My Latest, Perhaps Greatest, Meal Planning Tools

For years—maybe my entire adult life, definitely since Emme was born nearly four years ago—I’ve been attempting to stick to a realistic meal planning system. I’ve diligently saved recipes, made lists, and shopped weekly, only to let too much food go bad when I didn’t actually prepare the meals I had planned. I’ve spent too much money on takeout, relied heavily on frozen burritos for lunch, and defaulted to pasta + bottled sauce as my go-to dinner more times than I care to remember.

When traditional meal planning fell short of my expectations and energy, I switched up my game, trying strategies that should have helped me lighten the load—services like Blue Apron and Fresh20, freezer meals, and locally prepped dinners that you just have to heat up in the oven. They all had their merits, but nothing stuck.

But lately, I’ve found peace and some actual success with meal planning. With a few tools and one secret weapon (Spoiler alert: It’s my husband), our family manages to get dinner on the table most nights of the week (not to mention having several work-week lunches prepped for me and plenty of do-it-yourself breakfast options for everyone). How did we do it? The first step might surprise you and will definitely bring to mind therapy sessions and support groups rather than grocery lists and recipes. To make meal planning work, I had to find some acceptance.

Let me explain: Last year, I worked with a health coach for a few months. In talking to her, I realized that meal planning was a source of anxiety for me. That made me realize I had to let go of both perfection and control in the meal planning process. After years of feeling proud that I wasn’t a perfectionist, I finally realized that I mayyybbbeeee had some perfectionist tendencies and I mayyybbbeeee was an eensy, weensy bit controlling. Having a young child who makes so many things feel out of my control can do that to a person.

But I digress… Anyway, I know all of this sounds awfully intense for, you know, dinner, but when I finally accepted that meal planning, meal preparing, and meal eating didn’t need to be perfect, shit got easier. Then I found some tools to complement my new breezy meal planning attitude.

Game Changing Meal Planning Tools

Plan To Eat

In some ways, Pinterest might function the same way for many of you that Plan to Eat does for me. But with Pinterest, I find often myself lost in the weeds—I log in to get that one recipe I saved six months ago and three hours later, and I’m pinning lake houses to a new board, cleverly titled Lake L-I-v-I-n. Plan to Eat doesn’t offer me that kind of distraction, and while the interface leaves something to be desired, the functionality works for me and my brain.

First, it gives me a place to save all those recipes that I randomly come across. It allows me to look at a calendar, compare it to our family’s shared calendar, and schedule an appropriate amount of meals for the week (which is not seven, it’s more like two or three). And, it compiles a list of ingredients based on the recipes I choose. Is it perfect? No. But Plan to Eat gets me farther in the meal planning process with less pain than anything else has.

Weekend Prepping

This isn’t earth shattering. The amount of legwork I do varies, but spending time prepping meals for the week on Saturday or Sunday always makes me feel like I’ve done something productive. This usually includes two to four of the following: Making 3-4 lunches for the week (see next section), cleaning and chopping vegetables for weekly dinners, making a breakfast casserole, and prepping sauces, meatballs, or other meals that have a longer fridge and freezer life.

Mason Jar Salads

You know how mason jar salads were totally a thing a few years ago? Well, I discovered them like six months ago! And let me tell you: Game. Changer. Not only do they make it easier for me to eat more green stuff, they are perfect for advance planning and portable. I also figured out my optimal number of mason jar salads for the week–three. I bring the same salad three times, then do my best to make a different salad for the following week. This seems keep me from suffering from lunch fatigue. I end up buying my lunch one day a week, which feels like a treat, and I usually work from home on Fridays, so I just eat leftovers or something.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend investing in a set or two of mason jars (wide-mouth, 32-ounce jars are key). We have started using them to store everything. As for salads, they have to be filling and tasty for me to actually eat them. Here are a few of my favs right now:

Chicken, Apple, and Pecan Salad (I ditch the kale and use something like Pullman or Boston Lettuce.)

Chopped Black Bean and Corn

Paleo Taco Mason Jar Salad

Sweet Potato Pear Wild Rice Salad

Trader Joe’s Frozen Meals in a Pinch

In an effort to eat better, my default is to think that our family should be making all meals from scratch. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s not realistic for us at this point. Trader Joe’s to the rescue. We keep a stockpile of a few TJs frozen meals on hand. Our favorites are Shiitake Mushroom Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken. We serve both with rice, and often add whatever extra veggies (or for the Kung Pao Chicken, some pineapple) we have on hand.

