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How to Be More Joyful in the Kitchen

(when you hate to cook)

Meals are hard.

What’s for dinner? is literally the worst question of all time. Seriously. I want to poke my family with a fork when they ask me that. Who put me in charge of feeding everyone? And it comes, day after day, apparently for the rest of my life.

This frustration stems in part from the fact that I would eat cereal or a peanut butter sandwich whenever I felt hungry and be done with it if left to my own devices. But since I’m not the only one here (and I do like my family), I have to think a little bigger. (Not that Mr. Perfect is picky, thank goodness. He will literally eat anything I fix, except lima beans).

I suppose it is a traditional role for the woman to figure out the meals, cook, and serve. And even if we aren’t going with ‘traditional’ as a rationale, I am the one who is home more, so I arguably have more time/energy for this task. But there is nothing that says I’m good at it, or that I find it a joy to perform.

Creating a meal plan for the week always feels like a pop quiz to me. (One I’m totally unprepared for.) I know I have a number of simple recipes memorized, but you think I can remember a single ONE of them when I sit down to make a grocery list? No, I cannot.

And hauling out a recipe book, or even worse, browsing the internet, just gives me too many options and makes me feel a little inadequate, if I’m being totally honest.

Life is hard enough without being frustrated daily at 4pm because you just remembered those people who live with you expect to be fed. And you forgot to take the meat out of the freezer to thaw.

So if you also dislike the chore of trying to figure out what to eat, here are my suggestions to help you make it a (somewhat) more joyful activity. 😉

Be realistic.

I used to have all these recipes saved, a number of cookbooks on the shelf, and this fantasy that I was going to experiment in the kitchen. Ha. What I finally realized is I love LOOKING at recipes and cookbooks. (Mainly the pictures.) I just don’t like cooking that much.

So one day, (during the pandemic, ironically) I sat myself down and we had a chat about what I was and was not willing to do in the kitchen.

And then I threw out all those magazine pages, recipes printed off the internet that I’ve never made, and most of my cookbooks.

Now I have one old family recipe book,  one skinny binder with recipes I actually use, and one cookbook. That’s 3 resources. Period. And that includes more recipes than I am going to make in any given year for the rest of my natural life.

If you are like me and like the idea of cooking more than the reality of it, then just be honest with yourself. It’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad mom, or wife or whatever.

Make a list of your own family favorites, any sentimental recipes, the recipes that don’t make you want to poke a fork at anyone, and and chuck the rest. Pare down your choices and the whole cooking thing becomes less overwhelming.


Simplify the meal planning.

During the pandemic I narrowed down my everyday options even further from the 3 books and created a little notebook using only the recipes that didn’t make me want to poke myself in the eye with a fork.

The notebook doesn’t list the instructions, just the name of the recipe and the ingredients, along with some suggestions for what to serve as a side. Most of these recipes are ones I can make with my eyes closed, or at a minimum, just a glance at the recipe. But inevitably, when I’m trying to meal plan, the only recipes I can remember are spaghetti and black beans and yellow rice. (We eat a lot of spaghetti and black beans with rice.)

Now, as I am making my grocery list each week, I can just pull out this tiny notebook (as opposed to a larger recipe book, which can feel overwhelming) and choose a few familiar things to make the following week, add the ingredients to my list along with any additional side items, and Voila’!, simple plan created. Along with a grocery list that doesn’t leave anything out.

If you are very fancy, you might try a meal planning app like Paprika, where you can choose recipes (or upload your own) and  organize a preprinted meal plan and grocery list each week, or even  have the groceries delivered through Instacart or the like.


Eat the same things.

There are too many other things you want to use your energy on to be spending time every day on what to feed yourself or your people.  So embrace Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Waffle Wednesdays, Pizza Fridays (yes, I know that one isn’t an alliteration).

Give yourself a day (or five) when you don’t have to decide…you (and maybe more importantly, your people) already know what is going to be for dinner! Maybe, eventually, they won’t even have to ask the heinous question! How amazing would that be?

Seriously, no one cares. (If they do, put them in charge of cooking.) Plan your meals on repeat.


Try a meal service.

Now, boys and girls, this is on my list of things to try. My daughter asked why we hadn’t already embraced Hello, Fresh or one of the meal service options out there, and frankly I just assumed they were ridiculously expensive or way to bougie for us.

And then I went online and looked it over. And I looked over my grocery bill. It really isn’t as much as I thought.

Now, this won’t be a great option for everyone, but it is definitely worth looking into. Even if you only used it for two meals each week, think of the time and energy you could save. Swoon.

Make enough for leftovers.

Now I know some folks don’t like leftovers, and if that’s you, skip ahead. But. If that is someone who is NOT in charge in the kitchen, I have some other thoughts for you.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with assigning that person a night to cook if they aren’t interested in eating leftovers. My son could make a mean pig-in-the-blanket when he was eleven. Or let them fend for themselves and you eat leftovers. (This works especially well on the weekends.)

Frankly, I think one kitchen effort that creates enough food to eat two separate meals is one of the best.things.ever. Don’t let a non-cook be the boss of you.

Only eat what you reallyreally want. Some of the time.

One of the most problematic things about feeding oneself (and others) is getting caught up in what we are in the mood for. Falling into this trap has resulted in so many nights of take out at my house it borders on ridiculous.

So my personal recommendation is this: make a plan for your weekly meals and ignore what you are in the mood for when it comes to dinner. If you have planned it out already, you probably made some reasonably healthy choices and already have the ingredients. So don’t let your mood blow your grocery budget or your diet.

But when it comes to snacks, deserts or weekends free-for-alls? Only eat what you reallyreallyreally want. Because if you don’t you will be unsatisfied with anything else (and just keep eating random crap) until you get to that thing you really wanted in the first place.

Negotiate the cleanup.

The hubs and I have a deal. I cook; he cleans the kitchen.

This is one of the greatest contributors to our marital harmony, because once I’m done cooking I don’t have to step foot back into the kitchen. (And if we’re honest, my retired Marine is way better at cleaning than I am. #sorrynotsorry)

If you are the cook, someone else cleans. Yes, if this hasn’t been the norm there will be pushback. But dig deep, my friend. Your kids OR your partner can put dishes in the dishwasher. What if you get hit by a bus? Wouldn’t you want them to have this life skill?

And do not disappoint me by going behind them and re-doing their work. Some intial instruction and gentle supervision is fine to begin. But don’t be that control freak. Seriously. You’re better than that.

Take a look at your tools.

When was the last time you evaluated your kitchen tools? If you aren’t an enthusiastic cook, you probably aren’t excited about spending money on this stuff, so it hasn’t been a priority.

BUT…if you are going to be in the kitchen anyway, might as well have good tools and some fun things to use! I only own fun spatulas with goofy sayings and cute pictures. And I covet this dinasour ladle.

Buy yourself some decent pots and get the colorful frying pan. Use the funny dishtowels. And for goodness sake, get your knives sharpened. (You can get it done at Ace Hardware.)

Your kitchen tools can make the whole experience more joyful. Make the investment in tools you enjoy using…and please don’t be boring.

Being asked What’s for dinner? can be a daily joy thief if we aren’t careful.

Every step we can take to lighten the mental and/or physical load of meal planning and preparation is a tiny bit of energy that is available for something else! Reading a book, going for a run, working on a long-ignored project.

And simplifying your time in the kitchen allows you to make this ongoing responsibilty as joyful as possible. And choosing joy is the whole point, yes?

What are your secrets to making meal prep more joyful? Would love to hear them in the comments below! Seriously, I need all the help I can get.


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