The Overwhelmed Mom Survival Guide You Need & Anti-Picky-Eating Meal Plan

The Overwhelmed Mom Survival Guide You Need & Anti-Picky-Eating Meal Plan

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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.

Related: Real Easy Food Ideas for Busy Weeknights

Parents sitting on the couch looking like an overwhelmed mom as a child jumps around them

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.

Sound familiar?

Related: Working From Home With Kids? 12 Practical Strategies that Work

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.

Overwhelmed mom in chair with a son on each side of her, looking stressed as they sword fight over her
Not me, but could have been me.

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.

Related: Free Printable Shopping List Template

The Survival Meal Plan for Overwhelmed Mom

Here’s your survival meal plan!

Breakfast

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)

Lunch

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

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.

Snacks

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

Related: End Whining with this Simple Snack Hack

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.

Related: Complete Guide to Disposable Lunches for School & Daycare

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.

Related: Free Picky Eater Guide – Download Here!

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

Parent with daughter on shoulders looking happy in winter time showing that overwhelmed mom season isn't forever

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!

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. THANK YOU for sharing this

  2. Jennifer, the work you do is a blessing to us. Thank you for doing what you do and sharing what you’ve learned, and for your compassion born of experience. You encourage me. 🙂

  3. Woah, this could not have arrived in my inbox at a better time. Just moved into a house with a very old and small kitchen, no dishwasher, a new baby who doesn’t sleep and a very picky 5 year old. I barely have the capacity to produce anything resembling a respectable meal on a normal day, but as an added bonus my husband works nights every few weeks and I especially dread those evenings alone. I feel so seen in this post and it’s given me new hope. Thank you!!!!!

  4. What a thoughtful, realistic, empathetic article and plan! I appreciate this as a mom and a pediatrician and would have appreciated it even before having kids!

  5. Making the transition from 1 kid to 2 during a pandemic really pushed me over the edge. I just really appreciate you and your content!

  6. Just what I needed to read! Thank you for the supportive educational information and the meal plans!!❤

  7. I’m in tears reading this; you have perfectly described how I have felt most nights at dinner time for the past 2 years. Thank you so much for your compassionate approach to planning and sharing with the rest of us.

  8. I love that you offer practical tips without a shred of judgement. We are so often critical of ourselves and worried what other moms would think (if they only knew), but the truth is we are all just doing our best. One meal at a time. Thanks for all you do! You have changed the way I feed my children in so many ways.

  9. THANK YOU!!!
    This was just what I needed to see- very helpful to be introduced to concept of harm reduction. You have lifted up this tired momma!

  10. I never comment on anything on the internet but this post made me incredibly happy, comforted and heard. I am not alone! I feel so much of what you chronicled. Thank you for this!

  11. This article is a God-send. Thank you.

  12. Thank you. I’m totally overwhelmed. This article was very validating.

  13. I really needed to read this!

  14. I so needed this; thank you!

  15. I loved this post! Very helpful. Thank you, Jennifer!

  16. I’m so glad I found this blog. Thank you for the advice, the compounding overwhelmed feeling from not “meal planning” has been weighing on me. Your practical solutions have made me feel better about my parenting.

  17. Thank you so much for this! I can’t express how refreshing it is to read something that illustrates how hard and overwhelming meal planning can be. I have an extremely picky 4 year old and a 16 month old baby and I’m on my own all weeknights having to cook for them after a full day’s work. I’m also anemic, lacking in time, and flat out exhausted. The other dietitian posts seem to always treat meal planning like it’s the easiest thing in the world and they just make me feel more overwhelmed, more tired and just unfit as a mother. So once again, I can’t thank you enough for this.

  18. This was the nicest thing to read. Thank you. Xx

  19. Thank you for this compilation of resources!

  20. I love that post! Just what I wanted to hear! Thank you! 😊

  21. I love it. Seeing you mention cereal nights on instagram has totally saved me from doing harm – to myself or in the form of getting really grumpy and yelling at my kids if I’m pushing past my capacity.
    I’ve made a discovery that is also super helpful for feeding my 1 yo – the easy “smoothie” just plain whole milk yogurt and applesauce and a little water – put it in a straw cup and shake and serve. This has been great for snacks, and also when I’m so worn out and overwhelmed that nursing is not feeling good to me. Before he turned one and we started doing more dairy, I’d just do applesauce and water.
    We also do a lot of blended smoothies – my 4 year old is a lot more willing to eat greens in smoothie form than in salad form (I don’t hide that I’m putting them in) and it makes me feel better when I know I’ve managed to get some greens into my kids. But it doesn’t happen every day.
    Before the pandemic hit and when I only had 1 kid I really prided myself on the super balanced and high veggie exposure diet my first toddler was eating. All kinds of cheese, everything made from scratch. Since the pandemic hit and my chronic illness got worse, I had to ease up on those rigidly high standards. It can be hard. My husband is a nurse and works long hours, so I’m on my own for dinner a lot. Posts like this are very helpful. Thanks.

  22. This article is so full of compassion, it made me tear up. I love all the solutions you provided and letting moms all over feel seen and heard. Such a simple way to create connection in the world, so that parents going through these especially difficult times feel a little less alone. You’re awesome, Jennifer!!

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