Picture this recent scene from a typical day in my life. The rumbling in my stomach reminded me it was the dinner hour, but my end-of-day fatigue told me making a meal was too much effort. I was already getting home late from work, and the to-do list I left on my desk for the next day was longer than the one I had accomplished that day. My brain hadn’t come down from work mode. I was anxious, irritable, and hungry for food that was quick, easy, and filling.
It’s a scenario you probably can relate to. If you’re a parent, you can add kids to the equation, and the fact that the hour of dinner prep is often when they start to unravel into emotional fits for no apparent cause.
Indeed, the daily dinner hour can be a bit rough for us all sometimes.
As children, and even as college students sometimes, dinner was just given to us at the end of a hard day’s work (thanks, Mom and Dad and university cafeterias!). Now we’re adults and if we want a good meal for dinner, we’ll have to make it ourselves. This is our daily life now.
But thankfully, unlike previous generations, we live in an era that is aiming to optimize our daily lives—to make things simpler, as a way to mitigate the stresses of tasks like dinner, cleaning, and home life. From meal and grocery delivery services to pre-cut fresh produce in grocery stores to UberEats, there is certainly a movement to make the dinner hour quick, simple, and yet, still healthy. The optimization of the dinner hour is well-intentioned and many times very helpful—like when you need to get to the grocery store but the kids’ nap and school pick-up schedules are out of sync (thank you, InstaCart!); or when you’ve been getting home late every night this week, and you just need a hot meal, stat (thank you, UberEats!).
But for all the optimizing we have at our fingertips, we’re not feeling less fatigued in our daily lives. Millennials have been dubbed the “burnout generation” by author Anne Helen Petersen in a BuzzFeed News article that went viral. Last year, the World Health Organization updated their diagnostic criteria to include burnout (not as a medical condition but as a phenomenon), an indication that it’s a rising concern.
Indeed, research, social commentary, and even for-profit ventures are searching for ways to mitigate the rise of burnout. While optimizing services like meal planning kits and food delivery apps seem ideal, as it turns out, outsourcing dinner may be a misplaced solution for our daily lives. In fact, it may be making burnout more difficult to overcome.
Activating the reward system of our brain—with hands-on work
The cause of burnout is often mistakenly thought to be too much work, but according to Alexandra Michel, writing for Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, “Burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.”
Petersen paints a picture of this in her viral burnout piece: “The feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task—passing the final! Finishing the massive work project!—never comes.” She quotes Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specializing in burnout; he says, “The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced.”
What’s interesting about this assessment of burnout is that many times in our lives, we complete things—we do pass the final, the work project is finished—but we don’t feel the reward of completing. Why? Because there’s still more to be done—either at school or at home. But also perhaps because there is little tangible to grasp in our work to trigger that sense of victory in a job well done. Many of us complete our work with computers, pressing buttons and letting the magic of technology do the rest.
Yet, neuroscience research indicates that work that is completed with our hands actually changes our brain.
Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, explains to CBS Sunday Morning:
“In the sense that when we move and when we engage in activities, we change the neurochemistry of our brain in ways that a drug can change the neurochemistry of our brain.”
The CBS report continues:
She says our brains have evolved to reward us for getting a grip on the world.
Which is why, Lambert said, in the 19th century doctors used to prescribe knitting to women who were overwrought with anxiety, "because they sensed that it calmed them down some. And it sounds, 'Oh, that's simplistic.' But when you think about, OK, repetitive movement is increasing certain neurochemicals. And then if you produce something—a hat or a scarf—there's the reward."
I’m sure you can see where this is headed: through the process of making dinner—cutting vegetables and meat, stirring a pot, using our hands—we engage in repetitive movements that change our brain chemistry, and we also create a reward—our meal.
