Two weeks ago, Gemma Hartley came on Best of Both Worlds to talk about emotional labor. This phrase describes the mental work that is done to manage a household and keep everyone happy. Hartley argued that women do the lion’s share of this work.
This episode sparked quite a discussion. One practical question that came out of the discussion was how to lighten this mental load if it is keeping you from building a career, enjoying life, and interacting with family members with less stress. Sometimes outsourcing can be an answer, but you probably can’t outsource everything. So if you’re going to outsource something, what should be the top priority?
I’ve been thinking about this since the episode. My answer? Monday-Thursday dinner prep.
If you are in charge of dinner during the week, you have to think about what to make and what to buy. You have to think about whether people will like it. You think about how long the prep will take, and you think about whether you can get home in time to do that prep before everyone is cranky and hungry. This means that you’re probably ending your work day earlier, or at least thinking about this next task (dinner prep) when you could be thinking about what work problems you need to solve before you leave.
Obviously, some of this can be solved with meal planning, or cooking ahead of time, though I find that the net result of this option is that the person in charge of meal prep winds up with significantly less weekend free time. That doesn’t seem like a great solution. If the meal is made ahead of time, someone still has to heat it up and get it on the table. This takes time too.
Truly having this load off your plate (so to speak!) means that when it is dinner time, a meal appears before you. If you are normally the person who handles this task, this might seem mind-boggling (and probably indulgent!) but I’d point out that a lot of people (probably mostly male people) take it for granted.
So how do you get there? One obvious way is to get meals delivered from restaurants Monday through Thursday. If you live somewhere with a lot of delivery options, this is probably the most affordable way to go. You can set up recurring orders places. You can consciously decide to have the family order from places with healthier options (so we can avoid the Michael Pollan screed about the Kentucky Fried Chicken ad that had a bucket of chicken with the phrase “women’s liberation”). But even if you don’t, if you eat 21 meals a week, having four that are less than saintly isn’t the end of the world.
While this doesn’t get a meal in front of you without effort, you can decide that dinner is a fend-for-yourself time (if you have older kids). One option might be to flip the day. Family breakfast becomes the sit-down family meal. I don’t really mind cooking a hot breakfast for the family, and my husband and I will often do this if we’re home. It doesn’t have quite the same mental load (maybe because breakfast is a less fraught meal?) If you always have lots of microwave meals and sandwich stuff in the house for dinners, this can work.
You can delegate this task to other people in the family. If you feel like the mental load is unbalanced, you might specifically request that your partner take Monday-Thursday dinner prep on as a way to even things up. He/she might not necessarily do it as you would, but so what? Maybe you do the meals you’d like on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Older children could also take this on. Even grocery shopping — either getting groceries delivered, or walking/riding bikes/driving to a grocery store.
And you can outsource this to people outside your family. The most straightforward way is to assign this task to an employee who is already in your home Monday through Thursday (e.g. a nanny or after-school sitter). An after-school sitter might come an hour earlier than necessary to take care of home tasks like this. Preschool or nap hours might work for prep if someone is there full time. If little kids aren’t in the picture, a regular housekeeper could take on the prep for at least a few nights. Or a chef if you want to get fancy!
I’m sure there are other options too. If you’ve taken Monday-Thursday dinner prep off your plate, please share how you’ve done so. And if you think there’s another mental load reduction strategy that’s got a bigger payoff, please let me know that too!
Photo: Wolfgang Puck in the Indianapolis airport. One of my favorite airport meal options! Also, I like Frontera at O’Hare.