How to Get Out of a Cooking Rut
If figuring out meals has started to feel like a chore, here are a few things you can try.
At the beginning of the pandemic, like so many people, I turned to my kitchen. I baked many loaves of sourdough bread, cooked dried beans from scratch, and got around grocery shortages using substitutes. But as the pandemic wore on, cooking became more repetitive, less of an escape and more of a slog. Last month, almost a year into social distancing, I found myself dreading the task of planning and cooking dinner, a part of the day I usually enjoy. After so much time inside cooking for myself, I fell into a real kitchen rut. I had been making the same things over and over, and I was just sick of everything.
After a few weeks of peanut butter sandwiches, bagel bites, and takeout, I've finally begun looking forward to cooking again. Ruts happen to even the most accomplished, enthusiastic home cooks, particularly after such an incredibly stressful, trying year. If you're in one, here are a few ways to get out of it.
Let Yourself Off the Hook
If you are able to get food into your body (and the bodies of the people you're caring for) by whatever means you have, that's enough. If you're really struggling, let yourself off the hook. I ate like a college student for a while—a lot of baby carrots and hummus, questionable sandwiches, boxed mac and cheese, and frozen food. Sometimes my lunch was peanut butter straight from the jar. It might sound silly, but I found it so freeing. Who cares? Everyone needs a break. If you're unconsciously putting a lot of pressure on yourself to make innovative meals all the time like I was, it can make dinner into more of a chore than it has to be. Convenience products are there for a reason, and bottled salad dressing works just the same as homemade.
On days when I can't face cooking, sometimes my partner and I declare it foraging night in the kitchen. Basically it means we're going to hunt through the fridge for whatever scraps—leftovers, cheeses, pickles—that you can easily assemble into a meal. Your plate might look wacky, but as long as you're full and happy, it works fine. Assemble enough little bits, and it turns into dinner.
Find Something You’re Excited to Make
I started breaking out of my rut via vodka sauce. One day I really craved some vodka sauce pasta. I looked up a recipe and found that I had almost everything I needed to make it on hand. It wasn't a particularly difficult or time-consuming thing to execute, and the end result was delicious. Finding a project helped break me out of the same-old same-old cooking routine. Maybe for you that's cooking Pad Thai or French Onion Soup or Pesto Babka. If you feel the urge to figure out how to make something, lean into it.
Riff On What You’re Already Doing
Another good way to coax yourself out of a rut is to riff on something you already know how to make. Swap in a different protein or vegetable. Try a new spice or seasoning mixture. Try making a sheet pan dinner rather than cooking it on the stove.
Ask For Help
Got a bunch of things in the fridge and don't know what to do with it? Email us. No, really. Food & Wine Editor in Chief Hunter Lewis is opening up his inbox for a week to help you through your cooking struggles. From March 1 to 5, he's setting up an email hotline—just drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Cooking Rut" in the subject. List what you like to eat, how many people you need to feed, your food restrictions, and a list of vegetables and proteins in your fridge or freezer. Within 24 hours, you'll have three recipe ideas from our food team in your inbox. How's that for rut-busting?