I’m a Dietitian Who Got Burned Out by Cooking. Here’s How I Learned to Love It Again

Feeding yourself may look a little different—and that’s completely okay.
How to Heal Yourself From Cooking Burnout According to a Registered Dietitian Who Lived It
Daryna Zaichenko/Getty Images

I used to be religious about meal prep. Before the pandemic, if you had asked me how I preferred to spend my Sundays, I would tell you it was waking up at 7 a.m. and cooking for the week. I posted meal prep videos on my Instagram and even hosted a popular online class, “How to Meal Prep Like a Boss.” I genuinely enjoyed it: It made me feel accomplished and like I was taking care of myself. It was my thing. 

Then the pandemic happened. Almost overnight, I discovered I just couldn’t cook anymore. My lifelong love of meal prepping vanished in an instant. 

Over the past 12 years as a registered dietitian, I’ve talked up the benefits of meal prepping to all of my clients and my online community and helped thousands of people incorporate it into their everyday lives. Still, some were never able to make it a consistent part of their routine—no matter how much they wanted to or how hard they tried. Is this what that felt like?

I thought it was just a phase I would get over in a couple of weeks. So in the beginning, I tried to force my way back into my meal-prep habit. Get it together, I told myself. This is not you; this is not us. We can do this. But I quickly learned that I couldn’t fake it. 

There was simply no desire to cook there, and it even began to take on a negative connotation thanks to the atmosphere around it: the long pandemic lines, the anxiety about catching COVID-19 in the grocery store, the nonstop sourdough bake-offs, the food shortages, the mask wars, the misinformation, the general racism at the time. All of it. 

Cooking was always a symbol of me functioning at my best, but at this point I was barely functioning at all. There was no thriving; I was surviving. This was the start of a severe physical, mental, and emotional burnout that would last years.

I’m still healing from it. The journey, I’m realizing, is a long process that has required lots of stillness, meditation, and therapy. But I am happy to report that I have started to cook again, albeit in a much more gentle way. There’s no more Sunday marathon meal prep, and while I don’t know if that’s ever coming back, I am doing a better job of feeding myself. 

While my cooking burnout was triggered by the pandemic, there are a whole bunch of reasons why people may find themselves in a similar situation. If that’s something you’ve been struggling with, I hope some of the takeaways I’ve learned in getting back to cooking can help you too. 

1. I stepped away from made-from-scratch meals and fed myself in other ways.

You might wonder what I ate during the early stages of the pandemic if I didn’t cook. Two words: frozen meals. Early on, I would go to Trader Joe’s and buy a boatload of stuff in the frozen aisle. These were mostly things that didn’t need prepping, like the Hatch Chile Mac & Cheese or my personal favorite (though not always available) Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese

I also made smoothiesa lot of smoothies—and simple, three-ingredient meals, like pasta, cashews, and tomato sauce, or a bagged salad with smoked salmon and toast. I also reframed what “counted” as dinner: It could be anything from the boxed mac and cheese with sautéed spinach on the side to frozen pizza topped with sliced bell peppers.

It didn’t have to be something that I prepped from scratch. It didn’t even always have to include a vegetable. While I tried to include a carb, fat, and protein on every plate—something I have been helping my clients do for years—my ultimate goal was simply to make sure I was eating enough.

2. I took the grocery store off my to-do list.

For me, the trick was removing any and all pressure related to cooking. Halfway into the pandemic, I stopped going to the grocery store. It brought me too much anxiety. I was terrified of catching COVID, and those long lines were just too much to bear. 

Instead, I ordered frozen meals from Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh. My husband and I also shifted our budget around so we could use a meal delivery service. I tried out (and still use) Sunbasket, which has a mix of precooked meals that you just need to microwave and ones that require only a light amount of work. It was a doable balance. 

This is a huge privilege that not everyone has access to—I also don’t have kids, which I know makes things a lot more complicated for parents—but these services were a lifeline for me: Removing the pressure of in-store shopping meant that I didn’t have to be “out” during the height of the pandemic, which lessened my anxiety.

During this time, my new motto was gentleness with myself and the kitchen. Then after a couple of years—yes, years—I began to cook again.

3. When I was ready to go back, I started shopping locally.

I’ve always shopped with my senses—I use my hands, my nose, my eyes, and yes, I even sneak in a taste test when no one is looking. That’s something I was missing with my online orders, even though I know it was a necessary change for me.

