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10 Tiny Pep Talks to Push You Out of a Cooking Rut

updated Oct 15, 2020
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In the early weeks of the pandemic, my usual crutches for making sure my kids got dinner disappeared — no more stopping on the way home from daycare to pick up ingredients, no more letting them run wild in the chicken wing restaurant across the street. At first, it invigorated my cooking: we baked challah together and decorated cakes for fun. I laughed as I checked off “Dutch baby” from COVID Kitchen Bingo on Instagram

Looking back now, that was the easy part: All we had to do to help keep everyone safe was stay home and cook for a few weeks. Then the sourdough spring dragged into “something, anything, just make it appear on the table” summer, and now we’re at the futile part of fall, where each night I somehow end up shocked that I once again need to figure out what to feed the family for dinner.

Seven months into staying at home, nobody told our cooking mojo (or motivation) about shelter-in-place orders: It flew the coop. But the good news is that mojo isn’t like a lost pet; you don’t need to find the exact same one. There are ways you can take away just a little bit — or maybe even a lot — of that dread about the fact that, yes, in fact, dinnertime comes around every single evening. Here are 10 little pep talks to do just that.

1. You’re not doing it wrong — all this cooking is just hard. And you don’t have to like it.

If you, like me, have always loved cooking, the end goal to this burnout might seem like it should be falling back in love with cooking. But as I waded through the fog of failure at that, I remembered an old tweet from New Yorker food writer, Helen Rosner. “It is okay if you don’t like cooking, in the exact way it is okay not to like vacuuming or mowing the lawn or buying new toilet paper.” 

Forcing yourself back to finding joy in cooking while the kids burn out on their Zoom classroom before noon is simply not reasonable. When we again have the mental space to dream of exciting meals, we can come back to finding that love. For now, it’s okay to add “dinner” to the chore wheel, along with scrubbing the shower. It’s okay to find a way to get food on the table the way a teenager cleans their room: using the absolute minimum amount of effort. Whether that means pre-made pizzas or simply stacks of crackers, cheese, and vegetables for people to grab from, there is no wrong way to do dinner.

2. Plan your kitchen rest days so you don’t lose your motivation.

If you can find a way to give yourself some time completely off from cooking, seize the opportunity. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and just like athletes build recovery days into their regimes so they can come back stronger, you need some time away from the kitchen. If you can afford a few days of takeout or frozen meals, or even to cook a few bulk meals that can tide you over for a bit, you may find that some of that dread has melted away when you get back into the kitchen. If you need to stock up on ideas and groceries to make it possible, check out this list of more than 75 no-cook dinner ideas

3. Meal kits can be the sweet spot for cooking with less thinking.

I’ve never been a meal-kit person before this, but as the isolation dragged on I desperately needed to bring in a winner for dinners. Meanwhile, some of our favorite restaurants added meal kits to their menu as another revenue source. Meal kits are cheaper than takeout, remind us of beloved places, support favorite businesses, and give us a break from the thinking part of cooking.

Similarly, Kitchn’s Production Editor, Tracey Gertler, gave herself the occasional break by ordering commercial meal kits. “It helped relieve me of some of the pressure of getting food on the table every night,” she says. But even if meal kits are out of your budget, she says that just looking at the menus of a meal kit company has inspired her to break out of a cooking rut.

4. Share the mental load of meal planning.

My 5-year-old’s attention span barely lasts long enough to finish saying the word “carrot,” so she’s certainly no help when it comes to chopping them. But the physical labor of chopping and prepping for a meal sometimes comes second to the mental stress of thinking about what to even make. While some of her dinner suggestions are a bit unrealistic (“rice and noodles and rice cakes”), some of her suggestions — like plain noodles — are easy enough. I don’t have to think about dinner or convince her to eat it, and I come off as the hero.

