Meal Planning is Like Democracy
Notes on the worst form of (family) government.
Sometime over the summer I realized I was starting to hate dinner again. To be more precise, I was hating dinner with my family. I have learned, in the past nine-plus years of parenting, that this happens to me every so often. There are different flavors to this hatred: I hated dinner an awful lot when we were trying to make it compatible with tube-feeding. During the months when one of us had to eat while holding or bouncing a fussy baby. When we were training our puppy not to beg and whine at the table. Whenever a dictatorial toddler decided she would only eat if she sat on my lap. If you’re sensing a theme, it’s that I really hate dinner when I have to eat it while actively tending to another living creature. I just want to eat! And have a conversation! And not be touched!
But the dog is now trained(ish) and my kids are nine and almost five. They can feed themselves. They are capable of conversation. They don’t insist on touching me while I eat anymore. And yet, the dinner hatred came back. For all of us, if I’m being honest. It was a whole vicious circle. The kids regularly sat down at the table and screamed that they hated what I made, making me furious that I’d spent 30-60 minutes making something nobody appreciated, making Dan both impatient that I was bothering to try that hard and annoyed that the kids hate all the things. All of which made the kids even more likely to hate dinner because they both legitimately do not like a lot of foods and do not like when they can tell these preferences are disappointing and enraging to their parents.
Other things we hated: Kids refusing to like even a few of the same foods; one of my children currently dislikes all pasta except pesto (I KNOW), the other won’t eat French fries (ALSO TRULY WTF). Kids pushing plates away from them. Kids claiming to be “done” and leaving the table 30 seconds after dinner started, only to be rummaging around for snacks 15 minutes later. Kids who cannot sit on chairs and try to eat hanging off the side, which inevitably attracts the attention of the dog we just trained not to come beg for food at the table. I could go on.
For most of the summer, we tried a lot of Band-Aid solutions. Ordering takeout (because at least then you can’t get mad at me if your hot dog is cut vertically instead of horizontally!). A lot of backup meals. And then confusingly, a lot of nights where we refused to do those things and held firm to “here’s what’s on the table, eat it or don’t,” which is technically a tenet of Division of Responsibility, but not particularly well-executed since other nights we’d give up and go get someone a bowl of Cheerios and it probably wasn’t ever clear to them why the rules would sometimes change. So then we’d be back to yelling and bartering over bedtime snacks.
I want to pause here and say, yes, I am considered in some circles to be an expert on family feeding issues. I’d always be the first to say that’s not true. I’m not a dietitian or a feeding therapist and if I’m an expert on anything, it’s more like “cultural analysis of the ways gender roles and diet culture intersect with family meals” and wow does my family not give a fuck about that! But now, forever, please know: I am not an expert, I am just a person who wants very badly to eat without being touched or screamed at. And who will work hard to make that happen.
Anyway, one night in August, Dan and I were sitting on the porch after dinner, quietly swearing about how much we hate feeding our children and our nine-year-old overheard. “You know, at Addy’s house they plan out all their meals together as a family,” she said. “They do it on Sundays and the kids get a say too.” Oh. I texted Addy’s mom to confirm and indeed: They too had reached a breaking point with children hating dinner and started this as a last-ditch effort. “I think they needed to air their grievances,” she texted me back. “It has honestly helped a ton.”
We have been doing Family Meal Planning for a month now and it has also helped us a ton. It is not perfect! There are less tantrums but still sometimes tantrums! I remain quite sure that the entire concept of meal planning is problematic and rooted in misogyny and diet culture. It is, in so many ways, the worst form of family dinner. Except for everything else.1
So it is better. And the main reason is is obvious: The kids get a say in what’s for dinner. We hash out up front how much they hate (insert literally any food, somebody in my house is bound to hate it at the moment) and figure out together how to deconstruct the meal to include components they’ll eat.
We also decided that every family member gets to pick one night. This is not canon. At Addy’s house they can somehow negotiate meals all four of them are happy enough with most nights. But at my house, nobody agrees on anything, so it has been helpful to say, “yes, you hate spaghetti night, but stay strong because hot dog night is coming!” It also means Dan and I have to roll with eating spaghetti2 and hot dogs3 pretty much every week and nope that wouldn’t be my choice but I guess it’s good that the kids get to see us compromising too. Oh and we’re not trying to be heroes: There are four family members, so we cook four nights, Sunday through Wednesday. Thursday is usually leftovers or some kind of snack plate situation, and Friday and Saturday, we order in or go out.
