I love cooking- always have. In fact, I very nearly became a chef, veering off-course at the last moment to do a far less practical English degree. I read cooking blogs; I head for the cooking section at the library every month; and I’m locally famous for my chocolate mousse. Cooking is my thing.
Even so, I can easily fall into cooking ruts. Whether because I’m busy with other things or just suffering from a lack of imagination, I’ll end up serving the same five basic meals over and over again. Not only is this dull, it can backfire – after a solid month of risotto two years ago, my husband still refuses to eat it!
Here are some techniques I’ve come up with over the years to shake myself out of an “off” period. I do meal-plan on a weekly basis, but the ideas should work even if you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants.
Pick a National Cuisine
For several months, my husband and I picked one country to “eat” every week. It was harder than you might think – once we’d chowed our way through Italy and Greece, we had to step out of our comfort zones a little. Keep the season in mind – Russian cuisine isn’t a good pick in the height of summer! – and enjoy hunting around cookbooks and blogs to find appropriate recipes. One of my favorite recipes, Polish rye bread, dates from this experiment!
Try a New Ingredient
Ever cooked with couscous? Eggplant? Vanilla beans? Limes? If you haven’t, give it a go! It pays to buy the ingredient even if you don’t have a specific recipe in mind – there’s nothing more motivating than seeing a packet of nori stare at you accusingly every time you open the pantry.
Recently I decided to buy an unfamiliar vegetable every week. I forgot about it after a few weeks, but I did learn to love pak choy sauteed in butter! This year I’ve also learned to cook with wine and gotten over my fear of cooking fish, both of which have jazzed up our menus considerably.
Keep A List of Meals You Want To Try
If you read cooking blogs – and they’re a great source of inspiration! – you’ll notice that most comments say things like “Wow, that looks so good – I’m definitely going to try that!” Very few say things like “I made this yesterday and it was great,” which illustrates my point: inspiration means you actually cook the dish. Otherwise it’s called “wasting time on the internet.”
I’m as much a fan of wasting time on the internet as anyone, but if you want to spice up your meals, you’ll have to actually cook the dishes you read about. Keep a bookmark folder of all the recipes you want to try some day, or simply list them on the fridge. Refer to the list as occasions demand – it might take a few weeks before you have an occasion worthy of trying a triple-layer cheesecake – but make sure you try something new regularly.
Cook Your Way Through a Cookbook
I haven’t actually done this, but it worked out well in Julie & Julia! If a whole cookbook sounds too intimidating, adapt the idea – one meal a week from a certain cookbook, one meal from each section, or cooking each meal from a different cookbook. This is also a good opportunity to cull your cookbook collection – go through them, bookmark recipes you want to make, and chuck any books with no appealing recipes. Do a second cull once you’ve made the recipes to get rid of any failures.
You could also follow the same principle for food blogs, cooking your way through the Pioneer Woman or David Lebovitz.
Impose Some Limitations On Your Cooking
Choices are hard. Every Wednesday, when I bully my reluctant husband and flatmate into helping make the meal plan, our brains collectively freeze up at the thought of choosing between the thousands of dishes theoretically available to us. Oddly enough, it’s much easier to think when we give ourselves a limit: only foods beginning with C, low-carb meals, crockpot dishes. Try restricting yourself to see if it sparks any ideas. If you’ve vaguely been meaning to try a gluten-free or low-carb diet, do it! If you just got a new food processor, test-drive all its attachments by making a week’s worth of pureed, chopped, diced and blended dishes.
More Meal Planning Ideas
If you’re still feeling blah about food, try these ideas:
Try to copy your favourite dish from a local restaurant; a famous fast food; or your grandmother’s long-lost stew recipe. My favourite chicken casserole was copied from a dish at my sister-in-law’s wedding reception.
Have a “Use Up Everything In The Pantry” week
Eat by colour (kids love this!)
Go vegetarian for a week
Try making your own staple ingredients – pasta, tomato sauce, hummus or pastry. You don’t have to do it forever – just try it once and see if it’s worth it in terms of taste, money and time. (My findings? Hummus, yes; pasta, no.)
Switch meals around – eat breakfast for dinner or dinner for breakfast
Any other suggestions?