Last week I forgot how to make dinner.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. I didn’t actually FORGET how to put food in a pot and turn on the burner and then dish it out onto plates for my hungry family.
But it felt almost like forgetting.
Maybe you’ve experienced this, too: you’re plugging away just fine, making meal plans weekly, shopping sales, cranking out tasty dishes a few nights a week, in a rhythm with leftover strategies.
And then something happens to blow it all up. Maybe the weather changes and suddenly those soups and stews just don’t sound so comforting, or maybe you travel or have a busy week where you phone in dinner a few times in a row and get out of your usual routine.
Suddenly there it is, Sunday afternoon. You’re staring at the sales flyer from the grocery store, your mouth hanging slightly open and your mind blank. Those veggies and cuts of meat look vaguely familiar, but you have no functional memory of how one takes the raw ingredients and combines them into a dish. And when you sit in front of your usual meal planning calendar or notebook or app, you just can’t think of a single thing you actually want to make.
If you can relate, I want to reassure you that I go through this dinner-making amnesia a few times a year and it is always a temporary condition. It happens to me a lot in May, when changing temperatures and travel seem to conspire to throw me off my game. It happens when I go through a particularly busy time and rely on takeout and pizza delivery a few too many days in a row, only to eventually look in my bare cupboard and feel completely bewildered. And sometimes it seems to happen for no reason at all – perhaps I’m just burned out on what I’ve been making and need some new inspiration.
Depending on what’s causing your dinner doldrums, here are five ways I’ve found that can get you back in your kitchen rhythm:
1) Forget the sales flyer and the shopping list.
If you’re like me, you often rely on great deals in the sales flyer to inspire your meal plan. But some weeks, there just isn’t much happening in that ol’ supermarket circular besides two-for-one deals on potato chips and dip. That’s when the sales flyer can feel more limiting than inspiring.
When that happens to me, I like to ditch the sales flyer and go in blind. Give yourself a little extra time if you use this approach and take the opportunity to wander and explore a bit: sniff the produce, Google unfamiliar cuts of meat from your smart phone, pick up an exotic spice you’ve never used before, or browse the grains or bulk-food sections to see what inspires. Basically, give yourself an opportunity to get your senses inspired by food again and see what you come up with.
Going “off the list” is a bit risky: your cart may wind up full of unusual items, and you may end up having to make a supermarket run in the middle of the week to grab something you forgot. But they can also be the weeks you have the most fun in the kitchen, and can be a great way to break out of an uninspired rut.
2) Give your meal plan a seasonal makeover.
No wonder the baked pastas and roasts that were really getting your heart beating faster in February sound completely unappealing right now. Even though the temperatures aren’t exactly reflecting it just yet, it’s almost summer, baby. I want to be outside grilling and eating light salads and veggie-based meals, even though I’m still wearing long sleeves most days. So shake things up to welcome the season: plan a week’s worth of outdoor meals, plan to make a gourmet salad or two, and think beyond burgers and dogs when it comes to using your grill.
Here’s some spring-y recipe inspiration to get you started:
- Creamy potato-bacon salad
- “Epic” Salad with egg, bacon, and blue cheese
- Pasta salad with bacon and peas
- Southwest style foil-pack grilled chicken
- Easy grilled chicken with ranch marinade
3) Consume some food media.
I’ve gotten comfortable enough in the kitchen – and no-nonsense enough about my approach to everyday weeknight meals – that I rarely read cookbooks or food blogs for inspiration anymore. And when I watch Food Network, I generally gravitate toward the competition shows like Chopped rather than teaching programs. But when I’m in a big dinner rut, I find that checking out food blogs, recipe sites, cookbooks and cooking shows with the intention of simply coming away a little hungrier and more inspired can be really instrumental in breaking through the mental meal block.
Psst: If you’re registered with eMeals, did you know you can change your meal plan several times per month? I’ve found this to be another way to shake up my usual routine and get inspired. Find out more about eMeals and get 15% off your subscription.
4) Give yourself a break with cop-out dinners.
Sometimes we just need a vacation from churning out hot meals several nights a week to give our brains reboot time. If burnout is causing your kitchen amnesia, give yourself a few days “off” from planning big meals, and see if it gets you back on track. Need ideas for phoning-it-in meals that are still reasonably nutritious and filling? Check out Sarah’s post on what to make for dinner when you don’t feel like making dinner.
5) Ask the kids to make the meal plan.
You know, every now and then I just don’t want to have to be the one that’s always thinking about food. It can feel like so much guesswork, trying to figure out what everybody might like or want on any given day. This might sound kind of obvious, but sometimes I forget to just ask! When I’ve got kitchen brain fatigue and can’t come up with one more meal idea, I will often just ask the kids “So, what do you guys want for dinner this week? Anything I haven’t made in a while that you’ve been missing?” They will often remind me of old favorites I’ve been neglecting, and the best news is that typically the dishes they love most of all are the ones that are simplest for me to make, like spaghetti with meat sauce, homemade pizza, or a simple combination of rice, veggies, and diced chicken or pork. Win-win!