The average American will prepare 832 meals at home this year. That’s 832 meals that you need to plan, shop, prep and clean.
What would you do if you could go from 832 to 24? That’s right. Twenty. Four. Feels good just thinking about it, right?
This is the question that popped in my head following a conversation between Tim Ferriss and Neil Strauss in which Tim was poking a bit of fun at Neil’s anxiety around ordering lunch. Neil explained that the reason he was able to be so productive—Neil is a 7-time NYT best-selling author and counting—is that he automates as many of his daily decisions as is practical. To that end, Neil usually has a standing order for lunch and having to spend decision energy on ordering lunch unexpectedly causes him a bit of distress.
I’m a foodie and an adventurous eater. I love to eat. My waistline is proof of that. I also love to cook. It relaxes me and lets me be creative. But the prospect of deliberately automating my meals intrigued me on two levels: reducing decision-fatigue and reclaiming time in my day.
Research has shown that your mind is only able to make so many decisions each day before it starts to fatigue. That, by itself, does not seem so surprising. What is surprising is that this is true whether you are making an important, big decision like whether to accept a new job offer or a seemingly insignificant, small decision like red wine or white.
It’s hard to quantify the exact number of decisions each meal takes but consider that you probably make well over a hundred decisions for that single meal. I took a click-counter and tried to count the decisions involved in preparing my meals. I kept losing my place after about 150 because it’s tough to remember to click the counter for what I’d usually consider a trivial decision like: “Is that enough salt?” or “Should I have spinach? It’s on sale.” or “Is that medium or rare?”
Without knowing the exact number of decisions I am saving, I can tell you anecdotally that my overall energy, well-being and happiness have been noticeably impacted in a positive way. The joy of waking up and popping my protein-rich breakfast in the microwave, taking a Slow-Carb strict lunch to work and avoiding the cafeteria lines and coming home not having to worry about what I’m going to have for dinner after a long day is tremendous. My friends clown me about this but just try it for two weeks for yourself. You may think I am exaggerating but I dare you not to feel the same.
The point is, eliminating several hundred decisions out of my day saves that decision energy for more fulfilling pursuits. More on that later.
As part of my experiment, I also set out to reclaim one hour out of my day. I easily exceeded that. To illustrate the time savings let’s assume that we cook 6 days out of the week. The math will be illustrative and should scale relative to your habits. We’ll also exclude the time of actually eating the meal as we’ll hold that constant. Here’s the math:
- 132 min shopping (2.2 x 60 min per trip)
- 90 min breakfast (6 x 15 min per meal)
- 150 min lunch (6 x 25 min per meal)
- 210 min dinner (6 x 35 min per meal)
- 582 min total per week
- 1164 min for 2 weeks
If you think these numbers are unfairly padded, time yourself. I did. 15 minutes to prep and clean breakfast goes by quickly. Walking over to the cafeteria for lunch, deciding what to eat, standing in line, waiting for your order…that all takes time. In fact, I am intentionally being generous and underestimating the time it takes me for each meal. For the grocery shopping, the average American goes to the grocery store 2.2 times a week. Let’s say it takes about an hour each trip.
To cook for two weeks’ meals (that’s 36 meals):
- 60 min shopping (I now have only one grocery trip, saving myself 3.4 trips)
- 240 min prep, cook and clean (I save a lot from only having to cleanup the cooking implements once)
- 300 min for 2 weeks
- (1164-300)/12 = 72 min per day in savings
Just by cooking my meals in one day I’ve saved over an hour each day.
Now, these are my numbers. If you eat out more often, shop in fewer trips, then your time savings may be a bit less. But when you factor in these economies of scale you too will see non-trivial savings in your day.
My Method (and My Madness)
I chose to prepare my meals every other Sunday because it is a day that I usually don’t have to make a lot of important decisions.
Let’s dispel one myth right now about variety. People critical of this practice say they love having variety and having the freedom to be inspired each day. Track what you eat over the course of a month and I think you’ll be surprised how those “choices” map to just a handful of variations. Not only that but research has shown that when faced with decisions throughout the day people have a tendency to opt for the simplest and most convenient option or their “usual.” That’s decision fatigue at work.
