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September 23, 2020

Meal Planning in the Virtual Learning Age

By Erin Decker, MS, RDN, LDN, CDCES 


Back-to-school is looking a little different these days. For many families in the Triangle, “back-to-school” now means back to the home office or the kitchen table. Gone are the days of school lunch and trendy lunch boxes, and in come the inevitable question: “what’s for lunch?”

While many have found life in this pandemic to be a bit slower paced, it does bring with it its own challenges, particularly those pertaining to meal planning. For example, it is easy to fall into the habit of not preparing meals. Since no one will be rushing out the door in the morning, it is easy to wonder “what’s the point?” in preparing a lunch box. However, this can lead to missing meals, making less healthy convenient choices, or just overall feeling scatterbrained when it comes to mealtime.

If this sounds like you and your family, read below for some tips to streamline meal planning in the virtual learning age!

1. Have a plan.

Having a plan in place reduces decision fatigue during busy days. The plan can be as simple as a few meal ideas on a post-it or expanded to include all three meals for each day of the week. If you find meal planning to be overwhelming, consider using “theme days” to simplify the process. For example, plan for pasta on Mondays, tacos on Tuesdays, take-out on Wednesdays, and so on. This allows for some variation in the type of dish you make, but helps narrow down your search for recipes.

2. Keep a master list of favorite meals and snacks.

Keep favorite recipes and meal ideas handy, along with any notes about what worked well, who liked what, and how long the meals actually took to prepare. Think about what substitutes you can make if you are short on time, such as incorporating vacuum sealed ready rice, rotisserie chicken, and frozen or canned vegetables.

3. Maintain a routine.

Maintaining an eating routine can keep blood sugar levels steady and energy levels up. Routine also helps reinforce habit formation, which can simplify your schedule.

4. Pack a lunch as if you are going to work and the kids are going to school.

It is easy to fall into the habit of skipping this step. After all, there is no rushing in the morning to get out the door! However, taking time to prepare ahead of time can reduce the risk that you fall back on something quick and convenient at lunch. Consider portioning out snack foods, leftovers, or making a few sandwiches ahead of time on Sunday.

5. Give yourself some grace.

When it comes to meal planning, keep it simple and don’t be afraid to repeat meals, especially lunches. If your kids are content eating the same thing every day, there is no reason to stray! Stick with what works and modify what doesn’t. If you find planning every meal to be a challenge, don’t be afraid to incorporate take-out. You do not need to have a perfect diet to be healthy.


There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and it can be difficult to change many things at once. That being said, starting a new routine can be a great time to build healthy habits before falling into unhelpful ones. If you are struggling to get started, pick one thing to focus on that will streamline your week, and remember it doesn’t have to be perfect. Something is better than nothing!

Erin Decker is an RDN working at the North Raleigh and Central Raleigh offices. She enjoys running, visiting local breweries, and snuggling with her dog, Lottie. She is passionate about promoting a healthy lifestyle in a non-judgmental environment.

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