Making the routine into a ritual—and why that matters
But simply knowing that making dinner is going to help us to feel better doesn’t always make starting the process any easier. When we’re tired and overwhelmed, our brain has to do a bit more work to motivate us to do what actually nourishes us. Verily writer Rebecca Corgan summarizes this well: “ If I am always choosing my present self’s satisfaction over my future self’s happiness, I’m always going to feel rushed and frustrated. My present self has to be generous to make this work.”
This mindset shift can be made easier if the process of making dinner is something you look forward to. In fact, many would argue viewing the dinner hour as a ritual in the day, instead of a routine, can turn daily cooking into a form of self-care.
“The difference between a routine and a ritual is the attitude behind the action,” explains Anne-Laure Le Cunff, a writer and neuroscience student at King’s College. “Rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices which have a real sense of purpose.”
Consider the meaning and purpose in the dinner hour. Imagine looking forward to it, because you see it as the time to transition from whatever work, stresses, and anxieties fill your day to the rest, leisure, and enjoyment of the evening. Everything from prepping vegetables, cutting meat, and even teaching children table manners is enjoyable, not because it’s always easy, but because it’s doing something important in your life. It’s bringing you back into the present moment, reminding you that what’s been done today is done, and tomorrow is a fresh start. It’s giving you reflection and leisure that will help your mind, body, and soul—and your productivity tomorrow.
If this sounds a bit like I’m dreaming, I get it. We, and our children, aren’t always predictable. We can’t churn up seamless dinners, our children’s best manners, and rest and leisure on demand. And yet, if we want the dinner hour to feel like a ritual, the very definition of the word suggests we stretch our minds to cultivate a sense of wonder a bit more.
“While routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical,” writes Maria Popova, author of the Brain Pickings newsletter and blog. “The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us.”
Of course, we make three meals a day—so why dinner? Maybe precisely because it can so easily become the most hectic hour of the day. Maybe because of its connection to family time or catching up with friends. Most certainly because it’s often all that stands between us and our leisure time, which we desperately need to prevent burnout.
So, what elements can set dinner prep and consumption apart from those other meals? That’s for you to determine, ultimately. Here at Verily, we’ve found using the meal prep time to catch up on a podcast or listen to a playlist or album helps to calm the mind (saving screen time for kiddos in that hour helps Mom to get that dedicated alone time, too). Additionally, reflecting on interesting topics during dinner, as opposed to rehashing our days, goes a long way in entering into the leisure of each evening.
The companies and publications who want to help us change the rhythm of our lives
But my aim here is not just to promote Verily Table, which is our own way to help women ritualize the dinner hour through curated recipes, podcasts, and playlists. The simple fact is there appears to be a growing interest in reclaiming dinner and other basic daily tasks into more meaningful moments during our days, instead of tasks that just feel like more work.
Take the recent start-up venture Pattern Brands, for example, which raised $14 million in seed funding to create and sell products with the aim to revitalize daily tasks like cooking and cleaning among millennials. The first brand they launched is Equal Parts, which sells pots, pans, knives, and other kitchen supplies, as well as a cooking coach via text.
Their company originated in lofty hopes for cultural—and personal—change.
Co-founders Emmett Shine and Nick Ling were running the successful ad agency Gin Lane that, as Anne Helen Petersen points out, “branded [our] millennial life.” As they were launching brands like Sweet Green, Everlane, and Warby Parker into the consumer market, Shine and Ling were burning out. And as they sought to overcome their burnout, they discovered that it was things like cooking that helped them find peace again.
This wasn’t cooking to save money, or to eat healthier, or through a meal-planning service like Blue Apron. It was cooking even when it was ugly, or when it went wrong. It was cooking just to cook. It felt like an antidote, or at the very least, a form of resistance to the feeling that everything you do in your life should be optimized, or monetized, or packaged for social media.
The more they cooked and cleaned their homes, and started to develop rhythms of rest in their lives, the more they realized they needed to pivot their focus not just in their lives, but in their work, too.
