Meal time decision fatigue

Making a plan for when you're tired of planning

As we cross the threshold into one year of pandemic living, I’ve been reflecting on all of the big and small ways life has changed. One change is how much I need to cook at home, and though it’s small, it’s had a ripple effect on my daily routine.

On an average day in the Before Times I’d head to my coworking space in Old City Philadelphia. After I got off the train I’d swing by a corner store for a yogurt or one of those microwave oatmeal cups. Maybe on Fridays I’d stop by a bodega and treat myself to a freshly made sausage, egg and cheese on a roll. For lunch I’d go to Primos for a hoagie or go to Chinatown with some friends and order something to bring back to our office.

Not having to think too hard about breakfast and lunch gave me the capacity to dream up what to have for dinner, which was the only meal of the day I planned to some extent. At least twice a week I’d go to happy hours with friends and for dinner we’d share small plates over pitchers of margaritas or glasses of wine. Other days I’d have long text threads with my husband about what we had in the fridge or what I could pick up from DiBruno’s on my way home. Sometimes, I’d just roll into the market and vibe down the aisles, getting inspiration from what items were in stock, or what the fishmonger or butcher recommended I try that week.

Having dinner on the back burner of my mind made it an activity to look forward to, and a way to wind down after work at the end of the day. And in many ways, whether I was discussing what to eat for dinner with my husband, my friends, a waiter at a restaurant, or the butcher at the market, dinner was also very social.

But the pandemic has required a bit more planning. I no longer run to the market to pick up a few things. Now it’s a weekly expedition, meticulously charted aisle by aisle only to grab the provisions my husband and I need. And we try to get in and get out as quickly as we can, no more vibing down the aisles. We still order out but compared to our lifestyles before March 2020, it’s considerably less. And I haven’t shared a meal with friends in a year, so deciding what to eat has become more of a solo act, and not the communal decision it was before.

This past fall, USA TODAY reported on decision fatigue in the time of COVID and how our overturned routines have forced us to allocate more of our mental energy toward making decisions. Granted, they’re talking more about the increased amount of serious decisions and sacrifices we’ve had to make over the past year. But decisions regarding whether or not to go to the grocery store when it’s crowded, to dine outside or take out, and what food to make three times a day just adds more stress and certainly contributes to decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is described “as the emotional and mental strain resulting from a burden of choices” and the more choices we are confronted with, the more we make half-brained, snap decisions, or worse — we shut down. I’m not going to lie — as much as I am passionate about food, I am fatigued by deciding what to eat every day. I mentioned in last week’s newsletter that I sometimes stand in front of the open fridge and shove slices of lunch meat in my mouth, and that wasn’t a joke. Sometimes I follow it up with slices of bread because I don’t have the bandwidth to make a sandwich. I am so tired of making decisions. I just want to grab and eat.

It’s not that I’m tired of cooking, in fact, when I have a plan in place cooking is very enjoyable and kind of a stress reliever. It’s more that when hunger strikes, I am sometimes too tired to figure out what to eat. Even deciding what ingredients to pull together is overwhelming.

Knowing that this is what I’m dealing with, I’ve been trying to be more intentional about meal planning and preparing things ahead of time so that when my mind is fatigued there is food ready for me to grab and eat. With food already prepared, I’m not overwhelmed with too many choices and the decision of what to eat is essentially made for me.

So far not only has this been helpful, it’s also been really enjoyable. I drink my Saturday morning coffee over magazines and Pinterest, getting inspiration for what meals I’d like to make for the week ahead. From that, I make a list and grab what I need from the grocery store, and for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, I queue up a few podcasts and prep most of my ingredients ahead of time. I roast potatoes, salmon, and chicken in the oven while cooking up rice and orzo on the stove, and in between stirring the pot I’m cutting up tomatoes and cucumbers. For someone who has been fatigued lately, I really find my flow when I’m juggling tasks in the kitchen.

This is something that’s been working for me, but I’d love to know what works for you. Definitely hit me up with some tips in the comments, I’m all ears! I’m also hosting a Clubhouse event Thursday, March 11th at 4pm in the Amuse-Bouche club, and would love to discuss in real time with you there.


Jerk Shrimp and Mango and Radish Slaw with Salad

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 lbs shrimp

  • 1 cup diced mango

  • 1/3 cup sliced radish

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

  • 3 tablespoons lime juice

  • 1 teaspoon honey

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • salt and pepper

  • Salad greens

For Jerk seasoning:

  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika

  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1/2 teaspoon clove

  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice

  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder

  • 1 teaspoon thyme

  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar

  • dash of salt and dash of black pepper

Instructions:

  1. Mix mango, radish, red onion, lime juice and honey in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let it sit on the side.

  2. Heat skillet on medium-high and add olive oil to grease the pan. While the skillet is heating up, coat uncooked shrimp with Jerk seasoning.

  3. Once the skillet is hot, cook the shrimp evenly at about 4-5 minutes on each side.

  4. Plate salad greens and top with mango and radish slaw and shrimp.


Seeking:
Guests for the Amuse-Bouche podcast that goes along with this lovely newsletter! I have a few guests lined up, but I’m still looking for a few more folks. It's a casual conversation about the joy of food from a perspective that somewhat resonates with the guest's work or a body of work they've produced.  If you have a niche, a topic of interest, or a specific area of expertise, send me a pitch!

Pitch Me!

Reading:
G. Daniela Galarza’s Eat Voraciously recipe newsletter for Washington Post is the perfect dose of mealtime inspiration. When the brain fog is thick and I can’t decide what to make, this newsletter swoops into my inbox at just the right time to save the day.

Sign up

Listening:
Thanks to Joseph Hernandez for turning me on to this podcast. Maintenance Phase is a podcast that unpacks the toxicity of wellness crazes and debunks common myths about weight loss.

Listen

Watching
Nathaniel Drew has an interesting series on his YouTube channel where he tries to live out the daily routines of some of the world’s greatest minds. He actually spends several weeks to a month adopting a historic figure’s routine. The first video in the series I watched was this recent one where he tried Picasso’s daily routine. I appreciated that he spent some time discussing the dark side of Picasso’s personal history. Alongside of his daily routine it gave unique insight into Picasso’s guiding philosophies and what made him tick.

Nathaniel also did Ben Franklin’s daily routine and was very open in how much he struggled with it.

Watch


Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy® Award-Winning TV host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a show that spotlights restaurants throughout the Philadelphia region. She also writes and hosts Delishtory on WHYY, a digital series that dives into the history of foods we love. Kae Lani is also a food and travel writer who enjoys exploring the history and culture of cuisine. Be sure to follow her here on Twitter and Instagram!