Credit: Photo: Justin Bridges; Food Styling: Tyna Hoang

5. Be inspired by the world, from your couch.

Without the long, slow browsing of supermarket aisles or farmers markets, it can be harder to find sources for inspiration from the couch. Managing Editor Lauren Kodiak uses the “Explore” section of Instagram, scrolling through pretty photos of food for recipe ideas and to see what’s “trending” right now. This helps capture the seasonality she’d normally find at the store and gets her thinking about new and fun ideas for what to make when she feels stuck. 

May we suggest our Most Wanted Recipes?

6. A little accountability is your BFF.

I joked that before I had kids, I never realized how often I just punted on dinner — grabbing chips at happy hour or snacking from work to bedtime. But for folks at home alone right now, there’s a serious danger of just doing that every night forever. Lifestyle Director Lisa Freedman combats that by texting with her best friend to talk about what they’re making for dinner each night. “It kinda forces me to make something not too crappy.”

7. Challenge your pantry and your palate.

Sometimes a little bit of a challenge gets those cooking brain cells firing again. Next time you’re at the store, grab an interesting-sounding spice or sauce and figure out ways to work that into a bunch of dishes. The ingredient itself probably won’t cost more than about $5, and the inspiration could be worth far more as you figure out how to work it into old favorites or find new ideas that highlight the ingredient.

8. Try a new recipe or revive an old favorite with new ingredients.

Studio Food Editor Jesse Szewczyk purposely picks recipes he hasn’t made before or that make him a bit nervous. “It gets tiring making the same things over and over again, so by changing it up and challenging yourself it gets exciting again!” And he feels less pressure because it’s his first time making it; it matters less if he messes it up.

With two kids around, I’m less likely to go out on such a limb, but I like to try to improve a dish I’ve made before. After having okonomiyaki almost every week (it’s easy, cheap, uses a ton of vegetables, and my kids love it), I finally bought some Japanese yam to grate into it, making it a more traditional version. And each iteration of my grilled Caesar salad, a summer staple, gets a little closer to my imagined ideal of the dish.

9. Boost your creativity by setting boundaries.

That challenge is part of the fun of cooking for me, so I find I like puzzling out what to make from a limited resource — like a mini-version of Chopped in my kitchen. It seems counterintuitive, but somehow it’s easier and more fun to come up with a meal from the dying cabbage, ground beef, and can of tomatoes in my house than to pick a meal from everything under the sun — perhaps because it gives me a starting point, or maybe because I love a puzzle.

10. Don’t put off until later what will make your life easier.

The absolute worst time to cook dinner is at 5:30 p.m., when my kids are a little too close to bedtime for comfort. We’re all Zoom-ed out, I’m still running through the last few work things in my brain, and the clock is ticking on how many times the 3-year-old will scream for a snack before I manage to produce food. But, I realized one day, what if I just made dinner earlier? Now that we’re all home all day, there’s no reason that I need to cook dinner all at once at the last second. And even if you don’t work from home, you can still try to throw some ingredients in the slow cooker or assemble a casserole up to the point of baking (and stash it in the fridge!) in the morning.

5 Easy Favorites That Get Your Cooking Mojo Back

These recipes are short on ingredients and cooking time, but pack a big punch of flavor and comfort as your reward for cooking (again).

1 / 5
Quick Chicken Parmesan
Frozen chicken tenders are the secret to serving cozy chicken Parmesan on any night of the week.
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2 / 5
Instant Pot Freezer Meal: Greek-Style Lemon Chicken and Potatoes
Greek-style lemon chicken and potatoes topped with oregano and crumbled feta cheese is the ultimate Instant Pot freezer meal.
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3 / 5
Lemony Roasted Shrimp and Asparagus
This vibrant sheet pan dinner comes together quickly, thanks to a bag each of Trader Joe's frozen shrimp and asparagus.
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4 / 5
The Easiest Skillet Chili Mac
This easy, cheesy chili mac comes together in just one pan.
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5 / 5
Teriyaki Chicken Foil Packets
Teriyaki chicken with broccoli, carrots, and peppers is made in fuss-free foil packets that can be cooked on the grill or in the oven.
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