If you listened to my old podcast, Comfort Food, you may recall that “to meal plan, or not to meal plan?” was one of our most frequently debated questions. (If you didn’t listen to Comfort Food, you can still find our 87 episodes archived here and you’re welcome, because we were a delight.) My co-host, Amy Palanjian, is the creator of Yummy Toddler Food, so writing meal plans is literally (a part of) her job. And since it’s a job she’s created for herself, it makes sense that she genuinely loves meal planning, is very good at it, and consistently finds it to be a way to remove stress and bring order and comfort to her life.
I’m telling you that so that we’re clear right off the bat that I know there are lots of Amys in the world, who thrive on meal planning. But I am not that person.
For a long time, I just straight up didn’t do it. One reason for this is that I fancy myself a very good cook, the sort who rejects pedestrian concepts like “recipes,” and “grocery lists,” and can just whimsically concoct a delicious dinner most nights of the week just by staring at the fridge at 5pm and getting inspired by a jar of anchovies or a brick of nice cheese.
I am not actually Samin Nosrat or Julia Turshen, but a truth not universally acknowledged enough is that almost any combination of cheese, salty things, and garlic taste good over pasta, or with a runny egg on top (or both!) and once you learn those secrets, figuring out dinner on the fly becomes forever possible.
Until you have children.
The problem with a whimsical approach to dinner is that sometimes your inspiration comes together in 20 minutes, but sometimes you’d rather make something that takes an hour, or requires an ingredient to be defrosted or purchased. Once you have kids, you can no longer play fast and loose with the hours of 5 to 7pm. 5 to 7pm is the big show. You thought the tantrum about socks was tough when you were getting out the door at 8:15am, but that was nothing. That sock tantrum was cute and cuddly compared to the hangry/exhausted/overstimulated rages that can sweep through a house between 5 and 7pm, the two hours when you are also expected to prepare dinner, eat dinner, clean up dinner, bathe your children and put them to bed and we haven’t even gotten into homework or lunchbox packing or having a conversation of any substance with any member of your family.
So yes, having a plan around what’s for dinner and does it involve chicken that somebody should take out to defrost a few hours before 5pm is one obvious way to make those two hours go more smoothly.
But that doesn’t solve the underlying political issue: Meal planning is additional labor. Someone has to sit down and think about dinner at some non-dinner time, when they would rather be working or reading or watching Monty Don reruns on BritBox. That person has to make a whole series of complicated decisions, factoring in what everyone in the family will or won’t eat that particular week. Then they have to check whether some of the ingredients are already on hand, so they don’t end up buying capers when there is an unopened jar in the pantry (and also nobody in their house even likes capers).
Meal planning is a huge part of a household’s mental load. This means that in most households, meal planning is also invisible work to the members of the family not doing it, and even to researchers who track these questions. In this 2019 Pew Research survey, for example, we learn that 80 percent of mothers do all the grocery shopping and meal preparation for their households, but the researchers don’t even ask about planning. Maybe they think it’s obvious that there is no way the non-shopping/non-cooking partner is writing out menus? (Apologies that this research, like most research on domestic labor, is so heteronormative.)
I did find one study from 2013 which asked about meal planning. In this survey of over 3,000 American adults, 40 percent of women reported taking the main responsibility for meal planning, compared with just 6 percent of men. I should note that 60 percent of women and 54 percent of men viewed meal planning as a shared job. But women were much less likely than men to say they took no role in meal planning, which makes me question whether everyone is using the same definition of “shared job.” I suspect at least some of these men were giving themselves participation trophies for answering with a noun when their wife said, “what do you want for dinner tonight?” Occasionally volunteering “pizza!” does not a meal planner make.
I’ve written before about how the division of labor shakes out in my house, which is to say, pretty darn equally. So my resistance to meal planning has had a lot to do with maintaining that equality. If I were to suddenly spend a chunk of our toddler’s rapidly dwindling weekend nap time pinning recipes or chopping vegetables (meal PREP being a whole other hellscape of added labor) while my husband plays video games, we will have spun out of orbit.
The meal planner is also suddenly in charge of large and squishy topics like “family nutrition” in a way that’s rarely acknowledged. Especially because meal planning—as a chore, a hobby, a lifestyle—has been so thoroughly and creepily co-opted by diet culture. The hashtag #mealplanning brings up some 1.3 million posts on Instagram. My conservative estimate, based on a few minutes of scrolling, is that at least two-thirds of them are directly about dieting and the rest have it baked in: Meal plans that are dairy-free/grain-free/low-carb/raw/keto/etc/etc. Meal plans with stringent calorie counts. Meal plans that make you start each day with a glass of warm lemon water. Meal plans that use egg whites in every meal. Meal plans that are just smoothie recipes because you’re apparently planning to stop chewing food. I even found a meal plan based around “pickle bites” where you use pickles the way another person might use bread. This is all before we even get into #WhatIEatInADay TikTok, which is pretty much all before and after weight loss photos and diet rules.
Some of these posts come from gym bros, meticulously planning out their macros. But so, so many of them come from women. Women getting their beach bodies, or their pre-baby body back. Women sticking to their diet by packing salads to take to the office every day. Women planning to eat the rainbow and feed it to their family too. Social media has convinced us of the utility of meal planning but also to crave the meal planning aesthetic — adorable printable calendars, fridges full of produce organized by color in clear acrylic bins. Meal planning offers a white-washed vision of domestic life, brought to us by The Container Store, and also inextricably linked to the thin ideal.
