Finding Fresh Inspiration for Cooking: Readers’ Best Tips

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

What do you do when you lose your cooking mojo? Your inspiration drains away and you look longingly at your takeout menus? You are eating Ritz crackers out of the box and peanut butter and celery — cooking anything more complicated than this sounds impossible. We asked our readers what they do when they completely lose their cooking mojo — how do you regain your inspiration? Here’s what they had to say.

We asked our readers this question in these posts:

Some readers said: Give yourself a break! Rest and relax.

• Or, you know, cut yourself some slack for awhile. Go out to dinner with friends a few nights a week. Order takeout. Stock up on some some Trader Joe’s frozen entrees. I guarantee that if you ever had a cooking-inclined bone in your body (and clearly you did!), after a few weeks you will be itching to get back to your own home cooking. – Brooklynnina

• Just recently I had a group of friends over for dinner, and I just didn’t feel like cooking – so we all decided on some take out options and the night was salvaged! It definitely took the stress out of creating a meal that everyone would enjoy, especially when there was no motivation to be had. I hope soon to regain that motivation, as I love cooking! I say, take a break for a bit and regroup in a couple weeks. – jcudesigns

• When I lose it, I spend a night or two ordering takeout. Paying ridiculously high prices for mediocre food is enough to get me motivated for cooking! – unpocojmoney

Even if you don’t take a day off cooking, simplify.

• Make the idea of meals simpler. Maybe have pancakes and bacon for dinner, use leftover bacon for BLT’s the next day. – Oven Mitzie

• I’ve found the only way out of my slumps is very slowly. I go back to the basics. The simple, incredibly easy stuff. Or things I can do in stages, like cookies. Make dough one day, bake the next. – K80

• When I get in a slump or am so busy that the thought of cooking makes me want to weep with exhaustion, I simplify — I make wraps, chow down on hummus, make strawberry salads — I want to ensure that I’m not getting in the habit of eating out or pre-packaged too often. but I agree also that going out for a meal or two will usually make me crave my own cooking again, and get me excited about using the ingredients and techniques that I prefer. – whitlin

• My trick has always been to plan some very low-investment but healthy “snack”-type meals. For instance, dinner can easily be a variety of cheese (brie, cheddar, havarti) with crackers, apples, and grapes. Lunch can be a pre-made soup from the freezer. Breakfast is typically granola. As soon as the fresh veg starts coming in, your fridge will perk up and so will you! – Saroja

• Usually when I get into a cooking block it’s because I’ve been trying to make things too complicated. I have to remind myself that I don’t ALWAYS need to make stock from scratch for a recipe and not everything has to be the very best dish it can be. It’s times like these that I need to remember the small, easy recipes and throw-together snacks that are easy to throw together. Avocado toast. Miso soup. Frozen dinners. Sometimes I think back to the stable of recipes that my mom used to make for us just to get food in our bellies. Maybe baked chicken with veggies on the side or beef stroganoff. Thinking simple always gets me out of my cooking slump. Then, once I’m nourished enough on simple dishes, I can start thinking about epic recipes again. – Pamlwell

Others said no, you need to clean up and get organized!

• Clean!!! Clean out your pantry and reorganize. Clean your kitchen. Clean out your fridge. Mop your floor. When I have an organized clean space I always feel more inspired. – Oven Mitzie

At least one reader said that planning ahead is key.

• My cooking mojo often disappears right at dinner time. It is so much easier to make dinner if you have a plan before you start. I usually make a meal plan on Saturday or Sunday morning. I take an hour, flip through some cookbooks or magazines, think about what I have on hand, and pick 3-4 meals to make that week. I also make a note of any special ingredients that I need to pick up. And just because I was looking through cookbooks, doesn’t mean that I am making 3-4 all new recipes, sometimes it just jumpstarts the brain. The plans can be as simple as chicken, a veggie, and salad. Or pasta and salad. But if I do pick a new recipe to try I also write down the page and cookbook that it’s from, so that I don’t have to remember where it was. – fab

Many readers found inspiration in food media:

Read a cookbook or magazine
• Whenever I need some inspiration, I pull down some cookbooks. I keep a post it on the front cover of a few of my favorites with a list of recipes to try and I start by looking at the list to see if anything sounds good. Then, I peruse the book to add more recipes to the list. – hollismo

• Check out cookbooks and/or magazines from the library (free recipe auditioning). While it’s the wrong season for it Daniel Boulud’s cookbook ‘Braise’ has my mouth watering. Go back to your old favorite cookbooks for inspiration. I just started thumbing my way through my old Moosewood and just had to make Tabbouleh. – Oven Mitzie