My (not-so) Secret Weapon: My Husband

Remember that thing about control? In the division of labor in our household, meal planning, prepping, and cooking has always been my thing, but when I went back to work full-time in January after freelancing for a year, something had to give.

It’s not so much that my husband expected me to be in charge of all things kitchen; we just had very different ideas of how to manage a week’s worth of meals. He would eat out every meal without a second thought, while I wanted us to be eating home-cooked meals every night. Once we had a conversation about it, we found some balance. I plan our meals, do some light prepping on the weekend, and typically do the grocery shopping; he cooks.

Cooking on the week nights was always been the point at which my whole meal planning system breaks down. I walk in the door after a 8+ hours of working and 1.5+ hours of commuting, and I would struggle to find the energy to actually prepare the dinners that I had so diligently planned. My husband’s work day tends to end before mine (it also starts before mine), and his commute is less than 10 minutes on foot. When I come through the door at 6 p.m., to dinner on the table, it’s a relief, for real. In many ways, it’s the best of both world’s — I get to plan what we eat without actually having to cook it.

Anyway, I’d love to hear: Do you have any meal planning secret weapons?

Is a Freelance Career Right for You?

Last year, I left my job as a marketing professional in higher education and took a career detour (I may have mentioned this). I quit my job of six years — a field I had about 15 years of experience in — and gave myself a new title: freelance writer. Being a freelance writer seemed to be the answer to many problems. It took my career in the direction I wanted to go (writing), while giving me the flexible schedule I had craved since my daughter was born (freelance). But striking out on my own was unlike any choice I had ever made. I was starting a business after being employed by someone else since college, which was scary and unchartered territory.

Like with most life choices, I consulted the internet. I read lots of freelance websites, and many of them were helpful. But I could never find information about of what type of person is a successful freelancer — or at least, what kind of traits help a person manage the quirks of a freelance career. In fact, I even asked this question in a freelance forum run by a well-known writer, and received a somewhat rude response along the lines of “how would [she] know,” which was, you know… not helpful.

So I’m writing that post myself. After a year of being a freelance writer, I’ve compiled a few… I guess I’d call them life or coping skills that seem to be critical to not only actually building a career, but managing the vast differences between being employed by someone else and being self-employed.

A freelance career sounds like the answer to work-life balance, but here are a few things to consider before you make the leap. Do you have the kind of personality that can cope with the reality of a freelance writing career. Find out...

You can handle uncertainty — lots of uncertainty.

Being a freelancer, especially a new freelancer, means your income is inconsistent, the number of hours you’re actually working and getting paid is inconsistent, how much you’re charging might even be inconsistent… basically there’s a lot of inconsistency. For me, the most nerve-racking part of those inconsistencies was the money part.

If you’re comfortable hanging out in that uncertainty, at least for awhile (at least one year, maybe two), then a freelance career might be a great choice for you. I find this is only palatable if you can reasonably live without a second income, i.e., you have someone bringing home a paycheck that covers all of the bases: mortgage, bills, groceries, and so on. But even if you do have this, and we did, going from two full-time and steady incomes to one plus whatever you make freelancing, which can vary significantly month to month, can be a huge, huge shock to the budget and the system.

You don’t mind being alone.

When you work freelance, you spend a lot of time working alone. There’s no one down the hall to chat with, and you’re not in the mix with any office gossip (for better or worse). Sure, head to the coffeeshop, but chances are you’re just going to sit there by yourself. Being a freelancer is often very quiet. If you’re a person who lives in your own head, this can be dangerous. I didn’t have too much of a problem being alone, but when I ended up back in an office environment, I was practically giddy to have people around.

You are able to set boundaries about when and how your work.

Doesn’t a freelance career sound like the answer to all work-life balance issues? You can work when you want and how much you want, on projects that interest you, etc. The flip side is that being a freelancer means your start time and your stop time are entirely up to you. I often felt like I could and maybe should be working around the clock. Without the artificial boundaries of 9-to-5, stopping work (however work was being defined) was sometimes hard. For me, turning off the to-do list was difficult even during the evenings or to stop for an hour mid-day for some of that “balance” I was so hoping for.

You are self-disciplined and self-directed.

If you’re not self-disciplined and self-directed, a freelance career is not for you. I am definitely disciplined enough (I think), and I’m self-directed when I have a project for a client, but the business of setting up a thriving freelance career means that you have to market yourself (more on that in a minute). This part was particularly hard for me. I struggled to figure out what direction I should take my writing career in (Do I pitch publications, work on the blog, or focus on marketing copywriting? Do I sell myself to a particular industry or will I take whatever I can get? There were a lot of options/questions.) There is a literally endless and mostly undefined list of things a freelancer could be doing to forward her business goals. I often felt stuck in the business of being a freelancer, unsure what would be the most bang for my time-is-money buck.

