Cooking Mojo
August 17, 2018 10:41 PM   Subscribe

How to you find your cooking mojo when you're completely done with cooking for the present season (but summer in particular), AND YET people keep wanting to be fed?

I have no desire to cook AT ALL at this point of the summer, but I remain responsible for providing dinner to small people 7 nights a week. 2 nights a week we end up with takeout or storebought dinner (rotisserie chicken, frozen skillet meal), but the other 5 I'm cooking from scratch or repurposing leftovers.

Summer is by far the worst offender (due to the heat!), but it happens with all seasons where I just cease to give a shit about cooking what I've been cooking and I can't get motivated to do it.

So the question is not "what recipes should I cook?" but "How do I get out of my cooking funk, which is largely end-of-season fatigue?" My two current thoughts are 1) have the kids research a country's culture and cook that country's food at the end of the month, but that seems like a lot of work FOR ME; and 2) cook stuff that's hella out of season but I haven't made in a while, but my kids will only eat mid-August chili so many times.

We currently do a CSA-type box and hit up the weekly farmers market, so I've got "seasonal produce cooking" covered, but it doesn't motivate me.

All three kids help in the kitchen (the toddler is in a purely stirring capacity at this point, but the older kids can make sandwich-based meals for the whole family solo and follow simple recipes, but cannot yet safely use the stove or oven unsupervised).

Breakfast is repetitive and lunch they're responsible for making on their own; it's dinner that's the huge problem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Cook stuff that’s out of season and go with as many conveniently packaged foods as you can. There’s nothing wrong with sandwiches for dinner. Salad in a bag. Maybe some of those prepped kabobs or marinated chicken breasts or stuff from the meat case. Crackers and cheese. Baby carrots and grape tomatoes. Wraps. Cold pasta salads.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:07 PM on August 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

That is, I know you said you weren’t looking for what to cook, but since you’re super sick of cooking, I can’t help but think that the answer is to take a break from cooking, as much as you can. There’s no real reason that you have to cook a dish when you can assemble a perfectly acceptable meal from things that require minimal preparation. If you can get a decent break from having to stand over a stove, that might let you recover from being sick of it.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:10 PM on August 17, 2018 [6 favorites]

When I lost my cooking mojo a few years ago (I got it back eventually), I would buy a lot of frozen stuff from costco and do the most minimal prep to get things on the table. Egg rolls, breaded fish or chicken, frozen veggies tossed with whatver. Precooked udon noodles.
Also: lower your standards. I bet the rest of your family doesn’t care as much as you do about nutrition or variety. It’s ok to have quesadillas for dinner half the week. (Flour tortillas and cheese as base, rotate add-ons of guacamole, beans, roasted turkey breast, etc.)
posted by CrazyLemonade at 11:33 PM on August 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

With respect to what sort of recipes, I'd say the kind where you can dump a lot of ingredients in great quantities and let them cook unsupervised. So recipes for slow cookers, rice makers, or even ovens (once you figure out the timing you can make all kinds of things in the oven, including rice and lentils and even pasta dishes, and you can make a bunch of things at once). Use frozen vegetables to minimize prep time (maybe you can also find frozen meat or fish precut in useful sizes). Cook things with spices or premade sauces or just some nice olive oil and salt and pepper at the end. You can also finish them off with things like carmelized onions (which you make a giant batch of once and then freeze, or just buy premade), fresh herbs, an Indian food-style tadka (which takes about two minutes to make), etc.

The idea is to (a) make things in quantities so that you can do it once or twice a week and be done with it, (b) make those things using techniques that require minimum personal involvement, like using a slow cooker or stuffing your oven full of things that just need to be cooked through, (c) have some flavorful additions to top things off with sometimes to prevent boredom.

Also, teach the older kids to make salad. A salad with beans or tofu or an omelet alongside of it and so on can be a full meal. (For things like beans, if you have objections to using cans you can also often find them frozen, or prepare in big batches in the oven.)

Finally, this should start getting better in a year or two, as you strategically train the older kids in the art of making more and more kinds of food.

(I forgot about the CSA. If you want to keep using it, I'd teach the kids how to wash, scrub, and peel the things that need it (not everything needs peeling) and then dump most things into the oven for roasting. Leafy greens can be torn up by kids and thus turned into a salad. If there are things that don't seem well suited to any of the above methods - it's okay not to use them, imo.)
posted by trig at 11:34 PM on August 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Declare the rest of August as PICNIC MONTH. Endless sandwiches! Cold rotisserie chicken! Potroast on biscuits! Chicken salad on toast! Cornbread and thick slices of ham! Lots and lots of delicious cold veggies! Lots and lots of fruit salad! Kids can make biscuits and and muffins and cornbreads from a mix. Peaches or berries or slabs of watermelon for dessert.

