Healthy eating and cooking for yourself go hand in hand. If you have the resources it is possible to eat healthy while dining out, but restaurants that don’t use processed foods can be difficult to find and tend to be pricey. They also limit you to a handful of different dishes that can become monotonous if you rely on them for most of your meals.
But keeping your healthstyle interesting can be a challenge even if you cook for yourself. Although shopping in season inevitably rotates you through new ingredients over the course of the year, we can still slip into the pattern of making the same dishes over and over again. And while repetition can be easy and comforting, it can also be problematic.
Monotony and boredom are your enemies if you are trying to make healthy eating a way of life; junk food will be extra tempting simply because it’s more interesting than the same boring meal you’ve had 10 times before.
To keep yourself from getting in a cooking rut you must actively seek inspiration for new dishes and flavor combinations. This is true for both kitchen newbies and seasoned chefs, and it gets easier with practice. The more you learn to outsource your creativity and experiment, the better you get at finding meal ideas in your daily life.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. These are some places I often find new ideas, but you are only limited by your imagination.
8 Places To Cook Up Recipe Inspiration
1. Farmers markets
My number one source of inspiration is always the beautiful produce and other goodies I find each week at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Not only do I often find interesting new ingredients to experiment with, I also find familiar foods that look so fresh and delicious I can’t help but buy them and turn them into something wonderful.
If you are thinking about buying something but do not know how to cook it, ask the vendor for ideas or common preparations. I recommend you get anything that looks new and interesting, since most vegetables are relatively cheap and Google puts a universe of recipes at your fingertips.
Most major cities (San Francisco especially) are home to amazingly talented and innovative chefs of all different styles and flavors. Steal their ideas! If you have a memorable meal while out on the town, take mental notes on the flavors and textures that capture its essence. You don’t have to be able to recreate it exactly at home, but you can definitely borrow the concept, simplify it and adapt it to your own skills and needs.
For example, I was recently struck by a dish at a spectacular restaurant that was composed of beets with dill–a flavor combination I had never tried. The dish was technically complicated and I wouldn’t bother attempting to make it the same way, but later that week I did roast some beets and change up my usual recipe to include dill instead of mint (sans chèvre). Turned out fantastic.
3. Food blogs
The number of outstanding food blogs today on the interwebs is staggering, and I love to skim through them looking for wonderful recipe ideas. I can’t even begin to list all my favorite sites here, but I try to highlight at least one mouthwatering recipe each week in For The Love of Food posts.
Nothing inspires enthusiasm for new flavors and recipes like traveling to a different locale. Eating traditional cuisines–the way they are supposed to be made–is one of the most intimate and meaningful ways to engage with a culture. Learn a few of the cuisine’s basic ingredients and cooking techniques and you can bring a tiny bit of your experience home with you. Think of this process as a procedural photograph you can use to remember your trip.
Again, you don’t have to recreate dishes exactly the same way in your own kitchen. Sometimes just a single special ingredient can evoke an entire cultural experience.
We all have that friend who is an amazing cook (love you guys!). Not only does this person sometimes hook you up with delicious treats, chances are your foodie friend also loves to talk about food and cooking. This is a goldmine for new ideas and sometimes even a little help and guidance. Maintain a healthy, food-centric relationship with this person and watch the inspiration roll in.
(Hint: If you don’t have a friend like this come hang out with me on Twitter @summertomato)
Cookbooks are wonderful but, to be honest, I rarely use them. The reason is that I’m usually too busy to bother lugging the giant things off the shelf and thumbing through them for something specific. I usually either wing it in the kitchen or search online for what I need.
Literature, however, can be a huge inspiration for me to try out new things in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I read The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie that I really started exploring Indian cooking. The Last Chinese Chef helped me learn to appreciate the depth of Chinese cuisine. And I cannot eat enough Spanish tapas when I’m reading Hemingway.
7. Podcasts and radio
I love Mondays because all my favorite food podcasts are waiting on my iPhone for me to listen to on my commute. Both entertaining and educational, foodie podcasts never fail to inspire me to try new foods and cooking methods. They also make me a better cook by describing tips and techniques I am unfamiliar with.
Although I do not watch TV regularly, there was a time when I would catch a periodic episode of Top Chef or other foodie show. What I enjoyed most about these programs was the times they would explain the decision making process that goes into creating a dish. But even if culinary improvisation isn’t in your cards, you can at least borrow their ideas (just like at a restaurant) and make similar meals for yourself at home. The recipes used are often posted online.
You can also get meal ideas from TV dramas and sitcoms. Remember Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi? That’s where I first learned about mulligatawny.
Recipe inspiration can come from anywhere, but if you aren’t looking for it a stroke of genius may pass you by.
Originally published February 24, 2010.