The other reason it’s better: Family Meal Planning is a fairly perfect solution to the mental load of meal planning. Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, nobody feels like meal planning and we have to sort of force it. This is fine! I have never once felt like meal planning and yet for nine years I was the only person in the house who did any meal planning. I love, love, love sharing this load and making everybody else realize how hard it is to decide what’s for dinner. I revel in their annoyance because it means the labor is visible. It’s also less annoying because we’re all doing it and I’m not sitting there trying to divine my children’s feelings on rice as a safe food this week. I can even get sort of excited picking out one recipe I want to try for the night I get to pick. Then we write all the dinners on the dry erase board in our kitchen and everybody has a sense of accomplishment. Or something.
Family Dinner Rules
The other thing we did, along with instituting Family Meal Planning, was decide on some Family Dinner Rules. This idea comes from KJ Dell’Antonia’s excellent book How To Be A Happier Parent, which I read and loved a few years ago. As we were pondering how to introduce Family Meal Planning, I reread KJ’s chapter on dinner and emailed her and said “please tell me that making those rules was worth it?” KJ confirmed that it was worth it because all four of her kids have grown up to be people you’d actually want to eat dinner with.
Dan and I went over KJ’s list of rules (I also like this list from Maryann Jacobsen) to decide on our must-haves. But then we brainstormed this list with our kids, so they could make some contributions too.
1. One Family, One Meal
OK, this is really more of a goal than a rule. It doesn’t happen at all on the three nights a week we don’t cook. Also, as discussed, my kids don’t agree on a lot of favorite foods. One of them is a vegetarian right now, so on hot dog night, I am going to microwave her a frozen burrito. We’re also using dessert to help us stretch the definition of “one meal.” For example, last week (on my night!), I made these delicious sesame salmon bowls and served all the components separately in the hopes that the kids would eat, say, rice and cucumbers. But I also baked brownies since we had the day off and put them on the table too, at the same time as the rest of the meal. I am not at all surprised that that’s all they ate. I am happy nobody screamed or touched me. On nights we don’t have dessert, and they really don’t want to try anything on the table (yes this happens even though we planned together and Sunday Them thought they’d be happy to eat this thing come Wednesday) we’re letting them grab an apple or banana as a backup.
I’d say our failure to adhere to this rule is the biggest pain point for Dan, and I hear a lot from readers who struggle with kids who ignore the vegetables or the fish night after night after night. But research has shown over and over that pressuring kids to try bites or finish one food group to earn another doesn’t lead to kids who eat a wider variety of foods, and can have unintended consequences. And we know that, big picture, most kids will get the nutrients they need over the course of a few days or a week. To me, “one family, one meal” is not about getting us to all eat identical dinners. It’s about lessening the workload of short order cooking, and helping kids understand the value of sharing food in community.
2. No Pressure
This is on here as the kids’ insurance policy against Rule 1. Yes, we’re deciding on one family meal, but no, you don’t have to eat it all (or any of it) and we will not hassle you about it. The kids like this rule a lot. It’s obviously harder for parents, even parents like us who trained ourselves years ago not to push food because it was so critical to our older daughter’s ability to rebuild her oral eating skills. When we have a bad dinner, I can usually step back later and see how pressure emerged and was unhelpful. When we have a good dinner —people chatting, not touching each other, being funny, even sitting in chairs for more than 3 minutes— I can see how us not thinking about what our kids eat was actually crucial to that enjoyment. One framing that helps: My kids feel about pressure like I feel about being touched while I eat. GTFO. Done.
3. Wait To Eat Until The Cook Sits Down
This one is bedrock in our household. My kids know it, they get it, and yes, sometimes they sit with forks poised at their mouths waiting for my butt to hit the chair but they follow it. Dan and I both grew up in families without any such rule, and look: If you want to render the labor of family meals invisible, the fastest way to do that is to start eating before the person who did all that work has even filled their plate. Family members preparing meals are not waiters. (Though, related, it’s also rude to start eating before the waiter is done serving you.)
One common objection to this rule is that maybe the person preparing the meal keeps dodging back to the kitchen to grab other elements. Maybe they say, “Go ahead, eat while it’s hot!” To which I say: Why are you, a participant in this meal, not in the kitchen, grabbing those other elements? Why is the temperature of the meal jeopardized by your lack of agency? Be better.
An important corollary of this rule is that if more items are needed at the table (drink refills, ketchup, whatever), the parent who cooked should not be getting up to get them.
4. Don’t Yuck Someone Else’s Yum
This is a rule plastered all across Pinterest so I don’t need to explain it. The other, less cheesy way I like to say it is to quote a line from Jillian Tamaki’s magical picture book Our Little Kitchen: “Those who don’t cook don’t get to complain!” (Again: Make that labor visible!)
Enshrining this rule to our dry erase board went a long way towards reducing kid mealtime whining. What also helped: Making this one a zero tolerance policy. Screaming at the dinner table gets you sent away from the dinner table until you’re ready to rejoin us. I think we’ve only had to do that once. (Twice?)