We lived on this stuff during summers when I was a kid.
posted by mochapickle at 11:46 PM on August 17, 2018 [31 favorites]

Is it the activity of cooking or the part where you have to think up a new meal that's exhausting? If the latter, don't sweat it. Repeat the same 10 dishes ad infinitum. I have fond visceral memories of basically unexciting meals Mom used to cook-- because it's mom food. Of course it's the best!
posted by travertina at 12:36 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Make a list of the dinners YOU want to eat or can imagine enjoying cooking. Maybe Eyebrows really does like cooking steaks or poaching fish or is craving cold poached salmon with creamy dill sauce. Focus on making those things. The kids can eat it or have peanut butter and jelly.

Make a list of the most common meal ‘parts’ that you use in your regular, non fantasy cooking. Maybe you’re boiling pasta 3x a week. Maybe it’s lentils or chicken parts. Find ways to either substitute convenience foods or batch cook these (cooked pasta keeps in a ziploc bag with or without sauce, and conveniently molds to the shape of wherever you shove it in the fridge.)

Select from these two categories
Dinners that don’t require heat cooking. At all. Caprese salad. Prosciutto and melon. Sandwich bar - sandwich meat is optional, a cheese, sliced peppers, lettuce or other greens, tomato, whatever.
Dinners that require only heating and minimal to no prep. Frozen meals, add a piece of fruit. Canned soup. Add a half sandwich if feeling ambitious, or just lots of soup. Or soup and a fruit. Or just toast.

Cold things. Popsicles. Pickles. Cold soup. Just cheese and crackers with whatever.

Mark bittmans 101 summer salads might have a lot of jumping off points for conversions to sandwiches. Maybe give your kids a different set of sandwich stuff Every Night and talk about the flavor pairs?
posted by bilabial at 3:09 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

This may be an answer with limited utility, but I was having a similar funk recently and then my bestie got us an Instapot for a housewarming present. The combo of new gadget to play with plus the fact that it's set and forget has really been helping.

Nights we don't IP, it's been a lot of the things other people are mentioning. Eat as many sandwiches as people can stand (we did avocado and goat cheese toast a couple weeks ago for dinner and I sweartogod, it was one of the best things we've eaten this summer). Sheetpan dinners under the broiler - it heats up the kitchen, but not nearly as long as the oven, and you can set the small people on the chopping and putting stuff on pans and just have to handle the broiler part. Eat breakfast for dinner a couple days a week.

Also, if you don't meal plan by the week (and you probably do), give it a go. It means I'm making decisions once a week instead of doing the "what do you want to eat?" "I don't know, what do you want to eat?" game every night.

(It's not just you. It's summer, school's starting, it's still hot and muggy as Satan's balls out, and laundry and dinner and everything still need to keep getting done. Bleh.)
posted by joycehealy at 4:56 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I sometimes fixate on an “accent” flavor (olives, hazelnut, pine nuts, lemon, cardamom, what have you) and then look up recipes and build a dish around that. More interesting than starting with chicken or fish or rice or whatever else is boring you to death.
posted by Ollie at 4:58 AM on August 18, 2018

Maybe some novelty meals would be fun at this point, like where everything is one color or things are made to look like other things (hamburger cake, for example). I have a cookbook that is sort of on this theme and I’ll lend it by mail if you’re interested.

Maybe a new pan or appliance would get you going, like a meat grinder for making your own sausages or a sous vide setup.

Historical recipes could be fun, like the things people made to get around meat rationing in WWII or ingredient scarcity (acorn coffee is the only thing that comes immediately to mind, not that it helps with dinner, but there must be things).
posted by lakeroon at 5:08 AM on August 18, 2018

When my cooking mojo wanes, it only tends to wax again after I’ve given myself a break from cooking as much as I usually do. For me, that translates into simply cooking fewer meals. Can you direct some money/other people to this issue, so as to temporarily reduce your “weekly dinners cooked for small people” figure from five to four, or even three? Maybe a spouse, grandparent, neighbor, friend, sibling, babysitter, etc. takes on a weekly dinner during these low-inspiration periods, and, when it feels appropriate to do so, you offer to pay that person or reciprocate in kind when your mojo is back? And/or, you temporarily bump up the takeout from 2 to 3 nights per week?
posted by cheapskatebay at 5:14 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I tend towards this at times; largely because I'm a single eater and I have trouble finishing up everything from the CSA box every week, and thinking that I have to come up with something new and fabulous to use everything each week just seems intimidating.

