I’m writing you today about cooking ruts because—let’s face it—we all have them. In 20 years as a recipe developer, I’m rarely short on inspiration (restaurants, travel, and cookbooks keep my wheels turning) but as a human, mother, and the lead cook in my household, ruts are inevitable. Inspiration is one thing, but execution—well, that takes a little more oomph.
But (!!), as I re-learned this week, sometimes it only takes a tiny spark (or—the right crispy chicken cutlet) to remedy.
I say this on the heels of a delicious week at my parent’s house. Thanksgiving itself was incredible—my Mom and Dad had the house stocked, the pies baked and the turkey brined before we arrived—plus a military-style chart for our four days of feasting that kept things running like a top. They halved the sugar in the pies (bravo, M + D!), made perfectly tangy relish, and lump-less mashed potatoes. You could taste tart and earthy and buttery in every dish.
But the real clincher was that bookending Thanksgiving day, we had a series of wonderful meals I hadn’t eaten in years—foods that (after months of gulyás and pastry) felt new again—satisfying on a deep, soul-filling level.
There were a few gems from quick roadside stops: crispy fried chicken on a buttery biscuit in Ohio, a chicken parm sandwich with melty mozzarella in Indiana, and delightfully fluffy biscuits and sausage gravy in Pennsylvania (so good). There were plenty of childhood favorites at my parent’s home, in Illinois, too—a Veggie Stack Sandwich (see below), Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, and warm vegetable soup with “French” bread (a baguette imposter that’s soft instead of crusty, but wonderful slathered in butter, for dunking in soup).
The result: I came back inspired to cook family dinner again, an impulse that can fall off pretty regularly anytime your dining companions are under 12 (read this—I feel seen).
On the drive home, we wrote a long list called the Best of the Midwest—things we had eaten on the trip that we’d like to see more of on our own table, stat!
For Greta: sandwiches, white bread, and mashed potatoes (my childhood). Andras’ picks: biscuits, and pan-seared fish with butter and thyme. My list: all things crispy chicken cutlets, and Dijon on everything. Mátyás’ top three: pickles, Jiff peanut butter, and Frosted Mini Wheats (all opinions are valid, here).
This isn’t the first time I’ve used a short trip as a launching pad for better dinners. This time last year, Greta and I spent a quick weekend in Hudson, NY. After two days of feasting at the hottest cafes, we made a list of the weekend’s bests, while spooning breathtaking herb-and-olive-drizzled hummus onto tender flatbread (swoon). While completely different from our midwest list—the Hot-From Hudson list included herbed rice pilafs, clam linguine, tiramisu, and of course silky hummus and flatbreads—this list also informed what I cooked for weeks and weeks after.
The point is, an escape from cooking boredom could involve acquiring a new skill (dumpling making!) or a new tool (hello, air-fryer)—but it can also be much simpler and less costly than that. You can reboot with a no-frills road trip or a simple visit back home. Cooking boredom can be hacked by trying a new restaurant or just a new grocery store. Sometimes, it’s even as simple as making a list.
Here, below, are six ideas for making family meal fun again. And— leave your own ideas in the comments, below.
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MAKE A LIST:
Write a list of your ten favorite foods from childhood, or the ten best things you ate on that great summer vacation, or the ten best things you ate in restaurants this year. Include everyone in your household on the list-making and make a game of it. Little ones can shout out or draw their list, or you can make one combined list that represents the whole family.
Then, keep the list on the fridge and start cooking your way through it. For example, from our Best of Midwest list, Monday night I made panko-crusted chicken cutlets (using my classic chicken schnitzel recipe), with mashed sweet potatoes, a big green salad with a mustardy vinaigrette—plus pickles and sauerkraut. Tuesday night: pan-seared salmon with smashed potatoes and salad plus pickles/kraut again.
Two nights in a row everyone finished their meal (without whining), then stayed at the table chatting until the last person was done—win!
VISIT A NEW GROCERY STORE:
After years of shopping at farmers’ markets and our local grocer, Adams, one summer I discovered a giant Shop Rite across from Màtyàs’ soccer field. I started splitting off from the family after games and loading up for the week. For a while, it was revolutionary! The produce and pantry staples I bought were mostly the same, but a few key things they carried—like a creamy fresh ricotta and a high-quality burrata—tipped the scales; we started making pasta and pizzas more often, and in new, inspired ways.
