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When Meal Planning Gets Tedious, Treat Cooking Like a Game

Don’t know what’s for dinner? Let this trick help

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A home cook pauses while cutting a cucumber and preparing a meal to scroll on their phone. Freshly portioned and prepared vegetables sit on the counter in front of them. Getty Images

This post originally appeared in the February 7, 2024 edition of The Move, the weekly newsletter full of pro tips and advice from Eater’s dining experts, direct to your inbox. Subscribe now.

I can be motivated to do almost anything if I know that the promise of ticking off a box on a to-do list, or coloring a square on a habit tracker, awaits me at the end. As of this writing, I have finished my log for Dry January, which makes 31 perfectly colored-in, blue boxes. This visual display of consistency is just as validating to me as the entire exercise of rethinking my relationship to alcohol. This is to say: I like everything more if it can feel like a game.

The same goes for cooking. While I don’t currently feel the need to check any boxes just to make lunch, I find that the idea of gamification can still be useful in the kitchen — particularly, when chasing the fleeting essence that is inspiration. Every time I’ve opened up the Q and A feature on my cooking Instagram, these have been the most frequently submitted responses: What do you do when you’re not inspired to cook? How do you stay inspired to cook? Where do you look for inspiration?

To be honest, when I’m really burned out, I usually just eat chicken nuggets, or a box of Triscuits, for a meal or two. I’m also stubborn, and I know that I’d only resent cooking if I forced myself into it. I find that, with breathing room, inspiration wriggles back, even if it’s just the desire to cook and not yet the knowledge of what specifically to cook. You might say, “This is why cookbooks exist.” And I hear that, but sometimes I like to look inward for ideas to make something with what’s on hand instead of getting ingredients to fit a recipe.

Enter the idea of giving myself a cooking challenge, or put another way, making cooking more of a game. These are some of the idea-generating prompts I turn to when I’m writing out my brain-dump meal plan. They make the task of meal-planning feel like a puzzle, or like playing Connections, and sometimes, that’s the little boost I need for cooking to feel fun again.

  • Do a low-grocery month. Set limits on what you can and can’t get (for example, yes: greens, herbs, eggs, oil; no: spices, sauces, or condiments), and then force yourself to use what you already have, without the option of getting ingredients just to fulfill a craving. It’s a helpful exercise in finding simple ways to make basic food better, like turning those herbs into a lively sauce that can go on anything.
  • Make one dish repeatedly, but differently every time. Every other week or so this fall and winter, I’ve decided to prepare focaccia and a bowl of beans, with the goal of distinguishing each version from prior iterations. One time: roasted tomato-topped beans with caramelized onion focaccia; another: smokey beans with roasted squash and preserved lemon focaccia. (And if you want to get really philosophical about this challenge, read Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires.)
  • Try Too Good to Go, or another food-waste rescue program. Too Good to Go is an app that allows you to buy discounted end-of-day, or at its best-by date, food from restaurants and other stores. If grocery stores participate, as some do in New York City, treat your finds like a basket on Chopped. I wouldn’t generally buy a bagged mix of cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots myself, but if I hadn’t gotten one in a recent Too Good to Go bag, I also wouldn’t have made a really delicious Panera-esque broccoli cheese soup.
  • Or, make your own Chopped -esque selection of ingredients that you must use in a given week. This is especially helpful if you tend to collect items like spice blends, which you then forget about and don’t reach for as often as you should.
  • Consider color. “Eating the rainbow” is common advice, especially for maximizing the nutrients in your bowl. But if you, like me, already gravitate toward a variety of vegetables in your everyday cooking, play with the idea of a monochromatic meal. Maria Zizka’s monochrome-guided Cook Color can provide some ideas along this theme.
  • Consider wordplay and alliteration. That’s how the idea for paneer alla vodka came to me recently; as did bagoong na cauda, which I imagine as a riff on Italian bagna cauda but with the Filipino shrimp paste bagoong; as did the idea of serving butter beans in a butternut squash puree (as I type this, I realize it would have also been very good with a little brown butter).
  • Think like a TikTok creator and make yourself a themed series, even if it exists only in your head. That technique you already love? Apply it to something else. I’ve written about how you can adobo any vegetable. But can you Caesar it? Can you carbonara it? Can you piccata it? It’s your little game.