What's helped me for a lot of things is - batch-preparing a couple salads and/or soups that just live in the fridge until they're all eaten. If you make big enough batches, you only have to cook once a week; then, lunch and dinner is basically sorted for the week. All you need to do is open the fridge, pick what you want, and serve yourself some. Maybe some raw vegetables on the side, or a sandwich, or use those as a side for roast chicken parts. Batch cooking the produce makes it last a little longer than the produce just sitting in your fridge too.

I know I recommend this cookbook every other AskMe, but Moosewood's Daily Special book is nothing but soups and salads - some of them main-dish salads, some more simple side-dish salads - and a lot of them are meant to be combined with other soups or salads from the book in a sort of mix-and-match combo plate. Also, a lot of the recipes are very flexible in terms of improvisation - it's easy to swap one kind of dried bean for another in a bean salad, or leave out one particular vegetable in a grain-studded-with-veg salad. I'm going to be improvising a salad today, based on a black bean salad - I'm getting corn on the cob and cherry tomatoes today, I have a bell pepper from last week's CSA, and I have some dried beans, so that's becoming a big salad today that should last a few days' worth of brown-bag lunches, and maybe adding some cooked chicken for a dinner. Or use it as a taco additive.

And actually that's another idea - do a couple of "make your own" things. Get a couple of those pre-made pizza crusts where you top them and bake them, and get a pack of shredded cheese, some sauce, and some various topping options, and everyone gets to "make their own pizza" for dinner. (Or get some raw pizza dough, divide it among the group of you and everyone tops their own pizza.) Get some taco shells or tortillas, throw some pork shoulder in the slow cooker for carnitas, cook up some beans and then get lettuce, shredded cheese, packaged guacamole and sour cream and salsa and do a "make your own burrito" night. Get a bunch of different cold cuts and cheeses, lettuce and tomato, and do a "make your own sandwich" night. (Any one of those can be rounded out with a side salad, too.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:24 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Breakfast for dinner, from now until September. Seriously: Everybody in pajamas. A big Dutch Baby, cut up fruit, smoothies and juices, quick eggs, bagels/waffles from the freezer. Buy a bunch of those single-serving cereals and let the kids pick.

A couple of weeks of this won't hurt anybody. I say this as someone whose dinner standards are going to have to be excavated from a deep pit one of these days...
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:52 AM on August 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

Typically when I get in a cooking rut I do one of two things.

1. Have a dalliance with convenience or comfort foods
2. Look at what I made last year around this time

I write my weekly menu in a spiral notebook every week because it helps me make a grocery list but it has the added benefit of allowing me to look back at last summer and find a recipe that I made then that I completely forgot about this year (easy gazpacho! who knew?). I definitely recommend this practice if you are cooking pretty much on the daily and you're cooking for multiple people and using leftovers.

At the same time I know that doesn't help you right now so that's why there is the first option. Use convenience foods and comfort foods to tide you over until you are sick of them and want to cook again. In my experience this takes about a week or two. Grilled cheese, breakfast for dinner, hot dogs with fancy toppings, fishamajigs, chicken nuggets and salad, diy pizza with storebought dough. Typically these things tend to be higher in salt than my normal cooking so by the time I have had a week or so I'm hankering for some real food.
posted by donut_princess at 5:55 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

This would be “keep it simple” time for me. BBQed stuff or roasts + salads, with the odd night of fish & chips (from frozen).
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:41 AM on August 18, 2018

I play disco music when I need to perform a task that I have no mojo for. It never fails to help.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 7:11 AM on August 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

A few years ago I bought the cookbook “dinner: the playbook” by Jenny Rosenstrach after reading an interview with the author. The book presents a 30 day plan to get family cooking in order. Basically, you commit to cooking a new recipe for very night for a month. (Note: we decided to cook 20 new recipes over a month, so less strict). Everyone in the family helps decide on the meals, and you shop/ cook as a family as much as possible. We also decided to rank each meal, for extra fun.

My kids got surprisingly into it, and even my husband announced he always wanted to make mole chicken. We got some new dishes, and had some throw-this-out and eat peanut butter days, but it really helped.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:45 AM on August 18, 2018

Along the lines of joycehealy's Instant Pot suggestion -- do you already have an induction hob? We recently got this induction plate. It preheats much faster and generates much less heat than the gas stove. It lets me fry an egg in five minutes instead of fifteen.
posted by dum spiro spero at 7:50 AM on August 18, 2018

