“So what do we want to do for lunches?” my six-year-old asked. “Should we get out the leftovers or just do some easy sandwiches?” Right there, standing by the fridge while my toddlers played in the other room. That’s when I knew.

Family meal planning was such a big part of my day that our first grader had already picked up on it. Absorbed it. Was actively participating in it.

Related: How I learned to cope with my child being a picky eater 

My mini-me was already aware of our family dynamics. 

Mommy is in charge of food, morning, noon and night. Armed with coupons, a credit card that doled out extra miles for every purchase and a minivan big enough to bring home the haul, this is not daddy’s domain.

I fell into planning our family meals the way I’d guess a lot of us do: I had babies and was lucky enough to stay home with them. When those babies became toddlers, I worked from home. I like having babies and I like working from home. 

At least as importantly, I like good food. My husband is not a cook. His signature dish is a box of pasta smothered with marinara sauce straight out of the jar and so much extra garlic that our eyes need tiny life vests. It’s not okay.

On the other end of the entire world, you have me. I like cooking so much that I made a second career out of sharing ideas for feeding a family, especially those with small children.

But with that writing career came the rub. 

Inside every kitchen in America is a layered, nuanced strategy taking into account money, time, food allergies and culinary skill.

In my earliest days at the stove, I didn’t realize that dedication to fresh, wholesome food would eventually morph into my second part-time job. Because being in charge of family meal planning isn’t just throwing together a spaghetti dinner once in a while. After 13 years at the helm, I’ve learned that food management includes—and is not limited to—the following: 

Meal planning. 

Let’s see, what will I put in lunch boxes this week? 

Breakfasts are always rushed, so I’ll get some ingredients for muffins. (See cooking below.)

Make sure everyone eats a good dinner and likes at least one thing

Can anything be repurposed as leftovers? (Food waste is a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses so please don’t ruin the environment, you guys.)

Don’t forget Tuesdays when everyone needs to eat dinner at different times. 

Or Thursdays when no one is home for dinner at all.

Shopping

Organize the list according to our store layout, so you don’t miss anything. Plus, it’ll make the trip faster because we’re squeezing shopping between work and school pickup. 

What’s on sale?

What’s the healthiest option?

Can we afford the environmentally friendly option?

*Do not forget the reusable bags.*

Does husband need any snacks for the office?

Use your little card to get the sale prices! 

*Seriously, do not forget the reusable bags.*

There’s a better price on that at Costco but it doesn’t open until 10, so best hurry up. 

Cooking.

Make all the food.

Cleaning up.

Leftovers go in bins.

Rearrange the fridge to fit the bins AND see said bins so those leftovers don’t go to waste. (Remember, greenhouse gases!)

Hand wash the wooden salad bowl and never use soap on the cast iron. 

Not enough room in the dishwasher? Hand-wash the pots too. 

Time to wipe down the counter and … we’re done!

Just kidding, here come two extra cups.

It’s so much. Inside every kitchen in America is a layered, nuanced strategy taking into account money, time, food allergies and culinary skill. A kaleidoscope of creativity and skill. Don’t let the term “food management” fool you. The right plan is an actual masterpiece. 

And yet.

This isn’t work that people are clamoring for. You don’t hear men sharing lasagna recipes while they’re sitting around that long table before a board meeting starts. My husband has never once wondered how a thermos could better keep soup warm. My father-in-law doesn’t pass on tips about quick and nutritious breakfasts that kept his three kids full at school.

Their work is outside the home, where they get paid. Is that why the job of creating family meals isn’t recognized? Does respect come down to a W-9?

To be clear, I don’t actually mind doing this work. I like this work. It’s in my wheelhouse and I don’t resent my husband because he doesn’t do it. 

I want everyone to value this work.

It’s not about noticing. Or “being thankful”. Those are nice. But this is a daily, ongoing undertaking that women pull off with the style and finesse of the squad from “Cheer”. So, no. I don’t want to be noticed. Or appreciated. I’m going for the platinum package here and looking for actual respect. 

Because right now organizing food for your family is just one part of the “invisible load” that most women carry these days. 

Like laundry, there’s no “getting caught up” in cooking. Everyone needs to eat again in a few hours, and we know those kids are gonna keep wearing clothes. 

Research says I’m certainly not alone.  “In U.S. households consisting of married or cohabiting parents and one or more children under the age of 18, 80% of mothers say they are the household member who usually prepares the meals—the same as the share who say they are the primary grocery shopper,” according to Pew Research. “Some 71% of moms say they primarily handle both chores.”

How many men are the main cooks at home? The same study says 19 percent. Only 11 percent of men say they’re in charge of grocery shopping and cooking for their families. And according to Motherly's 2022 State of Motherhood survey, 55% of moms say they have primary responsibility for meal planning and preparation and 52% for grocery shopping.

Okay! Again, not necessarily a problem.

The problem comes when this kind of work isn’t honored. 

When it’s “invisible”. 

Because organizing the family’s food is unrelenting. Like laundry, there’s no “getting caught up” in cooking. Everyone needs to eat again in a few hours, and we know those kids are gonna keep wearing clothes. 

I recently had a series of surgeries and have never fully realized how much effort I put into family meal planning. Relying on my husband and our four kids to feed us all felt like a series of trust falls. Back I go! Will I land in someone’s arms or a giant pile of McDonald’s wrappers?

Related: The mental workload of a mother 

You know I grocery shopped ahead of time. I bought myself frozen meals. I bought them frozen pizzas. I made extra leftovers that could easily be transformed into fresh lunches and dinners. 

And it worked, for the most part.

My kids chipped in. My husband made spaghetti, heaven help us. 

I’m slowly getting back in the kitchen and it feels good. But what’s more important than nailing my super efficient grocery list and cranking out yummy school lunches is a new task: building a new level of respect in our family for every one of these jobs. It’s time.

METHODOLOGY STATEMENT

Motherly designed and administered this survey through Motherly’s subscribers list, social media and partner channels, resulting in more than 17,000 responses creating a clean, unweighted base of 10,001 responses. This report focuses on the Gen X cohort of 1,197 respondents, Millennial cohort of 8,558 respondents, and a Gen Z cohort of 246 respondents. Edge Research weighted the data to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the US female millennial cohort based on US Census data.