4 Steps to Breaking From a Food Rut
A few months ago, I became stuck in what I now call my chicken quesadilla phase. Every night for a week, I sprinkled cheese and grilled chicken onto a flour tortilla, toasted it to a golden brown, and served it with sour cream and salsa. Every night. By Friday, I dreaded the very idea of dinner. I couldn't bring myself to think about cooking anything that night, but I was salivating over the idea of a fat, juicy burger … or a big bowl of spaghetti … or a rich slice of chocolate cake.
Yes, I was in a food rut.
Most on-the-go Americans can identify with my situation: A busy life causes a rut that results in boredom, which ultimately leads to bad food choices. You'll know you're in a food rut when the thought of preparing a meal fills you with despair instead of enjoyment.
"Food becomes uninspiring because you've had it so many times and you don't know what else to eat," says Jennifer Stack, MS, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and chef who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "When our meals are not very enjoyable or exciting, we tend to eat too much or look for that one thing [to satisfy us]."
Yet not every food rut is bad. If you've eaten oatmeal every morning for the past 10 years, enjoy the taste, and reap health rewards, mixing things up in the kitchen may not be necessary. But if you feel tired and constrained by your food choices or make up for boring food with between-meal indulgences, it's probably time to try something new. Break the monotony with one of the four chef-tested tips that follow.
1. Try Something New
It sounds simple, right? But when you're caught in the day-to-day doldrums, trying something new can be truly intimidating—especially if diabetes restricts your diet. "Usually, I find people who are in a food rut are on overly restrictive meal plans," says Lise Gloede, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Arlington, Va., who says healthy eating is a lifelong process. "This has to be doable for a long period of time. So you want to have a variety of foods. And you should have a variety of foods." Varying your meals is what keeps you from eating out of boredom, but it's also the best way to get the wide range of nutrients your body needs.
Start by testing foods you've previously passed up. Fresh sardines, for instance, have a more pleasant flavor than canned, says Stack. In the same vein, crisp, fresh green beans are more delicious than mushy, canned ones. "When you have a food that you can't imagine you'd like, try it fresh," she says. "You're going to get much more flavor than [with food that is] canned."
Since it may take you more than one try to learn to love a food, start in small quantities. "Try adding some of that vegetable into the soup. What you're doing is exposing your palate to it," says Stack. "You're not overexposing your palate to something you're not familiar with. You're sneaking something in." Eventually, you may find you're willing to eat, say, zucchini or kale, by itself. And don't be afraid to get creative. Spaghetti squash—halved, deseeded, and oven baked until soft—is a tasty, healthful, and fun alternative to pasta; just rake the squash out of its shell with a fork and serve with marinara sauce. Sometimes substituting a portion of a meal with something new gives a dish fresh meaning. Gloede suggests replacing full-fat veggie dip with hummus (a dip made from pureed chickpeas), baba ghanoush (a pureed eggplant dip), or a dip made with low- or nonfat Greek-style yogurt.
2. Spice It Up
Transforming tried-and-true recipes often takes nothing more than a sprinkle of seasoning. Gloede reaches for cinnamon, nutmeg, or pumpkin pie spice for carrots and sweet potatoes; pairs dill with salmon or eggs; and uses lemon pepper on vegetables. Consider a specific cuisine you enjoy, then pick spices that are common in that region, such as curry, cardamom, and coriander from India, sumac from the Middle East, ginger and lemongrass from Asia, and chili powder from Mexico. (Whip up some of your own spiced meals by trying Cinnamon and Cardamom Brown Rice, Lemongrass Shrimp Soup, or Yogurt Dip With Zahtar Pitas.) Another trick: "Using fresh herbs can be a good way to add some freshness and flavor," says Stack, who suggests buying a container of mixed herbs (most contain reliable picks like bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, and sage) from the grocery store to discover which variety you enjoy. A little herb goes a long way, so stick with a couple of tablespoons for chopped fresh herbs and only about a teaspoon of dry herbs.
If you want to transform a dish quickly and easily, try using one of the big three flavor boosters once your dish is cooked: sea salt, oil, or a splash of something acidic. Sprinkling sea salt over food yields a burst of flavor; since its crystals are larger than those in typical table salt, you'll get more taste with less salt—and therefore lower sodium levels. Extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, and almond oil all lend a rich flavor to cooked meats without the saturated fat of butter. And acidic flavors from vinegar and lime or lemon juice can add punch to a dull chicken breast or piece of fish. "This is going to help you differentiate chicken breast on Monday from chicken breast on Tuesday from chicken breast on Wednesday," says Stack.
