The Culinary Trilemma

Just about everyone shares three goals when it comes to food. We want to:

Unfortunately, in the grand scheme none of us can accomplish more than two of those at the same time.

If you want to eat healthy and save money, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time cooking from scratch. If you want to eat healthy and save time, you’re going to spend a lot of money on premium meal-prep services. If you want to save money and save time with food, you’re going to end up eating a lot of junk.

There’s a name for this kind of choice: a “trilemma.” I call this particular instance the Culinary Trilemma.

It’s a specific experience of a more generalized trilemma applied most commonly to project management: everyone wants projects to be good, cheap and fast, but it’s only possible to get two of the three done at the same time.

Is there a way out of the Culinary Trilemma? Sort of!

While it may hold true as a general rule, there are some exceptions: specific foods that are cheap, fast and nutritious. I’d still argue that the trilemma holds true in the big picture, but on the level of individual meals it’s certainly possible to have one’s cake and eat it to (though cake itself would violate the trilemma).

More broadly, the way out is to not care about one of these three legs.

Some people just don’t care very much about healthy eating. Other people are sufficiently affluent that spending extra money on food doesn’t bother them.

Most interestingly, some people don’t care about cooking time. That’s because they enjoy cooking intrinsically, rather than just instrumentally for food it produces. If cooking is enjoyable, then spending time doing isn’t a cost, but a benefit (up to a point)1.

Any of these three preferences upend the Culinary Trilemma’s premise — that all of want to eat healthy, save money and save time on cooking. Since anyone can accomplish any two of the three goals easily, if you don’t care about the third, you’ve got a win-win.

But the reason I think about things like this is because I don’t intrinsically enjoy cooking, I’m not rich enough where my food budget no longer matters and I would like to not gain weight. I’m caught in the jaws of the trilemma, so I’ll continue to have to make tradeoffs. And one way to explain modern-day America is that “healthy” is usually the easiest of the three legs to abandon.

  1. The cost-benefit analysis is interesting for people who derive only instrumental benefit from cooking. That’s because cooking scales easily: making twice as much food usually takes far less than twice as much effort, but it produces twice as much instrumental benefit. So it may not be worth it to an individual to spend an hour preparing dinner for themselves, but it could easily be worth it to spend an hour preparing dinner for four people. The more people you’re cooking for, the more benefit you get from each marginal minute spent cooking.