How do I get out of my cooking routine?

Dear COOK + SMARTS,

I’m a mom with a busy schedule and don’t have the time to meal-plan. While I do try to cook about three to five times a week, I’m stuck in a routine of always cooking the same few things over and over again. What can I do to introduce some variety into my cooking?

We hear this question all the time and know that it’s a challenge that not only plagues busy moms, but just about everyone. Our answer is be consistent without being routine. What do we mean by that? Well, we believe that one way to stick to doing something is consistency. Be consistent about your grocery store routine. Do it the same day every week . Once you get to the store, be consistent about what you put in your cart week-to-week. We know you’re busy and this just makes the process much more efficient – we’re not going to tell you to go to your standard grocery store, then the ethnic grocery store, and buy 5 new spices every week. It’s just not manageable, and you’ll never stick with it. While produce does change between seasons, within a season, your choices don’t need to be that different. Maybe 2 to 3 things vary between trips – this week you’re gonna eat fish twice vs. both chicken and fish last week – but keep it simple and consistent. However, consistent doesn’t need to be routine as we illustrate below:

One base turned into five meals | Cook Smarts by Jess Dang

We took one of our favorite ingredient combinations: swiss chard, canned cannellini beans, and onions and used that as a base for five different meals:

  1. Top left: + mushrooms & chicken stock = Hearty Winter Soup
  2. Top right: + tortillas & sausage / soyrizo = Healthier Than Your Taqueria’s Tacos
  3. Bottom right: + pasta & cheese = Swiss Chard Pasta Bake
  4. Bottom left: + fish / chicken = Fancy Restaurant Entree
  5. Middle: + quinoa & pine nuts = Quick Quinoa Bowl

By adding a few ingredients, many of which are just plain pantry essentials, we could purchase these same ingredients every week and not feel like we were cooking and eating the same thing over and over again. If you’re cooking for one, 1 bunch of chard, 1 can of beans, and 1 onion is probably enough to get you through 3 of these meals in one week, so you don’t have to feel like you’re eating the same leftovers everyday. If you’re cooking for a family, it would probably only last one meal, but then the following week, you can try a new meal but with the same base ingredients.

Homework: Think of some of your favorite ingredient combinations – these will be your bases – and then think of varying meals you could make with them. We even give you this nifty template to use (we are Power Pointing nerds). And if you need some ideas, post a comment, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

One base turned into five meals | Cook Smarts by Jess Dang

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