The question ‘what’s for dinner’ can often feel overwhelming. And there's a good reason why.
There are only so many decisions we make before this takes a toll. Decision fatigue is the experience of mental exhaustion. It can cause you to feel indecisive or even lead to poor decision-making.[iii]
The energy and mental effort required to make decisions all day - combined with anticipating, planning, organising and managing the ever growing to-do-list for your family - can leave you feeling depleted by dinner time.
Choosing what to have for dinner can feel like the tipping point, after a full day of decisions.
Particularly because as a parent, meal choices are often complex. Behind one meal is a huge invisible workload and a subset of additional decisions such as how to get kids to eat their veggies, considering meal preferences, the (often limited) time you have to prepare a meal, consider allergies and dietary requirements… the list goes on.
Top tips for tacking decision fatigue around ‘what’s for dinner’
There’s no magic solution to decision fatigue, particularly for parents managing the invisible mental load too, but here are some practical tips to help.
Minimise Decisions by Creating Routine
Wherever possible try to minimise decisions around meals and snacks by creating a predictable schedule which everyone in the family knows.
This could be as simple as having a standard breakfast on weekdays, like porridge with fresh fruit, to remove one decision from the morning routine. Or if you’re like us and mornings are often a bit of a rush, you may want to opt for one of our 5 nutritious breakfast on-the-go options.
Equally, having a set of ‘go to’ dinners on some week nights such as Taco Tuesdays works well. You can mix up the protein and veggies for variety, but at least the big decision is made and everyone knows what to expect.
Try to make any important or time-sensitive decisions in the morning when you’re fresh and before decision fatigue sets in. Your 5 pm self will thank you!
Choosing what to have for dinner is much easier and likely to be a better decision when done in the morning rather than after a full day of work or caring for little ones.
If you’re inspired to get really organised, you could allocate some time on the weekend to do meal planning for the entire week. If you need some inspiration, we have a range of toddler and child meal plans which meet the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
Another pro tip: Maintain a list of 'meal ideas' or your family's favorite recipes on your phone, and continue to add to it over time. This way, when you find yourself in need of ideas, you can turn to your 'list' for a quick and easy solution.
Involve little ones in the decision-making
Getting your little ones involved in the decision-making has multiple benefits. How involved they are, will obviously depend on their age, but you can start as soon as they can talk or point. For example,
- For a 1-year-old you could give them a choice between two veggies to serve on their snack platter or to feature in a meal
- For toddlers or preschoolers you could give them a choice between two dinner options you’re comfortable with
- For older children you could even involve them in meal planning.
Involving little ones in deciding on the meals or snacks (and if possible, helping them prepare the food with you), gives them a sense of ownership. This makes it more likely they’ll be open to eating the final product, so is a great way to help encourage little ones to eat their veggies and help prevent fussy eating.
Delegate some decisions to your partner (if possible)
If you have a partner, it’s important to evenly distribute the physical and mental load in your household. This doesn’t mean splitting every task 50:50, there may be some tasks which you each prefer or which make more sense for one person to take the lead on. But even if one partner does all, or the bulk, of the cooking, the other can still be involved in making decisions to help reduce the mental load and avoid decision making falling onto one person.
Have back up options for harder days
Even with the best planning, we all have hard(er!) days, especially when little ones are involved. Getting dinner on the table on time, especially mid-week, can be really tricky for families juggling a lot of balls. Having healthy options on hand can help save last minute dashes to the store, indecision, or relying on takeaway.
Consider cooking in large quantities and storing meals in your freezer, or opt for frozen meals from reputable brands. You might incorporate this into your routine, like designating a cooking-free day every Wednesday, or you may just have meals on hand for days which go pear-shaped. How this works best for your family will depend on your circumstances. But either way, being prepared with healthy and convenient options will be a life-saver.
[i] Sollisch J (2016) The cure for decision fatigue. Wall Street Journal. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-cure-for-decision-fatigue-1465596928
[ii] Wansink, B. & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behavior, 39:1, 106-123. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227344004_Mindless_Eating_The_200_Daily_Food_Decisions_We_Overlook
[iii] Pignatiello GA, Martin RJ, Hickman RL Jr. Decision fatigue: A conceptual analysis. J Health Psychol. 2020 Jan;25(1):123-135. doi: 10.1177/1359105318763510. Epub 2018 Mar 23. PMID: 29569950; PMCID: PMC6119549.
[iv] L Dean, B Churchill & L Ruppanner (2021): The mental load: building a deeper theoretical understanding of how cognitive and emotional labor overload women and mothers, Community, Work & Family, DOI: 10.1080/13668803.2021.2002813