You’re comfortable with self-promotion.

When you’re working for yourself, you have to market your services, which ultimately means that you have to market yourself. Now, there are totally freelancing writing jobs that you can get without marketing yourself. I definitely got jobs by simply applying for them — the gig is a good example of that. But, my best gigs came about from networking and reaching out to contacts I already had. One great gig I got was with a university, which came about from a letter of inquiry I wrote to a woman I interviewed with a year an a half earlier. Another came from someone I met in a running group who ended up being a VP at a higher education marketing agency. Writing that email to the woman I barely knew was hard. Talking to the VP about what I did and what kind of work I was looking for, and straight up asking her to pass along my resume to the people who make these decisions was hard. For me, self-promotion was… unpleasant — it felt like I was constantly asking for favors — but it was doable, and I got better at it as time went on.

You’re capable of advocating for a fair rate in exchange for your services.

So this isn’t a personality trait, exactly, but I found that advocating for a fair rate was extraordinarily difficult and very, very important. First of all, it’s hard to find good information about what exactly you should be charging, and freelance writing rates are literally all over the board. There are people making well below the minimum wage writing for Upwork and other content mill-type sites. There are people charging over $100 an hour for copywriting services. Most publications typically have a set rate that they pay — blogs, if they pay at all, can pay as low as $25 or $50 with online media sites like Jezebel clocking in at $250. Consumer magazines typically pay more, trade magazines often higher still. In the interest of getting the work I desperately felt I needed, I had trouble asking for what truly deserved. I worked in exchange for services sometimes, my rates were all over the map, and I took whatever I could get.

Here’s the good news: I got better at this, and with a few exceptions, by late summer 2015, I had set a rate of $40/hour for copywriting services, which cut me out of the running for a lot of local and smaller businesses looking for writing services. That, I learned, was OK. But here’s the bad news: As I saw very clearly this week while looking at a freelance writer’s proposal that I should have been charging more.

You don’t mind working with minimal direction and appreciation.

I’ll give myself this much — Working with minimal direction, dealing with gray areas, and coping with missing information about what a client or employer actually wants when it comes to copywriting, I can easily live in this space. I have a sense of when to push for more direction and when not to, and my instincts on how to approach something totally undefined are often close to spot on. I don’t know how I got here, but it’s definitely one of my strengths. Writing for media outlets, I would say this is less true, but I’m comfortable with a swing and a miss, which might just be a byproduct of age and experience. The bottom line: When you’re a freelancer, no one is holding your hand, and you can’t walk down the hall to get clarification. You have to have the confidence in your ability to just move forward and get the work done.

As for appreciation, as a freelancer, you will not find an overabundance of it. You’ll have clients who are grateful and clients who like you, but you’re not really part of the team. You’re the hired help, quite literally, and the whole point of being a good freelancer — IMHO — is that you can quickly do the work with minimal direction and without being coddled. That’s what they are paying you for.

You’re patient.

Taking a sharp career turn to freelancer often means playing the long game when it comes to building a reputation, a client base, and an income. That marketing and self-promotion I did? I sent the email to the woman at the university in February or March. In October, I was contacted by another woman in her division — my resume had been passed along. The running group VP? I gave her my information in July. I heard from that agency in October too.

It takes awhile. Since the beginning of February, I’ve been contacted by another higher education institution and another agency, both because I had contacts who knew me, with gigs that would have paid well. I had to say no. But, it drove home the point: It takes some time to really establish yourself as a freelancer. If I would have stuck it out, I likely would have had a lot more options today than I had this time last year. But the thought of a steady paycheck and boundaries of a normal work day were too good to pass up after a year of uncertainty.

I Know What I Did in 2015

She’s bacccckkkkkk.

After taking an intermittently interrupted, somewhat intentional hiatus from this here blog, I thought it might be nice to give you the run down on where exactly I’ve been, and what I’ve been doing.

A year ago, in January 2015, I quit my job in marketing at The University. After many years of being unhappy in my chosen field, I decided it was time to leap into the professional abyss for something brand new and scary as hell. I became, for a bit, a freelance writer. And like all slightly insane, not-as-thought-out-as-you-imagined plans, this little experiment had its ups and downs. I’m planning to write more about what I learned as a freelance writer, what went right, and what I wish I had done differently. Stay tuned if that topic interests you.

