During my planning classes I have participants note which juggling balls typically get dropped for them during term time. When I asked how many people noticed that they ate less well or didn’t sleep enough several people on the call responded affirmatively.
Good nutrition is a foundational practice that enables you to sleep better, cope with stress and anxiety better, think better, and so on. Dropping this ball has consequences. (A post on the HBR blog network provides more detail about how that works.)
Eating well at the evening meal is particularly difficult because you are tired and have no energy left to make decisions. This is unfortunate since many people have their main meal of the day at this time. While the principles in this post apply to all meals, I am writing as if the main evening meal is the focus.
If cooking is a form of creative rest for you
For some people, cooking is a creative activity that restores them. I am lucky to live with someone like this. My partner is also someone who will just look at the available ingredients and come up with something. If you find cooking a kind of creative rest but need more planning to make sure you have the right kinds of ingredients around, you still might be dropping this ball but the solution will be very different for you. Also, you have permission to not do it every day. Really. It’s okay to order take out or have a frozen pizza available for the days when you aren’t feeling it.
Expectations & division of labour
First, lower your expectations so that you can meet them. One of the Studio members recently said to me “I don’t cook. I put meals together.” Figure out your essential criteria: healthy and tasty are probably on your list, but is no reason not to have “easy to prepare” as an essential. You’ll need to consider your budget, but it may be worth making savings somewhere else so you have funds in this budget category to have higher quality pre-prepared meals, a meal preparation service (like Hello Fresh or similar) or more frequent take-out.
Second, work out whether you have to be responsible for every evening meal. If you don’t live alone, make sure you have reviewed your habits and adjusted appropriately. Also depending on the age of household members, meal preparation does not need to be a collective responsibility. It can be a personal responsibility (like brushing your teeth, having a shower, and getting dressed). Or, it doesn’t have to be collective always. Breakfast and lunch are the easiest things to transition to personal responsibility. But even if you value eating meals together you can decide to do that only a few times a week.
Other adults can reasonably be expected to contribute. Hating cooking is only relevant if you don’t also hate cooking. Having a limited repertoire might influence how often they contribute. It is acceptable to renegotiate the division of household labour regularly. There is no reason that the decisions you made when you first moved in together need to hold forever. (This is actually my area of academic expertise.)
Kids can also contribute at a level appropriate to their age and development. You are not being a bad parent. You are giving them an opportunity to develop essential skills for independent living. Assigning a teen responsibility for one evening meal during the main part of the week is a reasonable starting point. You may be surprised how keen your teens are to do this. You might need to be there to teach techniques. Meal preparation kits might be good for this purpose because they have pre-measured ingredients and detailed instructions.
If you have been primarily responsible for meal planning and preparation, you will need to give up control as well as effort. You can’t ask people to do the things you would have done in the way you would have done them. You can collectively decide what is essential, and when menu plans need to be made to ensure ingredients are available when needed. You may need to think of “balanced diet” over a longer time period. Every single meal does not have to have all the key ingredients. You can set a minimum for things like vegetables or protein and then use your own contributions to the weekly diet to balance things out.
Making a plan
Here are a few ideas to consider so that you don’t drop the “eating well” ball. They are based on noticing that eating well involves several different kinds of work:
- deciding what to eat
- making sure you have the ingredients
- actually preparing the food
- sitting down to eat it
I assume you get to the last one but tend to default to things that happen to be in your cupboards, are easy to prepare and/or are easy to order from your favourite take-out place.
Here are a few ideas to help you eat well while reducing the amount of time and energy spent. Please share your thoughts and other ideas in the comments section so others can benefit.
- Make a list of easy, nutritious meals with a shopping list to go with each item. This reduces time and energy spent on making decisions.
- You could do this just for the meals you have most difficulty with.
- You could do separate lists for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
- Make a weekly menu. Transfer the shopping list items required to your shopping list so you have what you need in the house. This reduces decision making and ensures you have the stuff you need handy.
- You can do this weekly as part of your end-of-week ritual, planning food into your following week, and adding some of the preparatory activities to your “weekend”.
- You can do this once for the whole semester and put it on the wall. Create a document for your shopping list and check the cupboards to cross off things you don’t need to buy each week. This also makes it easier to use the store flyers for deals if you like to do that.
- If you like the idea of a repeating weekly meal schedule but are worried you’ll find it boring, create a weekly schedule with limited options. For example, Mondays can be chicken and your menu can have 3 different chicken recipes to choose from.
- Have prepared meals available to heat up, either for days you can’t be bothered cooking, or as part of your regular plans. This reduces preparation time.
- Buy prepared meals from your grocery store, deli, or a local service that specializes in this sort of thing.
- If you enjoy cooking, use some of your weekend or evening time to cook large batches and freeze portions for later use. OR when you do cook, make a double recipe so you have leftovers for another night or can freeze some for later use. (If you live alone or in a couple, you may find that a full recipe is enough for 2 meals and can do this anyway.)
- Plan leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day or two.
- Try a meal preparation service. There are now several of these, some national and some local small businesses. It’s worth investigating what’s available locally.
- Some provide space to do preparation, recipes, and ingredients so you can go in and prep your weekly meals in one session with support.
- Some deliver all the ingredients and recipes so that you can prepare meals yourself.
- Some will deliver meals you just need to heat up.
- Put take-out or eating out into your plans. Eating out is not necessarily unhealthy or expensive, though it is obviously less of an option in the pandemic. Make a list of good options in advance to reduce the time and energy spent on decision making and increase the chances you will make what you consider good choices (for both health and budget).
You can mix and match from these ideas and add others to suit your preferences and budget.
Decision making may be the essential element
The most important thing to tackle is probably the decision making. Decision making takes time and energy. Reducing the number of decisions you have to make during busy periods or at the end of a busy day will help you keep the “eating well” ball in the air.
- Make a bunch of decisions at once, when you are more rested.
- Delegate some of the decision making to others.
- Allow yourself to experiment with things, reassess in a few weeks, and adjust.
Please comment with your thoughts and suggestions. I may edit this post to add your suggestions (here, on Twitter or FB, or by email) later so it serves as a resource in future. I’ve left older comments on this post because there are useful suggestions in them.
Thanks to Beverly Army whose tweet prompted this post, my friend Liz Mander who made a weekly meal schedule years ago, and to my many friends on FB and Twitter who share their lunch and dinner ideas. Originally posted August 29, 2014, updated with link the HBR piece and republished 24 October 2014. Edited Sept 14, 2015. Content updated and republished 11 January 2021.