Burned Out: How to grocery shop when you're sick of cooking

Give yourself a break, embrace shortcuts, (and maybe take a chapter or two from “The Snack Plate Gospel")

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published September 12, 2020 5:30PM (EDT)

A woman wearing blue latex gloves and pushing a shopping cart during the COVID-19 quarantine (Getty Images)
A woman wearing blue latex gloves and pushing a shopping cart during the COVID-19 quarantine (Getty Images)

"Burned Out" is a four-part series of people who love food, but are tired of cooking. This is the first installment.

I used to only experience what I would classify as "culinary burnout" every couple of months. You probably know the feeling — you stare into your pantry or refrigerator, assessing the contents, and even just the thought of pulling out items and trying to assemble them into something that resembles a meal is exhausting. I know myself, and this typically happens after I've poured a lot of concerted energy into meal-planning without a break, likely punctuated by a multistep project recipe (like trying my hand at —poorly — folding soup dumplings or finally getting a handle on babka). 

It's a cycle of sorts that kind of reminds me of being on a roller coaster. The climb is testing out new recipes, you reach a peak, and then things suddenly tip and you descend (i.e. throw your hands up and call for delivery). Reaching the ground is typically kind of a relief; it's natural to need the kind of reprieve that only a large sausage, onion and pepper pizza can provide. No one wants to stay at the top of the rollercoaster, after all, and I knew I'd bounce back. 

But these past few months, I haven't — or at least not as quickly. Weighed down by anxiety surrounding the global pandemic, and restricted by restaurant closures and infrequent grocery trips, time and meals began to blur together into what essentially amounted to an endless, flavorless bowl of noodles.

I spent some time and effort easing out of that cooking rut, and wrote down what worked along the way. The result is "Burned Out," a series for people who love food, but are tired of cooking. For the next four weeks, we'll talk about how to make the most of meals when you're feeling fatigued — starting this week with some tips for grocery shopping: 

Clean out your fridge before you shop

Listen, it's hard to get excited about spending time in your kitchen if your refrigerator has become a graveyard for wilted vegetables and Tupperwares of who knows what. This isn't the most fun piece of advice, but seriously — take a half hour to assess what's actually in your fridge, toss whatever needs to go and wipe down the shelves and drawers. You want to actually be able to see the new food you bring into your home without having to move a mountain of styrofoam takeout containers!

Buy with snack plates in mind

Several times over the past few weeks, I've joked with friends that if I were to write a cookbook based on what I've made most during the pandemic, it'd have to be called "The Snack Plate Gospel." When I'm in a place where just looking at my stove feels like too much work, I'm keen on dishes that are more about assembly than actual cooking. One of the easiest, but most versatile, is the snack plate. 

However, despite the name, you want whatever you put together on your plate to feel like — in the words of Lizzo — a whole damn meal. So when you're shopping, you're going to want to pick up an item or two from each of these categories

  • Easy protein: Raid the deli counter for some mortadella, prosciutto or thick-sliced turkey. Grab a rotisserie chicken, good tinned fish or some smoked tofu — and don't forget about vegetarian-friendly options like canned chickpeas, hard-boiled eggs or edamame. All of these options are just a step or two away from being ready to add to your meal.
  • Vegetables that don't require too much prep: When I'm tired of cooking, prepping vegetables can feel like one of the biggest time- and energy-sucks (and thus barriers to getting some green stuff on my plate). Don't let that be the case here. Choose some options that require just a quick slice or blanch. Cucumbers, radishes, bell peppers, carrots, fennel wedges, snap peas, endive leaves and asparagus are all great options. Don't forget to season your vegetables — a little salt, drizzle of olive oil and splash of citrus or apple cider vinegar go a long way.
  • Add a starch: Crusty bread, tortillas, pita, corn chips, roti, crostini or Ritz crackers— whether you prefer something soft or a little crunch, you want to add a starchy carb to your plate that you can use to pile toppings on or swish through dips (more on those in a minute). Pro tip: While I try to stay away from using my oven when I'm experiencing culinary fatigue, I'll make an exception to toast up bread or warm tortillas. 
  • Take a trip to Flavortown: Make Guy Fieri proud and steer your cart towards items that can add some oomph to your snack plate: cheeses, mixed nuts, dried or fresh fruit, sliced avocado, olives, pickle spears, roasted red peppers or marinated mushrooms.
  • Think outside the box: Putting together this snack plate isn't about creating a bespoke mezze platter to impress friends or Instagram (but please do share your creations with us at #BurnedOutWithSalon). It's an exercise in playing around with what flavors and foods excite you. Want to sub in mozzarella sticks for the cheese portion typically found on charcuterie boards? Do it — I have and recommend it. Have you been craving scallion pancakes? Great, make that the starch portion of the plate and add a steamed dumpling or two while you're at it. 