To be clear: We’re not punishing our kids for having preferences. You can hate French fries, it’s weird but whatever! We’re refusing to let them be jerks about how they communicate those preferences because that’s part of learning how to be a thoughtful person in the world. Parents following Rule 2 is also key here. If a kid responds to my offer of sesame salmon with a polite “no thanks” or “it’s not my favorite,” I have to respect that answer, or they will understandably escalate to yucking my yum because I didn’t accept their no the first time.
5. You Don’t Have to Earn Dessert (or Seconds/Thirds of Your Favorites)
Another one that’s harder for parents than kids, but well-supported by research. For me, the struggle is less “oh god they only ate cookies for dinner” (I truly do not care) and more “will there be cookies left for me later because I want to eat them while I watch Bad Sisters.” So we have started talking about the importance of checking in with “Does anyone mind if I take the last of this?” before you grab handfuls of dessert. One time my 4-year-old ACTUALLY SAID THIS, unprompted, so I’ll dine out on that forever!!
I do get the concern that highly palatable foods will out-compete less palatable foods. For this reason, some families are sticklers for Ellyn Satter’s “one serving of dessert with dinner” rule. I find this a little too strict because one cookie just never feels like enough to me. So we’ll put out enough for everyone to have two or three cookies, but not, say, four dozen cookies. And listen: If you aren’t also offering treat foods in unlimited ways fairly often, don’t be surprised if even two or three cookies is not enough.
6. Clear Your Plate When You’re Done.
When we were locked in our house with our children for months in 2020, we dropped all of our parenting standards down to the floor. But I decided my one parenting goal during that time (besides doing my best to ensure we survived a global pandemic) would be to teach them to clear their plates. It’s two years later and we’ve got, like, an 80 percent success, so… yay? They literally clear only their plates and balk if we suggest a second trip to gather up their cup or fork or God forbid, a serving dish. But one kid will also sometimes put soap in the dishwasher with relish, so. It’s a step towards a world where all domestic labor is visible and family dinner is truly a family project.
I’m sharing all of this not to tell you that you should do Family Meal Planning or to make Family Dinner Rules. Clearly this was all a lot of work to figure out. And a lot of it might not work for you at all. I’m not even sure it’s going to work for us long-term. It for sure hasn’t solved every issue. One lingering one: Our kids are both still very quick to be done with dinner and it’s obnoxious to have people bolt away in less than five minutes after you cooked for more than 30. But they almost walked away from the whole deal when we proposed a rule about how long you sit at the table, so we cut that from the bill to get the votes we needed. We also haven’t quite figured out what do we do when we’re away for the weekend and forget to meal-plan. (Just wing it for the next week, I guess?)
There are also so many factors unrelated to dinner that make dinner absolutely terrible. Sometimes people are in grouchy moods and they are not fun to eat dinner with and yet we still have to love them. Another hurdle this plan can’t address is the fact that our kids come home from school starving and generally don’t finish their afternoon snack till 4:30, and yet we’re hoping they’ll be hungry for dinner at 5:30 or 6pm (because we still want to put the little one to bed by 7). It’s all a work in progress and it’s never going to be perfect. I’ll inevitably hate family dinner again in a few months. But for now, I only hate it a little bit. And some nights, not at all.
I did not expect to become even the tiniest part of the “Don’t Worry, Darling” discourse, so thanks to Antara Sinha for quoting me in this great Bon Appetit piece on the movie and mealtime gender roles.
For Jean Science fans: I am so here for Amanda Kate Richards’ new Fat Hell Substack and her excellent essays on low-rise jeans and jeggings, especially. (Related: My one pair of Jeans I Mostly Like are out getting hemmed right now and I’m trying to make my Less Good Jeans work and am reminded yet again that pants are terrible.)
Corinne says this is maybe too deep a cut for American readers, so FYI it’s from Winston Churchill, who, let’s be honest, probably would not have won WW2 if he wasn’t being fed by his long-time cook, Georgina Landemare. She had to work around rationing, a notoriously picky boss, and you know, the entire British class system. GEORGINA WE SEE YOUR LABOR.
I buy the good bucatini and Rao’s marinara sauce (unless I want to make a red sauce from scratch but Rao’s is so good, so why?) and make some kind of fancy meatball and/or salad to keep it interesting for the adults.
My tip here is to grill the hot dogs and buns because yes that really does taste better than microwaved and also to serve them with this pico de gallo and a dash of mayo. (Again, obviously, this is for the adults’ benefit, the hot dog-obsessed child just eats hers cut up with a spoon.) Open to other ideas for spicing up hot dogs now that tomato season is wrapping.