By being deliberate about planning out your meals, you can create intentional variety in your menu. Here’s how I plot out my main entrees (breakfast, lunch, dinner):
- Sunday (frittata, chicken, fish)
- Monday (frittata, pork, fish)
- Tuesday (frittata, beef, veg)
- Wednesday (frittata, chicken, pork)
- Thursday (frittata, beef, fish)
- Friday (frittata, chicken, beef)
- Saturday (my day of indulgence to go out and eat)
The fact that I intentionally start each day with a frittata is my personal choice because I am currently on the Slow Carb program from The 4-Hour Body. This also guides me to have vegetable and legume sides for most meals. And if you don’t currently eat breakfast, you really should. Read The 4-Hour Body and try it. I’ve been on it for over a year and half and am living proof that breakfast absolutely matters.
You can do whatever works for you and vary as much (or little) as you like. But the point here is you can see I already start with intentional variety. Map your month’s meals and see how they compare.
Now that I have my general guideline, the fun part comes in. I select recipes that feature these entrees. Almond-crusted pork chops. Filet of sole with a ghee-white wine sauce with lemon and capers. Texas all-meat chili. Spring vegetable stir fry. Medallions of beef tenderloin with a cabernet reduction. Cauliflower couscous with celery root. Do you eat this well every week? Do you have this much variety?
I know this seems like a lot of work and it is in the beginning. But you are front-loading those decisions and we are creating formulas here. I know that for my week’s worth of frittatas I need 2 cartons (32 oz) of egg whites, 6 whole eggs, and 4 cups of filling. That’s a 3:1 ratio (for every 3 cups of egg I have 1 cup of filling). Yes, that was a pain in the ass to figure out. But now that I’ve done it, I never have to. Ever. Again. If you’re reading this, neither will you. You’re welcome.
Eventually, I’ll throw these recipe selections into Pinterest and in Epicurious. So the next time I am planning a two-week prep, I just select the recipes and they will have the appropriate quantities and automatically add them to my grocery shopping list. Pair that with a TaskRabbit or Postmates run and you won’t even have to do the shopping yourself. More time savings.
Yes, this seems like a lot of work to begin with. And it is. I’ve done this for a few months now and I still dread every other Sunday. But that immediately vanishes that first breakfast I wake up to and that first dinner I come home to. And my efficiency will only get better over time.
I’ve also heard a few criticisms that this is fine for me because I only have myself to cook for. First of all, thanks for pointing out that I’m still holding auditions for my leading lady. That’s just mean. Secondly, I call BS. I have an amazing friend who cooks for herself and her four little girls once a month and has been doing so for a while now. I know a few other folks who also do the same for their families on a weekly basis. If anything, their economies of scale are even bigger than mine. I’ve known folks to pair up with other people to cook together every two weeks or once a month. That helps by sharing the work and swapping recipes. Plus, it helps the time pass a bit more quickly when you’ve got company.
I tried this experiment because I thought it would save me time and reduce decision fatigue. It has met and exceeded those expectations. This has also helped with two pleasant additional benefits. For one, I am able to save around 15% percent off my grocery bills because of the way I time my purchases and in savings from wasted/spoiled food. Produce NEVER goes bad in my home because they are prepared immediately. For another, this has helped me re-focus on being strict on the Slow Carb Diet. I prepare all my meals myself so I know exactly what is going into them. I have no temptation to slip when eating out because those are on rare occasions and I’ve banked a bunch of decision energy. Plus, I always have Fatterday to indulge.
So now that I’m flush with all this reclaimed time, what was it all for? I love food and I love to cook. That won’t change. But for now, I wanted to use some of that time to pursue new challenges, experiences and adventures. The first I am tackling with my time savings is teaching myself to speed read among the top 1% (500-1000 wpm) with an ultimate goal of achieving 5000 wpm. At 1000 wpm I could read the average novel in little over an hour and at 5000 wpm I could do it in fewer than 16 minutes. Think about that. In the time it takes you to prep and clean your breakfast, I could have read a book. Visit back on this blog to see how my quest to read 200 books in a year goes.