This year, I felt ready to shop again. In person. I was no longer in survival mode, and I slowly began to realize that I wanted to pick out my produce myself. But I decided to get back to it on a smaller scale: through my local food co-op and farmer’s markets. 

It took me back to my RD roots: My first nutrition job was in New York City’s farmers’ markets, where I taught cooking demos and nutrition workshops, and discovered for the first time the joys of high-quality produce. The fruits and vegetables just taste better than what I previously got at the big chains, and the stuff there triggers more of a sensory experience for me.

This got me excited to cook again. Not only does the food taste fresh, but shopping there also made me feel good that my dollars were supporting the local economy. I still buy some stuff on Amazon—mostly the staples that don’t change weekly—but I’ve definitely shifted back to the local level for a lot of my needs. Shopping locally has just been bringing me so much more joy. 

4. I made shopping into an event. 

This was probably my most significant change from before: I made shopping an event that I looked forward to—not a weekly chore. Pre-pandemic, I would shop quickly by myself, with a list and lots of intention. 

I still have a list, but I take my time now, and my husband and I have even made “grocery day” into its own thing. For example, we’ll have breakfast, lunch, or dinner at a trendy cafe or restaurant and then go shopping afterward. Usually we’ll pick a restaurant in the neighborhood of the market we’re trying that week. It’s a treat. Going with someone else, and making an afternoon of it, took away a lot of the monotony and have-to-get-it-done-ness that I experienced pre-pandemic.

5. I stopped following recipes.

Cooking, for me, is a creative expression. Going to the farmer’s market and co-op got me more interested in trying new things in a way that refilling my Amazon cart could never do.

Before the pandemic, I was a big recipe follower. Now, I barely ever make anything I see online. Stepping foot in a physical store has unleashed my creativity in a new way. For example, this purple sweet potato pie recipe—my blog Food Heaven’s most popular recipe ever—was born on a whim. I went shopping and saw gorgeous purple Okinawan sweet potatoes and thought, How fun would it be to make a sweet potato pie with these? My most joyful and creative meals come when I am inspired by things I see in the store or farmer’s market, not online trends I am recreating. 

Plus, there’s a mental health benefit to this for me too. I’m a free spirit, and I realized I don’t actually like having to follow recipes to a T. Improvising is more natural for me. 

6. I brought fun into the kitchen.

Music was another significant factor that helped me feel good in the kitchen again. I started to make kitchen playlists that encouraged me to cook, dance, and be merry. If cooking feeds my body, music feeds my soul. 

Before the pandemic, I would wake up at 7 a.m. to meal prep, which felt too early to blast my favorite tunes. Post-pandemic, I cook at my leisure to my favorite playlist. It makes the experience feel way more lighthearted.

7. I came up with a realistic cooking system that works for where I’m at now.

Even when I started returning to the kitchen, I knew I didn’t want to go back to where I was before: Cooking all of my meals on a Sunday was no longer serving me. My relationship with meal planning had to change if I wanted to cook again. Because the older I get, the more I have to honor what the heart wants. And the heart doesn’t want to meal prep anymore. 

The joy I once experienced from meal prepping all of my food to get “ready for the week” is gone. It may never return, and that’s okay. 

Instead, I had to find a way to reincorporate my new approach to cooking into my everyday life. It looks a little different than it did before. In addition to the meal delivery service, I only cook two to three meals per week. There’s no pre-prepping. Everything I make now is in real time. It’s fun to freestyle it. There are no more recipes, only loose plans. 

What excites me is when I can make something out of nothing. Like on that random Friday night when you only have a can of tomatoes, some frozen cheese, and a cup of dry pasta. I like the challenge of making a delicious, no-fuss meal out of randomness. This also means I don’t have to eat the same meal repeatedly, which is another thing I can’t do anymore. Now, I eat the same thing for one to two meals before I’m done and ready to move on to something new.

All in all, I love my new, gentler relationship with cooking and meal planning. But it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t give myself permission to take time off. And I think we can all stand to give ourselves a little more grace in the kitchen. Hitting a much-needed Pause button helped me create an updated blueprint to find something that is sustainable for my current bandwidth—and brings back the joy I always knew could come from cooking.