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Credit: Liz Calka
The Burned-Out Cook

Burnt Out on Cooking? Me Too. Here Are 7 Little Strategies Getting Me Through.

published May 16, 2020
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Feeling burned out on cooking? This is a rhetorical question. We’ve stripped grocery shelves bare, packed our freezers, and jostled for a delivery slot. Our kids are munching through the snack reserves like bored termites. We’ve baked sourdough, banana bread, and cakes galore. We’ve done meal plans, pantry clean-outs, and Instant Pot chili times one million. It’s exhausting.

In better times I love to cook, and I bet you do too, but it’s one thing to cook a few nights a week, and quite another to be on the hook for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks every single day for months on end — especially under the mental and emotional toll of this strange time which, hesitant reopenings notwithstanding, seems to stretch out far in front of us.

I have a usual bag of tricks for my dinners. Grilled chicken here, Instant Pot curry there; rinse, repeat. But my bag of tricks feels empty right now. Without the peppery leavening of restaurant meals, weekend brunch, and lunches eaten at work, I feel the load of cooking over and over — no end in sight. I want new ideas, but I also need a break.

And since I’m in a bit of a mood: I am so tired of well-meaning food professionals like myself who tell you the way to break out of a cooking rut is to gin yourself up for doing even more. Read a cookbook! Embark on a big project! Make pasta from scratch! There’s an implication hovering just below the surface that we’re Not Using This Time Quite Productively Enough. The whole point right now for me, and maybe you, is that I don’t feel inspired; I just feel tired.

We need strategies for this new normal. So I made a list.

This list assumes you and I are not dummies; we have considered the obvious, like ordering takeout, or asking other household members to help plan and cook. If you are able, do both of these first. If you have the income, by all means, support local restaurants and gift yourself a night of someone else’s cooking. (It’s best to order from restaurants directly vs. delivery third parties like Postmates, to make sure local spots hang on to as much revenue as possible from your order.)

But with millions laid off and money tight for most people, takeout is hardly an everyday solution. So what are your options, beyond going on a cooking strike and leaving your belligerent toddler in charge? Here are a few ideas for getting a fresh wind, and strategies for keeping on keeping on.

Credit: Paperapple

Gift yourself a week off dinner with meal delivery.

By meal delivery, I mean services like Freshly, that deliver meals ready to eat. Cheaper than takeout (and probably better for you too), but easier than meal kits: The new generation of meal delivery services gives you meals pre-made and ready to heat up. Yes, it’s more expensive than cooking from scratch, but not wildly so, and it can be such a relief and a break to just have a fridge of pre-made meals ready for dinnertime. One other plus is that each meal comes with a nutritional breakdown, so if you have a specific eating style you prefer (keto, etc.) you can find meals to match.

Read more about Freshly: An Honest Review of Freshly’s Meal Delivery Service

Treat every meal like a snack.

Call it Cooking Strike, Lite Edition. There’s something very freeing about living in the moment and making every meal a snack. This idea works well whether you have kids or not, to be honest, since kids tend to eat every meal like they’re snacking anyway. Call a Snack Week at your house and stock up on Cheerios, cheese, crackers, grapes, some deli meat, good bread for toast (that sourdough needs to go somewhere!), salsa from the grocery store, chips, bananas, peanut butter, tortillas, shredded cheese, frozen waffles, and popcorn shrimp. Snack your way through the days and evenings; give your kids boxed mac and cheese for dinner. Tell your partner to fend for themself. Scrambled eggs are the lap of luxury in Snack Week, and granola too.

Get serious about batch cooking.

This strategy is the most practical answer for the burned-out cook who still, in the end, just has to cook: If there’s no escaping it, get it over with quickly. This is my approach (and not one that resonates with everyone; I was greeted with groans on our brainstorm). But for me, this is the primary way I cope: Instead of facing cooking fresh every night, I try to prep enough on the weekends so that on weeknights I eat proudly off my prior achievement. (Look at me! A squirrel! I have successfully hoarded enough walnuts for the long winter of this workweek!).

