personal essay

This School Year Simply Doesn’t Work Without Meal Planning. Here Are My Favorite Easy Meals.

updated Sep 17, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock, Graphic: kitchn

My daughter is going to school virtually this semester. Our school let families choose between virtual or in-person due to everyone’s different needs. It was a difficult decision because online learning is hard on everyone, but I wanted to see more data on everything, including the longterm effects of COVID-19 on kids since this virus is, keyword, novel. I also wanted to see how the school would navigate this unprecedented logistical challenge since Atlanta, where we live, has struggled to keep the virus under control. 

Although I am resigned to potentially home-schooling my third-grader for the rest of this semester because it is the right choice for my family, every day is tough, no matter how many self-care tools I employ. Having an 8-year-old, 9-year-old (my fiancé’s daughter), grown man, and a dog all home with me at the same time means there are three times as many dishes to cook and clean. There’s a lot more to do across all fronts, so I have to be on top of my game, or things fall through the cracks. 

Typically, I plan out my dinners three to four days out, and now that school is underway, I’m doing the same thing with a week’s worth of school lunches. It’s proven to be my biggest savior during this exponential family time. I sit down on Sunday and write out a menu of meals for the week and grocery shop accordingly. I put the dish on my calendar, so I remember what I am cooking. For breakfast, the kids can put in their order the night before. Giving them a choice makes mornings easier for them (and me). 

In the spring, making the same lunch for everyone in my household was easier than being a short-order cook. Luckily, the kids in my house like fruits and vegetables, so I can pack a lot into each dish to make sure all of us are getting what we need. Big batches of any soup go over well in my household so I make minestrone with dried beans, various veggies, whole-grain pasta, lots of grated Parmesan, and frozen garlic bread. Pasta is an often overlooked lunch idea — I prefer serving it at this time since it is sometimes heavy at dinner. Whether it is a quick spaghetti with fresh chopped tomatoes and basil or your favorite fresh or frozen tortellini, pasta is a fast and dependable lunch I can lean on once a week. 

Before kids, as someone who went to culinary school and works in food, I vowed to make everything from scratch. I also had an extensive natural birth plan that went out of the window when I had to get an emergency c-section. Present-day me loves a well-made assist because I knows better and lean on them extra hard now. My formerly peaceful work environment is interrupted by tech problems and missing math books with kids at home. Time is not as abundant as it once was. Maybe Sandra Lee, who I scoffed at for years, was onto something?

Most of my quick fixes or tools come from the freezer, like my fried fish tacos using frozen fish. Trader Joe’s is a treasure trove of inexpensive shortcuts. There are chicken tacos, chicken pot pies, frozen fettuccine Alfredo that takes five minutes from start to finish, frozen tamales, and more. I usually round out each meal with some vegetables (frozen broccoli, green peas, edamame, or a simple green salad). Sweet baby bell peppers and those raw carrots cut into disks are a great chip alternative. I often serve with ranch or Laughing Cow cheese wedges as a side dish. 

Dessert is always fresh fruit or those little fruit cups packed in juice, not syrup. On Friday afternoons, I offer the kids a frozen treat from our well-stocked Popsicle assortment or a caffeine-free drink like ginger ale or root beer. It feels like a celebratory end to online learning for the week, and they revel in it. For adults, we have a glass of chilled white wine with our lunch, as if we are in Paris. Simple pleasures like this take the edge off, and I also like to use it to salute all of my kids’ hard work throughout the school week because they are doing the best they can, just like me.

Back to School 2020It’s the strangest back-to-school season of our lives, and no matter where your child’s desk is actually located this fall: they have to eat. Every day. What even is school lunch in fall 2020? We’ve compiled stories, commiserations, and hopeful tips from a diverse crew of parents to help us all feel a little less alone in breathing deep, eating well, and unmuting that ever-elusive Zoom button.