Every morning, I eat the same breakfast. Toast and almond butter, coffee, and an avocado, spinach, protein powder and banana smoothie. I’ve eaten this combination of breakfast foods for the past two years.
Every evening, I eat a different dinner. Pasta on Sunday. Salmon and salad on Monday. Shrimp and chips on Tuesday. Turkey burgers and sweet potato tots on Wednesdays. Sushi on Thursdays. Pizza on Fridays. Saturday is a wildcard. This less stable rotation changes with the seasons.
Weird, no? But I’m not alone. Many of you do this, too. I have data to prove it. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Appetite, Romain Cadario of Erasmus University and I examine the food diaries of 2,624 people living in France and 1,275 people living in the United States, measuring how often people eat the same meal every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you had oatmeal and fruit and coffee for breakfast on Monday, for instance, how many other times this week did you eat that precise combination of foods for breakfast? In our French and American panels, overall, 68% ate the same breakfast at least twice in one week (the French a little more so than the Americans; 73% versus 52%, respectively). Only 9% repeated a dinner (the Americans a little more so than the French; 16% versus 6%, respectively).
Why do so many of us eat the same thing for breakfast day after day, when we do not repeat a lunch or dinner? Why do we avoid variety in the morning, yet later in the same day, seek variety in our choice of food?
Part of the answer is biological. Our level of physiological arousal fluctuates throughout the day. We are most energized in the morning, and our arousal level declines from that peak until we go to sleep. We may prefer less stimulating foods in the morning to avoid feeling overstimulated, and prefer more stimulating foods later to avoid feeling under-stimulated.
Part of the answer is cultural. The modern workday means we have the least time for meals in the morning. If we find a breakfast that’s rewarding and repeat it a few times, eating that combination of food becomes a habit that allows us to eat an efficient meal. Because it’s habitual, we may stick with our breakfast even long after we’ve tired of it (e.g., “I really should be able to find something better than oatmeal. Always oatmeal!”).
But biology and culture are only part of the answer.
Much of the answer is psychological. It’s not that we believe breakfast is a trivial meal. Breakfast is often considered the most important meal of the day. Americans consume on average 361 breakfasts a year.
We find that much of the answer is due to the different goals that people pursue when eating breakfast and other meals.
What goals are we pursuing in our meals? Two goals influence all kinds of decisions about what we eat—hedonic and utilitarian goals. Hedonic goals drive people to eat foods that provide pleasurable experiences and sensations (e.g., “I ordered a salmon grain bowl because I love its flavor and texture”), and utilitarian goals drive people to eat to efficiently fulfill other objectives such as weight control, health, convenience or efficiency (e.g., “I ordered a salmon grain bowl because it’s a good source of protein and fiber”).
We find that as the day progresses, people switch from pursuing utilitarian goals for breakfast to maximizing the pleasure they derive from their afternoon and evening meal. In our diary data, for instance, we found that people were more likely to introduce variety into their breakfasts on the weekend—when people intend to eat a more pleasurable breakfast—than during the weekday. In another study, we asked people to report what foods they consumed in the two previous days, and the extent to which they were pursuing pleasure and efficiency in each of those meals. As in the French and American food diaries, meal variety across days was lower for breakfasts than lunches and dinners. Moreover, this pattern of variety seeking was explained by the type of goals participants pursued for each meal, even when accounting for factors like how long people spent eating, whether they ate alone or with others, and ate in their home or outside it.
We seem to naturally select more utilitarian goals for breakfast, but we can pursue pleasure and seek variety if we set our mind to it. In the last experiment in our paper, we randomly assigned participants to either maximize their enjoyment with a pleasurable breakfast or maximize their convenience with an efficient breakfast. Then we asked all participants to choose what they would eat for breakfast and report how similar it was to breakfasts they ate in the past week. Participants in assigned to maximize their enjoyment with a pleasurable breakfast were 27% more likely to report they would eat a combination of foods that they had not consumed in the past week.
Where do these goals come from? Our research suggests that the different goals we pursue in our meals are not due to the different amounts of time available to prepare and eat our meals. If anything, we find that how much time we spend eating meals seems to be determined by the goals we pursue, not the other way around. If we are trying to eat an efficient breakfast, we’d likely be frustrated if a meal carved out more precious free time than we’d planned. And we make more time for meals that we want to savor, whether that means a pancake breakfast at home with our family or blocking out the night for a dinner with our partner or friends.
We speculate that culture and biology may each contribute to the goals we pursue at meals. A reflection of our culture, marketing tends to emphasize the utilitarian rather than hedonic benefits of breakfast foods. In over 3000+ products’ name descriptions we scraped from Amazon, we find that the volume of pleasure-related words (e.g., tasty, savory, delicious) compared to utilitarian words (e.g., nutritious, energized, healthy) is lower for breakfast foods than foods for lunch or dinner. The goals we pursue may also originate, in part, in the biology of our natural stimulation levels. Our higher level of physiological stimulation in the morning may reduce our preference for variety. Whether the goals we pursue originate in our culture or biology, the different goals we pursue appear to be the psychological driver of our tendency to eat the same breakfast day after day, and we have control over the goals we choose to pursue.
How can we leverage this information to improve our diet? Habits are difficult to change, but easy to maintain. Our pursuit of efficiency at breakfast is a driver of the habits we create and maintain. If we can make an efficient and rewarding breakfast out of the foods we should be eating that are less appealing (e.g., kale or spinach), and repeat that breakfast often enough, that diet should be easier to stick to than trying to eat those foods for every lunch or dinner. Of course, establishing new habits is difficult when old habits are already in place. People find it easiest to change a habit, like what to eat for breakfast, when they experience a “fresh start” like a move, a birthday, or the first day of the month.
As luck would have it, a new year is on the horizon—it’s a great time to make that change.
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