Story: Tell Me What You Want for Dinner.

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story: Tell me what you want for dinner.

This story highlights one of the aspects of happiness that I find most fascinating: when do we add to the happiness of others by asking, taking, and receiving?


Does this story strike a chord with you? Or do you disagree — do you think that making requests like that seems demanding or selfish?

If you want to read more along these lines, check out…

Story: You can be generous by taking.

To make a friend, ask someone for a favor.

You can check out the archives of videos here.  More than 1.3 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • frabel-62

    I agree with this, I love to cook too but run out of ideas of what to make. If I could have someone to tell me everyday what they want for dinner, it would make my life so much simpler!!!!

  • I also came to think about the fact that coming up with an idea is often the greatest work. So if we get help from others with that part… the rest is smoothe sailing.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a great point. It’s fun to know that you’re satisfying someone else’s desire – but it’s also a relief to have some direction. Takes out the need to make a decision, which is daunting sometimes.

  • I ask my kids what they’d like for lunch (the main meal of our day) for the coming week, whether they’re craving anything. If they have an idea, then I can plan for it. It’s less stressful (and often more effective) because it’s not for a pinpoint in time.

  • BKF

    welcome back, Gretchen! this great video reminds me of Barry Scwartz’s view – he has a talk on TED- about the paradox of choice- how more choices make us not happier and more free , but paralyzed and dissatisfied. I find that very true in my life.

    • BKF


  • Grandma Honey

    Yes, yes yes! I love this. I’m going to show it to my husband. Besides wanting to know what meals he likes that I already make, it would really help me if he did some of my thinking when it comes to meal planning. Years ago my youngest son made up a little menu of his 7 favorite meals and put it on the fridge. He was only about 6 or 7 at the time. It was so fun (and helpful) that I actually made those 7 meals right in a row as he had planned for me.

  • Upbeat Mom

    Great post, Gretchen! I totally relate to this.

    I found something that works with my family. I keep many of my recipes on 4 x 6 index cards. So, in order to get suggestions from my family, I present my kids and my husband with selected recipe cards and ask them to pick one recipe that they’d like to have prepared in the next week.By narrowing down the choices, they can easily choose the one that is most appealing. I feel true pleasure that I can prepare something they like, and they enjoy being presented with the meal they personally choose. Everybody wins!

  • Marissa

    This is SO true in my life. Last Christmas I honestly could not think of any specific thing I wanted. I just wanted the people in my life to magically figure out something about myself that I couldn’t figure out myself. I could have given other people much greater happiness by replacing “Oh no you don’t need to buy me anything” with “Actually I would really like ________.” I often get cricitized by those close to me for never accepting help. I never thought trying to avoid being burdensome could take away the happiness that other people would feel from giving to or helping me.

    • gretchenrubin

      In my family, we make long lists of things we want for Christmas. Having a short list is seen as being not in the Christmas spirit! Because it makes it so much harder for others to please you with their gifts.

  • I really identify with this, in many different ways.

    I, somehow, grew up with the viewpoint that my wants weren’t as important as other people’s. I have also experienced that frustration of not getting what I want because of that viewpoint.
    Then there is problem of trying to read other peoples mind when they won’t tell you their preferences or needs. I often want to help others but don’t know what to do.

  • peninith1

    I love having people express a wish–and I would think most cooks would be flattered if they were asked to make AGAIN something that had been a big hit before. It’s like being praised in advance. Yes, the person who cooks meals every day may not want to be given the menu and produce food ‘on demand’–that would be too much like a job. But having people ask for their desires regularly–oh yeah. I remember being asked what kind of cake I wanted for my birthday–but not much beyond that. Definitely getting input from the family and giving your family members, especially the kids, a chance to say what they like most about the routine choices in life is enlivening and improves everyone’s appreciation.
    When it comes to something more elaborate, like a quilt, I like the process to be at least collaborative. I once made a commission quilt for someone who insisted on controlling almost every aspect of the design and fabric selection, even when the fabric was not really suitable. Then it was NOT fun for me!

  • I love being on the receiving end of a specific request. The feeling it creates for me is one of being doubly complimented; once each for a previous and future action. For instance, last night my aunt asked me if I’d make her Shepard’s Pie again. At 72, she had only just eaten it recently when I made it a few months back. She was so excited to even try it and thankfully really enjoyed it. I was so happy when she asked me to make it again.