• I love looking through my old magazines. They’re in a high-up cupboard in my kitchen, arranged by date. Once in a while, I’ll go through them all and recycle those that I know haven’t used in ages, but I still refer to some for ideas/inspiration. – breezyslp

• Buy a new (to you) food glossie to provide some new inspiration; shop at an ethnic or gourmet grocer that you’ve never visited before. Keep perusing various blogs and websites-the motivation WILL return. – rosebud

Visit a food blog
• Not to be a kiss-ass, but reading sites like Kitchn and my many,many other food blogs usually helps. (As does things like Food & Wine, Real Simple, and the like). – offbalance

• I read the food section of a newspaper (usually the nytimes) or a food site that posts just ONE recipe a day (101 Cookbooks) or less. I then focus on shopping for that single (simple) recipe. – JenPDX

• I found myself stuck in a big rut cooking-wise, until I discovered cookbooker. They sponsor challenges, where everyone cooks out of one cookbook, or from one blog (right now it’s smitten kitchen). When I saw other people’s reviews, I waned to join the fun. And by only focusing on a single cookbook, it became much easier to decide on something to cook. To top it off, I’ve even won two cookbooks! This site single handedly made me fall in love with cooking – and my cookbooks – all over again. – lazy_lurker

• I find that there are a lot of people online who write what they are making every week for dinner, and usually have some links to their recipes. (, etc), not only do I find that this serves as some creative inspiration for other dinners that I might not have thought of, but also as a sort of competition with myself that if these other people can come up with an interesting, yummy, new menu, so can I!

Other inspiration!
• I look through the menu of restaurants I wanna do takeout from for inspiration of making those meals myself. – actorsdiet

Some readers said that shopping is the best way to get inspired…

Farmers’ markets & grocery stores
Going to a farmers market is also a great way to get motivated. Don’t go with an agenda. Just buy some stuff that looks great and cook it simply. – hollismo

• Visit a farmer’s market, especially now that it’s spring. The colors never fail to get me excited. Winter is just tough to slog thorough sometimes, so many oranges and grapefruits. – Oven Mitzie

• I usually check out what’s on sale. Sale fruits and veggies are usually what’s in season and will be the freshest, so I’ll try to make something with them. With sale meats, poultry or fish, I can be more adventurous because I’m not burdened with thinking about how it has to be good because I paid so much for it. When I decide what food my meal will include, then I’ll start pulling out my cookbooks or searching the internet. magzeen

…and to focus on the ingredients.

• I pick a fruit/vegetable/protein that is on sale or has just come in to season. If I’m really uninspired, I plug the ingredients into and browse recipes for ideas until I see something that sounds good. My default meal is some variation of grilled or baked chicken/steamed rice/sauteed vegetables/cut fruit. – erikasimi

• I just try to think of one ingredient that sounds really yummy and that I want to use..fruits and veggies are still sparse in my area but herbs are coming up and there’s a little fresh spinach around so the other night I made quiche and it turned out lovely. – mdanger

• I second those who said go for the seasonal fruits and vegetables, and try something new. I like to buy a new spice or ingredient that I haven’t tried and try to build a meal around it. You could also try going back to the basics and see how simple flavors can inspire you. Mark Bittman’s recipes are great for this. I’ve been roasting vegetables with nothing but salt, pepper, and olive oil lately, and it’s been refreshing to see how little “cooking” is actually required for a healthy, delicious meal. – LGLG

If you’re really stuck, throw a party.

• The best thing is to invite friends and make a dinner party that you know will please someone. That seems the most rewarding. – Kate (NC)

But, in the end, don’t worry too much.

• Don’t sweat it. It’ll come back eventually. – AnnabelVita

• I’ve noticed that my process seems to go through cycles. I regularly get inspired and burned out. Eventually it picks back up again. For me, it’s when I become really sick and tired of eating take-out food and packaged, convenience foods from the grocery store. Don’t worry! Somewhere along the way you’ll hit that magic combination of being tired enough of that stuff and also finding the something that inspires you to make it back into the kitchen. Even if it is just baby steps getting back into the old routine, you’ll get there. – JaclynS

What about you? Do you have anything fresh or different to add to this list?

Thanks so much to all the readers who contributed comments and advice! There is tons more advice on the posts mentioned above. Go read it — we couldn’t fit it all here!

(Images: Emma Christensen)