Weekend: Small moments of relaxation, Chuck E. Cheese, and thoughts on the mental load of meal planning

This wound up being a fairly full weekend. We celebrated my daughter’s 8th birthday as a family on Friday night. My parents came from New Jersey, and we did her requested meal for dinner, ice cream cake, and presents. I thought we were in good shape on celebrations, as I had gone in to her class to read on Friday afternoon (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), and also arranged for a party for 18 children (we invited the whole class) at Chuck E. Cheese on Sunday, which she knew was coming up. Alas, in the course of this, we had not purchased marshmallow fluff, which she had decided might taste good on ice cream cake. Not that she had ever tried such a thing before, but at some point in the past she had requested it. And it was not there. So there were violent sobs. Welcome to parenting.

We recovered shortly, though, as she filled her new photo album with pictures taken with her new Polaroid-style camera. This is a pretty fun gift for modern kids who have no sense of film and development. She has posed us all for pictures in various groups, and left a few blank spots for photos of the new baby. Hopefully the camera is still functional in January!

On Saturday morning, my husband and 10-year-old son left for the Cub Scout camping trip. I often accompany our scout, since I like camping, but I’d begged off because of my pregnant body’s desire not to sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground. I think they had a good time, though now my son is quite excited to do an indoor camping trip this winter which, unfortunately, may be right around the time of the baby’s birth. If it’s after, my husband can go, but if it’s right before, I’m not sure I’m going to want him away for the night, given my 2-hours-from-start-to-finish labor last time. We shall see.

The rest of us did various activities: karate, a birthday party. Then I took the three kids in my care out for dinner Saturday night at Maggiano’s Little Italy (another birthday request). This felt shockingly doable. I guess once five kids are on the horizon, dealing with three seems like nothing. I brought extra paper and crayons and everyone was happy.

On Sunday morning, I woke up to run on the treadmill. Upon arriving downstairs, I discovered my 4-year-old had already arisen, and gotten himself logged on to our home computer to watch cartoons (which meant typing the password! He knows it, but he isn’t exactly literate yet). He had even grabbed a few squeeze applesauce packets from the pantry for breakfast. He had never done this on his own before; he’s always woken me up to deal with him in the morning. It’s a little strange to think that he’s now decided he’s grown-up enough to find his own morning entertainment and sustenance. I guess I am happy for the extra sleep, though we will be very careful about setting the door alarm and such.

I knew I needed to get all three kids ready for church, earlier than normal because they’d need to come to choir rehearsal with me. But after running, I decided to set an alarm on my phone and sit with my cup of coffee and a book for the 10 minutes before we absolutely needed to start getting ready. It was quite nice. I’m trying to get better about using little pockets of downtime to sit and relax like that, rather than losing this me-time in the midst of transitions and everything else. We still made it on time.

I took the three to church, and then we welcomed the campers home. I saw my husband for about 2 minutes in passing before he took the 4-year-old to soccer. I read on the porch for a bit (nice!) and then corralled the big kids, and picked up one of my daughter’s friends to head over to Chuck E. Cheese, which she had decided was The Place to celebrate a birthday.

I have to say, it was not bad. They do a lot of birthdays, and the kids could all just play on the games with their unlimited play passes. My husband mostly watched the 4-year-old (who he brought from soccer) so I chatted with other parents and worked with the party host to keep things on track. We had pizza and cake and my daughter got to experience the ticket blaster booth, which was quite possibly the highlight of her entire life. I think this may even have made up for the marshmallow fluff incident. Then it was home to open presents and get everyone to bed, or at least try. An 8-year-old birthday party may overexcite some people, and my husband was still up dealing with our daughter, who kept popping out of her room, at 10:45 p.m., when I collapsed (ahead of some travel this morning…)

So that was the weekend. Now…meal prep. Multiple people sent me the article that ran in The Week about the mental load of cooking. Author Zoe Fenson notes that she is a passionate home cook, but as part of handling that responsibility, she knows that cooking is not just about turning on a heat source to change the physical chemistry of some food item. There’s the menu planning — itself an exercise in knowing people’s preferences, and being knowledgeable enough of nutrition to occasionally serve vegetables — and the grocery shopping. This involves keeping a mental inventory of what is in the house and what is not. We don’t have a word for this mental work. It’s all subsumed in the word “cooking.” But what happened is that when she had an intense work deadline, and her husband invited a friend over for dinner, he insisted he was happy to do the cooking. She showed up at home a bit before the friend got there and her husband asked, innocently enough, what they had in the fridge. To him, cooking just meant putting together stuff (that miraculously appears in the kitchen) and turning on the heat source. She assumed he was going to do the work of planning a dinner for company, with all that entailed. A fight ensued; she writes that they were speaking different languages.

