“Do you love to cook?” When presented with this question in the past, I would always answer with some form of enthusiasm (“Of course!”) or quip in the affirmative (“Duh”), depending on my penchant for sarcasm at the moment. But recently, the question has given me pause — and I’m not alone. “I’ve based a substantial part of my life and personality on the answer to that question being yes,” cookbook author Ella Risbridger told me over a Zoom call. “But no, don’t make me cook.” Washington Post readers have shared similar sentiments, expressing being in a rut, lacking inspiration and missing their mojo in the kitchen despite once loving it.
Part of it is because people have been forced into the kitchen more than normal these past couple of years. “When you say to someone you have to do anything, it becomes less fun,” Risbridger says. On top of that, society is undergoing a mental health crisis caused by all of the anxiety-producing events we are enduring, such as global health emergencies, inflation and economic uncertainty, racial injustice and the battle for bodily autonomy, just to name a few.
For baker and licensed therapist Jack Hazan, finishing his upcoming cookbook, “Mind Over Batter,” caused a recent bout of burnout. “It was caused by pressure, by uncertainty, by monotony and by feeling insecure in what I was doing,” he says.
If any of those feelings are familiar, here are some strategies for rekindling your love with the kitchen.
Change your approach
“For me, baking is a relationship, and I almost had a breakup,” Hazan says. “Desire in long-term relationships doesn’t just fall from the sky, right? You have to reinvent yourself and try new things.” One way he did that was by buying new baking tools. If you’re on a budget, maybe hold off on purchasing a stand mixer, but instead look for fun spoons and spatulas that beg to be put to use.
Or perhaps it’s decision fatigue that has worn you down. The Eat Voraciously newsletter tells you what to eat for dinner four nights a week, along with ideas for substitutions based on your preferences and what you have in your pantry. Cookbook roulette — where you grab a cookbook from your shelf, open to a random page and cook whatever dish is in front of you (feel free to go back or forth one page for some flexibility) — is an easy way to leave dinner to the winds of fate. And if you want the added bonus of not having to grocery shop, meal kit delivery services are a great option to consider.
Find new sources of inspiration
“When you are in a rut, it is really important to find new inspiration, find new ideas,” Risbridger says. It’s all about looking for something that excites you. It could be completely new-to-you dishes or simply ingredients you’ve never cooked with or even seen before. “Buy cookbooks from people you don’t know,” she says, and if you don’t want to buy new cookbooks, turn to the internet or social media for free ideas. One of her favorite sources of inspiration is going to markets full of ingredients she knows nothing about. (“In my case, it tends to be the Polish supermarket.”) Then you can ask people at the shop or in your networks what to do with them, which could lead to a delicious recipe you’ve never tried before, as well as “a really nice conversation with a stranger,” she says. “Then you’ve got that spark of human connection that makes it exciting to try.”
“A really easy place to get into a rut is when you’re like, I have no one to cook for. No one will even notice if I just eat bread,” Risbridger says. Her latest cookbook, “The Year of Miracles,” was intended to be about cooking for others, but then it turned into “this book about not having any of that and trying to think of a reason to cook anyway” because of when it was written (2020).
Now that we aren’t under such strict lockdowns, invite people over for dinner — depending on your comfort level — simply as your guest or to have them prepare the meal with you. When “you have two people in a kitchen, you feel connected,” says Hazan, who offers baking therapy as a form of treatment for his patients. (Alternatively, you could do a meal exchange to practice social distancing.)
Another option is to turn to family recipes. For Hazan, he began exploring his grandmother’s recipes for Syrian pastries that he had never baked before. “When I jumped into a totally different type of thinking, it was just not only exciting, but it was something that fed my soul, because it was personal to me,” Hazan says. “I felt connected to what I was doing, which allowed the joy to come out.”
If you don’t have access to your own family recipes, ask for those of other people in your life whom you care about. “Even when I’m on my own physically, it’s a lovely way to feel connected,” Risbridger says.
Reach out to others
“Don’t go at it alone,” Hazan says. Reach out to friends or join virtual communities that can provide support, which Hazan credits for helping him overcome his baking rut. “There are so many other people going through what you’re going through. And maybe they’re not there now, but they’ve been there before.” While he acknowledges the reluctance some may feel to reach out “because they don’t want to burden people,” Hazan encourages you to do so anyway, because such hesitancy is often unfounded.
“Often, a cooking rut can feel quite isolating and quite despairing and quite like you’re stuck. And I think that lonely stuck-ness perpetuates itself,” Risbridger says. “Reaching out to people and talking to people about what excites them about food is a really nice way to shake yourself out and to get a bit of perspective and to feel like a person.”
Give it some time
“I don’t make guarantees, but I’m going to guarantee if at one point in your life, you really loved to bake or cook, and right now you don’t, give it space to come back to you, and it will,” Hazan says, citing a quote from author Anne Lamott: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
Of course, you still need to feed yourself while you wait for the joy to return — but that doesn’t mean these meals to pass the time need to be boring. “Fill your fridge with things you’re excited to eat and that could jazz up a bowl of rice,” Risbridger says. Some of her favorites include frozen dumplings (“The most treat food you can have. It’s such a little luxury, little parcels of nice”), sauerkraut, kimchi and eggs (“Egg on anything, and you’re like, oh, wow, what a meal”).
While you wait, try not to beat yourself up too much about your long-lost love of cooking. “Take the pressure off,” she says. “If you’re a person who liked cooking before, you will get an idea that sends you back into the kitchen at some point. You will see a recipe that makes you think, ‘I’ve got to make that.’”
How do you overcome a cooking rut and regain joy in the kitchen? Let us know in the comments below.