By popular request, here is a summary of the findings from my first survey, as they relate to dinner.
I interviewed 14 people from 12 households. 2 of the households were couples with no children, 2 were single individuals. The rest were couples with 1-3 children. Most of the respondents were friends and relatives, a few were people I’d never met. The interviews were conducted on the phone or in person over the course of a few months.
The survey was originally conceived as a way to gauge people’s interest in solving problems related to routine household tasks and find out how they look for information relating to those tasks.
In part of the survey, I asked the respondents to describe their frustration with a number of chores such as laundry, general cleaning, lawn care, etc. Meal preparation and grocery shopping were included in this list of tasks, but I didn’t ask specific questions about them.
In most of the interviews people expressed only mild interest when discussing cleaning or non-food related tasks, nor did they seem excited about information regarding their routine chores. But to my surprise, nearly every respondent had quite a bit to say about meals and groceries. In fact, most of them talked at length about one or the other.
Meal preparation is a significant problem
What did everyone say? Eight of the twelve households described meal preparation as a significant problem. When these respondents were talking about other household tasks, a calm curiosity or mild annoyance prevailed. Yet as soon as meals came up, the tone would shift. People would often begin using expletives or hyperbole at this point:
“A huge pain in the ass!” “Horrible!” “The worst!” “Endless!” “What the f*** am I going to cook tonight?!”
In four of the households meals were not described as a significant problem. However a year later, one of those now finds meals to be a significant problem, thanks to life changes. Of the three remaining, two gave evidence that a series of dinner solutions, such as Blue Apron and meal planning, had been attempted in their households, despite meal preparation not being described as huge problem. Two of these also complained of groceries.
The only household where meals were not a problem at all consisted of one person who ate most of her meals at her partner’s house.
This seemed to me good evidence that meal preparation is a significant problem in the households of my target demographic. Now to groceries.
Groceries are part of the trouble
Groceries were mentioned by eight households as difficult or stressful. Coordination, information exchange and money spent were the biggest problems described:
“Too much mental energy!” “I get carry-out just to avoid going to the store.” “We have to go to multiple stores.” “I spend too much money on spur-of-the-moment purchases.”
Coordinating the grocery shopping with cooking and meal planning was most often mentioned as the crux of the grocery problem. A general lack of enthusiasm for grocery shopping was also evident, with the exception of three people who happened to live close to a few stores they liked. In those cases grocery shopping was mentioned as a relaxing or even fun activity.
It was clear from the conversations that grocery shopping and meal preparation were closely entwined. I realized that grocery shopping must be considered as a component of the meal-preparation problem, not as an unrelated chore. Now back to meals.
The real problem is actually dinner
When discussing meals, deciding what to make for dinner was the issue most often described as causing stress by the respondents. It seemed to be the biggest general problem, causing frustration for families with kids, couples without kids, and even for one of the single people.
“Dinner comes at the worst time of day!” “We have decision fatigue every evening.” “I want a Magic 8 Ball that tells me what to cook for dinner.” “Please tell me what to cook!”
Curiously, breakfast and lunch were not explicitly mentioned by any respondent (although they were implicated by some as part of the greater problem). Dinner was the focus of nearly all complaints.
Varying or conflicting food preferences and restrictions were mentioned in nearly every household as compounding the difficulty of deciding what to cook. Some households had worked out satisfactory solutions for this and considered it not such a big deal, for others it was a major issue. If the household had kids described as ‘picky’, this was the primary focus of complaints and elicited quite a bit of emotion:
“No one eats what I make!” “There are bad emotions all around.” “It’s impossible.”
Other complaints regarding dinner were numerous and varied. They included: lack of inspiration, vegetables taking too much effort, the entire process taking too long, coming home to a dirty kitchen, scheduling the meal around events, throwing out too much food, failed attempts at systemization and planning, kids and spouse not helping, and lack of confidence when cooking.
It was evident that these were just the tip of the iceberg. Money, kids, health concerns, time, energy, and sustainability were all mentioned as factors causing stress, guilt, or anxiety.
The longer I let people talk, the more dinner complaints emerged:
“We always eat the same five meals.” “Why are vegetables so difficult?” “Planning just shifts the problem to the weekend.” “We eat out more than we want because we can’t make a decision.”
Attempts at solutions
Nearly every respondent had tried apps or services to solve some aspect of the dinner problem. Six had tried a meal kit service like Blue Apron at some point, but no one stayed with them. They all complained about the packaging involved in these services and “you still have to do all the work!”
Five people had tried using apps to find recipes or to help them decide what to cook, but these apps were universally described as disappointing. Following a meal or diet plan from a magazine or service were mentioned by two people as positive experiences, but they didn’t seem ready to do another one in the near future.
The only successes were moderate, and had to do with groceries: four households were able to coordinate grocery shopping by using Anylist or Google Docs. Instacart was mentioned positively by two households, but they had only just begun using it. CSA boxes were also mentioned positively by three households, but these were in their pasts.
There seemed to be a general frustration with attempts at solutions:
“We’ve tried everything and nothing sticks.” “I’m too fatigued to even maintain my grocery app.” “There’s nothing good for vegetarians.” “I’m done with new systems, nothing works.”
Despite this, no one gave me the impression that they were about to give up on dinner. I didn’t ask specifically, but no one suggested that they were about to outsource the whole thing or give up on eating it. For other types of chores these solutions were mentioned as possibilities (some people use cleaning services, others have chosen to be content with dirty floors), but not dinner.
Everyone clearly intended to continue making dinner, despite the trouble.
Obviously, dinner is a big problem for many households. Even people who describe it as not a big problem look for solutions regarding some aspect of it. If you feel that dinner is a problem in your household, or have stress, guilt or anxiety regarding it, you are certainly not alone.
The nature of the problem differs from household to household however, with different households emphasizing different difficulties. Your dinner problems won’t be exactly the same as other people’s dinner problems, nor will your ideas of what makes a satisfactory solution.
Dinner is also a sprawling and complex problem touching many aspects of people’s lives and requiring the coordination and management of multiple resources. This is why solutions in a box don’t work for most people and why systems are so difficult to maintain.
Despite the trouble it causes us, people are clearly deeply emotionally attached to dinner. It is important to us. We care about it, which is why we get so upset about it. It must be giving us something fundamental, something more than lunch or a clean house give us.
After compiling the notes for the 14th interview, I could hear the collective voice clearly:
“We don’t care about bathrooms or laundry. If you are going to think about this stuff, please solve dinner instead!”
So I concluded the survey, as it was clear that my original idea wasn’t resonating with anyone.
But how could I possibly solve dinner? It was so daunting. I had no idea how to begin. I started this blog to play around with ideas for solutions, but wasn’t satisfied with any of my attempts.
Then I switched to groceries for a while, and began collecting receipts from a few of my survey respondents to see if I could use the data to provide them with some benefit.