Menu Fatigue in Space: Solutions

This is Part 3 in the Menu Fatigue series. See Part 1 on Sensory Specific Satiety and psychophysiology, and Part 2 on established underconsumption to catch up. 

HI-SEAS Mission 1

Worldwide space agencies understand that menu palatability and nutritional adequacy are essential to the success of future extended missions. Since 2013, simulated habitat experiments have been conducted on the slope of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. At 8,200 feet above sea level, a 1,200 square foot geodesic habitat dome has hosted six teams for extended stays in a simulation meant to mimic a long-term expedition to Mars.1 Run by the University of Hawaii, the simulations require that crew members live and work in this two-story dwelling and wear full space suits when working outside. 

Five Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) missions have ranged from four months to 12 months, the latter being the longest NASA-funded space simulation in history. A sixth mission began in 2017 but was cut short after several days due to a crew injury. Since then, NASA has run four shorter EuroMoonMars + International MoonBase Alliance + HI-SEAS (EMMIHS) missions at the HI-SEAS base. 

HI-SEAS Geodesic Habitat Dome, Credit:

Food Systems Simulation

The theme of the first HI-SEAS mission, which ran for four months in 2013, was “Risks associated with an inadequate food system.” This simulation compared two simultaneous food systems: 1) prepackaged/instant food, and 2) recipes constructed from bulk, shelf-stable ingredients by the crew. Studied factors of the two systems included costs, nutritional adequacy, psychological benefits, and overall crew satisfaction.1 During this simulation, researchers were able to track use of resources like water and electricity in food preparation.  

Unlike the ISS, the HI-SEAS kitchen allowed the crew some creative license in food preparation. Members had no formal culinary training but were given a crash course in cooking at Cornell’s test kitchen. They followed a cookbook and enjoyed recipes previously submitted by the public including “dark matter cake,” Spam fried rice, bean soup with herb biscuits, lemon dill pasta salad, and “Martian Skin” – a simple mix of lime Jell-O and water.

Along with recording every detail of recipe contents and preparation, HI-SEAS crew members took nine surveys each day recording everything from overall satisfaction, mood, consumption, taste and smell, and nutritional status. Unsurprisingly, the team reported major social and psychological benefits to the ritual of cooking and eating together, along with greater variety in crew-prepared food system meals.

With crew cohesion being essential to long-term space travel and habitation, HI-SEAS 1 gave a glimpse into the importance of preparing and sharing meals as a group. Of course, this food system offered greater variety than is currently available to ISS astronauts, and there would be additional costs and resource management to consider. However, shuttling prepackaged foods to space currently costs an estimated $10,000 per pound, meaning that a self-sustaining on-location food system might be equally or more cost-effective.3 And while the time requirements are clearly greater with on-site preparation, it might be a small sacrifice for increased social and psychological well-being of the crew. 

Psychophysiological Solutions

In their study of Sensory Specific Satiety’s (SSS) cognitive vs. physiological origins, Wilkinson and Brunstrom observed through a series of experiments that menu fatigue seemed to be more of a physical response to repeated food exposure rather than a “top-down” cognitive one.4 However, they did note that in another study, simply changing the color of a food was enough to lessen the habituation response

In a 1982 study, researchers offered participants a series of chocolates that were identical in every way except color. When repeatedly eating chocolates of the same color, subjects rated them as increasingly less pleasant. When offered a different color chocolate, however, ratings of pleasantness increased, implying that changing appearance alone might be enough to reduce SSS.4 This could be useful on missions where meal replacements like bars are necessary due to limited space. Simply altering small details like color could make them more palatable over time without requiring any additional ingredients.*

*Source: The blue M&Ms taste better. They just do. 

Social and Cultural Solutions

Lessons from HI-SEAS

As shown during the first HI-SEAS mission, the act of preparing meals greatly improved the well-being of the crew and encouraged adequate consumption. On longer missions and possible extraterrestrial colonization, emphasis should be placed on communal production, cooking, and meal-sharing. Using traditional utensils and cooking methods would have the emotional benefit of familiarity, and group preparation and dining would create social pleasure, bonding, and stress relief. In long-term, more stable food systems (ex: Martian colony), growing and harvesting ingredients would also provide exercise.5 Although meal preparation takes more time and energy than a mostly prepackaged food system, the benefits may be essential to success of the mission. 

Lessons from Skylab

The Skylab space station (1973 – 1974) boasted a food system with unprecedented sophistication and variety. Crew members had access to a refrigerator, freezer, and perhaps most importantly, a dining room table. Astronauts were able to share meals in a routine similar to their normal lives on Earth. The Skylab crew met a higher percentage of their required energy intake than any other recorded American crew.6 

Sharing International Cuisine

The ISS is home to an international crew, mostly American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Union have collaborated on the station, and the ISS has been visited by residents of at least 18 different countries. The result is a multinational menu, which is approximately half American and half Russian, although Japanese, Canadian, and European items are also present. One potential solution to menu fatigue is to mix cuisines, as other nationalities often use different herbs, spices, and ingredient combinations. Like the colors of chocolates in the SSS study,4 small and easy alterations could make a big difference in satiation. Seasonings and cooking methods unique to different countries should be prioritized when considering storage capacity and shipments. 

Moving Forward

Respecting Psychophysiology

When planning menus for extended space missions, it should be acknowledged that adequate nutrient and energy consumption is not always a question of willpower. Astronauts are arguably the most disciplined group that humans have to offer, but previous missions and several studies have shown that Sensory Specific Satiety might be an inescapable biological burden. This is a problem that must be addressed if long-term space exploration and colonization has any chance of success. 

Our culture surrounding food – diversity of cuisines, flavor and seasoning, cooking and eating together as a social ritual – is one behavioral cluster that humanity has generally gotten right. Should we choose to venture forth on long-term space missions, or even colonize another little corner of the cosmos, enjoyment of food is one thing we should pack up and take with us. 


1.Missions I-IV (NASA + UH). Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. / 2.Spector D. The Food on Mars will be Delicious. Business Insider. / 3.LaVone M. The Sizzle: NASA’s HI-SEAS Study Aims to Find an Ideal Food System for Astronauts. Space Safety Magazine. / 4.Wilkinson LL, Brunstrom JM. Sensory specific satiety: More than ‘just’ habituation? Appetite. 2016 Aug 1;103:221-228. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.04.019. Epub 2016 Apr 20. PMID: 27105584; PMCID: PMC4910838 / 5.Tang et. al. Long-term Space Nutrition: A Scoping Review. Nutrients. 2022, 14 (194). / 6.Smith et. al. Nutritional Biochemistry of Space Flight. Nova Publishers, 2009