The price point for products from Equal Parts is not accessible to everyone. But that hasn’t stopped them from gaining a large following at their Pattern Brands and Equal Parts Instagram accounts, which offer a quieter presence than most. They don’t post every day; neither their staff nor outside influencers do Instagram takeovers in the Stories feature. Instead, they post softly painted visuals that promote their products and brands, but also encourage more enjoyment in daily life—with posts on how to cultivate more intention in your daily life and relationships, how to make time for more leisure, and why leisure, intention, and things like disconnecting from technology matter. As they explained on the podcast Future Commerce, “We’re not selling products. We’re selling a way to use your time.”
Of course, they are a business, and selling products is the central way they’re hoping to sell that mindset shift. But they’re onto something by acknowledging that encouraging lifestyle change through an online presence is a worthy endeavor, too.
Some online publications seem to be tapping into community as a way to inspire millennials to cook more. Last April, Well+Good, a publication that, according to their “About” page, is “known for its impeccable reporting and trend-spotting on the healthy living beat,” launched an online community called Cook With Us. Hosted in a Facebook group with more than 4,000 users, the community shares recipes, meal prep ideas, and anything else related to food and cooking. And in September 2019, The Kitchn, a publication by AT Media (who also manages Apartment Therapy), announced a 20-day free cooking school. Delivered in the form of videos, the nearly month-long course was also accompanied by a Facebook group for users to discuss what they were learning and how trying out their new skills was going for them.
Of course, like most change, individual hopes for our goals are often loftier than what’s realistic, and sign ups and sales are different than engagement and lifestyle change. For example, I signed up for The Kitchn’s e-course, hoping to pick up a few tips to improve my own culinary skills. I had every intention of giving 10-15 minutes a day to the course. Yet, I opened approximately 3 of the 20 plus emails—not for a lack of interest, but merely because it was a busy few weeks.
But it’s not cliché to say here: it’s the thought that counts—I still have the emails saved, for when I do have time to peruse them. The fact that I’m desiring to grow in my home cooking skills is helping me to stave off burnout in my life.
Finding the rhythm that works for you
A few years ago I was in the thick of recovering from an autoimmune disease and burnout. As I was healing, eating healthy food was no longer just a suggestion—it was a doctor-prescribed treatment. My budget being what it is, cooking regularly was my best option for fulfilling the doctor’s orders.
My mind went through daily mental gymnastics as I resisted what I felt like was “the work” of making dinner. But as I learned a few new recipes and discovered how nice it was to tune out my workday while I tuned into a podcast, I started to look forward to the dinner hour.
Cutting vegetables and meat allows me to physically work out any angst I’m struggling with. Thinking about a topic unrelated to my work or even my personal life reminds me the world is bigger than my world. Sitting down to a meal I’ve made gives me the satisfaction of completion I’m craving—not to mention a delicious plate of food—making it easier to remember I will conquer whatever I’m facing in the following day.
For me, making dinner nearly daily has become a source of regular enjoyment and restoration. Trying a new recipe or culinary skill has become a way to challenge myself in a different way—where the stakes aren’t as high as they are at work or in my personal life—but they still matter, because time spent in the dinner hour nourishes my body, mind, and soul.
Making dinner daily helped cure my burnout—and it could for you, too. As Nick Ling told Petersen: “It’s not saying you have to do it five nights a week. It’s more like, how can we help this become the rhythm of your life?”
Whether you need new kitchen products, community, or trusted recipe and podcast curation to get started; whether you already cook everyday, or you call for UberEats more than you care to admit—there’s a growing group of us millennials who believe cultivating more enjoyment of this ordinary routine might be just the sort of self-care we’re all needing.
Editor’s note: Our weekly newsletter, Verily Table, was envisioned with women’s cooking habits and the desire for a more restorative dinner hour in mind. Join us, as we aim to make our dinner hours feel like a simple self-care ritual. Start your month-long free trial here ($5/month after the trial ends, cancel at any time).