supermarket, shelf, blur

Neurodivergent-Friendly Meal Planning Strategies

Are you someone who finds grocery shopping to be an overwhelming and anxiety-inducing experience? Do you struggle with sensory overload, decision fatigue, or executive functioning challenges when navigating the aisles of a store?

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For many neurodivergent people, meal planning can be a daunting task that requires a great deal of energy and effort. Developing strategies you can use can make the process more efficient and less stressful.

One of the biggest problems with meal planning is grocery shopping. The thought of having to go to a store every week (or more) is overwhelming for many people. One key approach is to plan ahead before you even set foot in the store. This might involve creating a detailed shopping list that breaks down what you need by section, so you can move through the store in a logical and systematic way.

You might also consider using online grocery ordering services or delivery options, which can eliminate the need to physically go to the store altogether. By taking some time to prepare in advance, you can reduce the amount of decision-making and sensory input you'll need to navigate once you're in the store.

If you need someone in your corner join my Facebook group, Executive Function Support for Women. I will be your cheerleader.

A meal planning strategy using a meal prep container.

Preparation for Grocery Shopping

Before you head out to the grocery store, it's important to prepare yourself to ensure an efficient and stress-free shopping experience. Here are some strategies to help you prepare:

Meal Planning

One of the most effective ways to prepare for grocery shopping is to plan your meals in advance. This not only helps you save time and money, but it also helps you make healthier choices. Take some time to think about what meals you want to prepare for the week and make a list of the ingredients you'll need.

Meal planning can be as extensive or as simple as needed. Personally, I cook 4 days a week. We order out on Saturdays, and the other days are leftovers or “Fend for yourself” days. But the 4 meals are usually chosen by my daughter (unless I don't want something she picked). I decide what we have each day based on my schedule and how long the meal takes to cook.

Because I teach on Wednesdays, we have a lot of slow cooker meals or something I can do quickly on the grill or stovetop. But you don't have to be tied to anything. Have what you need on hand, and you can decide from day to day how you feel and what you want.

It's also good to have staples on hand for your favorite go-to, I-don't-have-to-think-about-it meals.

Creating a Shopping List

Creating a shopping list is a crucial step in preparing for grocery shopping. It helps you stay organized and focused, and ensures that you don't forget any important items. When creating your list, be sure to include all the ingredients you'll need for your planned meals, as well as any other essentials you may need.

I keep a small white board on my fridge so I can write things down as I think of them. My family can also write down special requests they want for the week.

To make your shopping list even more efficient, categorize your items by section of the store, such as produce, dairy, and meat. This will help you navigate the store more quickly and avoid backtracking.

Choosing the Right Time to Shop

Choosing the right time to shop can make a big difference in your grocery shopping experience. Try to avoid peak shopping times, such as weekends or evenings, as these tend to be the busiest and most crowded times. Instead, opt for early mornings or weekday afternoons, when the store is likely to be less crowded.

Another helpful tip is to check the store's schedule for restocking items. If you can time your shopping trip to coincide with restocking, you'll have a better chance of finding all the items on your list.

Some stores also offer quiet hours. Walmart has instituted quiet hours from 8-10 in the morning. I know not everyone has a Walmart nearby or you don't like it. It might be worth your time to call your local stores to see if they offer something similar.

By following these preparation strategies, you can make your grocery shopping experience more efficient and less stressful.

supermarket, shelf, blur

Navigating the Grocery Store

When it comes to grocery shopping, navigating the store can be overwhelming and stressful. Having a plan and implementing simple strategies can make your grocery shopping experience more efficient and less anxiety-inducing.

Store Layout Familiarity

One of the most important strategies for efficient and stress-free grocery shopping is to become familiar with the layout of your local grocery store. Take some time to walk around the store and familiarize yourself with the layout, so you can quickly find the items you need. Many grocery stores have similar layouts, so once you become familiar with one store, you'll likely be able to navigate other stores more easily as well.

Another option is to look online. Many stores will tell you what aisle to find specific items, so if you build your grocery list on their app or site, you'll know exactly where to go when you get there.

Sensory Overload Management

Grocery stores can be overwhelming for neurodivergent people, with bright lights, loud music, and crowds of people. If you have to go into the store to shop and it's not during quiet hours, plan ahead.

To manage sensory overload, consider wearing noise-canceling headphones or earplugs, and sunglasses to reduce bright light stimulation. Additionally, try to shop during off-peak hours when the store is less crowded, and take breaks as needed to reduce overwhelm and anxiety.

Efficient Shopping Paths

To make your grocery shopping experience more efficient, plan your shopping path before entering the store. Make a list of the items you need and group them by category, so you can quickly move through the store without backtracking or getting lost.

By using these strategies, you can make your grocery shopping experience more sustainable, less overwhelming, and more efficient. With a little planning and preparation, you can turn grocery shopping into a stress-free experience.

supermarket, stalls, coolers

Adapting Cooking and Kitchen Management

Once you have your groceries, you need to cook. Creating space and systems that work for your neurodivergence is key to building and maintaining meal planning habits.

