We’ve all experienced it. Going into a grocery store and not knowing the exact brand of toothpaste or milk to buy because the last time we looked there were 20 types to choose from instead of the 30 that we noticed today. Being faced with not two or three or even five, but dozens of choices regarding size, ingredients, and price variants can take some real energy. I think it took me 10 minutes to figure on the best buy for my dishwasher’s detergent the other day! It didn’t totally stress me out, but it did take a fair amount of thinking to choose the detergent that had the least impact on the environment, etc. etc. (There were a lot of etceteras!)
Decision fatigue is real and little stresses add up.
We are simple creatures.
And we haven’t been wired to deal with dozens of new decisions day in and day out.
Think of the village or small tribe that our ancestors lived in just several centuries ago and for, perhaps, thousands of years. If they had no horses, they probably lived and died within a 7 mile radius from where they were born as hotels and motels that you could drive up to in your air conditioned vehicle were not even a dream. Generally, how the parents lived and what they did for work was repeated by their children too. And the choices were limited to what the environment offered in terms of food, weather, clothing, etc. Remember the tales about your great grandmother having two dresses? Plus, before electricity, bedtime was after sunset since there was not much work you could do in the dark, indoors or out. Unless you had access to books and could read by candlelight, your mind had no choice but to shut down and rest when the sun dipped below the horizon.
Times have changed. And more than just a little.
Our nervous systems have barely had time to rewire for the hundreds of decisions we’re currently faced with in a 24 hour period. The fight or flight response can be triggered when we are faced with uncertainty, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Some of us have had a harder time adapting than others, particularly if one is of a vata constitution or in the vata stage of life or post reproductive years. Vatas have a sensitive nervous system and a more delicate constitution than pitta or kapha dominant folks; however, pittas tend towards burn out and kaphas, when faced with multiple decisions, tend to shut down.
One of the recommendations for pacifying or calming the nervous system (ruled by vata), not over stoking our fire (ruled by pitta), or decreasing the likelihood that one would not remain stuck in non-activity (kapha), is to incorporate simple routines into our day to day.
I’m not talking about cultivating rigidity, but working towards the understanding that our bodies and minds are wired for rhythm. Rhythm that is mirrored in the natural world as routine: the sun comes up every day, the moon cycles around the earth consistently, the seasons are fairly predictable. Yes folks, winter still come to Maine in January and people plan for that certainty.
Healthy rhythms can be cultivated through planning to do the same helpful things over and over. Just like a person in Bangor, Maine plans for a cold January, we can also plan ahead for times when we get hungry or tired. You see, routines/rhythms help to calm the nervous system because the mind doesn’t have to work hard to figure out yet another route to a desired outcome.
*It’s also true that if we never deviate from some patterns, we won’t grow or become resilient. So we need a little challenge too in order to foster resilience. Just as the plant whose roots must go deeper into the soil in order to survive a drought, we also need some stress in order for our roots to go deeper to find a source of nourishment. Balance is everything!
One way to alleviate the stress from decision fatigue: Creating simple, repeatable meals with a little forethought.
When I read about folks who have lived over 100 years, one of the things I’ve noted is that they can tell you what they’ve had for breakfast and dinner the last 50 years of their lives. Knowing that you will be hungry every day is predicable, so you can plan for that fact.
Cooking for you or you and your family doesn’t have to be stressful as you stare at that 1,000 page cookbook on your shelf. Keeping it simple helps with decision fatigue and you’ll be less tempted to dial the nearest pizza delivery joint at the last minute.
After all, what we eat and how it’s prepared has a whole lot to do with our health and well-being.
Consistency and simplicity are key.
Keep it simple. And repeat that simplicity until it becomes automatic.
I am okay admitting that I eat oatmeal for breakfast 99% of the time.
Just like brushing my teeth, it’s something I do without even thinking about it. I appreciate Bob’s Red Mill quick oats and cook them in the same little pot each morning, adding my spices along with a touch of pure maple syrup or chopped dates and whole milk. When I travel, I have my organic instant oatmeal packs with me. When I get to my destination, all I need in the morning is some hot water and perhaps milk– and that will get me to lunch–wherever that may be. But my blood sugar will be stable and my body satisfied and I can take my time in figuring where my mid-day meal is coming from. One less decision = less stress.
There is nothing wrong in creating the same simple meals using some basic, healthy ingredients. No one is in an exotic food contest here. We’re just trying to be satisfied and healthy with the least amount of stress.
The mind gets bored with routine, but the body appreciates consistency.
The mind may get bored. But the body does well with healthy repetition. If you tire with basic simple meals, that can be alleviated by making slight changes– adding or subtracting various vegetables or trying one of the many rices, pulses, beans or organic dips available today. And you’ll be drawn to creative ways to make variations once you get a few simple steps down.
As much as you can, try to eat what’s in season, what’s fresh, and what’s organic. Do the best that you can with what you can do.
The basic ingredients can be the same: carrots, greens, squash, tomatoes (and veggies in season); rice and lentils; avocado and a few oils (like pure olive & grapeseed), and some yummy condiments such as tarmari, braggs, and coconut aminos which are all gluten free and non-GMO.
Other pantry go-tos: good pastas (including gluten free pastas); dried and canned beans such as black, cannellini (northern beans) and chick peas. (Beans can be a little drying to the system, so use extra spices in them, including bay leaves.) And all types of rices: black, sprouted brown, basmati and various heirloom varieties. Remember that rice is a known non-allergen and is easy to prepare.
The spice pantry is where the magic lives: paprika, cumin, coriander, black and brown mustard seeds, turmeric, rock salt, pepper, cayenne, bay leaves, fennel seeds, and a nice curry blend among some of the more exotic Indian spices.
My advice with spices: Try pinches in your dishes until you get the taste and feel of them. Take a whiff of each before adding–remember that taste and smell are intricately connected…and enjoy the experimentation!
In the frig: You will have to shop (or pick) vegetables and salad ingredients a few times a week. A plant based diet is what we aim for no matter paleo, vegan, or omnivore– vegetables should be the base of your diet: potatoes, green beans, squash, carrots, leeks, onions, kale (or other greens that you like cooked.)
Fresh ginger is wonderful grated in a little oil or ghee (clarified butter) before adding the vegetables to the pan– that’s when the mustard seeds get thrown in too (I like to hear them ‘pop.’)
I love beet greens as they’re not as bitter as some. The round golden or red beets are easy enough to boil in a pot of water while you focus on other things in the kitchen. Add sliced, cooked beets to your salad. You can also bring a little vinegar and water to a boil (taste it) with a teaspoon of sugar and add the sliced beets to the vinegar water for quick pickling. Beets are a wonderful grounding root vegetable and have a plethora of health benefits.
And one last thing: What I cook for lunch is what’s for dinner and what I cook for dinner is what’s for lunch. In other words, I try and only cook once a day, making sure that there are leftovers for the next meal. Sometimes I’ll prepare a nice, big lunch or other times a yummy, warm dinner. But I’ll generally not prepare two meals in one day where “chopping fatigue” becomes my reality (!) You can always change the salad or the side–but you won’t have to go through another chopping session with the vegetables.
*A post script here: Ayurveda recommends not eating old leftovers–just make sure that your meal doesn’t sit for days in the frig before enjoying again.
So go for getting good at a few dishes and add on to your repertoire as you feel comfortable.
Your mind and your body will benefit from *simple, *healthy consistency. And one. less. thing.