In the recent past, after the birth of my daughter and two subsequent cross-country moves, I found myself faced
with a mountain of household tasks. So much upheaval in such a short time meant that I was suddenly dealing with more cleaning, arranging, shopping, and cooking than ever before, but had less energy and time in which to do it all.
As I tend to do when faced with new tasks, I decided to research how to best approach them. I assumed that a brief dive into the internet and a quick trip to the library would yield some good solutions to my household problems. Then I would get back to living the life of the mind, my preferred mode of existence.
I was sorely disappointed. There was information, yes, lots of it. Plenty of tips and tricks, nestled between advertisements for bras and served up with chuckles about the kids. There were printable, pin-worthy lists and charts, adorned with birds and ribbons and spiritual musings.
But I was searching for a systematic approach, a set of principles on which I could organize my house and manage my tasks in order to significantly reduce the amount of time and effort I spent on routine chores. This I could not find.
So I began developing one myself. I surveyed as many of my friends and acquaintances as I could about their household tasks. Would they, too, be interested in such an approach? Had they been searching for similar information? What were their biggest household problems?
The responses that I got surprised me. While everyone wanted to spend less time on chores, they weren’t terribly interested in discussing them. There was something else looming on their minds, a household problem that consumed their attention and overshadowed their days. Inevitably our conversation would turn to it, and nearly everyone complained at length about some aspect of it.
“I really don’t care about the state of my bathroom or my laundry right now. Will you please tell me what to cook for dinner tonight?!”
It was nearly everyone’s biggest problem. It overshadowed all other household concerns, especially if there were kids in the house.
Why is dinner such a problem?
But why dinner? Why not breakfast or laundry or cleaning the bathroom?
The answer is obvious, yet I had overlooked it: it is because dinner is by far the most complex household activity we’re engaged in on a daily basis. It involves more people, more resources, and higher expectations than any other daily household event. It is loaded with significance, serves a multitude of functions, and is subject to myriad cultural influences.
We have very high expectations for the meal and equate it strongly with our success as parents and as adults. It is widely prescribed for the betterment of our youth, the improvement of our marriages and the lengthening of our lives. Many of the people I interviewed had strong feelings of guilt or inadequacy regarding their ability to pull it off.
Dinner’s scope is extensive. Pulling off a nightly meal involves far more than just the ability to cook some food. Groceries must be budgeted and purchased, ingredients prepared and stored, tools and appliances maintained, preferences and dietary restrictions aligned and, importantly, other human beings must be convinced to participate in the project in a satisfactory manner.
Dinner is one of my bigger problems too, but it isn’t as acute for me as it was for others. Why? When I thought about it, I realized that is because I had developed my own systematic approach to it over the years. My system wasn’t perfect, but it reduced a lot of the pain. Perhaps I could share it, develop it further and help others to solve their dinner problem too?
Although most of the people I talked to agreed that dinner was a big problem, when asked which aspects of it were the most problematic they all gave different answers. They also had wildly different ideas of what a good dinner should look like.
Would it be possible to make this sprawling, emotion-laden task manageable? Would it even be worth trying? These thoughts nagged me as I began my efforts.
There would clearly be no simple solution. I began to understand why the advice I found consisted of collections of tips, tricks, and recipes: any systematic approach to dinner would have to embrace so much complexity and variability that it would be unlikely to be useful.
So I gave up on it for a while. But the frustrations of my friends kept echoing through my mind. I couldn’t shake the conviction that an exploration of this problem could bear fruit. I like complex problems after all, and would be making dinner regardless. I might as well try to do something about it.
I started this blog as a chronicle of my efforts. My hope is that by thoroughly exploring the issue and sharing my results with others, a systematic solution can be developed that will be useful to anyone who wants to solve their dinner problems.
Finding the Solution
So what do I mean by ‘solving’ dinner then? In general I mean significantly reducing the time, effort, resources, and stress involved in making it on a regular basis.
Some very simple solutions that meet these criteria immediately spring to mind:
- Don’t eat dinner at all
- Eat the same thing for dinner every night
- Eat out every night.
There are some people for whom these solutions might work well, but I don’t find them to be satisfactory or enjoyable. You probably don’t either.
So I’ll extend my my definition:
Solving dinner means to significantly reduce the time, effort, resources, and stress involved in making dinner on a regular basis, while doing so in a satisfactory and enjoyable manner that works for your household.
Your solution is unlikely to be the same as anyone else’s, as your problems aren’t the same. The preferences, values, and circumstances in your household are unique, and your solutions will be too.