But what to make, you ask? Let’s swap. I will share a big list here, but you need to repay me with your own batch-cooking, make-ahead recipe ideas in the comments. Deal? Deal.

The recipes and ideas I rely on most: My 10 Favorite Recipes for Batch Cooking

Swap meals with a friend.

Personally, I get super jazzed by the idea of cooking for someone other than myself and my family. (Obviously this is not really happening right now.) What if you made a deal with your sister, or a friend, to bring them three nights of meals you think they’d love? And then they do the same for you. In fact, keep it on different weeks; cook double of everything for yourself one week and drop it off at their house.

This may feel like More of a Project than you desire, but for those of us who really just long to be cooking for others again, it may light a little blue flame in your burned-out cooking soul.

Make (and keep) a list of everything you have eaten and enjoyed.

This tip is one that has been enormously useful to me these past few months. I make a list on my phone in a note of what I think we’ll eat for dinner this week — a very loose plan. Then every week I make my new list right above it, and it turns into a de facto running journal of what I cooked and what we ate. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget meals you loved and recipes that were little triumphs.

A list like this also helps me see where we’ve been repeating the same meals a lot. It helps me look back, en masse, over all the things I’ve cooked and feel proud. Look at all that nourishment! All that chopping! And cleaning! And baking! (We’ve definitely earned ourselves a night of takeout.) Weirdly, looking at my own productivity and feeling proud of it is one of the more motivating things to me. I also keep a little running list of things I want to cook here. (Does it matter if all of them involve sugar, Nutella, or yeast?)

More on this “Love List” strategy, which is so simple and honestly so helpful: Make a “Stuff I Like to Eat” List

Make your grocery deliveries work a little harder for you.

When I shopped at the grocery store in person I often would grab a quart of soup or some pre-made salads from the deli area. Now that I am primarily shopping online, I find that I stick to my regular list of staples much more closely and forget about those convenience foods that, again, are more expensive than scratch cooking, but still far less expensive than a restaurant or takeout meal. Nudge yourself to remember the easy buttons in your grocery store: deli meats and salads, stuffed chicken breasts in the meat case, frozen foods beyond pizza. The modern grocery store is really a wonderland and in these weird, hard times I for one am so, so grateful for the way they are feeding us all.

Have one truly wacky, no-rules night a week.

When I was a kid, growing up in a large family of eight kids, occasionally my parents would do Ice Cream for Dinner, which was exactly what it sounds like. We would put on our jammies, gather in front of the TV for a movie night, and eat ice cream with all the toppings: canned whipped cream, sprinkles, peanuts, and fudge. No dinner first, no protein, all rules suspended. At the time I thought it was something that all families did, and realized at a remarkably late date (college?) how weird it was. As a kid I thought it was pure fun, but now that I have children I realize what it really was: a delightful night off work for my mom, who cooked practically every meal in our house for thirty years.

In corona-time, when it really does feel like there are no rules anymore, why not take a page from my parents’ playbook and do donuts for dinner, or ice cream, or one big Milk Bar cake. It’s not just a night off, it’s a reminder to make your own rules, light your flame however you can. (Bonus: Salad tastes way better the next night.)

As a fellow burned-out cook, I have been deploying some combination of all these strategies nearly every day, muddling on through our weird, fearful situation with gratitude for the food we have, and, quite honestly, the privilege of being burned out; it speaks to the fact that in the past I’ve had other options. America, for all its privilege, is a place where many people (including children) are food insecure and often hungry. This is a maddening, absolutely unnecessary fact in our wealthy country, but here we are. (If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend our piece on COVID and food banks; the need has only deepened.)

I would love to hear your own strategies and good ideas for staying motivated and energized in your cooking! Share here in the comments, or with me directly on Instagram. Also consider joining our Cookbook Club or our Meal Plan Club on Facebook; they’re full of even more inspiring cooks and their good ideas.