This happened again this week. When I couldn’t find organic milk, chicken, and eggs at reasonable prices at our usual store (inflation!), I high-tailed it to Aldi, instead. I came home with 3 new kinds of cheese (herbed, smoked, and brined!), giant jars of sauerkraut (see dinner, above), and soft sandwich rolls (I’m normally a seeded-whole-wheat-kind-of-mom). School lunches this week definitely benefited from this little change, and our dinners have, too.
TRY A NEW STYLE OF EATING:
When you introduce a new dietary restriction (no more gluten, for example) or widen a previously narrow one (if you move from vegetarian eating to adding chicken and fish) you naturally seek out new recipes and inspiration. You can mirror this experience by committing to a week-night-only new program, just for variety/curiosity.
Let’s say you decide to try eating vegetarian every weeknight, you might suddenly begin using tofu and chickpeas, or find yourself drooling over the Cheesy Chipotle Quinoa Bake from Evergreen Kitchen. Want to try cutting out wheat? Risotto, stir-fries, and creamy polenta with a soft, oozy egg gain new hero status (try this).
COOK THROUGH (JUST ONE) NEW BOOK:
Choose a new or even old cookbook to work your way through for a period of time —say, two weeks. This doesn’t have to be an ambitious project (how about not Mastering the Art of French Cooking); limit yourself to just one appealing, every day book so you don’t get overwhelmed, and keep it open on the kitchen counter to pull ideas from for the next one to two weeks.
Before Thanksgiving, my neighbor gifted me a giant coffee-table-sized book called America The Beautiful Cookbook (published in 1990). I read it cover to cover on our long drive—reading several passages aloud to the fam—and realized that while I had eaten almost every regional food in the book (from gumbo to corn pudding), my kids hadn’t. I tagged ten recipes to try (including an easy cornmeal spoon-bread I’m making tonight), and it’s open on the table as we speak, to remind me to dip into these classics all week.
INTRODUCE A NEW INGREDIENT:
Let’s say you always cook with beans or lentils, or maybe pasta is your go-to; Try egg, rice, or chewy udon noodles, instead—then stock up on supplies to flex them in your kitchen, until they’re part of your regular routine. I’m bookmarking the entire noodle section of the (fabulous!) new book The Woks of Life for January—Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Homestyle Mushroom Mei Fun, and Lazy Veggie Noodles are top on my list. And don’t forget about Easy, Miso Ramen with Tofu, Avocado and Chile Oil.
Do you usually make chicken breasts? Make a point to buy only legs and thighs for a few weeks, which shine in different treatments, and may shake up your routine just enough (Hint: try this Skillet Chicken with Orzo, Feta and Dill, Cajun Jambalaya, or my Saucy Chicken with Olives and Greens from Instant Family Meals. Another chicken-dinner winner: Skillet Chicken with Cumin, Paprika and Mint).
COOK + EAT WITH OTHER FAMILIES, OFTEN:
Any time you cook or even just eat with another family, you learn something—whether it’s your parents, your in-laws, your neighbors, people from church, or your ultimate frisbee team. Everyone has different recipes, and ingredients they cling to—some that might work for you, too.
Example: I’d forgotten about The Veggie Stack Sandwich—a cult classic from a beloved local cafe in my hometown—that’s easy to make at home. But when my parents sent us on the road back to New York with a sack full of goodies, it included two Veggie Stacks: peppers, cucumbers, cheese, lettuce, and tomato on seedy wheat bread (with tons of mustard!). You can bet I bought cucumbers and peppers at the grocery this week, and a repeat of this winning number has been on my lunch plate, all week.
Real talk: Not every one of these six tactics will work for your family—but at least one or two will. Give them a try. And when all else fails, hug your kids and order pizza.
Now it’s your turn—what gets you/your family out of a cooking rut? What’s top your ten favorites list? And what other strategies do you lean on? Leave a comment, below—it’s more fun here when we’re all learning from each other. x
Photos for this post by Christopher Testani for Cooking Light and Instant Family Meals. Food and prop styling by Sarah Copeland.
I was bad and ordered pizza tonight.
Feel this post so much!! Great tips for sure. I'll be using many of them in the future. X