The Decision

What should we have for dinner tonight?

Why is it so difficult to decide what to cook for dinner?
The other day I made a list of all of the factors that influence my decision about what to cook for dinner.

Volume:
Who is eating?
How much do they typically eat?
What are hunger levels likely to be?
Do we need leftovers?

Desires:
What is the weather?
What is the season?
What did we eat recently?
What are our dietary preferences and tastes?
Is there something we’ve been wanting?

Cooking:
How much time is there to cook?
How much energy do I have?
Which appliances are available?
What is my skill level?

Ingredients:
What ingredients are in the house now?
What can be easily obtained?
How much do they cost?
What is the quality?
Are they sustainable?

Other:
What is the mood?
What level of formality?
How much cleaning up?
What are we doing afterwards?

You might come up with more factors than these. In fact I’m sure I could easily expand this list if I just thought about it longer. But you are probably convinced by now that the decision is complex.

What to do about it then?

How to make the decision easier

In all of my experience, research and discussions of this topic, I’ve found that there is one single thing that you can do to reduce the most stress, indecision and frustration with the dinner decision:

Make it earlier. Shift the decision to another part of the day. Find a way to make this habitual.

Dinner comes, as my friend Sheila puts it, ‘at the worst time of day’. Everyone is coming home from work or school, fatigued and hungry, yet full of information to convey. Returning members of the household are usually looking to reconnect with their spaces, take care of their bodily needs, and get things out of their heads and off their chests. Participating in a group decision about dinner is the last thing anyone wants to do.

Households are usually faced with an onslaught of information to process at this time: news from all members, activities to schedule, mail, neighbors stopping by, pets to take care of, etc. In short, it’s a terrible time to make a decision, especially a complex one like dinner.

Shifting the decision earlier isn’t easy though. It’s worth examining why you make it at the last minute in the first place. Sure, it might be because you are a lazy procrastinator. But there is probably a better reason: you are waiting for complete information.

When is the one time you could possibly obtain complete information regarding the dinner decision? Right before dinner, of course. Only then can you know exactly the status of the food in your refrigerator and pantry, the moods of the household, the time available for cooking, the weather, etc. You think: “I’ll wait until I get home and see what’s in the fridge.” “I’ll talk to John about it and see what he thinks.” “I’ll see what the kids feel like after I pick them up.”

This is reasonable, as you want to make decisions when you’ve got the best information upon which to base them. And you’ve probably found that it works, some of the time

The problem is that even though at dinner time the information is as complete as it will get, you are rarely in a position to actually make a good decision using it.

Dealing with incomplete information

So if you are going to make the decision earlier, you’ll be making it with incomplete information. This is where it gets tricky, and why many otherwise on-top-of-it people don’t want to plan dinner early. You simply don’t have the information and it seems risky to make a decision at this point. While you’re at work, you can’t really remember what’s in your fridge. You don’t know yet if everyone will be home on time, or how exhausted you’ll be. If you’re making the decision days ahead, it can seem that everything is an unknown, likely to change, and that your plans will be a total waste of effort. In addition, you’ve probably found that occasionally your last-minute dinner decisions can be spontaneous, inspired successes, which never would have happened had you planned.

What I’ve found though, is that planning dinner ahead of time nearly always works. The key is to determine the right time to make the decision, for you, and to build your planning process with enough flexibility to handle last-minute changes and sudden bursts of inspiration.

When to plan ahead

There are many methods for planning meals out there, as you’re probably aware. At one extreme end is once-a-month cooking, or ‘OAMC’, a method that involves planning, shopping for and cooking an entire month of meals in one go. This is too much for most people, including me. More common are weekly plans, which are what I’m using at the moment. There is a natural rhythm about them that is easily maintained. There is also the option of simply making a goal to have the decision made by a certain time each day. I’ve had periods in my life where this has been the best solution, and it can work quite well when you’ve got a number of factors with high variability in your life. It’s also a good starting point if you’d like to work towards a weekly plan, but don’t think you could pull it off immediately.

Key to determining when to make the decision is knowing how you want to integrate shopping into it. There are two schools of thought on this matter: planning before shopping and planning after (or during) shopping. There are pros and cons to both, which I hope to explore in another post. At this point however, just ask yourself – which do you currently tend to do, and which is more comfortable for you?

And also, how often do you typically go to the store? If you go nearly daily and this is convenient for you, it will probably make sense to have the dinner decision made right before going to the store. If you shop on a weekly basis, making a weekly plan will make more sense.

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