How Meal Planning Saves You Mental Energy

In 2000, Kathy Sierra and her husband tried to write a best-selling programming book on Java after they lost their jobs due to the dot-com crash.

The odds were stacked against them. There were more than 16,000 books on Java to compete with, many of them famous and fantastic. But Kathy had an ace in her pocket.

Java book illustration with question "how to write a best-selling book?" and words "vanishing pages" underneath book.Pin

You see, Kathy is fascinated by cognitive science. Another point in Kathy’s favor was that she discovered students were routinely not reading to the end of the programming books.

So, she wrote a programming book that got readers all the way to the end.

How does this relate to food and cooking?

Kathy’s ace is her understanding of how the brain manages cognitive resources. You may have used the terms “mental energy”, “willpower” or even “ego depletion,” and they both point to this idea of cognitive resources.

Kathy believes that we have one giant tank of mental energy. This tank of energy powers our decisions to exercise, to avoid the glazed donut, to learn new skills, and to cook healthy food. Psychologists have long written about how “exercising self-control in different areas of your life saps the same mental energy source,” according to a 2011 article by NPR.

If you spend all your mental energy cooking dinner without a plan, then you’ve depleted your energy for another task.

What’s worse, in our high-speed, high-information, high-distraction modern society, playing with smartphones and spending time on Facebook and Instagram leaks mental energy throughout the day.

Further, “even if you’re doing something that you like to do,” Kathy says, “then you have less ability to resist the drive-through on the way home.”

It’s no wonder that we can’t muster the willpower to cook a decent meal after a long day.

What to do?

Plug the leaks. 

Ask yourself is: how can you simplify your life so you have the mental energy to complete your goals?

I strongly believe in meal planning and simplifying cooking as a way to hoard my mental energy. I also stay away from energy vampires and negative Norms (why does Nancy have to be the negative one?).

Wooden barrel with words "Mental Energy" on sticker and tap showing leak.Pin

What’s the one action you can take today to preserve your willpower?

Make a food inventory and then write down your recipe formulae. Once you have an idea of what food you have and what you can make with it, figuring out a meal plan and what extra ingredients you need to buy become much easier.

And then with all that mental energy left, you’re ready to solve world peace or become an Iron(wo)man. Or maybe you have more modest goals like me, such as not get fired, publish my videos and recipes on deadline, and spend time with Alex.

In the next post, let’s look at Kathy’s methods for getting efficient at using cognitive resources so we have more willpower to use.

P.S. in case you’re dying to know, Kathy and her husband beat the odds to publish a best seller.

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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