Don't forget ingredients for dips and toasts 

Also in the realm of assembly "cooking," I've been leaning heavily on dips and toasts as a way to break out of my culinary rut. They're the best kinds of dishes, in the sense that they are always greater than the sum of their parts (plus, they make ideal additions to the aforementioned snack plates). 

For dips, you don't have to get fancy. Just throw a few ingredients together for a quick pulse in the blender, and you're set. The best dips are the ones that hit a few different notes, though. Try picking an item from each category below and blend them together: 

  • Creamy: Whole-fat yogurt, labneh, sour cream, cream cheese, ricotta, pulsed chickpeas or cannellini beans, avocado, mayonnaise, nut butter, or tahini
  • Bright: Lemon zest, lime juice, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, or hot sauce 
  • Briny: Minced olives, an anchovy, soy sauce, white miso paste, roasted red peppers, or sprinkle of salt.
  • Herby: Anchovies, caramelized shallots, dill, scallions, cilantro, roasted garlic, or parsley. 

Some flavor combinations are pretty natural fits, like:

  • Satay-inspired dip with peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce and roasted garlic
  • Citrusy herb dip with labneh, lemon zest, salt and dill
  • Creamy roasted red pepper dip with ricotta, a splash of red wine vinegar, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic
  • Caramelized shallot dip with sour cream, apple cider vinegar, caramelized shallots and parsley.

But feel free to experiment. 

And while dips are an obvious cornerstone of the snack plate, they also make fantastic spread for toasts. This is an opportunity to go above just straight avocado toast (though there's nothing wrong with it). Mix and match from some of the categories in the snack plate how-to section, and start piling toppings on slices of hearty bread. 

I've been loving toasted sourdough with a thin spread of miso butter, topped with thin-sliced radishes and hard boiled eggs; rye spread with dill and yogurt dip, and topped with cucumbers and smoked salmon; and whole grain toast piled high with hummus, avocado slices, fennel and shredded rotisserie chicken. 

Purchase with shortcut cooking in mind

Once you decide on what new recipe or two you're going to try this week, there are still some other meal slots to fill. This is where I'd encourage you to embrace shortcut cooking. We'll talk more next week about making the most of the frozen section (and your freezer) when you're burned out on cooking, but a good rule of thumb is to try for dishes that feel "complete" with five ingredients or less. Pre-made building blocks can make this a lot easier. Some examples:

  • Start with Annie's Shells and White Cheddar and stir in some spinach, bacon, caramelized onion and parmesan cheese. 
  • Start with frozen pork dumplings and make a filling soup by cooking them in broth with sugar snap peas and mushrooms
  • Make a decadent breakfast sandwich using frozen waffles as the "bread." Pile them high with scrambled eggs, sharp cheddar cheese, sausage and a smear of fruit jam. 
  • Follow the lead of Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams and use your favorite breakfast cereal to add some pep to her easy-to-make meringues. 

Add an impulse buy or two 

Food is typically something that brings me a lot of joy; I wake up thinking about it, I write about it, at least a portion of my disposable income each month typically goes towards random ingredients and cookbooks. Pre-pandemic (and when I'm not in the midst of culinary fatigue), I could happily spend an entire afternoon going from market to market on the hunt for perfect building blocks for a project recipe, while also allowing myself to discover new things on the shelf. 

Things are obviously different now. Going to the grocery store is an anxiety-inducing chore — the kind of thing where you just pull up your mask and power through. There's not really time for that same level of leisurely discovery that can really reignite your excitement for cooking. 

But I've found that making space for it in spurts has helped. 

Pick a type of food or two — crunchy snacks, bread, cheese, produce, condiments, whatever — and give yourself a little time, just a moment or two, to scan the aisle for something that catches your attention and that you can incorporate into your weekly meals. I know this sounds like kind of trite "Eat, Pray, Love"-esque advice. Go find yourself in the aisles of the supermarket. But trust me, it works. 

Is that ripe dragon fruit calling your name? Great! Slice it thin and toss it on your snack plate. Is there a really beautiful loaf of rye hanging out in the baked goods section? Make it the basis of your toasts for the week. That round of smoked gouda from a local creamery? Shred it and sprinkle into some boxed macaroni and cheese to zhuzh it up. 

The point of this exercise, and the "Burned Out" series at large, is to get you back to a place where you're excited about (or at least not totally dreading) being in your kitchen again. This requires a little intentionality, a whole lot of space to give yourself a break — and perhaps taking a chapter or two from "The Snack Plate Gospel." 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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