But in the meantime, here’s a little bit of what I’ve been up to, writing-wise, around the Internet:

In June, I became an expert for the Toddlers and Twos section. That means I write eight articles a month about toddlers. This is a lot of articles about toddlers. When my work load picked up significantly in October, I started subcontracting out a couple articles a month to Gena. But, if you’re interested in toddler topics, here are a few of my favs from the last seven or so months:

8 Reasons to Try Toddler Yoga

10 Tips for Traveling with a Carsick Toddler

What To Do When Your Toddler Climbs Out of the Crib

No Toys Please: 10 Toddler Gift Ideas That Won’t Create Clutter

5 Tips to Start the Preschool Process

Surviving Santa: How to Manage Your Toddler’s Fear

3 Ways to Encourage Toddler Independence at Mealtimes

5 New Year’s Resolutions for Parents of Toddlers

Toddlers weren’t the only topic I wrote about last year (thankfully). I also did a little writing for Midwest Living magazine’s blog:

10 Reasons to Love Harbor Country This Fall

7 Hotspots for a Michigan Winter Adventure

Top 10 Things to Do with Kids in Columbus

Finally, I had a piece published on Jezebel, which was a huge thrill  for me as I’ve been reading Jezebel for many, many years, plus it was my first attempt at more serious journalism and pitching bigger outlets, which was nerve-racking as hell and, frankly, hard. Lucky for me, I had a couple journalist friends who were willing to take my anxiety-ridden phone calls about handling sources and editors. They also both read drafts for me and provided a ton of insight. The result:

Mommy Get Your Gun: An Investigation of Mothers Packing Heat

And while I neglected the blog for many months, a few articles had a life of their own. Just for fun, here’s the most popular 2015 article on Mommy Sanest, which is now pushing 100,000 views. Whoa.


This isn’t all I did in 2015. I wrote content library articles, blogs, and emails for a few mom-focused businesses; I worked as a copywriter with a higher ed marketing agency; I was hired to write all of the digital campaign pieces for a university’s Giving Tuesday campaign; I was contracted to be a staff writer at an association.

It was the association job that ended up being the last stop on my freelance adventure. They offered me a full-time position in December, and after much thought, I decided to stay. I’m back to work full time, for better or worse, as a senior writer in the marketing department of an association. The pros: I love my team possibly more than I’ve ever loved a team. I love that I’m writing. The cons: I’m once again figuring out how to balance life with a full-time job, a husband whose job requires a “non-traditional” schedule, and a young child. In other words, same old, same old… but more on that later.

And that, my friends, brings us to Feb. 1, 2016. Welcome back.

Holiday Gift Guide for the 3-year-old Girl in Your Life

Scaling back on birthday gifts might be my MO, but I (admittedly) have a tendency to want to go a bit overboard for the holidays. This year, I’m trying to keep things more under control, so I’m thinking a lot about the stage my daughter is in and what toys might have a little more shelf life than say, three days.

According to a never-ending stream of Babycenter emails, three-year-olds are getting way into creative play. They make up conversations and stories; they love to pretend; they want to have their own “big kid” items; and toys actually keep their attention for more than 30 seconds. Woo hoo! Here’s a holiday gift guide for the three-year-old girl (or boy!) in your life based on what toys have been recent hits in our house as well as what I plan to get Emme this year.

Holiday gifts for preschoolers

(1) Fisher-Price Slim Doodle Pro, Purple

At the top of the list for my daughter is the Doodle Pro, a slim, purple version of the classic Magna Doodle. Our preschooler has a mini, Frozen-themed Magna Doodle with an annoying board book attached to it, but she plays with it constantly — drawing hearts, people, and tornados (don’t ask), while she tells herself stories. An upgrade to the full-size version is well worth it. 

(2) LEGO DUPLO Ice Cream Set

I reside firmly in the no-need-for-pink-LEGOS camp, and I believe any LEGO Duplo set makes a great gift for preschoolers regardless of gender. Case in point: My daughter received the LEGO Duplo Creative Play Ice Cream set for her birthday. This gift has been a big hit in our house, and for what it’s worth, the toddler and preschool boys in her life also seem to love it.

(3) Melissa and Doug Sleeping Bag

Emme all about building forts ever since her Grandma played pretend “campout” with her over the summer. I feel like her own sleeping bag is a “big kid” item she’ll get a big kick of — whether she’s uses it to “camp,” cuddle up in bed, or build a fort. Plus, it would be perfect for those nights she decides she needs to sleep in our room (three year olds and their ability to get up and get out of there rooms!).