    On the flip side, I struggle with making specific requests for myself, not so much in the “What would you like for dinner?” realm but absolutely in the responding to “What (gift) do you want for Christmas/your birthday/(insert significant gift-receiving day here)?” Providing a specific answer seems, to me, at the same time selfish and disappointing. I enjoy the process of finding a gift I think someone would love and the thrill when I get it right (which doesn’t always happen of course). The love that goes behind the effort is part of the gift itself.

  • Jeannie

    So true, Gretchen! I love making dinner, but love it even more when my husband specifically requests something, or my daughter asks for her favorite dessert. Totally unscientific observation here: I find that women crave certain, specific foods more often than men. Is it hormonal, or what? I will ask my husband if he’s “craving” anything for dinner when I’m planning the week’s menu, and he always says, “Nope, anything you make will be delicious.” Yet I find fulfilling my daughter’s craving for my apple-carrot cake or red velvet cupcakes makes me so happy.

  • Jen Bowzeylo

    Wow! Thank you for this insite! My husband often asks me to be more specific and this clued me in a little differently!

  • Your friend should have a further look at “The 5 languages of love” and consider the fact that cooking (i.e. acts of service) is a way for HER to demonstrate her love to her husband, whereas HE needs something else, perhaps a simple pasta+a nice word!

  • Andrea

    This is lovely, and very true. It reminds me that allowing someone to give you something can be a gift in itself. I would love it if my husband asked me for something specific for dinner. I will now honour his ‘what would you like for your birthday’ requests with a little more thought, and respect. Thank you Gretchen.

  • Lisa

    SO interesting. The way we split chores in our home, my husband cooks. I feel like I do a lot of organising and deciding in other areas, so it’s nice to feel like this is one area I don’t have to make (yet another) decision. But you’ve got me thinking now. I know I love input on “my” stuff, so quid pro quo, I could make more effort to contribute to the menu planning! Nice post.

  • Joy | Frock Files

    Oh, I find this to be SO TRUE! Each weekend, my husband and I sit down and think about what we want to eat for the next week. It’s so much more fun and motivating when there are things we really want to make. I also feel the same way when we choose a restaurant we really want to eat at on Friday night. Oftentimes, we get to Friday night (“date night”) and sit in the car going, “So where should we go…?” I’d much rather build up anticipation over the week.

  • Megan Gordon

    I find this to be true with me too. My husband must eat gluten-free, so any treats like cake or cookies are harder to come by. I tend to make them myself (because they are better), and I love it when he says he’s craving something and I can satisfy that craving.

  • Elizabeth

    So, obviously this is not a post abt what’s for dinner! It reminds me quite a bit of what we should do when someone is suffering (loss of a loved one, a job, their health, etc.). Don’t say, “Let me know what I can do to help” and then wait for a response. Offer instead, “I’d love to bring you some homemade lentil soup. Would Tuesday or Thursday be better for you?” Open-ended choices sometimes leave one hanging!

  • Gretchen

    Gretchen, this is a terrific story, and certainly resonates with me! I, too, generally really enjoy cooking, but figuring out what to make for dinner night after night sometimes gets really stressful (and annoying). We have a running joke in our house: I ask my fiancee what he would like for dinner, and he invariably answers “lobster thermidor” – which I have never made and will never make. But the point is it puts the dinner decision back on me, which makes me grumpy and frustrated. When he tells me exactly what he wants to eat, I get so much more pleasure out of preparing the meal. Terrific idea to talk about!

  • I feel TERRIBLY imposed upon by requests. The nerve! More to the point: I think we need avenues to discharge our negativity towards our spouse.


    The happiness project really help me organize my house and my life. Figuring out a lot of cool things along the way. Still doing it and making it part of my spiritual journey!!!! Thank You Gretchen!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! so happy to hear that it resonates with you.

  • That’s so true! The specific request always happens between my parents, which does lead a happy marriage and life. The same applied to job interviews too. I guess interviewers will be more happy to listen to your specific job objective(such as which business line and what industry you want to specialize in) rather than just an “rewarding full-time job”

  • mellen

    I have absolutely been on her side of this, although I don’t think I’m as good a cook. I would add that we have to ask our loved ones for exactly what we want. If we want them to make a suggestion of what they want for dinner, we have to tell them.

    A funny story related to this. My husband is a very literal person, so asking exactly what I want is important. One evening I said to him, “Would you like to go out dancing?” and he said, “Not really.” Many people would understand that the reason I asked was because _I_ want to go out dancing. I was trying to be more responsible for my own happiness, so I said, “Oh, ok. Well, I’ll just go by myself.” And he said, “Oh! Well if you’re going, then I’ll go with you.” LOL!