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Feel like you’re living in a pandemic dinner prep scene in Groundhog Day? Here are a few creative ways to recharge your culinary battery and feel inspired in the kitchen again.

By Betty Gold
February 24, 2021
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Remember the way your heart used to flutter as you showered your countertop with flour, preparing to knead sourdough bread dough you made from starter you'd been parenting for weeks? Or how it felt to come home—metaphorically speaking, because you never left—to a kitchen that smelled like fresh-baked banana bread? Served alongside a whipped Dalgona coffee or don't even bother.

While we'd like to forget most everything that happened in the early days of the pandemic—when face masks were discouraged, social distancing was novel, and toilet paper was MIA—we really wouldn't mind revisiting the enthusiastic motivation we felt in the kitchen. Cook every meal at home using just pantry staples? How fun!

Yeah, I think sometime around June that How fun! attitude really took a nosedive. Summer was hot, exhausting, and the last thing anyone wanted to do was stand it a humid kitchen for hours painstakingly rolling out homemade pasta noodles or baking cinnamon buns. Here at Real Simple, we saw a surge in our readers' interest in healthy frozen meals, baking mixes that come from a box, returning to restaurants, and how long you can keep leftovers until they're borderline unsafe to eat. Understandably, the cooking malaise persisted through the taxing "back to school" season and the holidays. (I get it—roasting a full-size turkey and baking three pies for four people is sufficiently ridic.)

Indeed, as we quickly approach one year of living in a worldwide pandemic, Americans are feeling less inspired than ever to forge ahead with their ambitious culinary exploits of last spring. Heck, many are ordering pizza several nights a week and living off frozen food from Trader Joe's.

But before you decide to subside solely on packaged ramen noodles for the rest of your restaurant-free days, we're here to kindly reacquaint you with the pleasures of cooking. Hopefully a few of these little fire-starters will help you feel inspired to revisit the kitchen without a long, forlorn staring contest with the interior of your refrigerator. It'll be fun, I promise.

Pinterest Predicts 2021 Trend Forecast: Epic Charcuterie Boards and more trends for next year
Credit: Getty Images

1
Make an Epic Charcuterie (or Whatever) Board

Who says a meal has to be composed of a neat little piece of protein, a starchy side, and a serving of veg? Certainly not us. After all, when it comes to entertaining, interactive eating experiences, there are few ways to serve better than on a grazing board. Epic charcuterie boards were one of Pinterest’s top projected food trends for 2021 for a reason—they’re low-lift and endlessly customizable. Go traditional with a few of your favorite cheeses and/or meats, fresh fruit, crusty bread, and pickled veggies; give your grazing board the bagel treatment (think lox, thin-sliced cucumbers, cream cheese, capers); or host a family tapas night with fried patatas bravas, olives, pan con tomate with manchego cheese, and seared shrimp skewers.

Because if there’s one thing we learned this year, it’s that there are no rules in what constitutes a delicious dinner—and preheating the oven is by no means required.

Mise en Place

2
Explore Global Cuisines With a Virtual Cooking Class

Not being able to travel is a huge bummer. An activity that is guaranteed to quell a bit of your wanderlust, however, is signing up for a cooking class focused on the culinary traditions of another nationality. Transport yourself to Tuscany, Tokyo, Mexico City, or Marrakesh (by way of your couch) as chefs from around the world share their own culture’s food preparation techniques and traditions over video. A Virtual Croissant Workshop or Dumpling 101 course at the Institute of Culinary Education? The Rise of Black Food in America with Marcus Samuelsson, or British Baking: High Tea at Sur la Table? We’re so in. These near-endless offerings are sure to leave you inspired, educated, and an expert in the art of homemade sushi or fancy pastries.

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Credit: Getty Images

3
Have Yourself a Little “Cooking Cocktail”

Let’s be honest: The joy of cooking is made sacred when you have a drink in hand. Uncork a bottle of wine, mix up an Old Fashioned, or brew yourself a mug of hot tea to keep you company as you prep dinner. (A teensy cheese plate won’t hurt, either.) It helps set the tone that this is relaxation time, versus feeling like it’s just another frantic errand hour.

Homemade nachos recipes - Sheet Pan Sweet Potato Nachos
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

4
Grab Your Sheet Pan

If you’re in need of a fuss-free weeknight meal your whole family will love, sheet pan dinners are where it’s at. They’re easy to prepare, flavorful, and cleanup is a breeze (just one dish!). The basic premise is simple: Combine protein and veggies on a baking sheet and roast in a hot oven until the protein is cooked through and the veggies are tender. Chicken sheet pan dinners are always a hit—hearty vegetables like sweet potatoes and broccoli are a perfect pair for crispy, juicy chicken thighs—but you can easily swap the poultry out for salmon, shrimp, pizza, veggies, or (seriously) pancakes or desserts. Drink wine and watch Netflix while everything roasts. Add a flavorful sauce, fresh herbs, and/or a squeeze of citrus for a quick and easy finishing touch—and you’re done. Seriously, when the hardest part is preheating the oven, you know you're in good shape.

best-new-cookbooks
Credit: amazon.com

5
Buy a New Cookbook—or Follow Food Accounts on Social Media

Our eyes eat first, and there are few things more likely to inspire you to sprint to the kitchen than a decadent, delicious-looking picture of pasta carbonara or a vibrant plate of nachos piled with fresh guacamole. Pick your poison: Try flipping through a new cookbook (find a few of our recent faves here) for recipe inspiration, or go the social media route and follow brands and bloggers whose recipes appeal to you (@real_simple is a definite win, but @halfbakedharvest, @food52, and @smittenkitchen are all guaranteed to revive your culinary creative juices, too). 

kitchen tool you need: cutting board and chef's knife
Credit: Getty Images

6
Sharpen Your Knives

Think of your go-to knife as your own personal sous chef in the kitchen. Whether you’re dicing a potato, mincing parsley, or breaking down a whole chicken, your 8-inch chef’s knife is going to be there for you. My point? A dull knife will make your prep work significantly harder and is actually unsafe to use. Using a sharp knife is guaranteed to spark joy in the kitchen, save you tons of time, and actually make you a better cook. (Dinner fatigue, solved.) Find how to sharpen yours here.

Green Shakshuka / Skillet Eggs in Enchilada Sauce
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

7
Make Friends With Fresh Herbs and Simple Sauces

When burnout sets it, it’s vital to track down a few lazy ways to add a bunch of flavor to easy to make dishes. Enter fresh herbs, spices, and the bottled sauce section at Trader Joe’s (or wherever). Adding a handful of fresh sage or rosemary to roasted chicken will give it new life; stir-frying tofu with a spoonful of gochujang adds sweet, spicy vibrance. Give baked salmon and potatoes a quick harissa paste glaze, or add a hit of black garlic seasoning to your next avocado toast or (better yet) sheet pan dinner.

how to make french toast

8
Make Breakfast for Dinner

Few things in pandemic life will make you feel more alive—and rebellious—than eating huevos rancheros or blueberry french toast with crispy potatoes for dinner. Breakfast is the best meal of the day, after all—why limit yourself to making it a morning meal? Check out our favorite breakfast for dinner recipes here (nutty waffles, gooey cheese omelettes, and steak and eggs with seasoned, seared tomatoes included).