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?

8 Must-have Items for Pumping at Work

This post contains affiliate links.

If you knew me back in the day — the day being approximately two years ago — you might remember that during Emme’s first year of life, breastfeeding and pumping consumed me. It was all I talked about, all I thought about, and when I would get around to posting on my old blog, it was all I wrote about.

If you did not know me, you’re welcome.

Pumping at work is an unfortunate reality for many working moms who are heading back to the office post-baby and want to continue breastfeeding.

Now, I realize that you’ve spent the last nine months romanticizing the idea of lugging a bulky breast pump to and from the office in your sassy, standard-issue Medela bag; huddling topless in a storage closet away from the hustle and bustle of cubeland while praying that the weird guy from accounting doesn’t decide that right now is the perfect time to search for some obscure office supply; and answering questions like, “Can’t you put that milk somewhere else?” from horrified colleagues who are “fine” with your life choices, but just don’t want to see your life choices in the fridge next to their turkey sandwich. You understand, right?

Is there anything more beautiful than pumping at work?

Sadly, I’m here to burst your bubble and tell you that pumping at work is time-consuming, messy, inconvenient, annoying, awkward, and uncomfortable. Raise your hand if someone has walked in on you while pumping at work.

Represent ladies.

But the good news is that it’s doable, especially if you have a better attitude than I did about it. And to make pumping at work marginally easier on yourself, put these items on your baby registry or purchase them before you find yourself locked in a vacant office with your top off. Trust me, when you’re pumping at work, even marginally easier is worth it.

Must-have items for breastfeeding mamas who plan to pump at work, including tips for making pumping at work just slightly less painful.

Breastfeeding Mamas: 8 Essential Items for Pumping at Work

1. A Double Electric Pump

If you’re going to be pumping at work, you’ll need a breast pump, and I’m not talking about one of those little hand pumps. You’re going to want the best double electric breast pump you can get your hands on. My book club went in on a group gift for my baby shower and gave me the Medela Freestyle Breast Pump. What I like about the Freestyle over other popular pumps is that the pump is small enough to carry around in a normal bag or backpack.

If the Freestyle seems like too much of a splurge, check out the Medela Pump In Style. Tried and true, you can’t go wrong with this pump. My sister’s lactation consultant also recommended the Ameda Purely Yours, another solid, less-expensive option.

from left to right: Pump In Style, Freestyle, and Purely Yours

You could also rent a hospital-grade pump. My sister actually did this as well and kept the rented pump at home and her Ameda pump at work, so she didn’t have to carry it around.

Keep in mind that insurance now covers breast pumps, so check with your provider to see if you can get a pump for free or at a reduced cost. I received my pump about six months before the rules changed, so I’m not an expert on the new breast pump insurance policies, but my understanding is that most providers have specific brands and models that they cover.

2. Hands-free Pumping Bra

Never stop surfing the internet to pump again. The Simple Wishes bra is hands-down the best hands-free pumping bra out there.This little contraption might be the greatest invention ever for moms who pump. I would actually recommend having a spare hands-free pumping bra — I bought the more expensive Simple Wishes bra and had a slightly less expensive back-up version that I picked up at Target. (Full disclosure: The Simple Wishes Bra is totally worth the cost.)

Some of the Medela breast pumps come with a rubber contraption called a “hands-free accessory kit.” I never figured out how to use it. If you did, you probably have a degree in engineering. Either way, once your hands are free, you can spend your pumping time surfing the Web or chatting on Google.

3. An extra set of pump parts

Here’s what an extra set of pump parts gives you: options. I have friends who kept their spare parts at work, so they had slightly less stuff to haul around. This also prevented the inevitable, oh-crap-I-forgot-my-pump-parts nightmare that does happen.

I, on the other hand, tempted fate and carried my extra parts back and forth so that I had less washing to do. I would swap out new parts each day so that the other set could be washed in the top rack of the dishwasher instead of having to hand wash them every night.

4. Breastmilk storage bags

Do you have an issue with oversupply? Is each day a new adventure in finding out how much you’re going to pump? Not sure if you should bring two bottles or four or six or 12? Here’s a good tip: Don’t worry about it. Bring two bottles that you will pump into, and then pour the milk into a Lansinoh Breastmilk Storage Bag. Keep a supply of storage bags at the office, and you will never again have to worry about having enough bottles. Bonuses: They are less bulky than bottles, and they can go directly into the freezer if you don’t need to use the milk immediately. Don’t forget to double check that the bag is sealed tightly.

5. Work-appropriate nursing tops and tanks

You can go ahead and move those cute dresses into a storage bin until you’re done pumping. The name of the game when you’re a working mom who pumps is to undress as little as possible. I highly recommend investing in some office-appropriate nursing tops as well as nursing tanks that can be worn under sweaters and other shirts. I liked these Gap nursing tops, and I bought two of these nursing tanks (a little pricey, but very well-made, and I may or may not still wear them). If you are using a hands-free pumping bra, you can just put the bra on over your nursing shirt or tank for maximum coverage while pumping at work.

6. Breast pump wipes

Let me tell you how not fun it is to stand in a communal bathroom or kitchen washing pump parts two to four times a day. It’s not. So don’t. I started using breast pump wipes because I had a space where I could air dry my pump parts, which is really the only caveat for using these.

7. Burp cloths

Pumping is a messy business and milk stains on your clothes at work is generally not cute. Bring a handful of burp cloths or old hand towels so that you can wipe yourself off after pumping. A friend told me she also would keep a towel in her lap to prevent splashes of milk getting on her clothing.

8. Cooler and ice packs

Most breast pumps will come with a cooler and an ice pack, but if yours didn’t you’ll want to purchase one. My office had a full-size fridge where I kept my milk, but a cooler will work if there’s no room in the mini-fridge your company was generous enough to purchase for the whole floor. Medela states that you can store breastmilk in its cooler with a freezer pack safely for up to 12 hours. Just make sure the freezer packs are frozen when you leave for work.

Did I miss anything? For those of you who have pumped at work, were there items that you could not live without? Help a working mother out by leaving your tips for pumping at work in the comments.

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