“Hey, so what are you thinking for dinner tonight?”
It’s a simple question that we almost never answer with the name of a restaurant. Or even a style of food. Instead, the answer is some variation of this:
“I’m good with whatever.”
This non-committal answer drives me crazy. It volleys the ball back to the person asking the question, and now that person has all the pressure of making the decision, but none of the actual power to do so.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s roll the tape:
“I’m good with whatever.”
“Alright, how about Italian?”
“Eh, I’m not really feeling Italian.”
“Eh, I had Chinese for lunch.”
“Wait, so what exactly did you mean by ‘good with whatever?'”
A couple years ago, I decided I would never say, “I’m good with whatever” again. I started giving concrete answers. “Burger.” “Pizza.” “Italian.”
But that didn’t feel right either. The person asking the question looked at me like, “Alright, easy there Putin. I didn’t know I was taking orders here.”
Why is this dinner question so complicated?
On paper, it seems like one of the easiest questions of the day. There are no high stakes at all. No wrong choices, no consequences; other than the morning bathroom trip after a few too many jalapenos.
So then why do we pick such a non-committal answer?
One possible answer, to our non-answer, is a concept called “Decision Fatigue.” In John Tierney’s New York Times article, “Do you suffer from decision fatigue?” he frames the problem this way:
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.
The first shortcut, Tierney explains, is to make a bad decision. To not think about the consequences and just go with it because you’re tired of weighing things out.
This is why the bag of Cheetos at six in the morning is (pretty) easy to walk past, but when I get home from work, my willpower defenses have been worn down and I stand no chance.
Or why, “Hey, let’s drop a thing of Jameson, mixed with Bailey’s, into a glass of Guinness and just chug it,” you propose that to me at 11 in the morning, my brain’s like, “Are you kidding me? We’re gonna do what?”
But fast forward twelve hours later at a bar, I’m absolutely on board. No hesitation.
The other shortcut is to do nothing.
Avoid the decision altogether. The “no decision” decision. I dunno. I’m good with whatever. This is more accurate for the dinner dilemma.
Quick side note – Frozen pizzas shine in this moment. Welcomes you into it’s pepperoni arms with no burden.
“Hey, all I need you to do is hit 375 on the oven and set a timer. That’s it. I gotchu. The hardest decision you’re gonna have to make tonight is whether you stop at four or five slices.”
There’s decision fatigue from being worn down by a day of choices, but another aspect going on here is the “Paradox of Choice.” In theory, we think having a bunch of choices is a good thing but, in practice, too many choices kind of freaks us out.
Using that dinner question from earlier, when the choice was, “What do you want for dinner?” that’s way too much, too many options available. But think about what happens as it became more specific. Italian? No. Chinese? Nah, had that for lunch. One way to make decisions easier is to contain the choices to two or three options so we can start weighing out the tangible pros and cons.
Decide your dinner around breakfast time
I’m at my most creative in the morning, from six to eight a.m. It’s when I do all my writing. So, I wonder if this mindset would spill over to planning a dinner. If our brains at seven in the morning would go from “I’m good with whatever” to magically transforming into a contestant on Chopped; open up the fridge, Ok, I see we’ve got a half used thing of ketchup, a couple leftover slices of Digiorno, and a thing of shredded Mexican cheese. Alright, got it! We’re going homemade five-layer lasagna.
Imagine knowing what was ahead for dinner all day long. You’d have anticipation building from 9 to 5. Instead of that worn down brain trying to make any sort of decision, it just needs to follow tasks. Go to the grocery store, get these things. Bring items home, follow these steps. Tasks and checklists, that’s what the 5 – 7 p.m. brain does best.
The “Instant Pot” pressure cooker thrives in this situation too. It’s similar to the frozen pizza, but instead of hitting 375, setting a timer, and ending up with a somewhat decent pizza, the Instant Pot can do anything. It’s like installing a wizard in your kitchen.
Throw in a lb of pulled pork: great bbq meal an hour later. Same thing with ribs. It can make rice, it can make yogurt. I think in two years, the Instant Pot will be able to create human life.
“I’m good with whatever” is a frustrating volley back to the person asking the question. But the blunt, “I want a hamburger” is a step toward becoming a dinner dictator, and that doesn’t work out either.
I think the best solution is to decide your dinner early on in the day. Or even plan out your week on Saturday/Sunday. Do all the cooking over the weekend so that the work week is easy. It becomes all about re-heats and washing out Tupperware.
The weekend brain is a far more relaxed animal. Weekend hands have time to dice onions. Weekend pace is like going down to the South vs. hustling through the busiest streets of New York City.
The Instant Pot and microwave shine during the week, and are commended for their hustle. But, over the weekend, it’s the crock pot’s time to shine. Time to slow things down. Stay awhile. The crock pot is like the guy at the hotel/resort who you always see sitting in the hot tub, and after a few days it’s not clear if these are multiple visits or one long stay.
With the right amount of preparation, we can slowly phase out the, “What are you thinking for dinner” question and it’s frustrating counterpart: I’m good with whatever.
I think that’s a decision we all can live with.
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