Holiday Meal Planning? You Can Do That!

guest post by Karen Sampson Hoffman, MA

Halloween is upon us, with Thanksgiving just a few weeks away. For most of us, the next two months will be filled with festive gatherings and traditional foods. But if you cope with ADHD and you’re the holiday cook, how do you get ready for an upcoming feast?

“Meal planning has always been one of the most challenging problems I’ve faced as a mom with ADHD,” says Terry Matlen, ACSW,  a therapist and coach who works with women who have ADHD. She remembers having a group of family and friends visiting from out of town on Thanksgiving. The thought of preparing dinner for so many people was just overwhelming.

“I knew I couldn’t manage cooking for everyone,” she says, “so I talked to my family and we all agreed that the importance of the holiday was not the food, not the decorations; it was about being together as a family. So, I went out an hour before dinner and picked up all the food at a local restaurant.”

When ADHD symptoms go to the grocery store

Preparing for the big event can be frustrating when inattention, difficulty organizing, poor time management, and impulsivity intrude on the process.

Stacey Turis, who has ADHD, shared with CHADD’s Attention magazine the Christmas dinner following the death of her grandmother, when she volunteered to prepare the family feast. Her first thought was to prepare the entire dinner by herself, but then good friends ordered a pre-cooked holiday meal from the local grocery store as a gift for the family.

“I decided to attack the more creative dishes my gourmet-chef-of-a-mom had added to the holiday menu over the years,” Turis says. Those creative dishes led to 14 trips to the grocery store (at least once because she forgot to look at the items on the other side of the shopping list) and a grocery bill that wasn’t in her budget. The multiple trips and dent in the bank account came to her husband’s attention. Turis said the experience left her feeling foolish for not paying attention and for poor money and time management. And then, in the end, the family dog got to the special dishes before they could be set on the holiday table.

The moral of the story? “Holidays are like the four-cheese macaroni dish,” she notes. “You can glam it up however you want, but at the end of the day the simple, original ingredients are what make it truly special.”

Making holiday meal plans

Among the symptoms of adult ADHD are inattention, difficulty organizing, poor time management, and impulsivity. When it comes to making plans for a large gathering focused on a special meal, these symptoms can interfere with the planning process and leave you feeling rushed, forgetful, and even embarrassed by the end of the meal.

To help you be ready for the big meal and a more relaxed holiday event, we’ve adapted the following tips from the daily online food magazine The Kitchn.

  • Use your calendar.
    Especially when you are struggling with time management, plotting out your work on a calendar can help you coach yourself through the many steps of holiday meal planning and preparation. This includes time preparing the dining room and setting the table. As you get closer to the day of your family meal (Thanksgiving, for example) block out a few days ahead to prepare some of the side dishes that can hold in the refrigerator or plan to bake the weekend before rather than the evening before your dinner.
  • Don’t forget a shopping list.
    Don’t rely on your memory or even quickly written notes about what to buy. Write up a shopping list—with the note to check the other side—before heading out to the grocery store. Create headings for each dish you plan to make and then list the ingredients for each heading (for example write apple pie, and list the ingredients you need: apples, pie crust (2), aluminum pie plate, apple pie spice, flour). Check your pantry to see what ingredients you may already have, and cross those off. If you have a budget to stick with, write your budgeted amount on the paper where you can keep the information in front of you. And then, make a back-up copy. Since shopping lists can easily be misplaced, take photos of both sides of your list with your smart phone to be sure you have a copy handy.
  • Prep dinner components.
    It’s tempting to think, “I have to make all of the dinner now.” Instead, break up your steps (the calendar can help!) and do one thing at a time. Right now, just make the green bean side dish. Later, you can prepare the make-ahead mashed potatoes. Instead of the entire salad, just cut up and mix the vegetable toppings and stash them in a container until it’s time to put them on a bag of prewashed lettuce or other greens.
  • Delegate and outsource what you can.
    Involve your family in preparations; they will feel “ownership” of the day. Give your kids and/or partner well-defined, tasks such as cleaning the dining room, setting the table, arranging flowers, writing name cards for each guest’s place setting―but one task at a time. Keep a list of dinner items and ask friends or family to make one of those dishes and bring it with them. You can also order your big meal ahead, like Stacey Turis’s friends did for her, and add one or two signature dishes or desserts. Find a great bakery and let its bakers fix the perfect dessert for you. Instead of “chef” for the big meal, consider yourself the “coordinator” and work from that point of view.
  • Keep things simple.
    “You’ve already got a lot on your plate, so this isn’t the time to make fancy dinners or experiment with new, complicated recipes,” advises Kitchn writer Kelli Foster. “Keep meals simple, quick, and easy.”
Tools to help you plan

You’ve spoken with your family and guests, and you’ve checked your pantry. Now it’s time to make your plan. Here are some tools that can help with planning.

  • FlyLady’s Cruising Through the Holidays resource page, including her Holiday Control Journal. FlyLady is popular with many CHADD members and her baby-steps program of cleaning, organizing, and preparing for the holiday season helps you break the task into chunks leading up to your events. The Holiday Control Journal also has pages to help you plan your meals, create your shopping lists, and manage your calendar.
  • My Frugal Home has a one-page printable Holiday Meal Planner that includes a shopping list.
  • Online grocery shopping can be both a time and a budget saver. Check with your favorite grocery store for its online shopping service. Or check out Instacart online or as an app in Google Play or the iStore. Delivery and membership fees do apply; delivery is not a free service, so be sure to add these costs to your budget. Not liking Instacart? Keep looking through your app store, as there are several other grocery delivery services that may be a better fit for your needs.

Enjoy your holiday meal

Using some of the tips and tools above can help ease the pressure you may feel from your own expectations. You can have a special holiday meal that honors your family’s traditions. Just remember to breathe, enjoy the day, enjoy family, and if everything doesn’t go as planned, laugh. It doesn’t matter. What matters is you, your family, and your friends.


A senior health information specialist at the National Resource Center on ADHD, Karen Sampson Hoffman is the editor of the ADHD Weekly newsletter.

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