What’s For Dinner? How to Reduce Decision Fatigue at Mealtime

I have a confession, and I’m reeeeeallly not proud of it. The question, “what’s for dinner?” makes me want to lose my shit. It’s a perfectly reasonable question. But for me, social distancing–>more meals at home–>more decisions about what to eat–>grumpy, grumpy mama.

Out of desperation, I’ve gone back to my RD training days and come up with some ways to reduce decision fatigue at mealtime. Today, I’ll share some of those with you.

What is Decision Fatigue?

Have you ever stopped to think about how many decisions you make in a day? I certainly haven’t, if for no other reason than fearing I’ll fall down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out how many times my choice to count my decisions…counts as decisions (I’m thinking of that Rush song here: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” )

Thankfully, researchers have taken on this enormous and seemingly impossible task. So how many “remotely conscious” decisions does the average adult make per day? 

THIRTY-FIVE THOUSAND!  

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, it’s no wonder adulting makes you tired. In fact, there’s a specific name for the exhaustion that stems from the volume of decisions you make every day: decision fatigue. We make so many decisions during the day that, by the end of the day, we’ve often used up most of our mental horsepower. 

I know I’m not alone here. Most parents have no idea what they’re serving for dinner one hour before dinnertime. And if that doesn’t blow your mind, this will really knock your socks off. A recent survey by the app Seated found that the average couple spends 2 hours and 32 minutes per week (roughly FIVE DAYS PER YEAR!) deciding what to eat.

There are much more fun and important things we’d all rather be doing with our time, right? 

So, What’s For Dinner?

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on autopilot for most dinner decisions. But there are some steps we can take to streamline the process. Here are three tips to reduce decision fatigue at mealtimes. 

Plan Your Meals

How do I get back on track when I find myself stuck on dinner ideas? I meal plan. 

Setting aside some time to meal plan each week saves major stress when your afternoons get busy. You can absolutely pull from your arsenal of family-favorite recipes, but there are a couple of shortcuts you can keep in your back pocket for busier weeks: Let someone else do the work for you.

Seek out some of the countless email lists, fee-based services, and blog posts with free weekly meal plans. SkinnyTaste and PaleOMG put out some good, free weekly menus.

Once you have a plan laid out, it’s just a matter of printing out recipes, making your grocery list, and shopping. 

Consider a cycle menu

Tacos aren’t the only great thing about Taco Tuesday. Those who celebrate the weekly fiesta have one less decision to make per week. Tacos for dinner. Boom. 

If you’ve ever looked closely at a school menu, you’ll notice that there are themes for each day of the week. Yes, there’s Taco Tuesday. But also Meatless Monday, or breakfast for lunch Wednesday, or French Fryday (such as nuggets with French Fries on the side). This is called a cycle menu, and it’s a great way to nip decision fatigue in the bud. 

Think about foods that your family loves that can skew in different directions. I have about a bajillion different meatball recipes and a passion for tacos. Here is how a week in my family might look: 

Meatless Monday (typically Indian or Asian food)

Taco Tuesday (duh)

Slow Cooker Wednesday

Takeout Thursday

Fish on Friday (salmon or whitefish, rice, and a veggie)

Meatball Saturday 

Soup on Sunday

Once you have that basic structure, think of anywhere from 2-4 recipes that might fit the theme.  Use one of those recipes each week, then repeat your menu again when you’ve run out of weeks. In our meatball example, I could do classic spaghetti and meatballs one week, chicken mole meatballs the next, turkey bacon cheeseburger meatballs the third week, and potsticker meatballs on the fourth. 

This will mean that you’re eating the same meals every 2-4 weeks, but it also saves you the trouble of planning down the road (y’know, so your decision fatigue is related to the other 34,999 decisions you make in a day). 

Outsource What You Can

Have you tried one of the many healthy meal delivery services available? They can be a great way to combat mealtime decision fatigue!

Services like HelloFresh and Purple Carrot decide what you’re having for dinner, and send all the ingredients your way with recipes and easy prep instructions. As a time-saving bonus, meats and veggies in these kits are often chopped and ready to cook. I’ve tried a couple of these in our home (as well as meal prep parties from Katie Cooks! in St. Louis, which I highly recommend) and really enjoyed the meals. 

There are a couple of caveats to delivery services. Meals can be pricey, and there’s also no guarantee your family will love them. But don’t fret—there are other (free) ways to outsource!

Assign each family member one night per week to decide what’s for dinner. Set a due date of Saturday for the next week, so you have time to slot meals into your plan. You may have to modify recipes to improve nutrition, accommodate allergies, or keep down costs—but at least you know what’s for dinner. 

You’re not a short-order cook

You’re already making thousands of decisions each day. Don’t add to your decision fatigue by planning multiple iterations of the same meal. 

I’ve been working hard to do away with “kid meals” in my home. I fully admit that I’ve had mixed success with that, but I do try to serve the same meal to grownups and kiddos every night. It’s one less choice I have to make per day, and the practice also helps combat pickiness. 

So what do you do if one member of your crew won’t bite on your dinner idea? Keep as many components the same as possible. My oldest daughter, for example, recently had a short-term foray into vegetarianism. I cooked up batches of meat alternatives for her to replace any animal proteins we ate, but I made it known that I expected her to eat the same sides. 

How about you, friends? Do you ever feel like you just can’t even when it comes to answering the question of what’s for dinner? What do you do to reduce decision fatigue on those nights?

Need a little more help figuring out what’s for dinner? Click here to learn more about nutrition coaching.

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