OK, so anyway, three weeks ago I started meal planning.
Or started again, I should say. After debating all of the above with Amy and many guests on various podcast episodes, I had begun to do a version of meal planning that I prefer to call “meal categorizing.” I didn’t write out menus or grocery lists. But I did assign a type of dinner to every night of the week: Pasta night, chicken night, taco night, eggs night, etc. This reduced a lot of the 5pm decision fatigue by giving me some parameters to work with, without creating any extra work.
Then, of course, came March 2020. I know some folks doubled down on meal planning during the pandemic, especially in those early months when we were all trying to go two or three weeks between grocery store visits. My approach was more “let’s hoard brownie mix and Cheez-Its and ride this thing out however we can.” I honestly can’t remember what we ate for dinner most nights during the most stringent lockdown times. But I for sure leaned into takeout as soon as it felt safe. Both to help keep our local restaurants in business and because with kids home all day every day, I was preparing SO MUCH FOOD ALL THE TIME, that I was just done by the time we got to dinner.
But over the past few months, family dinners, even takeout nights, have been feeling harder. My kids started burning out on fan favorites like the box mac and cheese and frozen french fries that had gotten us through so many months of lockdown life. But they also weren’t particularly open to trying new foods, so there was a lot of somebody wailing as soon as she laid eyes on her dinner plate. Meanwhile, Dan is sick of eating pasta. And I’m sick of all of our takeout options except Indian and the Indian restaurant doesn’t open early enough to make it work for our family meals. We were all in various intersecting food ruts, and that made the burden of deciding what’s for dinner even more paralyzing.
So I found an app. And had what is maybe a bit of a revelation: Meal planning on an app reduces a ton of the mental load work. I pick four recipes (because we still do takeout twice a week and the other night is always some kind of pasta and making amazing pasta without recipes is still my super power) and the app immediately makes a grocery list for me. At 5pm I pull out ingredients and make the meal. The food is not Samin Nosrat-good but it’s tasty.
Also, they put the recipes in a really large font so I’m much less annoyed trying to follow one on my phone. My kids even wanted to help last night and my 7-year-old could read the instructions to me which was legitimately useful.
The app is not perfect. It’s called Mealime, which is both cutesy and unappetizing, and makes me think of meal worms.They also offer some diet-based menus. I ignore the keto and vegetarian offerings and search for stuff like “quick and easy” instead. But let me be clear that this is not sponsored content. (If anyone knows of a similarly high-functioning meal planning app that doesn’t cater to diet culture in any way, please drop it in the comments!) Also, their recipes are for either two or four people, and I have to remember to look at quantities for specific ingredients because even though we are four people, 2-3 of us don’t eat salmon, for example, so I didn’t actually need to buy 1.5 pounds of that. But I appreciate that they can all be made in the 30-40 minutes I have at 5pm to cook dinner; no advance prep required. And the meals generally make enough to give us leftovers for lunch the next day, which is nice.
And: My kids are trying new foods again. My older kiddo loved going through the app to pick out recipes to try. They are both more eager to take a bite of something they helped cook. (One of those true-isms of feeding picky eaters that turns out to be annoyingly true.) And having the plan and writing it on our calendar means they know what’s for dinner and are less likely to sit down at the table and scream in fury because even if chicken is not their favorite, they knew it was coming and we’ve already discussed which safe foods they would like alongside it. Having the structure of a meal plan gives them more confidence around food.
I’m only a few weeks into doing dinner this way and I’m sure we won’t stick with it forever. I dream of a time when the kids are older and I can go back to just cooking whatever sounds good on that particular day, and trust that they can roll with it or figure it out. Hell, right now I just fantasize about a post-Delta/post-kid-vaccine world where we can go eat indoors at restaurants again. Or the Indian restaurant deciding to open earlier. My bar is pretty low right now. But seeing how well a strictly non-diet version of meal planning works for my kids (and my own stress level) reminds me, once again: This work, of figuring out dinner, feeding families, surviving 5 to 7pm every night with small children—this is work that matters. In refusing to meal plan, I was also refusing to value this layer of the mental load, which makes me not that much better than the dudes who tell their wives, “just tell me how to help.” The answer isn’t to ignore the chores that make our lives run more smoothly; it’s to name them, and make them more valuable.
Coming up: On Thursday’s podcast I’ll be answering reader questions about calling treat foods “sometimes foods,” elimination diets, what to do if your little girl is waking up hungry in the middle of the night, how to change the way you talk to your kids about food, even when everyone is hungry, and much more. Join as a paid subscriber so you don’t miss it!
Back to basics: Last week I had the pleasure of explaining Health at Every Size (HAES) to Good Housekeeping readers. It might be a bit entry-level for some of my more advanced Burnt Toast readers, but it’s an excellent refresher, or a good article to send to a parent, sibling, or friend who might be unfamiliar with the concept. Read more here.
Body Positive Parenting: I also joined Zoë Bisbing on The Full Bloom Podcast, to chat about how we’re raising a more inclusive next generation, and navigating diet culture in schools. Listen here.