Pasta… again? The secrets to beating lockdown menu fatigue

Let’s count the ways that lockdown can land us in a food rut, churning out the same handful of dishes week after week. There’s the fly- in- fly out food shopping that allows less time to browse, the absence of fresh ideas sparked by meals made by someone else – and the dwindling motivation that comes with long lockdown.

“I know people are cooking at home more but the fact that we can’t go anywhere is flattening the mood, leaving people uninspired. It’s also very hard for parents who are trying to work from home and help kids who are homeschooling – by the day’s end they don’t have the bandwidth to be inspired about dinner,” says Sydney-based dietitian and life coach Caroline Trickey.

Check supermarket and greengrocers online for an idea of what’s available before you shop.Credit:iStock

But there are shortcuts to putting variety back on the menu without having to learn a bunch of new recipes. Nailing a couple of flexi-dishes is one.

“These are dishes you cook in bulk that can be the basis of different meals, like a pasta sauce that turns into a topping for rice when you add chili, cumin and red kidney beans, or a vegetable curry that converts to a spicy soup when you add stock and a handful of greens,” Trickey says.

Keeping a range of spice blends and curry pastes is another – they’re a fast way to create dishes from different cuisines without having to think too hard, she adds. Ras -el-hanout can transform veggies and canned chickpeas into a quick Moroccan tajine, and combining laksa paste with coconut milk, Asian greens and tofu delivers comfort food in minutes.

Pre-roasting vegetables (they cook while you work) and pre-cooking grains to keep in the fridge or freezer gives you a basis for substantial salads, says Maeve O’Meara, presenter of SBS’s Food Safari.

“Even small tweaks can add a sparkle to vegetables – good olive oil and interesting vinegars like caramelised balsamic vinegar are good investments for boosting the flavour of a salad dressing.”

“Go beyond rice, cous cous and quinoa and try different grains like farro, barley or freekeh,” she says. “They’re great mixed with ingredients that add flavour and texture like roast cauliflower, pomegranate seeds, pepitas, chopped pistachios, handfuls of herbs and chopped spring onion.

“Even small tweaks can add a sparkle to vegetables – good olive oil and interesting vinegars like caramelised balsamic vinegar are good investments for boosting the flavour of a salad dressing. Or lift a green salad with fresh green beans blanched in water with a garlic clove, strips of roasted capsicum, pitted olives, marinated feta and handfuls of chopped mint and parsley.

“But it can also be about changing how you present or prepare food – like serving tabbouleh in baby cos lettuce cups or investing in a mandoline to finely shave raw vegetables for a salad – and if you need a whoosh of freedom, cook outdoors,” O’Meara says.

Another way that lockdown worsens menu fatigue is when working from home means coming up with lunch as well as dinner, adds dietitian Dana Segal from Newtown Nutrition in Sydney. “This is where having roast vegetables in the fridge comes in for adding to wraps or pre-cooked grains – or cook extra food at dinner so there are leftovers for lunch.”

But busting boredom is only one reason for keeping the menu varied.

“Eating a wide variety of foods is important because we need a range of different nutrients in varying amounts, as well as a variety of fibres for our gut,” she explains.

When there’s no time to browse for food inspiration, Segal suggests checking supermarket and greengrocers online for an idea of what’s available before you shop.

“I’d also suggest picking an ingredient you don’t normally use and then googling recipes so you can experiment at the weekend when you have more time. Committing to at least one meat-free meal a week also prompts you to try new dishes and ingredients or you can get new ideas and an element of community by joining one of Facebook’s many food groups. And if you want curries, lasagne or tajines to cook while you work, invest in a slow cooker.

“But cut yourself some slack too – every single meal doesn’t have to be perfect,” she adds.

Although even skilled cooks can sink into a food rut sometimes, it’s more likely when you’re inexperienced, says Caroline Trickey. This is where meal delivery kits can be a good option.

“The planning and the food shopping is done for you and people often say they’ve learned skills from using them. They always come with vegetables and at the end of the day it’s homemade food not takeaway.”

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