5 Tips for Breaking Out of Your Pandemic Cooking Rut in 2021
We know you’re tired. We’re here to help.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but even the most passionate cooks among us are hitting some serious kitchen fatigue. As someone who literally cooks as part of her job and has always thought of that as the bonus part of my work, I am, like so many of you, completely over it.
A longtime lover of baking bread, now I do multiple loaves for freezing just to postpone when I have to do it again. I always have loved recipes that take a long time, sometimes days, with steps of stock making or dry rubbing or curing, but these days? I want my meals fast and easy and with leftovers that might serve to cover at least a second dinner and maybe a lunch or two along the way. It was rare before March of 2020 for my husband and I to have more than one dinner in a week we refer to as “catch as catch can" (AKA everyone fends for themselves based on what is currently available in the house). Now? Two sometimes three nights a week might find us scrounging for bits and bobs, scrambling eggs, or just having a bowl of cottage cheese for some protein before a massive bowl of popcorn fills in the void.
Now, after 10 months of three meals and many snacks a day, and facing down a long pandemic winter ahead, the culinary rut is real. Here are five tips for freshening up your kitchen game (and mine!) to get us through together.
1. Embrace “Taco Tuesday” and other weekly traditions
First and foremost, let’s agree that a tradition is not the same as a rut. If embracing Taco Tuesdays guarantees that for that one night you already know what is for dinner and protect yourself from decision fatigue, then go for it. We made a big batch of black beans with roasted poblanos and enlisted a pal to make us his secret family picadillo and froze in two-person portions. We keep tortillas on hand generally anyway, so now all we have to do is thaw out the filling of our choice and dinner on Tuesdays is covered. Whether it is homemade pizza night, or Wednesday Prince Spaghetti Day, find one day a week to have a regular meal and do some advance prep to make it easy on yourselves.
2. Go all-in on breakfast for dinner
We have really gotten into breakfast-y meals at suppertime these days, because eggs are always fast, there is always some sort of breadstuff around, and even things like pancakes or French toast feel much more manageable than most of our usual dinner cookery. And almost any leftovers can become either a sort of shakshuka or a frittata. We’ve decided to use it as an opportunity to up our omelet skills, so once we are back to having houseguests, we’ll be ready for fabulous breakfasts.
3. Return to your cookbooks and clippings
We are all guilty of buying gorgeous cookbooks, flipping through them hungrily and earmarking pages, and then placing them on the teetering stack or in the shelves and never actually taking the time to make the dishes. And I bet a lot of you, like me, have a pile of pages ripped from magazines and newspapers of recipes that sounded fantastic that have never seen the light of the kitchen. If you are in a cooking rut, some of it is likely that you are cooking the same old same old because it is what you know! Reinvigorate your cooking practice by taking a different cookbook each week, or that stack of papers, and make a plan for the following week. You can load in the supplies and do any advance prep over the weekend to set yourself up for easy labor all week long, and you might just add some fab new dishes to your regular repertoire.
4. Cook outside your culture
There is no better way to explore than through food, and while we cannot travel right now, that doesn’t mean we cannot investigate the foods of other countries or traditions! Whether it’s getting my Thai game on, investigating the wide variety of regional Indian foodways, or putting some comforting Southern soul food on the plate, one thing that always gets me excited about cooking again is to challenge myself! This winter we are planning to work on some Italian, especially homemade pastas and traditional braises.
5. Go retro or nostalgic
Some of the best and most memorable meals my husband and I have made during the pandemic have not been the fancy cooking ones or the extra special occasions. Rather, they've been throwback meals. The deep pleasures of a Fluffer Nutter sandwich paired with potato sticks and, god help us, chocolate milk for a lunch that took us both back to being 8 years old. An updated take on Sloppy Joes—from scratch and slightly more spicy and less sweet, but still true to the intent of the original—was a total winner. From the casseroles of our childhoods and sustaining foods of our college years to the “fancy party” foods of our early days of entertaining, returning to recipes of these after many years has been a true joy. There have been Jell-O molds, hard-shell tacos, and turkey tetrazzini, and we are not mad at any of it. Think back to some of the foods that have brought you joy in the past, and go for it.