Longtime readers of this blog know that someone writes an article like this every few months for somewhere, at which point it goes viral and people work themselves into a rage about it. Which can be fun! But in any case, what’s most practical for anyone facing this situation to do is exactly what it sounds like this couple ultimately did. They had a discussion about what work is involved in running a household, so everyone knows what the work is, and it can be more equitably distributed based on preference and schedules in a way that leaves everyone relatively satisfied. Someone who is a passionate home cook probably should do more of the cooking, though it’s good for the other party to know what is involved, This is partly to appreciate it and also, should party A get hit by a bus, to ensure that party B isn’t eating out of cans for the next six months.

I would just add to this that I do think it is easy to be blind to other people’s contributions in general. This is not always a male or female issue. It’s a human issue. When we don’t personally do something, we tend to think it’s not that big a deal. This is why a co-worker will ask you for a “quick favor” that is not quick at all. This is why our passionate home cook’s male partner did not know what went into meal planning and preparation. However, it is also possible that he does something that she has little knowledge of. I have been known to say something like “hey, there are a few lights in the basement that are out” or “the toilet by my office is making a funny noise” or “we need more money in our checking account to cover the quarterly taxes.” And then going about my life trusting that the light bulb and plumbing fairies and whoever maintains a relatively liquid position in part of our investments that earns more than cash to optimize our returns, but can be used as cash when necessary, will work their magic.

Is meal planning and inventory management on your plate (so to speak!) at your house?

16 thoughts on “Weekend: Small moments of relaxation, Chuck E. Cheese, and thoughts on the mental load of meal planning

  1. Meal planning used to be my responsibility, when my husband worked outside of the home and I did not. I am not a creative cook, so I subscribed to a menu planning service. It was great! Gone were the days of $200 spent at the store and no idea what to make for dinner. I really knew I had to do something when my 7-year-Old asked “Are we having chicken or fish with the rice and peas tonight?” Suddenly I was making meals from around the world, lots of vegetables, learning new techniques. I was kind of proud of my cart at the store, filled with “real” food and so much produce. I shopped once a week, with a quick pickup of milk, bananas, and bread midway through the week.

    Now my husband works from home, and he likes to cook. It is his creative outlet after a busy day on the computer and on the phone. But he doesn’t like to plan a menu, and doesn’t want to buy meat more than two days ahead. Yet, he rarely has time to shop. Since I go by the store in the course of my daughterly duties a few times a week, I do most of the shopping. I liked my old method better. It made for a great routine. And I learned a lot.

    1. Curious what menu planning service you used, Barb? Was it the menu only? Or did it come with a shopping list or food delivery?

      1. Amy, the one I used was Menu Mailer from Saving Dinner. It did come with a complete shopping list for the week, but a lot of the list was staples like oils, spices, flour, etc. so when I went to the store I really bought only about 2/3 of what was on the list.

  2. Ugh, menu planning…! I don’t like it but since I am cheap (or, frugal), I think it’s essential. Despite having a repertoire of meals, I find it hard to come up with dinner every week.

    Reading about your weekend sounds really nice, a lot going on! I’ve noticed friends don’t figure in your reports, and for me, those have always been tricky to ‘squeeze in’, esp. out-of-town friends. When do you meet friends?

  3. I am the meal planner in our house and I have to say, I don’t mind it. I have a routine and I am not solely responsible for all the work. I have a template: Mondays I work late and our au pair cooks for the kids, hubby and I have salad and cheese later (which the au pair often also prepares and sometimes shares). Tuesdays I make something quick (soup and salad, rotisserie chicken and a veggie, tacos, etc.). Wednesdays are my 12 yo’s responsibility. He chooses a meal and is responsible for making to too (he still needs help with this but I see glimmers of independence here). Thursdays we have pasta and slad which the au pair makes. Fridays are pizza night (ordered in). Saturdays are date nights for grown-ups and au pair or sitter makes something simple for the kids (fishsticks, eggs, leftovers). Sunday I make something more involved because I enjoy it.

    My husband, au pair and I divide the shopping. I order the online grocery delivery, hubby hits the farmer’s market and Costco (only once a month) and au pair picks up some things we don’t get on grocery delivery. As my kids get bigger they will take more responsibility for planning and cooking–big kids have their benefits. I also involve all my kids in cooking at various times which help it to feel like time spent with them, not me slaving away in the kitchen while they play.

    1. I also do a template-type meal plan. I’ve also started asking each person in my family to come up with one meal idea — the kids take turns getting to pick the pasta for Thursday, and whoever’s not up picks something else. My husband loves food and loves to make requests, so that helps a lot. I also keep a list of what’s in the fridge at the bottom of a laminated meal plan on the fridge — it has a space for each day on the left, and for a grocery list on the right. That way I know what I need to use and what I don’t need to buy, and it’s also visible if for some reason I’m not the one shopping (I’m always the one shopping). So I guess I’m saying I definitely carry 90% of the mental load, but try to make it as automatic and simple for me as possible. I also drag my kids with me to the grocery most of the time so they learn how to do it, and they pack their own lunches while I’m fixing dinner, so they get some exposure to food prep, too. It’s a pain, but I’d rather spend school hours not doing chores.

