For years, I’ve scoffed at the idea of those meal plan services that continue to become more and more popular. Waste of money! I don’t need help cooking healthy meals for my family! Honestly, I didn’t understand the appeal. Then, while reading one of my favorite blogs, 100 Days of Real Food, I stumbled on an old post on the blog reviewing some meal planning services. I clicked on one of the links, and saw I could get a month of menus and shopping lists for free. Free is free, I figured, so I jumped in and gave it a try.
At around the same time I was reading this post, I had started to realize that my husband and I were off our game when it came to grocery shopping and serving home cooked meals on a regular (or even a semi-regular) basis. While we abide by some pretty firm rules about what we keep in the fridge and pantry (no juice, very few packaged foods, no sweets unless we make them at home, etc), at some point in the past year, while our meals were still pretty healthy, they had become pat and boring. My husband commutes to NYC and is out a few nights a week, so on many weekdays, it’s just me and my daughters, and I had become supremely lazy about cooking real meals. Half the time, I was drinking a protein shake for dinner (which, for the record, is not necessarily a bad thing) while my kids were gobbling up scrambled eggs or homemade mac n cheese. Healthy enough and nothing that was coming out of a box, but bland and boring. I wasn’t doing their kid palates any favors.
Then I started to notice that we were wasting a lot of food. A bunch of expensive Whole Foods dinosaur kale was thrown, soggy, into the compost bin. So, too, a carton of organic vine tomatoes. Even lemons and onions, formerly my cooking staples, were going bad in the fruit bowl.
Even so, when I came across the free trial month for a meal planning service, I was dubious. I registered, printed the menus and shopping list and reviewed the recipes. After making a few substitutions and adjustments, which took all of five minutes, I marked up the grocery list and handed it to my husband…and my world hasn’t been the same since.
No more throwing cold pasta at my children while I stand at the kitchen island and have wine and cheese for dinner (well, there’s a lot less of that, anyway) and bark at the girls to hurry up so we can get to bed on time. No more throwing away tons of food bought on a whim with no plans to cook. Most nights, my daughters and I sit down together at the table for our weekday meals. They help me in the kitchen and are excited when I tell them we’re having jambalaya or lemon ginger chicken legs for dinner. They have even recently started eating swiss chard. Now, my kids are pretty good eaters, barring the occasional (and totally normal) food strike, but they’re EATING SWISS CHARD.
At its core, though, I think this meal planning business has been as much a lesson about taking a deep breath and reminding myself of the value of time with my family as it has about being organized and focused. Dinners and evening family time had become joyless events and growing sources of irritation (you have to eat AGAIN??). For some reason, this tiny adjustment that cost us virtually nothing reset my brain and brought the joy back into my evenings. My daughters and I have established weekday routines around our meal plans (i.e. Wednesday is “breakfast for dinner” night!) and we all know what to expect from one another. Not every week is perfect; I have still been known to chase my three year old around the table to get her to sit down already, and finish her rice. There’s still a bit of waste (I recently tossed out another bunch of kale that went slimy in my vegetable drawer), but at least the joy I used to experience cooking for my family is back. I don’t resent it anymore and my kids are eating healthier because of it. And, bonus: leftovers make amazing school lunches!
I could end this post with a list of meal planning services you should try, but this isn’t a product review and we all have Google. There are a million options out there, including gluten-free and vegetarian menus. And, you can check out 100 Days of Real Food’s original post that set me on this path here.
Ultimately, though, my advice (to you, Dear Readers, and to myself) is to remember that with so much of our time consisting of simply getting to and from work, school, ballet, soccer, and doctor’s appointments, maybe we should pepper some joy into the little bit of quiet time we have as a family around the table. Turn down the radio, put your phone on silent and in a faraway drawer, don’t even think of turning on the television and soak up the time with those monsters you created.
Make dinnertime something special, even if it is just scarfing down leftover pizza before it’s time to race the clock and get everybody, including you, into bed.
Mollie Michel is a South Philly resident, a Philadelphia public school parent, and Editor of A Child Grows in Philly. A recovering non-profit professional, Mollie is also an experienced birth doula, Certified Lactation Counselor, and the mom of two awesome girls and a sweet pit bull named Princess Cleopatra. In her spare time, she is usually trying to figure out how Pinterest works, training for a(nother) half-marathon with her dog at her side, or simply trying to keep up with her increasingly wily daughters.