What to Ask Instead of “What’s For Dinner?”

An elegant solution to ease evening mealtime

In his new stand-up special on Netflix, Jerry Seinfeld jokes about how he’s not allowed to say, “I gotta get something to eat” in his own home. He explains that he could say that to any of his guy friends and it would be fine, but if he says it to his wife, she doesn’t like it. I found this bit funny, but not in the way that he intended — I imagine that his wife has the same bristling reaction to his announcement of hunger that I do every time I’m asked, “What’s for dinner?” 

At face value, the situation seems innocent enough on its own: It’s an operational question of daily life that requires communication — much like “Did you pay the rent?” or “Does the car have gas in it?” We need to discuss these things so we don’t inadvertently pay rent twice or arrive late to an appointment due to an unexpected stop for gas.

Unlike these and many other needs that arise when two humans occupy the same home, the question of dinner must be fulfilled every single day around the same time, and all the different factors don’t always line up. Maybe one of us is craving something the other doesn’t want or one of us is hungry when the other one isn’t. The variety of circumstances can be especially challenging to sort out at the end of the day when we’re already tired, hungry, and decision-fatigued.

But the real issue with asking about dinner specifically is not the question itself, but rather the implication — actual or perceived — that the person being asked should have the answer. 

I feel a lot of pressure when asked this question, and if I don’t have an answer, intense guilt ensues — a sequence that actually speaks to my upbringing rather than my marriage.

From a young age, I closely observed my parents’ roles and was eventually offended by the disparity in the division of household labor. My dad worked a full-time job. Then he would come home, maybe pay a few bills, but mostly he sat on the couch in front of the tube (TVs were tubes back then) and yelled at us for being too loud. My mom also worked a full-time job. But when she came home, she managed everything else: grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and us kids. Granted, I observed this as an outside party and expectations were different for their generation, but none of that mattered to my developing brain. 

I responded by refusing to subscribe to this structure; my husband and I have more or less evenly divided the labor in a way that works for us. But deep down, I still somehow hold the belief that a good wife takes care of meals, which is why not having the answer to “What’s for dinner?” induces such negative feelings.

If I ask the question first, it’s turned around on me (“I don’t know. What would you like?”). To be fair, in my situation, this is actually an effort to ensure that we eat food that I want since I have dietary restrictions, but it contributes to the issue nonetheless.

Even if I’m not asked about dinner, I often still take care of it. I still plan a meal, shop for ingredients, prepare it. Without being asked. So when I don’t have a plan for dinner, I’d like to be ok  with that— my husband has always been ok with it, which is how I knew the question was triggering something a little deeper than just post-work crankiness.

A lot of bloggers offer advice on how to make weeknight meals easier, like setting up systems or schedules, freezing meals in advance, and other tips that could work for some; I often do create a meal plan for the entire week, but not always. I’m working on managing my own expectations, but in the meantime, how can we get around the question and still get an answer?

The solution

Even though my response to this question is not really about our relationship, after I explained all of this to him, my husband solved this dilemma by making one simple but effective adjustment.

He stopped asking, “What’s for dinner?” 

Instead he asks, “Should I pick up dinner?” 

Although this seems like almost the same question asked in a different way, this small change has transformed dinnertime because of the offer neatly tucked within. Rather than placing responsibility on me, he’s offering to take it on himself.

If I don’t have a plan for dinner, it’s super easy to say, “Yes, please.” I don’t have to feel guilty for not having a plan for dinner, and now he’ll take care of it, so I can relax. 

If I do have a plan for dinner, it’s just as easy to say, “No thanks, I’m making [something delicious].”

Photo by Gaby Yerden on Unsplash

Teena Merlan