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Master Meal Planning: A Guide for Busy and Neurodivergent Adults

Updated: Jun 17

Most neurodivergent adults I know struggle with meal planning. Why? It requires many executive function skills to act in tandem. Plus, it's boring. There's little instant gratification involved.


Are you spending too much money DoorDashing unhealthy dinners?


Does meal planning feel like another chore?


Are you searching for a step-by-step system to plan weekly meals?


I developed a meal planning system that takes less than 30 minutes to implement, simplifies healthy eating, and saves hundreds.


In this article, I share the exact steps you use to meal plan your week. Grab your phone and reusable bags. We are going shopping! 


TL;DR: jump to the summary.


How do I start meal planning? 

Before you choose tomorrow’s dinner, let’s set up your system. I got sick of forgetting my list at home so I created a system on my phone. 


First, create a note on your phone titled, “Groceries 🍓”. This is your reusable grocery list.


Next, list out the days of the week.


Below the days of the week, create a check box and add your recurring food needs. This is the stuff you buy every week. Here's a short version of mine:


executive dysfunction

Neurodivergent Meal Planning

Step 1: Calendar Check

An effective grocery store run and meal plan begins every Sunday from my couch. I check my calendar for planned events, dinners, or lunches. My goal is to find out how many meals I need to prepare. 


Ask yourself: "How many meals do I need to cook this week?"


Step 2: Check the Fridge 

This saves a lot of money. I check my pantry, fridge, and freezer for food I already have. I have a half bag of brussels sprouts that I can eat tonight. This also minimizes food waste! 


Ask yourself: "What food do I already have?"


Step 3: Create the Menu 

An effective grocery list begins with a planned menu. 


On the same note, next to each day of the week, write the name of the meal you will prep. If this feels too restrictive, consider genres of food for the week. Sunday and Wednesday are Italian and Monday and Thursday at Mexican. 


Ask yourself: "What meals can I easily repeat?"


Still unsure what to cook? Keep reading to discover my 3 go-to weeknight dinners. 


executive function coaching

Step 4: The List

Now it’s time to make your list. 


Look at the recipe for the first meal of the week and add every ingredient to your list. Double-check your pantry to ensure you don’t double up on ingredients (a big-time money saver).


Repeat this step until you list all the ingredients for every meal. Recurring items are unchecked from last week (no need to type them again).


Now you are ready to hit the store! 


Pro tip: I look at recipes on my laptop while adding to the list from my phone. This makes the process faster. 


How can I make grocery shopping easier?


I despise grocery shopping. So, I developed a technique to make grocery shopping easier and less frequent. 


Sunday is the only day I go to the grocery store. I plan all my meals on Sunday morning and I go to the store one time each week.  


When I am in the store, I check off items from the list after I put them in my cart. Never again will I make a stressful late-night sprint to the store to buy more salt. 


How long does grocery shopping take? 


For one month, I timed it. It takes me 50-60 minutes door to door. Knowing this is powerful. I can plan to shop and manage my time effectively. 


Pro tip: I set a reminder for Sunday mornings to “bring bags”. This isn’t perfect, but it helps me remember to bring my reusable bags to the store. 


A reader recommends purchasing these hooks and putting reusable bags in the car right after unpacking them. That's where their reusable bags "live".


What can I cook quickly and easily? 

Here are my top 3 most common dinners that take 30 minutes or less. On Sundays, we cook rice for the entire week. This is the only meal prep we do. 


“The Regular” - our go-to meal for busy nights. It's simple: brown rice, oven roasted broccolini, and a veggie patty. 


Stir Fry - this stir fry recipe is one of our favorites. You can make it even easier by purchasing premade stir fry sauce. 


Zoodles - this is another go-to meal. It’s easy to make and healthy. 


Still not sure what to cook this week? Recreate one of your favorite takeout dishes!


Special Considerations for Neurodivergent Adults

For neurodivergent adults, meal planning can present unique challenges. But, it can also provide much-needed structure and routine. Here are some tailored tips:


  • Simplify Choices: Use a rotating menu of favorite meals to reduce decision fatigue.

  • Sensory Preferences: Be mindful of sensory sensitivities to textures and flavors. Include preferred foods that are both nutritious and enjoyable.

  • Visual Aids: Use visual schedules and reminders to keep track of meal planning and preparation steps.

  • Routine and Structure: Consistent meal times and prep routines can help create a sense of stability.

  • Break Tasks into Steps: Divide meal planning and preparation into manageable steps to avoid feeling overwhelmed.


By incorporating these strategies, meal planning can become a manageable and rewarding part of your routine.


5 Bonus Tips for Beginners

  • This might feel hard at first. Know that you will get better at it every week. 

  • If meal planning the entire week feels overwhelming, start by just planning breakfast. 

  • Not sure what to cook? Google “healthy dinners in 30 minutes or less”.  

  • Be flexible. Sometimes, our plans don’t pan out how we expected. Use an emotional regulation strategy, keep calm, and move on. 

  • Don’t forget to include healthy snacks! Carrots and humus are my favorite.

Summary

If you're spending too much on takeout and want a more organized approach, I've developed a meal planning system that simplifies healthy eating and saves hundreds of dollars each month.


Here are the steps:


  1. Set Up Your System: Create a reusable grocery list on your phone.

  2. Plan Ahead: Check your calendar and pantry before creating a weekly menu.

  3. Make a Detailed List: Add all ingredients needed for your meals to your list.

  4. Streamline Shopping: Shop once a week and check off items as you go.


For neurodivergent adults, consider simplifying choices, using visual aids, and maintaining consistent routines to make meal planning more manageable and less overwhelming.


By following these steps, you can enjoy healthier meals and save money with ease.


Are you ready to improve your executive function skills?

We know adulting is HARD. It demands strong adult executive function skills. Luckily, we've made a LIVE course to cover the fundamentals so you can make the best of each day: Adult EF Skills 101. We are currently accepting applications!


In this course, you will:


  • Learn how to plan your priorities 🎯

  • Learn to get started (task initiate) 🔨

  • Learn how to keep things tidy 🧺

  • Learn how to find and keep a job 👩‍💻

  • Learn how to communicate effectively 🗣️

  • Learn how to budget 🤑


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About the Author

Eric Kaufmann, M.Ed is a Professional Educational Therapist and Certified Executive Function Coach. He is the Co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, an online adult executive function coaching company designed to guide adults in overcoming disorganization, procrastination, and productivity roadblocks so they can unlock their potential. Eric is also the founder of Elevate Learning Solutions, an Educational Therapy practice located in San Clemente, CA, that guides students with neurological differences toward becoming independent and confident students and self-leaders.

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Upskill Specialists was founded when two former special education teachers turned executive function coaches decided that adults need tools and coaching to improve their workplace skills and feel confident and empowered. Our mission is to ensure every adult with EF challenges has access to high-quality coaching services. 

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