‘Menu fatigue’, simply put, is getting bored with what you’re eating, because you’re eating the same food too often. Soldiers in the army have complained about monotonous meals (1). But it’s also a problem for astronauts. Eating ‘space food’ every day for months, or even years, is bound to get boring (2).
Astronauts today eat a much better variety of space food than what astronauts ate during the Gemini and Apollo missions of the mid-60s (3). These earlier astronauts ate food that was all dehydrated, freeze-dried and bite-sized.
Today, astronauts can order from a menu, with far more options than you’d find in a restaurant. There are more than 200 food and drink choices. These are developed at the Johnson Space Center (4). Some food is dehydrated like in the 60s, in order to save on space and weight. Fruit, fish and meat are thermostabilised or irradiated to kill micro-organisms and enzymes. Nuts and baked goods are fine as they are. On holidays, special items can be requested. And ‘psychological support kits’ can also be provided by family and friends, containing some requested treats. For ISS crewmembers, the menu repeats every 8 days.
There’s still work to be done
Now you may be thinking that this sounds pretty manageable. True, having more options than a restaurant is still less options than choosing from a range of restaurants. But isn’t having a somewhat diverse range of nutritious food enough? Shouldn’t we be focusing on more important issues, such as the logistics of getting to Mars in the first place? Well, it turns out that menu fatigue is still a big issue for astronauts today.
An assortment of foods isn’t in itself enough to ward off food boredom. Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void says that there’s a general problem with space food. It doesn’t taste quite like what you’d have back home; it’s “either blander or there’s a weird flavour”. Roach highlights:
“It’s highly processed, pasteurized and tweaked a million ways to deal with the packaging and the safety and the shelf life.”
TED Senior Fellow Angelo Vermeulen led a four-month study (5), simulating cooking and eating on Mars. He emphasises just how important food is to astronauts. He said, “food is absolutely crucial to the psychology of your crew, and you need to handle that carefully.” If one aspect of space travel starts getting astronauts down – such as food – then this can affect other areas, such as team morale. But further improvements can be made to combat menu fatigue. Food can be more than just a way to provide fuel for astronauts.
Image credit: Wikipedia
A chef’s touch
Astronaut Tim Peake was able to eat food from a menu created by chef Heston Blumenthal (6). It included a bacon sandwich; Thai red curry with rice, baby corn, bamboo shoots and chilli; sausage and mash with onion gravy; beef stew with truffles; smoky Alaskan salmon; and key lime pie. Now compare this to the Apollo-era menu: bacon squares; dry-bite coconut cubes; and rehydratable chocolate pudding. It’s clearly a massive improvement.
Other award-winning chefs are also getting involved, since NASA realises how valuable it is to have tasty, comforting and interesting food on board during space missions (7).
There’s still work to be done. The mission to Mars can take up to nearly a year, and so an eight-day rotation of food could get boring very quickly. But there are other ways to get around this problem.
Growing and cooking food in space
Vermeulen says “one of the solutions is to allow the crew to cook”. He adds:
“Cooking empowers you over your food. You can make endless variations, and there’s a bonus: it improves social cohesion. You talk about food, you share food. It’s a basic human thing.”
Hydroponic growth labs could allow astronauts to grow vegetables, potatoes, soybeans, wheat, rice and beans. But the cooking aspect does present some challenges. It requires water and energy, which are very precious resources in space. It also demands that astronauts dedicate some spare time for cooking, which they don’t always have. Also, there’s the practical challenge of cooking in a microgravity environment. So far it looks like fries are off the menu (8).
But it’s important to overcome these challenges. Vermeulen emphasises the benefits of cooking that he noticed from his study:
“During our mission we always cooked with two people, and this had an interesting psychological benefit. When people are in the kitchen cooking, they are also talking. It’s a good way to keep the communication lines open. It’s also a really good outlet for creativity — something you really crave for when you’re locked up in a small space. And then when the food is served, you’re actually proud of what you made and you’re serving it to your colleagues. It generates more social cohesion.”
Efforts to tackle menu fatigue continue. Perhaps the bigger challenge is ensuring that once astronauts arrive on Mars and set up a colony that they can cook original meals, as well as different cuisines. There will also need to a variety of foods to suit different tastes. Also, as humans we all want our comfort food (9). Without that, the trip to Mars, and life on the red planet, will become a drag.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.