The most efficient professional women — the ones who balance career and family demands while also finding hours each week for exercise and leisure activities — don’t give much thought to dinner, time management expert Laura Vanderkam told me for a story I wrote a few years back. Analyzing hour-by-hour time logs from 143 working mothers for her book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, Vanderkam discovered a paradox:
“People who were the most organized — took time to meal plan, shop from their lists, and cook for the week on weekends — spent whole afternoons consumed by food chores,” she says. During the week, “they often added to their dinners with side dishes, so they were cooking then, too.” By contrast, moms who simply kept staples on hand for meals they could quickly whip up from memory, “ate less interesting food, but they didn’t starve,” says Vanderkam, and had more breathing room in their lives. “Meal planning is a good way to save money,” she adds, “but it’s not a good way to save time.”
A member of the inefficient-meal-planner camp, I had never really tested Vanderkam’s theory until last week, when we tore out our kitchen. Now we are ensconced in our small dining room with a microwave, toaster oven, and freezer full of prepared Trader Joe’s meals (and, okay, some homemade dinners I squirreled away). A circuit breaker trips when we turn on more than one small appliance, and, despite a liberal use of paper plates, the dishes pile up daily. And yet, my mealtime stress level is at an all-time low. As it turns out, our kids are more likely to eat, and praise — as in, “Mommy, you make the best chicken nuggets!” — store-bought dinners than ones I have toiled over. And the not-toiling part has allowed more time for family walks and games of Zingo! and Quirkle.
When we move back into the kitchen, maybe I’ll have to adopt a new mantra (that also has the makings of an epitaph): “They ate less interesting food, but they didn’t starve.”