first person

Who Knew Meal Planning Could Make Me Feel This Way?

I’m not a good cook, but I am a determined one.

Photo: Getty Images/YinYang
Photo: Getty Images/YinYang
Photo: Getty Images/YinYang

Closer to the pandemic’s beginning, people joked about a spate of social-distancing babies born in nine months. This was a hopeful note to strike, but I could not relate. These days the only thing that makes me amorous, mostly for myself, is looking at my meal plan.

The meal plan originated at a time when life was subject to a more mundane form of chaos. My husband had too much work; I had too many events at night that fell under the broad rubric of “work.” I was being driven batshit, he was being driven batshit, we were trying to budget both money and time, so we traveled as a family to an art-supply store and purchased a giant piece of foam board. We made it into a grid with tape: the days of the week on the X, our names on the Y. Down at the bottom was a bonus row called “Dinner.” We put Post-its in each row to delineate who was doing day-care pickup and drop-off, whether either of us had a “work thing,” and what we would have for dinner. I used the dinner Post-its to do a single large grocery shop on Mondays after the children were at preschool and day care. The benefit of my work is that it is sometimes imaginary.

It has been just over a year since the trip to the art-supply store. We now live somewhere else, and I no longer have as many events to keep track of, and when there was day care — it’s been 26 days but feels longer — my husband and I had standing assignments for drop-off and pickup. My role as the designated flexible parent has been cemented. The foam board lies abandoned in the basement. The only thing that remains is the meal plan, which now comprises a single small sheet of notepaper covered with my chicken scratch and stuck to the fridge. It is solely my province.

Social distancing took the meal plan from the realm of “personal life hack” into “disaster preparedness.” The morning before we started keeping the kids home from preschool, I sat down with the computer and looked at a website called Budget Bytes. I thought about what we already had. I scribbled out 9 days of three meals and two snacks, which could stretch to 14 with the inclusion of leftovers, hot dog, and frozen pizza. I made my ingredient list and headed resolutely to the grocery store.

A disclaimer, perhaps obvious but also necessary: Currently, we are all healthy. Having work that is so sporadic it can’t sustain a family means it is easy for me to continue along as I was, at home, pecking haphazardly at a computer. My husband, for now, is still employed, and is able to work from home. He earns regular money that is tied to our health insurance and allows us to buy groceries. So he closes the door to work, and I occupy the rest of the house with our 2- and 5-year-old, thinking longingly of the book I was writing and carving out a few minutes at a time for paid work. By American standards this is almost as good as it gets.

There are a few reasons I am not a stay-at-home mom, one of which is that spending the day at home with my children is not something I enjoy in the strictest sense of the word. Their needs bump against my professional aspirations and commitments, as well as my innate slothfulness and love of quiet. I am not very good at playing. We do stumble into moments of easy, joyful togetherness; it’s just that I never know what they are going to be, and the rest of the time there is yelling from everyone. Following my state’s stay-at-home order has put me face-to-face with my feelings of inadequacy and my lack of creativity in the realm of play. My feeble pitches for art projects are met with disdain. I both empathize deeply with my restless, lonely 5-year-old, and feel like five more minutes of her imaginative patter will send me over the edge.

But when I trace my finger across the written-out meal plan, when I look at the ingredients lined up in the fridge like a crocodile surveying her eggs, when I adjust to suit the bare shelves in the grocery store, when I spend 40 minutes cooking something instead of looking at my phone, I feel myself being the person my children need me to be. I find intense satisfaction at having everyone sit down at the table with something edible before them. I experience an almost erotic sensation using up the last bit of something and making it into something else.

It is a cosmic joke to have my happiness embodied thus. It made me furious, after the meal plan was first instituted, when my husband would continue to ask “What do you want to do for dinner?” as though the appearance of dinner was some haphazard thing, rather than a thing that had been assiduously planned for, by me, many days prior. (He now asks, “What are we having for dinner?”) But he didn’t ask me to be responsible for this; I elbowed him out of the way and slipped into the role like it was a marabou robe. It is annoying that one of the duties that has meant confinement for women has turned out to bring me a pervasive sense of stability and pleasure. I am not even a very good cook.

We are on the 26th day of social distancing. My husband is working in a room with the door closed. My girls are watching Daniel Tiger. Way back on the third day, the older one told me that she is bored by everything, everything, everything, even TV. She told me she pretends to have fun so I won’t be mad. This was hard to hear. She hated the soup for which I lovingly toasted croutons from stale bread. But she gobbled up her snack of canned pineapple and rolled up turkey slices. She loves plain yogurt with a spoonful of jam, and I give it to her. She loves hot dogs, and we have them, and ketchup and buns. I am thinking about everyone who does not have enough food, who does not have enough money to prepare ten days ahead. It is so many people.

I am not a good cook, but I am a determined cook, and becoming a more practical one with every week that goes by. I am bad at playing, bad at patience, bad at educating. But I love my family, and I want to do right by them and by everyone else. I want us, near and far, to live. What do you do with this kind of helpless love during “virus time,” as my daughter calls it? If you’re lucky you stay home; you feed it to your people, whether they eat it or not.

Who Knew Meal Planning Could Make Me Feel This Way?