One of the hardest things for me to learn has been that I will not always have the same energy tomorrow as I do today-or even in a few hours. It’s always such a disappointment when you have grandiose plans!

For example, I had an awesomely productive week last week, but have felt pretty blah this week. This made me want to share why having a “meal template” is so helpful in dealing with changes in energy levels.  With a meal template, you can incorporate a built-in “system failure back-up plan.”  Our energy levels fluctuate throughout the day, week, month and even season. Much of this is in part due to natural hormones such as cortisol peaking in the morning and afternoon, menstrual cycles, Vitamin D levels, sunlight, sleep, stress and even the weather! Our daily schedule, as well as unexpected events, will impact how much we have left to give at the end of the day as well. Learning to plan for and recognize fatigue, whether cognitive or physical, can do wonders to prevent burnout and especially getting into the all-or-nothing failure mindset. Knowing that I’m not always going to have the capacity or energy to cook some grand meal, I can plan to keep options on hand that fit into my template but require very little effort to cook or prepare. Here is what I’ve done for myself and clients and I hope it is helpful to you:

-First, create a meal template to plan for feeding yourself and, if applicable, your family.  Creating a meal template just means assigning a category, theme or cooking strategy to dinner based on your general schedule, resources and food preferences and then put on weekly repeat for months at a time. 

-Second, when you go grocery shopping, buy an “incredibly easy” option for each category in addition to more routine ingredients for those categories. My incredibly easy options are either shelf stable or freezer friendly and I always keep them on hand.  

For example:

  • “Spaghetti Night” 
    • Regular option-some kind of pasta, a jar of sauce, meat from freezer, vegetables and/or salad, bread
    • Incredibly Easy option-can of Spaghettios and a can of green beans; maybe some fruit if on table
  • “Taco Tuesday”
    • Regular option-taco meat, shells, toppings, fruit, salad
    • Incredibly Easy option-Tortilla chips and cheese-let kids make their own microwave nachos; fruit on table
  • “Pizza Night”
    • Regular option-homemade pizza; salad
    • Incredibly Easy option-frozen pizza (FYI I don’t live in an area with any kind of food delivery or that would be my every pizza night option!)
  • “Breakfast for Dinner”
    • Regular option-pancakes or biscuits, fruit, maybe some eggs and veggies
    • Incredibly Easy option-cereal or instant oatmeal

-Third, try to still eat together. Sometimes it seems like very low energy or capacity level days also coincide with times when other things have fallen apart as well and the dinner table has a project on it or is still covered with breakfast dishes! (True story in my house). This may be when it matters more than you think to check in with your family.  You can always eat on the floor or the couch.  A meal doesn’t have to be perfect to be eaten together!

Another way to prepare for low energy level days is to plan one night a week in your template for “leftovers” and another night for either eating out or having an already very easy meal. In this case, you can just swap the night out. While my kids love the repetition and routine of knowing generally what to expect for dinner each night of the week, they understand swapping the nights around when needed. For me, that means not having to come up with anything new.  I know that sometimes a good night’s sleep is all that is standing between me and a higher energy level the next day so deciding to have cereal tonight and doing spaghetti the next night is a good plan.

That brings me to one of my last and most important points about trying to cook when your capacity is low: 

You also have full permission NOT to cook at all. 

Yep, even with a well laid out plan and incredibly easy options, sometimes going through a drive thru is the healthiest thing you can do. Sometimes what you need more than a “balanced sit down meal” is a hot shower and an early bedtime. Other times, you may just really need support. In this case, I have a couple friends that I know I can say “Hey, can we come eat with you? I’m tired and need a friend.” Eventually, you can return the favor when your energy and capacity is higher and theirs is lower. It happens to all of us. 

Normal eating is flexible and realistic and any type of meal planning should account for all versions of your capacity and energy. 

If you’d like to have some guided help in creating your meal template, our $7 download walks you through the steps and gives you a fully editable version. It also includes several possible categories and themes to help spur your creativity!