Accessible Kitchen Setup

When it comes to cooking, a well-organized and accessible kitchen can make a world of difference. For neurodivergent people, it is important to have a kitchen that is easy to navigate and use. Here are some tips for creating an accessible kitchen setup:

  • Use clear containers to store ingredients and label them clearly.
  • Keep frequently used items within reach and in easily accessible cabinets or drawers.
  • Use color coding or visual aids to help with organization.

Being able to easily see what you have will make shopping and cooking easier. You won't buy extra items unnecessarily. And when you're actually trying to get a meal cooked, you won't have to hunt down ingredients.

Neurodivergent-Friendly Recipes

Finding recipes that are neurodivergent-friendly can be a challenge. However, there are many resources available, including cookbooks and online recipe databases. Look for recipes that are:

  • Simple and easy to follow.
  • Have minimal steps and ingredients.
  • Use familiar ingredients.
  • Have clear and concise instructions.

I suggest having a list of favorite go-to meals available. When you're having a bad day, chances are, you don't want to think about it. I have a list of dinner ideas on my fridge. It's a piece of looseleaf paper that I stuck up there years ago. We add to it when we try a new recipe that we like, but when we're deciding on meals for the week, we always look at the list.

Structured Meal Preparation

For many neurodivergent people, structured meal preparation can be helpful. This involves planning meals in advance and breaking down the preparation process into manageable steps. Here are some tips for structured meal preparation:

  • Plan meals for the week ahead of time.
  • Write out a list of ingredients needed for each meal.
  • When you put groceries away, consider grouping ingredients for each meal so they're easy to grab.
  • Break down the preparation process into manageable steps.
  • When you have time an energy, prep food you can (ie pre-cut veggies or meats).

By adapting your cooking and kitchen management strategies, you can make grocery shopping and meal preparation more efficient and neurodivergent-friendly.

Coping with Dietary Restrictions

If you have dietary restrictions (or food aversions), it can be challenging to navigate the grocery store and meal planning. However, with some planning and preparation, you can manage your aversions and preferences while maintaining proper nutrition.

Managing Food Aversions

If you have aversions to certain foods, it can be helpful to make a list of the items you can't eat. You can use this list to avoid those items while grocery shopping. You can also try to find substitutes for those items that you can tolerate. For example, if you can't eat dairy, you can try non-dairy alternatives like almond milk or soy milk.

Eating Disorder Awareness

If you have an eating disorder, it is essential to prioritize consistency and proper nutrition. You can create a meal plan that includes a variety of foods from different food groups. You can also use food tracking apps to ensure you are consuming enough calories and nutrients.

Support and Resources

If you're looking for support and resources to make your grocery shopping and meal planning experience more efficient and accessible, there are several options available to you.

Accessible Tools and Apps

There are several tools and apps that can help you plan and organize your grocery shopping. For example, you can use a shopping list app that allows you to create and manage your grocery list in an accessible and customizable way.

Some of these apps even allow you to share your list with your family or caregiver, so they can help you with your shopping. Additionally, you can use a barcode scanner app to scan items in the store and get more information about them, such as ingredients and nutrition facts. This can be especially helpful if you have specific dietary preferences or restrictions.

Community Support

Joining a community of like-minded people can be a great way to get support and advice on how to make your grocery shopping experience more efficient and accessible. You can connect with other neurodivergent people through online forums, social media groups, or local support groups. These communities can provide you with valuable insights and tips on how to navigate the grocery store, deal with sensory overload, and manage your anxiety.

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Promoting Executive Function Skills

Grocery shopping and meal planning are great ways to practice executive function skills.

Building Life Skills

Grocery shopping and meal planning offer excellent opportunities to build life skills such as budgeting, planning, time management, and cooking.

All of the steps in meal planning give you a chance to practice executive function skills.

Planning: You have to think ahead about not only what you want to eat but also what you need to buy in order to eat it.

Organization: You have to find the items in the store and remember where you put them at home when it's time to cook.

Time management: Cooking is all about timing. It takes practice to handle all of the moving parts.

Prioritization: Deciding on what you can buy within your budget forces you to prioritize.

Maintaining Consistency

Consistency is key when it comes to improving your executive functions skills through meal planning. By establishing a routine and sticking to it, you can reduce stress and anxiety associated with grocery shopping and meal planning.

To maintain consistency, consider shopping at the same store at the same time each week. You can also create a grocery list and meal plan that you follow consistently.

Like it or not, we all have to eat. So it doesn't matter if you enjoy cooking. For most of us, we do it out of necessity (unless you have a partner who takes on that task – Yay!). For neurodivergent people, meal planning can be a huge source of stress, so they end up ordering out a lot or eating cereal for very meal.

Implementing strategies to help you improve the executive function skills associated with the steps of meal planning can help. Build up routines to be consistent and you'll be able to tackle meal planning without the stress.

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