Odds are most of the time you try to make the “right” food choice — or at least the best possible choice. When you don’t, you might kick yourself for having no willpower, but you might actually have decision fatigue.
It’s estimated that adults make around 35,000 decisions a day — 227 of them about food. The more choices you have to make in all areas of your life — what to wear, what to watch, what to read, which emails to answer, what to say (or not say), what to eat — the harder it can be to make choices that you feel good about, especially as the day wears on. You’re more likely to make a food choice on impulse just to be relieved of the burden of making a thoughtful, carefully considered choice.
If you suspect that you struggle with nutrition-decision fatigue, there are solutions. The trick is to have enough variety in your food to keep from getting bored, but not so much that you just go with whatever’s easiest or closest at hand. This can reduce pressure and increase pleasure. Think of the difference between a restaurant menu full of endless options and a simpler one. You’re more likely to be happy with your choice from the smaller menu.
“Curate” your options. Most people are happy with minimal variety for breakfast, lunch and necessary snacks (i.e., snacks that you use to address hunger between meals). Keep two or three options in rotation for breakfast, lunch and planned snacks. For example, you might decide to have an apple for your afternoon snack each day, then pair it with either a small handful of almonds, a dollop of nut butter, or a single serving of cheese. If you buy your lunch, narrow your options to a few go-tos. You could work from the same small selection for an entire week — or even longer — then choose a new set of options if you start to get bored.
Make weekday decisions on the weekend. When you plan your meals and shop for what you need on the weekend, rather than rushing to the store after work and trying to decide “what’s for dinner,” you’re likely to make choices that you’re happy with later. Doing some advance prep work — washing greens, chopping vegetables, cooking beans or grains, making a vinaigrette — will make it easier to throw your planned weeknight dinners together, reducing the odds that you will find yourself trying to decide between cooking your planned-for meal and getting takeout.
Stick to a template. To make planning simpler, you can work from the basic template of vegetable + protein + carbohydrate. For example, asparagus + salmon + roasted new potatoes. Or, you can hop on the themed-menu bandwagon, sticking to a preplanned dinner each night of the week, such as “Meatless Monday” or “Taco Tuesday.” Other ideas are “chicken night,” “grain bowl night,” “grilling night,” “sandwich night” and “leftovers night.” You get the idea.
Simplify your life in other ways. Some of the world’s most successful people — Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour — reduced the number of decisions they had to make by developing a uniform. While you may not want to limit your wardrobe to black turtlenecks and jeans, having go-to outfits will save you brainpower in the morning while virtually guaranteeing you’ll feel good about what you’re wearing.