Before grilling a slab of beef or piece of chicken, work a dry rub into the meat; the spices will infuse the meat with flavor and give it a nice texture. Marinades are another way to play with a meat's flavor: Try Italian dressing one night and Asian sesame the next for an utterly different experience.
3. Hone Your Technique
Grilling, baking, braising, boiling, poaching, sautéing, steaming, roasting, and even microwaving are all different cooking methods that give foods distinct flavors. So if you're stuck in a rut, an easy way out is to shake up your routine. Trade baked chicken for sautéed, grilled salmon for steamed, and boiled vegetables for roasted. Gloede suggests grilling fruit to bring out an entirely new flavor. (Click here for new grilling recipes.) She also recommends poaching (boiling in water for several minutes) fruit like pears and serving with cinnamon and cloves. Another easy update is to boil rice and grains in vegetable or chicken stock to boost the flavor.
According to Stack, an underappreciated method of cooking beef is braising. To try this slow-cooking technique, season beef chuck with salt and pepper and sear in a hot pan with olive oil. Once both sides of the beef have browned, pour low-sodium beef broth, white or red wine, or even beer into the pan. Toss in chopped carrots, celery, onions, and parsnips for flavor, then transfer the pan to a 325-degree oven. The beef should cook for two to three hours, until the meat falls apart when prodded with a fork. Transfer the pan to the refrigerator, where the meat will sit overnight—and soak up the flavorful juices. The next night, skim the solidified fat off the top with a spoon (doing so makes the recipe healthier), then reheat the beef (add fresh veggies if you want) on a stovetop. "The meat tastes so succulent, so rich, you can't wait for your dinner that night," Stack says.
Or try Stack's alternative for humdrum fish: Lay a fillet of fish on a large piece of foil, then sprinkle it with herbs. Heap matchstick veggies like carrots and zucchini onto the fish, wrap it with the foil, and bake it in the oven. (If you're feeling inventive, replace the foil with a Napa cabbage leaf that's been dipped in boiling water to soften.) As the fish cooks, all of the flavors intermingle, leaving you with a delicious—and easy—meal. To get even more flavor out of your fish, drizzle the cooked fillet with walnut or almond oil. "It really does not take any more skill than if you were grilling. In some ways, it's easier because you're less likely to burn it," says Stack. "That's how you break out of a food rut: It's still the same food, but you're cooking it in a new way."
4. Change Your Focus
You don't have to be Bobby Flay to create something new and exciting. There are ways to minimize effort in the kitchen and maximize your culinary skills. For instance, Ziploc Zip 'n Steam bags make cooking quick and cleanup easy. If you aspire to be a wiz in the kitchen but haven't learned the basics, Gloede suggests taking a cooking class. While certainly not a prerequisite for breaking out of a food rut, taking a class can teach apprehensive cooks fundamental skills.
Seasoned chefs who need tips on healthful eating may want to try a supermarket tour. Many registered dietitians—including Gloede—will walk the aisles with clients who want to learn how to choose nutritious produce, how to pick lean meats, and where to find key items in the store. Taste-testing at a restaurant is another good way to try new foods without the pressure of cooking them yourself. Share an appetizer with friends who will gobble up the rest if you don't like it. Discover a new meal you love while dining out? Don't be afraid to ask your server about the spices and ingredients used in it, says Gloede. While most grocery stores should carry conventional herbs, spices, and produce, offbeat ingredients are often easier to find at farmers markets (which are known to sell less common varieties of fruits and vegetables) and at ethnic food stores.
Mix things up by serving tapas, appetizer-sized portions. Click here for a few recipes you'll love.
For many people, food ruts can become a safety net: You know what to eat each night, how to prepare it, and how it will affect your blood glucose. The prospect of swapping your nightly Lean Cuisine (with neatly listed nutrition facts) for an untested dish can be unnerving. But if it's holding you back from managing your diabetes—or simply preventing you from enjoying meals—it's time to get adventurous. Be aware that, just like children, adults don't necessarily relish a new food the first time they try it. "It is a process. If you try broccoli once and don't like it, maybe you should try it again in a different way," says Gloede.
In the end, you never know what you'll learn to love. I most enjoy the weeks where I get creative, eating baked barbecued chicken one night, citrusy bulgur salad another, and dill salmon the next. I no longer feel defeated before I even start cooking. Instead, I'm inspired to give old recipes a new twist. And I discovered a new appreciation for beans—perfect for the once-in-a-while quesadilla.