Part of my growth process has been providing better failure states for myself. I do this in a lot of arenas, but an easy concrete example that I could talk about would probably be meal planning and prep.
There was a time long ago when I was more of a perfectionist with meal prep and budget. Everything I made was either hella cheap, made from scratch, or both. I’d bargain hunt at this one store that I used to live near that had heavily government-subsidized groceries and no-frills packaging. And when I say I’d bargain hunt, I mean it.
Once upon a time, I was basically subsisting on last-chance produce, manager special meats, whatever random products I could find coupons for, and meat ends. To the uninitiated, meat ends are the bits that the deli has left over that they can’t slice for customers. At my store I used to be able to buy meat ends and cheese ends by the pound. It was always a miscellaneous bag of whatever they had available. Sometimes you were taking home a bag of tamer stuff like turkey or ham. Other times you’d end up with olive loaf or mortadella. I always loved it when I happened to get one with roast beef. And I got pretty good at identifying them by sight.
I’d cut the meat ends up into chunks and use them for all sorts of things. They were great in salad. Depending on what they were, they were pretty good as the protein in an entree or a soup. (Yes, they were salty and precooked, but I was poor, so I made do).
Essentially, it was always Chopped at my place. I had the ingredients that I’d gotten cheap, and I had to find something good to do with them. (Spices helped tremendously.)
It Worked Until It Didn’t
It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked really well… except when it didn’t. Because there did come a point in my life when it wasn’t sustainable to make everything as cheaply as possible, from scratch, or both.
This was particularly the case some time later when I took a professional salaried job with a 90-minute commute in both directions. Like a lot of other professionals, a salaried position meant I worked a lot of overtime without being paid for the overage. Between the long hours and the commute, my work-life balance was trash.
My Situation Had Changed, But My Values Hadn’t
And yet… I still had that mindset where I didn’t want to waste money on food. I had managed to navigate away from meat ends and limiting myself to manager’s specials (part of this was that I now lived a thousand miles away from that budget grocery store of my past). But I still tried to make my food from scratch — from proteins and vegetables prepared and cooked for the meal right then every night.
“Tried” is the optimal word here. Because, readers, I failed miserably. There were tons of nights that I was super exhausted and could barely function, let alone cook things. Let alone clean the kitchen afterwards — which was a sore point with my partner, who is a neatnik with high standards so half-assing when tired with a full clean later when feeling more recharged simply was not an option.
Predictably, we ordered a lot of pizza on nights like these. And this was a failure state. We’d eat way too much food, and it would cost an incredible amount, much more than a single meal should cost.
And my reaction to this each time was to vow to myself to do better. To stop ordering pizza and do a better job cooking from scratch.
This seemed right in the moment. But it was exactly what I shouldn’t do. Instead, what I needed was a better failure state.
A Better Failure State
Here’s the mistake I was making: I was trusting myself to be perfect in stressful conditions. That’s not realistic.
What I needed to do instead was to assume I wouldn’t always make a “perfect” decision and instead provide myself with alternatives that were easy to reach for when I was exhausted. Were they perfection? No. Were they the cheapest thing under the sun? No.
But these alternatives weren’t competing with perfection. They were competing with ordering pizza. Or going to McDonald’s. And that wasn’t hard.
It was extremely easy to pick up frozen snacks that could be thrown into the air fryer — that were both cheaper and more reasonable calorically than ordering takeout. And frankly, throwing something from the freezer into the air fryer was weirdly easier and quicker than going to a restaurant or waiting for takeout to arrive. Being able to cook them directly from the freezer meant I didn’t have to worry about thawing/defrosting meat — which made it so I didn’t have to remember to move it.
I also became very fond of those little steamer bags with various veggie sides. Similar reason. No planning. Cheapest option in the world? No. Best option in the world? Probably not. But it was so easy to do when I was just exhausted.
These days I also will buy a bunch of shallots and then chop them up in all one go on some day I have energy and put them in a baggie in the freezer. And then when I’m cooking I will add frozen shallots to things (they cook amazingly well when they’re chopped and frozen).
Something else I’ve done is cook up a large meal for myself that takes a lot of labor and then freeze single servings into small Tupperware containers and then freeze those, which creates microwave meals for myself.
It’s a Form of Self-Compassion
Anyway, this isn’t a food prep blog. So the details aren’t what’s important here. What’s important is that creating a better failure state is a form of self-compassion that can really help.
Instead of expecting yourself to be perfect and creating a system where if you fail to be perfect, things go badly (in my example, this meant eating too much food and spending too much money), you create a system where there are multiple ways for you to succeed. You set up a system where “failure” isn’t punishing but fine and expected.
It may sound counterintuitive, but giving yourself permission to be imperfect and setting up a system that supports that decision can be when you really start to thrive.