April 13, 2023

Six Places to Find Inspiration When You Don’t Know WTF to Eat for Dinner

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Food ennui is real. Some nights I’ll find myself starving, but not inspired by anything in my pantry. I’ll spend an hour surfing Grubhub until every place is closed, and end up eating popcorn for dinner. Not ideal, but there are some ways around it. For whatever reason you’re experiencing the culinary blahs, here are six ways you can beat the “nothing sounds good” blues.

The New York Times “What to Cook This Week” newsletter

There are an incalculable number of recipe websites on the internet, but very few I consider rock-solid reliable. The New York Times is one of them. Once a week, they send out a newsletter called “What to Cook This Week” with very little diatribe. I have been surprised how often I actually want to cook what’s in the newsletter, at least enough to consider it a jumping off point.

While the site remains behind a subscription wall, you can call the subscription line to get it for cheap. It’s $1.25 a week just for the recipe section, there are often deals, and you don’t need a subscription to get the newsletter.

When in doubt, trust Martha

It’s 2023, we are in a post Martha Stewart defense posture, and there’s good reason. She just knows shit. If you’re looking for a greater breadth of suggestions, then pop over to her dinner recipes and peruse. You can break out by season, by how many you’re serving (just you, two people, a family, a party), how healthy you want it to be, etc. Her recipes are well documented, there’s often video, but most important, they help me narrow down what I want.

Sometimes I know enough to decide I feel like roasting something. Or that I’d like to do something with garbanzo beans. Martha’s site will help you narrow down the possibilities in that range enough to inspire you.

Check the Boob Tube

When my lack of food cravings was at its worst, TV saved me. Watching cooking shows made me want to cook again. I’m talking about the real cooking shows, not competitions where 20 sweating hopefuls try to cook hors d’oeuvres for 200 in the aisles of a Target, or while on a ferris wheel.

I immersed myself in the stories and recipes of Vivian Howard in her “Somewhere South” series and began making dumplings from all over the world. I toured Italy with Stanley Tucci and damnit, pasta began to appeal again. French Food at Home inspired me to temper winter with thoughtful baking and cassoulets. Watching Matty Matheson cook almost anything makes me want the thing he just made. I said what I said.

On some small level, Nailed It made me so angry I found myself making desserts just to prove to myself the contestants were just incredibly bad bakers. Point is, get it where you can.

Get a Real Cookbook

Don’t look on the internet, don’t borrow it on Libby; go buy or borrow a real cookbook and sit down and thumb through it. Some of the most inspiring cookbooks have been released in the last few years, full of stunning photos and incredible flavor profiles that are likely to induce you to want food.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is as good as everyone says; Samin Nosrat is delightful and the book will inspire you. Everyone’s Table by Gregory Gourdet introduced me to brand spanking new flavors and dishes, and I cooked almost every single recipe. Vivian Howard’s This Will Make it Taste Good was just the jumping off point I needed. Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen really shocked me with how much, it turned out, I wanted soup.

Let AI do the work

Eventually, I had a really well stocked pantry and freezer, and knew enough that it was time to just start shopping in my own house. Even when you’re not well stocked, you can take whatever you have in your house and just plug it in to a bunch of different sites, and they’ll spit out something you can make with it.

This is helpful, because I’ve often said that if someone dropped food at my door, it wouldn’t matter what it was, I’d still have eaten it, happily, because I didn’t need to think about it. Didn’t matter if I was craving it or not. These websites essentially do that for you.

Effin Reddit

Look, I don’t question the mysteries of the universe, I just write about them. Do I trust a bunch of strangers to crowdsource what I should eat? Ha. Does it work anyways? More than I’d like to admit.

The answers, I’ve reluctantly discovered, to most of life’s questions, like what driver your TV needs to work, how to make a recipe from a restaurant that closed its one location 13 years ago, and yes, what to have for dinner, are almost always going to end at Reddit. Tonight’s Dinner is a good place to start.

I’m not saying I’ve fully recovered from food ennui. There are still nights I find myself surfing delivery services, trying desperately to find something I want to eat, and there are just far too many nights I get subpar Chinese takeout and fall asleep in a salt and MSG induced haze. (There are worse ways to go.)

But I’ve definitely noticed that seeking out these inspirational sources will put meals on my radar. It brought me to my current obsession with radicchio salads, and there’s a gochujang pasta recipe from the Times I’m absolutely making this week. Sometimes you don’t need a full recipe, but a little inspiration. Even if you don’t like what you cook, you’ll learn a little. (You may learn you hate an ingredient, recipe, or chef, but knowing what you hate is helpful.)

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