of the freezer.
- Soup out of a can.
- A rotisserie chicken.
- Scrambled eggs and toast.
Then, of course, there were even better Fridays. On better Fridays, I had a decent amount of capacity. On those days, I knew that if I only served those easy meals, my kids might not get the variety I’d like them to get, especially with fruits and veggies. On better Fridays, I could add more veggie exposures and make a nicer, more balanced meal (still a simple one, though). I had the capacity to reduce harm even further on better Fridays.
See how this works?
Most of us (most of the time), do have the capacity to reduce harm a little. That is important.
If part of you is saying something like,“ But I’m still causing harm, I’m a bad person,” keep reading.
Harm reduction is such a powerful public health tool that those of us in public health are trained in it. It brings about real good and change in people’s lives and in society. Please don’t underestimate the value of doing a little less harm and for feeling proud of yourself for making the effort.
When I look back on feeding my kids O’s for dinner, a small part of me says, “Wow, that wasn’t a great dinner.” But all the rest of me says, “My toddler had a safe meal and knew that he could depend on me for food.” I remember how hard those days were, and I am proud of myself for serving O’s for dinner.
I’m also proud of you if you’re serving O’s for dinner.
Small kids, pandemic life, loss and grief, depression, or other life struggles can make meal planning and cooking very hard.
Only we can know what harm reduction looks like for us based on our capacity each day.
Your Meal Plan for Normal Days of Overwhelm
I’m going to assume that you have a survival strategy for those days you have no capacity. You’ve made it this far, so you’ve got something: cereal, bread, cheese sticks, pizza delivery, whatever it is.
I’d like to make it easier for you on the normal days, though. You’re overwhelmed, but you’ve got a little bit of capacity. I’ve created a meal plan especially for you.
The Survival Meal Plan for Overwhelmed Mom
Here’s your survival meal plan!
You can rotate through these 3 breakfast options (or add your own):
- Cereal and milk (choose a higher protein and fortified cereal)
- Peanut butter toast with milk
- Yogurt with fruit (frozen fruit like blueberries are very simple – defrost until soft for kids under 4 years old)
You can rotate through these 3 lunch options (or add your own):
- Sandwiches (here’s a sandwich guide if you need ideas) with bell peppers (or super easy veggie)
- Cheese and crackers and cucumbers (or other super easy veggie)
- Leftovers from dinner
You can rotate through these 7 dinner options (or add your own). Make extra pasta, sandwiches and sheet pan meals for easy lunch leftovers some days.
- Pasta meal (spaghetti, mac ‘n ’cheese, etc.) with a bagged salad
- Eggs and toast with pre-shredded carrots (for kids under 4) or baby carrots (for kids over 4)
- Canned soup (choose one with beans or lentils to make sure you have a good protein source) with apples
- Frozen chicken nuggets or fish sticks with carrots and ranch or a bagged salad
- Sub sandwiches with your favorite toppings
- Take out
- Sheet pan meal (this is your one harder meal per week if you have the capacity to make it)
Sheet Pan Meal Method
Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
Put frozen or fresh chicken in casserole dish (chicken thighs are great for this). Add easy seasonings if desired. Cover with foil. Cook until soft, about 30-60 minutes. Sauce can be added after cooking.
On another cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, put veggies that are quick and easy to cut, like broccoli and cauliflower, or buy pre-chopped veggies. Quickly drizzle some olive oil or avocado oil and sprinkle on seasonings or just salt. Mix with hands to coat. Cover with foil and add to oven. (Covering the baking sheet with foil allows the veggies to get softer, which helps if you have babies and toddlers!) Check the veggies after 20 minutes.
Add potatoes to the sheet if you want potatoes, just slice them thin so they cook quickly. You can also cook rice or quinoa in a rice cooker.
The kids are gonna need snacks. Rotate through these options:
- Crackers and cheese (choose a soft cracker for kids under 4 years old)
- Hummus and easy veggies
- Fruit and cheese
- Fruit and peanut butter (serve thinly spread for kids under 4 years old)
- Granola bar or other bar (make sure you get an age-appropriate one and supervise the little ones)
- Pouches (choose a pouch with protein and fat to keep your child full longer)
- Applesauce with peanut butter toast
Products that Make Cooking Easier for Overwhelmed Moms
There are a few things that make cooking easier that I have personally used:
Parchment paper. I put this down on baking sheets so I don’t have to scrub them after I use them when making sheet pan meals. In fact, I also use them as a serving dish. I just pull the paper carefully out of the pan and set it on the table.
Bonus, the kids can see the veggies on eye level and that makes it a better veggie exposure.
Disposable table things. Yes, there are environmental concerns. Also yes, they were made for a reason. You can easily stop using them when you aren’t in a complete state of overwhelm or depression. I recommend plates, bowls, and flatware. You can also use cups. Bonus, all of these are compostable.
I also recommend a set of glass bowls that fit in your microwave for heating and cooking things like frozen veggies. I put a plate on the top to keep the steam in.
Finally, there are the Take and Toss straw cups. If you’re struggling and you need an option for helping the kids not spill water all over the house, this may be an option for you. Of course there are non-disposable straw cups that I love more, but we’re not always in a place where we can take apart those straw cup valves and wash them, are we? Do what you need to do to get through this time.
Managing Picky Eating as an Overwhelmed Mom
Our overwhelm as parents affects our kids. If we always serve the same foods all the time, we may make more work for ourselves in the long run in the form of more severe picky eating. Here are the hacks that I’ve used to manage picky eating on a shoestring energy budget:
Get a baby food grinder (if you have a baby). I didn’t do any special form of weaning, I just took food off my plate and if the baby couldn’t eat it, I ran it through the baby food grinder. Those things are so useful and I’m confused as to why they don’t get more attention. Add a little liquid if the food won’t grind.
Buy a different kind/brand each time. Buying different brands can be a simple way to help kids avoid getting stuck on one kind of food. Buy a different bread, a different brand of yogurt or a different shape of pasta.
Eat what you feed the kids. Often overwhelmed moms don’t feed themselves regularly. Make some extra food and eat it when you feed the kids. One, if you’re there with them it models eating, and that’s good for managing picky eating. Two, even if you don’t eat with them, you’re still feeding yourself – which is so important. You’re worth feeding.
When You’re Overwhelmed, but Still Have the Capacity to Cook
Then there are those days when you can cook a meal or put chili in the crockpot. But you don’t have the energy to meal plan. You just want someone to tell you what to do.
Eventually, I ended up at the point where I could cook simple meals most days. I still had so many things going on that I was overwhelmed with meal planning and cooking. So I created a simple and colorful meal plan for my family. It helped take the brainwork out of meal planning, so that day-to-day cooking was easier. I could make sure to expose my kids to a variety of fruits, veggies and other foods throughout the meal plan.
The meal plan is called Real Easy Weekdays. If you’ve got some capacity for cooking, I think you will really like it. If you’re at extremely low capacity though, stick with the survival meal plan above.
Difficult Phases Can End
You may be happy to know that it’s been years since I’ve fed my kids O’s for dinner on a Friday night. That season ended.
Plus, my harm reduction efforts got me to a place where my low rung isn’t as low.
Because I did little things to reduce harm, I eventually got more capacity. I eventually created all these systems that make my low capacity days look like eggs and toast and fruit – which isn’t bad at all!
I hope this meal plan helps you have a little bit more space today.
I’m cheering for you!