(4) Skip Hop Ladybug Suitcase

Similar to the sleeping bag, I’m pretty sure my daughter would get a ton of use — play and otherwise — out of her own suitcase. She loves packing up all her toys and pretending that she’s heading out (wait, what?), and a suitcase could be used for actual trips as well.

(5) KidKraft Dollhouse

Emme received this KidKraft Chelsea Doll Cottage as her BIG birthday gift, and I think it’s a great present for preschool-aged kids. There are a ton of dollhouses out there, but the KidKraft house was a reasonable size and a reasonable price compared to other options. Plus, it came with all of the furniture. Not only does Emme play with the house and furniture, we also gave her a doll family. She makes up conversations that go something like this: First doll, “Hello! I’ve got to go potty!” Second doll, “OK!” That alone is worth the cost of admission.

What’s on the list for your preschooler?

No Gifts Please: Should Your Child Have a Gift-free Birthday?

When I wrote about Emme’s 3rd birthday and showed off the adorable invitation, you might have noticed that “No Gifts Please” was printed under the date and location information. Yep… We asked people to skip the gifts for our kid’s birthday.

Maybe that seems horribly mean? Here was my reasoning: My daughter is the only grandchild on one side of the family; one of three on the other side. I knew her grandparents and other close relatives would give her generous gifts, and from that alone, she would be receiving quite a bit of stuff for her birthday.

No gifts please

When the guest list for her party started to get a little out of control, I started to think about the added clutter and writing dozens of thank you notes. Based on my untrained medical opinion, my blood pressure began to rise. So I started to think about requesting no gifts.

As you can imagine, the first person I consulted for advice was the entire Internet. And like most things on the Internet, the people seemed divided. Some regarded a parent’s request for no birthday gifts as an affront — they seemed convinced it was a trick. Others were totally on board.

Since the Internet is typically not to be trusted, I asked my IRL mom friends for feedback. Everyone seemed to think it was totally fine. They reassured me that no one would be offended by a “no gifts” request. They also said that people would probably bring gifts anyway (they were right).

I went for it. And many people brought gifts. That’s OK. Some people didn’t. That’s OK too. The people who did bring gifts, brought smaller items. Some people skipped the gift, but brought Emme a small token — a mylar balloon or pack of stickers. Others took the time to write a sweet message in a birthday card.

And it was all good! We did get less stuff, which was the main goal. However, the decision to ask for no gifts did have some pitfalls. People weren’t totally sure if we really meant it (we did), and a good portion of the party goers apologized for either bringing a gift or not bringing a gift. It was definitely not my intention to put any kind of pressure on my friends and family.

So, based on my experience, here are a few tips if you decide to ask for “No Gifts Please.”

How to ask for no gifts please at a child's birthday party. Tips for parents who don't want guests to bring gifts to a child's birthday party.

Keep the message simple.

I thought about trying to get super cutesy with the request that guests not bring gifts (“Your presence is our present,” etc.), but ultimately clarity and simplicity won out.

Make sure you mean it, but don’t be crazy about it.

Some people will end up bringing gifts and some won’t. If the choice people make is going to bother you — either way — just don’t do it.

Don’t send mixed messages.

People will likely ask you if you’re sure about this “no gifts” thing. A friend asked me, and I almost launched into a whole, you don’t have to bring a gift, but you know, people might bring small stuff and you should do what you want. You know what that sounds like? That sounds like I expected small gifts, which are still gifts. And I didn’t. So I just said that I meant the request and not to worry about bringing a gift.

Keep any gifts out of sight.

Often at parties, the gift table is displayed front and center. But if you’re asking people not to bring gifts, displaying the gifts can make people feel uncomfortable if they didn’t bring one. We tucked gifts away under a picnic table, and I don’t think anyone gave it a second thought after they arrived.

Don’t open gifts at the party.

To be honest, I haven’t been to a kid’s party where gifts have been opened in front of guests since Emme was born. When you’re entertaining families with young children, making them sit through an extensive gift opening session can be tedious. But if you do typically open gifts at a party, don’t if you’ve asked for no gifts. That will make people think you weren’t serious about your request and make them feel bad if they followed your instructions.

Emme had plenty to open, and at 3, she wasn’t totally obsessed with the idea of getting tons and tons of gifts — though I imagine that was the last time this will be the case. I probably won’t do it again, but we’ll also probably be transitioning to parties that are more kid-focused that family and friends focused.