We’ve all been there — it’s 3pm, it’s been a rough day, you only got five hours of sleep last night (at best), and you just can. not. go. on. So you reach for the snacks. Then you realize you’ve already “ruined” today, so may as well go all out for dinner. And dessert. And your midnight snack. And suddenly, a day that started off with the best of intentions is replaced with disappointment. You’ll start again tomorrow when you’ll have more willpower.
This cycle is a result of decision fatigue. You make millions of decisions all day long, and at a certain point, exhaustion sets in and you start taking the fast and easy way out. Making decisions is like using your muscles — the more you tax your brain, the more tired it becomes, just like a muscle. In today’s fast paced world, we are faced with hundreds of decisions with little time to weigh our options. Issues pop up like land mines in a video game. Cross too many of them and you won’t have any lives left and it’s game over. I always like to remind my clients — when your whole day is a sprint instead of a marathon, and you didn’t have time to do all the training and prep work, staying the course becomes an impossible task.
For me, routine is the ONLY thing that keeps me sane. I found this out the hard way at the beginning of the pandemic when my suddenly rigid schedule fell apart and I was trying to juggle all of my new, extra responsibilities. It took me about five months to finally get into a new routine that is actually maintainable.
How can routine help?
When your food decisions become a routine instead of a constant source of rumination, you leave that muscle open for all the other decisions you have to make. And when you have the time to schedule in your priorities and you make that time to show up for yourself, your chances of staying on track are much, MUCH higher.
But making a meal plan, getting the meal prep done in advance… even with the best of intentions, this just doesn’t always happen. So how can we simplify the process? Categories. Meal planning doesn’t need to be an intricate, obsessive practice. If you think weekly about even just one meal, like snack for example — ok, Monday is a fruit day, Tuesday is a vegetable day, Wednesday is cheese and crackers, Thursday is another fruit day, etc… Taking the constant split-second decisions out of the equation frees up brain space for all the other important choices you have to make each day.
You’ve seen categorical routines before — think “Meatless Monday” or “Pizza Friday.” Both are examples of how to keep on track towards a certain goal, whether that goal is to decrease your meat consumption or have a weekly celebration! Using a fun category like “Pizza Friday” once a week can also reduce your difficulties staying on track during the week — if you know that “Pizza Friday” is coming, it’s easier to stay in your routine without feeling deprived during the rest of the week.
When dealing with decision fatigue, routine can also help you to be more mindful during your actual meals. When you don’t have to worry about the “What am I going to eat right now? I only have five seconds to make this decision because I have so much to do,” you have more free time to enjoy the actual act. There’s nothing better than a crisp, freshly-made salad or a seared steak or a juicy peach when you have the time to savor the moment.
For me, I’ve found that I do the best if I organize my meals with these sort of categories:
- Higher protein (e.g., eggs, sausage, tuna, steak)
- Some sort of green vegetable (e.g., spinach, broccoli, mesclun)
- Mixed salad with lots of rainbow vegetables (e.g., lettuce, rainbow peppers, mushrooms, carrots, radishes)
- Moderate protein (smaller than breakfast, bigger than dinner)
I switch daily between:
- cheese and crackers
- nuts and fruit
- carrots/peppers and hummus
- Small protein (usually something different from what I’ve had earlier in the day)
- Moderate carb to help with sleep (e.g., sweet potato, quinoa, black beans and rice)
- More green vegetables!
I like to use this basic organization and use cuisine categories and switch up the spices involved for some variation.
In the current rotation, we do a lot of Central/South American, Italian, and Middle Eastern (my 15 month old LOVES Turkish food!). A lot of this kind of organizing is about figuring out the 5–10 dishes that work best for you and your family, and recycling them until you feel confident enough to venture into new territory.
While this method may take some extra time at first to organize, the result is saving tons of time, improving your food choices along the way, and enjoying your food experiences!
Caroline is an Integrative Nutrition Health coach and a licensed pediatric feeding specialist. Through her company, Nest Level Care, she provides health and wellness coaching for new mothers, while also supporting families with feeding practices for children, whether they are breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or starting solids! When she isn’t providing individualized services for her Nest Level Care clients, you can find her camping with her husband, son, and dog, or watching episodes of The Great British Baking Show.