More fun in the kitchen. Are there foods you love? Trader Joes has tasty appetizers, make a meal of samosas, cocktail hot dogs, fancy flatbreads.
Make meals entertaining with Bars: Taco bar with taco shells, lettuce, cheese, salsa, refried beans, black beans, shredded cabbage, sour cream, etc. Potato Salad bar with cooked potatoes, mayo, sweet vinaigrette, sweet and dill pickles, olives, bacon, ham, hard-boiled eggs, feta, Greek olives, cukes. Pasta bar with pesto, peanut sauce, garlic-butter-bread crumbs. Salad bar - go nuts.
Make meals entertaining by making food network-style cooking videos of the kids prepping dinner. Or they can film you.
Break the rules. I have an occasional dinner of corn chips and really good salsa. Strawberry shortcake for dinner. Gazpacho, bread and ice cream for dinner

Or do your own reward system and give yourself stars leading to a reward of a particularly excellent takeout splurge.
posted by theora55 at 9:25 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Cheese board!

I also love to cook and like using Home Chef meal delivery service to shake up my repertoire every once in awhile.
posted by kiwi-epitome at 10:59 AM on August 18, 2018

When my kids were small, my (much younger) roommate suggested that we dump the CSA and just cook whatever we had the energy for, which turned out to be a rotation of Thai-style curries (made with frozen veg mix, canned coconut cream and curry paste from a jar), risotto, pasta puttanesca, black lentil stew or dal, take-away, and then couscous with a big stew and some salad for weekends, because we always had people over. Just the same deal every week. All the everyday dishes took max 20 mins to get on the table. The weekend couscous could be simple or elaborate depending on budget and time. No one ever complained until the kids were much older, and then my mojo was back again. I'd say that both the kids and our friends liked the repetition, it gave them a sense of security in a difficult world.
The point is probably not so much the actual menu, which suited us, but the lack of innovation or inspiration. It was just food, but always good food.
posted by mumimor at 11:47 AM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I feel you. I've been cooking for my lovely family for 25 years and sometimes I want to say "to Hell with this - you figure it out!" And I love cooking.

If the ample oddlot veggies are part of the problem - and I know that they are for me this time of year - maybe take a whack at making quick or Asian pickles. These can then be thrown into salads or be stoveless side dish items.

Good luck.
posted by Glomar response at 12:13 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've been cooking for my lovely family for 25 years and sometimes I want to say "to Hell with this - you figure it out!"

As someone who didn't really learn to cook until he was around 30 years old, not a week goes by that I didn't wish my mom had said something like this.
posted by rhizome at 12:28 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

We get out of hating cooking by doing cold meals (not sure if heating food is what annoys you but it is for us.) We get a nice loaf of bread from the store, or have pita or crackers, and then some combo of cheese, cold cuts, leftovers, hard boiled eggs, nuts, and cut fruit and veggies. It works well with the “I have one serving of 5 different veggies” problem we always end up with with farm shares or the night before grocery shopping, too, because they will all look lovely together on one big serving plate.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:06 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Order Blue Apron or other competing services that deliver all the meal ingredients to your doorstep weekly. Get 2-3 meals/week. Cook what the box tells you to cook. Cancel when you get bored.
posted by crazycanuck at 1:37 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Came here to suggest a kit dinner delivery service, too. We have been using Green Chef and getting the Vegetarian meals 3x per week. A bit pricier than truly homemade, so think of it as replacing one night of takeout and maybe the cost washes out. The recipes are simple, but still interesting and with one or two exceptions, everything has been delicious and wholesome.
posted by notyou at 4:15 PM on August 18, 2018

dude this is what scrambled eggs are for. cut up some nice summer fruit or throw down a handful of cherry tomatoes alongside. Still hungry? There's bananas you can smear some peanut butter on. I know you didn't ask for recipes, what I'm suggesting is a mindset shift. It's August! Ain't nobody cooking.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:39 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've never liked cooking and last year hit a breaking point with it. I negotiated with my spouse to trade chores. I don't cook dinner anymore. Don't know if that's possible for you, but I hope you find a way to trade or share some of it with your spouse so it's not all on you when you're sick of it.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:32 PM on August 22, 2018

So, through a combination of various things I'm feeling a BIT more cookish -- having kids make themselves sandwiches, serving make-your-own bar dinners (baked potatoes, tacos), serving "light supper" (cheese, crackers, salami, fruit platter), making boring things. We've also decided on some theme cooking to get back in the swing.

The one continuing difficulty is that my one son is a ravenous pre-teen and my other apparently has a black hole in place of his stomach, so when I try to make lighter meals with less cooking/stove time, they both complain they're staaaaaaaarving for hours. But, it's starting to cool off a bit and now that they're back at school and I can hear myself thing, I'm starting to feel a bit more like cooking and making menus and thinking.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:53 AM on August 29, 2018

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