      1. @Meghan I agree that it takes more time to have kids help in the kitchen at first, but I am starting to see some payoff with my older 2 kids who are 12 and 9. They also really like being in the kitchen with me–anything you can do that your 12 yo likes doing with is worth doing more of! And my 9 yo is the pickiest of my 4 kids and she is definitely more open to eating things she has helped to make.

        1. Chiming in as a nearly 30-year old single woman who LOVES cooking that you’re teaching your kids super valuable skills! My mom had us helping in the kitchen as early as I can remember doing stuff like making pasta (I was the runner, my brothers painted flour on, my sister fed through the roller), kneading bread dough, portioning cookies, etc. By high school my mom was working part time and would leave instructions for us to grill chicken or prep salads for dinner. It astonished me to get to college and realize some peers had no idea how to even cook a chicken breast or roast potatoes.

  4. I am finally an empty-nester after 18 years cooking for a family of 4 and 6 additional years cooking for a family of 3. I do feel like I have extra time on my hands b/c meal prep takes a substantive amount of time. I used to do a lot of the big prep meals over the weekend and saved leftovers for the weekdays. I still do that even if it’s just me and my husband. We save even more time now b/c he does green juice for the morning, which he preps himself, and I do intermittent fasting so I don’t eat till lunchtime anyway. It’s been great for my energy level, and it is a time saver.

  5. I cancelled meal planning and inventory management altogether in my household. I guess you could say I am in charge of it because I created the system, but it was a one-time investment and now it requires no thought and no effort. I wrote a stack of weekly meal plans on index cards (4 for each season), with matching grocery list on the back, and we rotate through them. The only mental work is to select one index card on Saturday, which is grocery run day. I love to cook and to eat, and I miss the variety to some extent, but not enough to go back to planning a unique menu each week (let alone planning on a daily basis!) When time opens up I want to add back one spontaneous recipe per week.

    1. I’ve seen meal plans that do this and have been intrigued! I think I could do this and maybe have an “optional” meal or something for days I want to try something new or see something online or in a magazine. I like the index card! Thanks!

  6. We really changed our approach to meal planning/cooking after we had our son. Before I did 100% of it – planned the meals, grocery shopped, did the cooking. Now we sit down mid-week, look through the grocery ad, and come up with a meal plan. I made 3-4 meals/week and we have leftovers or easy things on the other days (like eggs or cereal – we are not a ‘make a meal every night’ kind of family). Then I add what we need to our grocery list which is a shared note on our iPhone. That way my husband can always add to it and it’s a shared responsibility. Then he does the grocery shopping on Saturday morning and I do a lot of the prepping ahead of time (like chopping veggies), and I assemble the meals while he feeds our son. We eat after our son eats as it just doesn’t work for us to all sit down together. Our son is hungry around 5:30-5:45 and there’s just no way I can get a meal on the table for all of us by then since we get home around 5-5:15. Hopefully some day down the road we can all eat together but for now, this is what works for us.

    Reviewing the division of labor in our house has been really important since having a child. We are both aware of what the other does and appreciate their contribution (I’m so glad my husband handles all the snow removal!!). And we shift things when it’s inequitable, like our meal prep used to be.

  7. I completely agree that we do tend to be blind to other people’s contributions. However, the three examples you mentioned, and many others I’ve heard such as yard maintenance, don’t take place every day the way that meal planning/cooking do. I think this is part of the problem–women are often in charge of the every day, and men step in to handle things that come up once a week or once in a while (no one is mowing the lawn every day). Dealing with the mental load every day is exhausting and is what leads to these types of articles.

    I did think this particular article was calm and considered, and looked at both sides of the situation (the many sides of it, actually), which is a refreshing difference from some of the similar articles. And as you mention, while it’s always ongoing, it sounds like they resolved it in this practical way.

    I know one of your answers to lessening the mental load is to do less and lower standards, and in regards to meal planning, I have. I eat a low-carb, high-fat diet so I just make food for myself; my husband and young daughter eat what they like and supplement with other food. I’ll make a couple of other things for them here and there (rice, baked sweet potatoes, etc.) and my husband is also fine with eating cereal or a sandwich for dinner.

    1. @Caitlin – I agree that the day to day stuff can drag people down. That’s why (in previous posts) I’ve recommended off-loading Mon-Thurs dinner planning and prep as the biggest payoff for freeing up mental space. I know it’s been great for me to stop thinking about this. I can use the time to think of other things!

  8. “There’s the menu planning — itself an exercise in knowing people’s preferences, and being knowledgeable enough of nutrition to occasionally serve vegetables — and the grocery shopping. This involves keeping a mental inventory of what is in the house and what is not. We don’t have a word for this mental work.”

    The term “life admin” was recently coined by author Elizabeth F. Emens. Here’s an excellent piece by her on Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-admin/201812/the-invisible-labor-life-admin

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