How I Reclaimed an Hour of Each Day by Automating My Meals
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.
January 7, 2013 @ 07:14
Serge – great blog entry buddy. Actually, i’m impressed that you’re able to prep, cook and clean for 18 total meals in 240 min! I’ve spent that much on a single meal (albeit a special meal, that i’d never prepared before). Regardless, very impressive. Would you agree that the health benefits from preparing your own meals w/ this routine exceed the time savings benefits?
January 7, 2013 @ 07:45
Actually, it was for 36 meals! Two weeks! Crazy, right? Given that I’ve been pretty deliberate about eating well I’m not sure the health benefits exceed the time savings and decision energy wins, but that certainly would have been true of the old Serge. It has given me a minor boost on health because I was getting a little lax since I had already lost so much. For those looking to be healthier in their meal choices I am going to guess that it would exceed their time savings. Try it for a month. I’m sure you’ll love it. That first time you do it will be inefficient and messy but even so that first week where you eliminate that out of your daily routine will feel so great.
May 22, 2013 @ 02:08
I love the idea, but I searched online for cooked food shelflife, and it seems that cooked meats are only advised to be safe to keep in the fridge for 3-4 days: http://stilltasty.com/
May 22, 2013 @ 03:57
Agreed. I tend to stretch that a bit and keep my meals in the fridge for about 4-5 days. Since I cook 2 weeks of food, what that means is that I keep the other 10 days in the freezer, then pull them out in 4-5 day batches. Barring freezer burn food can easily keep in the freezer for months at a time. Even then, freezer burn doesn’t really put the food at health risk it just means that it may not be as great from a texture perspective. I keep my food in sealed Pyrex containers so over the span of a week or so in the freezer the freezer burn doesn’t seem noticeable (to me). If you really want to get fancy you can even look into a sous-vide. Takes more prep and is a bit pricey to get started but it’s what professional chefs use and the food comes out perfect every time.
May 22, 2013 @ 18:27
This is a great idea but this diet contains wayyyy more meat than is healthy for any human to consume. No one needs to eat meat twice a day. That is really excessive.
May 23, 2013 @ 07:33
To each their own. Point is to adjust the recipes and plan to suit your lifestyle. There is a lot of research coming out about eating too much meat, namely in its relationship to cancer and kidney complications. Some of that comes from the carcinogens as a result of nitrates, some of that in the carcinogens that come about just from cooking meat, nitrates or no. Similarly, having your kidney work hard to clear excess protein can be a concern. This is why I do regular blood tests including kidney function tests every 3 months and every test comes back optimum. Not good. Not great. Optimum. As in doing any better is just going for points. Point is, there is still a lot of research coming out and our understanding of meat in our diet is still evolving. For every research paper that will tell you too much meat is bad, I’ll show you an aging super-cluster (entire communities of members > 100 years old) that eat a lot of meat. Again, they do other healthy behaviors that might perhaps offset that consumption. When I look at my dietary and overall health regimen I am comfortable with the other things I am doing to ensure health (e.g. probiotics, antibiotics, vitamins, exercise, proper hydration, etc). But I am always open to learning more about the research that comes out and making adjustments. I also actively work with my doctors and other health professionals to consider my holistic approach to health.
May 23, 2013 @ 03:18
I also love this idea, but have had problems freezing egg muffins (similar to a frittata, but I cook them in a muffin tin). How do you stop them going watery?
May 23, 2013 @ 07:36
Ah yes, watery eggs. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out a great way to counteract this. It’s something inherent in the egg whites themselves when frozen then reheated. I also tend to put a lot of veggies in my frittatas and they contribute to the wateriness. But I agree, reheating frozen eggs is not great. It’s okay for me at this point in time as I am willing to compromise a bit on the rubberiness of reheated eggs for the convenience. To counter, you could just cook 4-5 days’ worth of eggs at a time and just keep them in the fridge and not freeze. That will help a lot with the watery part. If you figure something better out, please let me know!
May 23, 2013 @ 03:48
I can’t wait to try this out starting Sunday! I’ve been getting slack and eating less healthily over the past 3 months, this might be a good turnaround to make sure I’m still eating homemade meals and saving money.
Thanks for the tips!
May 23, 2013 @ 07:38
My pleasure! Be sure to come back and share any tips you might find. I’m experimenting a bit with a local provider who will prep meals and deliver them for me. Again, I am normally quite the foodie but for now I wanted to compromise a bit on my cooking and freshness to gain something in convenience. I’m trying to put to use that reclaimed time and decision energy to accomplish a few other things. Certainly, the focus on healthier options is a great side benefit for me. Try to do one dish that can be prepped in a slow cooker (e.g. chili, stews, braised dishes). That lets me fire-and-forget one of the dishes and focus on the more labor-intensive dishes.
May 23, 2013 @ 13:34
Ah excellent! I was just given a slow cooker today actually. When I was in school I remember my parents routinely cooked the same thing every week and had it set out. Seemed to save money and as you mentioned, decision energy, so I think taking it a step further and pre making meals is a solid idea.
Will share what I find!
January 20, 2014 @ 20:25
Hey Serge, great article.
I saw a video that ref’d your blog, from Corey wadden. I’ve read Tim’s books in the past and was wondering if you have a reference to the section of his blog and/or book that details the recipes and ingredients for this food prep. Any help is greatly appreciated!
January 20, 2014 @ 21:43
Cam, I just made up the recipes on the spot like I normally do with my cooking. For some inspiration though you can check out a Pinterest board I put together: http://www.pinterest.com/sergiogonzales/slow-carb-diet/. You’ll have to adjust some of those recipes depending on how strict you want to be, especially the recipes that call for cheese. You can just omit the cheese or use cottage cheese or nutritional yeast. Spend a bit of time figuring out ratios like I did with my frittata and then you’ll have endless possibilities experimenting with ingredients. A typical weekly trip to the grocery store for me will include: 2 lbs ground turkey thigh, 3 lbs chicken, 4 lbs beef, and 5 lbs of lean, white fish. Easy…2, 3, 4, 5. I finish it up with several cans of lentils and beans, 2 dozen eggs, and about 3.5 lbs of veg. I have been toying around with the idea of putting together an eBook for Slow Carb recipes in bulk.
You are doing the right thing though, trying to lean on some set recipes if you’re not comfortable with the program just yet. Peep my Pinterest board. Once you’ve gotten some experience then have fun with whatever keeps your food interesting for you. Yes, automating your meals is a time saver and, yes, it is a big help on staying Slow Carb, but beyond that I think you’re really going to be surprised by how much the reduction in decision fatigue really enriches your life. Be sure to come back and share your experience!