Sometimes the kitchen can feel like a retreat: a place for feeling like ourselves, for spending a moment carefully focusing on the task of chopping, of stirring, even if only for 20 minutes. But kitchen burnout can roll in at any time. And whenever I feel that burnout-or a combination of burnout and pandemic-related panic-coming on, I know it's time to make things easier on myself. Which includes figuring out how to curb decision fatigue.
When I just can't come up with easy dinner ideas, I've returned a few times to last year's Easiest Week Ever meal plan. It's still there at the link, a helpful template you can go back to any time. But I wanted to offer a new round of flexible dinner inspiration for this particular season, with a week of meals you can make without too much effort or too much time. You can jump in and out of the week and make these meals in any order, though you will notice that some days include some get-ahead tricks to make the subsequent recipe even quicker. A few of these recipes come from recently released cookbooks that focus on easy weeknight dinners; if you're looking for more, those books might help.
This coming week kicks off with a little Labor Day grilling, but the timing is flexible if you want to save this meal plan for another busy week. Riff on the suggested recipes with whatever groceries you have on hand, or follow the alternative so-easy-they-don't-need-a-recipe "skip it" options instead.
Recipes: Double-Stack Mushroom and Chicken Cheeseburgers or Spiced Salmon Kebabs, and Oregano-Marinated Tomato Salad, plus get ahead on prep for this Grilled Ratatouille Pasta Salad for tomorrow.
Get outside for Labor Day and do your cooking on the grill, whether that means stacking these chicken-and-mushroom burgers high or serving these easy lemony fish kebabs. The important thing is, grill something effortless today, and while you're at it, be sure to also grill the zucchini and eggplant that you need for tomorrow night's pasta. These two recipes are flexible, too: If you don't have ground chicken for the burgers, you can also use ground turkey or pork. If you're feeling fish kebabs, you're not stuck with salmon: Any thick fillet, like halibut, swordfish, or striped bass will grill well.
On the side for tonight? Tomatoes are still in season, so we might as well make the most of them. This preparation is super-simple and just takes a few minutes of hands-on time.
SKIP IT: Grill turkey dogs. Or just eat the tomato salad with some bread and olive oil, maybe adding a hunk of cheese if you want. Just don't skip grilling those vegetables-you'll thank today's self tomorrow.
Recipe: Grilled Ratatouille Pasta Salad
There's a simple recipe from Epi's food editor emeritus Anna Stockwell linked above, but you can definitely just wing this one. Here's the gist: Slice grilled veggies into bite-sized pieces (hopefully you grilled them yesterday, but if not, you can take a breather from the kitchen to do it now). Mix with chunks of ripe tomatoes, a little oil and vinegar, fresh herbs, and mozzarella. No grilled zucchini and eggplant on hand? You could easily sub in a can of chickpeas or white beans, or blanched green beans, or just some more tomatoes.
SKIP IT: Want to make it even easier on yourself? Burst those tomatoes instead. Or maybe it's the night for a classic, easy pasta like Cacio e Pepe, or maybe a comforting plate of Carbonara?
Recipes: Whole Wheat-Oat Waffles or Apple-Cheddar Dutch Baby
Breakfast for dinner is an Easiest Week Ever tradition, and it works as a midweek reset for the brain. Everyone feels a little better digging into waffles or a savory Apple-Cheddar Dutch Baby, drizzled with maple syrup and dashed with hot sauce. The latter recipe comes from Jenna Helwig's Bare Minimum Dinners, a newly published resource that's packed full of quick and easy weeknight meals.
SKIP IT: Just scramble some eggs and toast some bread. You're totally on theme.
Recipe: 10-Minute Shrimp with Green Beans and Creamy Lemon-Dill Dip
Even if you don't actually leave home, you can declare it picnic dinner night. The only rule is that you don't really need forks-everything has to be eaten with your hands. Steaming green beans and shrimp while whipping up a tangy, herby dip is surprisingly quick. Crunchy lettuce and avocado round out the meal, though you could add any raw vegetables that you have around.
SKIP IT: Tonight can also be about cobbling together any of your favorite snacks: bread and a few cheeses, some hummus and raw vegetables, perhaps cured meat or fish and olives or pickles.
Recipe: Chetna Makan's Dahi Dal and some rice.
Chetna Makan's 30 Minute Indian is full of quick and easy recipes-while I rarely try a new recipe on a weeknight, it was no trouble at all to whip up a big pot of her cashew-enriched, cinnamon-scented Chicken Korma on a Thursday. And this vibrant green dal is even easier: You'll just simmer split moong dal with ground turmeric and fresh ginger for about ten minutes, then add fresh spinach leaves. (If your container is five ounces instead of seven, life goes on; if it's 16 ounces, just use half.) Once the spinach has wilted, blitz the mix with an immersion blender (or put in a blender or food processor) until creamy, then swirl in yogurt and top with chile-flecked onions crisped in ghee.
Cook a big pot of rice-twice as much as you need for a single meal-to serve with this creamy delight, and to repurpose into tomorrow's easy dinner. (If you want to make Andrea Nguyen's overnight cháo, be sure to start soaking the leftover rice before bed tonight.)
SKIP IT: Stock your pantry with Brooklyn Delhi simmer sauce, add it to cooked vegetables or your favorite protein, and dinner is served. Epi contributor Chitra Agrawal developed these sauces for busy nights just like yours.
Recipes: Super-Simple Overnight Porridge or Sinangag or Green Rice with Tomatoes, Eggs, and Almonds
Today is all about a flexible meal that starts with rice. Each of the recipes above can take on whatever toppings you have-raw or cooked vegetables that need to be used, crisp chopped bacon or salty-sweet sausage, shredded rotisserie chicken, an egg, any bits and bobs, some crunchy chopped nuts, crispy shallots, a drizzle of chili crisp.
Recipe: Chickpea, Quinoa, and White Bean Chili
This meatless chili from Epi contributor Mindy Fox and Queer Eye star Antoni Porowski's new cookbook, Let's Do Dinner, serves four to six. But anytime I'm making a pot of chili, I double it-besides a little chopping, it's basically the same amount of effort for twice as many meals. (This recipe takes just about 30 minutes to make, so that's a pretty great deal.) Freeze whatever you don't eat tonight, or serve the rest next week on top of baked potatoes, mixed into mac and cheese, or simply in a bowl again, loaded up with your favorite toppings. Porowski says he likes to top any leftovers with a fried egg for brunch. "This chili is incredibly simple to make," he notes, "and it tastes as though it's been simmering for hours. The quinoa adds a fantastic texture and good amount of protein." In addition to that quinoa, the recipe calls for a mix of cannellini and garbanzo beans, but you can sub whatever canned beans you have around.
SKIP IT: A can of white beans can be dinner even quicker. Just drain the beans, dress with thinly sliced onion, whatever herbs you have, lemon juice, olive oil, and a little garlic or cumin if you like, and serve (or let marinate in your fridge for a few hours). Pile onto bread or use to fill lettuce cups.