We’ve all been there – it’s time to plan your meals for the week and get a shopping list together, but the inspiration is lacking. (When you’re preoccupied by say, a global pandemic, it can be extra hard to get creative.) There are those reliable recipes you can make over and over that never fail, but they can get old if you have them too often.
Even celebrity chefs and food presenters experience the rut. Former Masterchef contestant Sara Oteri loves experimenting in the kitchen, but figuring out what’s for dinner is a universal problem.
“Writers have writer’s block and cooks can have cook’s block, too,” she tells Broadsheet. “But the easiest way to be creative [with your meals] is to take it step-by-step.
Here are her tips for keeping dinner fun and fresh, every step of the way (and if all else fails, there’s a back-up plan that beats lackluster fast food).
Ditch the strict shopping list
“When we shop, I always buy fruit and produce with no recipe in mind necessarily. I’ll just buy whatever’s there and when I come home, that’s when I’ll go through the process of brainstorming,” Oteri says. “I’ll think, ‘I have a pumpkin, what can I do with it this week that I haven’t before?’.”
It’s also a good way to reduce food waste: some recipes call for buying specialty ingredients that might be difficult to find another use for, so this lets you rack your brain and pantry to come up with dishes.
“I find that it’s good to have a big shop, get a heap of ingredients, and it’s a little bit of a Mystery Box game when you get home,” she says.
Pinterest is your friend
If you’re truly stuck for ideas, Oteri recommends scouring the internet for inspiration. “If you see an ingredient you’ve never worked with before but it looks good or you’re interested, just get it. You can always Google something to do with it.”
One good way to narrow it down is by cuisine. What flavours would go well with your chosen ingredients?
“Look at that ingredient, put your cuisine hate on, and ask how you can turn this can of beans or cauliflower into an Italian dish, or a Mexican dish, or an African dish,” she says. “Just go on to Pinterest or Google and type in, ‘African cauliflower dish’. You’ll be amazed, there’s honestly a dish for everything.”
When life gets too hectic for Oteri, she turns to takeaway just like the rest of us. And since she and her husband are both on a plant-based diet, she favours restaurants or services with a wide range of dishes available, such as Pomelo Online, from the team behind New York-inspired cafe Bowery Lane. Its website sorts ready-made meals by category, so you can quickly search for meat or seafood-based mains; veggo or vegan alternatives; pizza and pasta; gluten- and dairy-free options; and more. There are also chef’s specials (such a slow-cooked lamb shanks) featured on the homepage for the indecisive.
“I know a lot of food delivery companies don’t have that option. I do like that they’re home-cooked, meal-style food,” she says. “Ordering in is an opportunity to have something I wouldn’t have the time to cook.”
…And use it as meal prep, too
If she’s expecting an especially crazy week ahead, Oteri orders larger portions to have for leftovers the next day.
They don’t even need to be leftovers that you’ve already half-eaten – add on another dish just to eat some other time. Leave it in the fridge to have in the next few days, or chuck it in the freezer for future dinner-rut emergencies.
“I know some people might buy lasagnas with no intention of [making it themselves]. Lasagnas can be a labour-intensive process that most of us don’t have time to do, especially if you’ve got kids, so I know some people order those and the whole purpose is to freeze it so when they’re stuck, they have a meal ready to go waiting,” she says. Pomelo Online’s meals arrive frozen; the process of snap-freezing right after cooking means the flavour, nutrients and freshness are locked in, so once reheated everything tastes as good as it did when it was first cooked.
“It’s a good way to use food delivery services in a way that fits into your life,” Oteri says.
Jazz up your usuals
If the thought of trying a brand new dish or recipe is too daunting, even just changing up what’s already in your repertoire or weekly rotation can be a good way of adding variety.
For Oteri, it’s a soup – no matter the weather, she’s always cooking up a batch. It’s just a matter of tweaking each one to keep it different each time.
“I’m not someone who follows a recipe and so I’m always using a base dish, and constantly switching out or changing up the vegetables or ingredients based on what’s seasonal and what’s in the fridge,” she says.
“My suggestion would be to take those base recipes and change them up. If you always cook a lamb roast, next time why not add some anchovies? It’s a great way to make lamb fabulous. Or if you’re always preparing it with carrots, why don’t you try parsnips instead? Just swap out little bits here and there, maybe change the sauce. Slowly you can turn dishes you probably have weekly into completely new dishes,” she says.
Plan meals according to freshness
Once you’ve figured out what to make, it’s just a matter of slotting them into your nights. To further prevent food waste, try to schedule meals with perishable items sooner, while those with hardier ingredients can wait until the end of the week.
“If there’s a pasta dish that uses beans and pumpkins, I know those things all last well so I don’t need to eat that until the end of the week,” Oteri says. Her Saturdays are dedicated to cleaning, drying, wrapping and taking care of her produce so they last longer. (She also has videos on her Instagram showing the process.)
“Just spending the time to meal plan means you don’t get brain fog when Wednesday rolls around and you don’t know what to cook – you’ve spent the time, just that half hour, putting a plan together,” she says.
This article was produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Pomelo Online.