There is a brilliant woman I follow on Instagram, @theAmiyrahMartin, who does month-long meal plans for her family and has a detailed system in place for shopping, stocking her pantry and freezer, and keeping it all organized with charts and spreadsheets. She shares tips on buying in bulk, has a 25-minute YouTube video walking you through a whole month of meal planning, and tons of easy family recipes on her website for anyone to watch and download. Part of me wishes I could be like her; the more realistic part of me knows that’s never going to happen.
When my husband and I were newlyweds in the mid-2000s, we used to look up recipes in magazines and online, and try new things every week. I once figured out how to make a Martha Stewart chicken-and-leek dish that was baked in parchment paper folded like an envelope, and it was a staple in our diet for months because it was easy and delicious, looked fancy, and made us feel like real grown-ups. When our kids came along a few years later, we tried to keep up with new recipes and meal planning. But in our new reality as parents, meals became a lot more basic and practical: often out of necessity, sometimes out of pure exhaustion. Chicken nuggets, fries and frozen mixed veggies can be made in under 15 minutes. Same with frozen pizza.
Our children are in their teens now, with routines that include extracurricular activities scheduled in and around dinner time, prompting our family to get creative with meals again. And again, I’ve had to accept that I am less of a meal planner, and more of a meal crammer. My go-to “what’s for dinner” hack? Wait till the last minute, check to see what I have in the freezer or fridge, google those two to four ingredients, and make whatever easy recipe the internet spits out at me.
A few years ago, when a friend sent me an email for a free food box from a new meal kit service, I immediately went online and ordered two meals for the following week, a Korean-inspired chicken dish and a stuffed pasta casserole. They were a big hit with everyone—probably because they resembled actual meals and not the mish-mash of whatever concoction I usually come up with on the fly. We decided to keep ordering. Once again, we were trying new dishes and flavours, the recipes were easy to follow and make, and the kits contained everything we needed. We started using the meal kit service regularly in late 2019, and when quarantining and work/stay home orders set in with the pandemic in 2020, it made sense to keep our account active and continue receiving our weekly order.
During this time, my two teenage children did a full year of online school. Out of what I assume was a mix of screen fatigue and sheer boredom, they started showing interest in helping me make the meal kit dinners. Up until this time, they didn’t participate much in family meal planning, grocery shopping or cooking. My son’s signature dish at this point was mac and cheese, and—like everyone else at the beginning of the pandemic—my daughter was just starting to get into baking.
Thanks to the meal kit recipes’ illustrated, step-by-step instructions, my kids started to learn more kitchen and cooking lingo and the skills to go along with them: sautéeing, dicing, how to julienne, deglaze, and even plate their food. They started out by doing some of the prep work, like chopping veggies or marinating meat, and have now progressed to full meal-making without any help or input from me or my husband. Within a few months, I had two very capable sous-chefs in my house.
The moment I knew I was no longer needed in the kitchen to supervise or demonstrate was when my 15-year old made a delicious, professionally-plated pad thai all on his own—a recipe I have yet to master myself. We now sit down as a family once a month to look at the recipe options online and my teens choose the ones they want to make each week. My 13-year old likes the meals that are more of the one-pot or -pan variety, while my older teen likes to experiment with different flavours and spices and has progressed from his boxed mac and cheese days to making a delicious pasta sauce and spaghetti meal on his own.
Meal kit services may not be for everyone. Reservations about them are often related to the expense, the (excess) packaging, and the flexibility of the meals and scheduled deliveries. I’ve broken down the costs for our family ($90 a week, or $11.25 per plate), and we’ve worked this into our monthly grocery budget. The service we have has reusable ingredient containers that we return every week and allows for skipped weeks when we need them. Having the meal planning, shopping, delivery of groceries and now even the cooking of meals taken care of by someone other than me, (and the bonus benefit of a significant decrease in food waste), make this a service that removes a lot of stress from our busy lives and from my mom brain.
In the end, what I’ve discovered is, while the savings of using a meal kit service may be invisible or less tangible to some (like most of the mental load assumed by women), for me, they are priceless.