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Best sources of inspiration - what do you do when you run out of ideas?

The past few months have been a delight for me in the kitchen as I have developed a more solid foundation as a cook. I seem to have hit a goldmine of creativity and inspiration which has resulted in pretty yummy food and allowed me to branch out and discover some favorite new dishes and learn quite a good deal in the realm of cooking techniques and skill. However, in the past few days or so I seem to have lost my mojo and don't seem to be stimulated to the same level of excitement which has resulted in my adventures to create the perfect dish with the best ingredients while developing my preparation, cooking and presentation skills. This excitement seems to range from the simple to the more complex-I have been just as thrilled to concoct a delicious holiday meal as to figure out a good way to use up grape tomatoes and mushrooms. I think this is perhaps the motivation for many of us who have a passion for food and cooking. Of course there are the old favorites, but the real joy in my adventures of the past few months has been really getting into the kitchen to practice the art of cooking. I am often inspired by some fresh ingredient in the store, a product at home that needs to be used, a simple craving for a combination of foods which I haven't ever cooked together before, a blog post that I happen across, but it seems lately that my new found creativity and exploration has taken a dive. What do you do when you run out of ideas? What inspires you in the kitchen-cookbooks, magazines, fresh and available ingredients, etc?

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  1. I pick up a bag of veggies every week from my CSA. There are always a few surprises in the bags. And, there are weeks that I have one veggie or another "coming out of my ears". I find this really keeps me on my toes to use the vegetables in a new way or just to use them up period. I get vegetables that I wouldn't particularly choose at the grocery store if left to my own meal planning.

    I also am a cookbook addict. Even if I'm not cooking recipes directly from the cookbooks they do inspire me. And, of course, I spend my fair share of time browsing CH!

    4 Replies
    1. re: pagesinthesun

      Every now and then I have an "OMG, I've lost the will to cook" hour or day or two. So, I don't cook, live with the gloom and somehow the mojo returns. Meanwhile, a lazy way to seek inspiration - way lazier than pulling out cookbooks - is to keep hitting the "surprise me" button on smittenkitchen.com until something piques my interest.

      1. re: janeh

        Hey I never noticed that button on SK. How fun! Already found a new apple crisp recipe :)

        1. re: juliejulez

          How have I missed that button too? very cool!

        2. re: janeh

          Yup, I've learned not to beat myself up when the mojo can't be found. We have nights of breakfast for dinner when that happens. Has never failed that in a couple of days, I'm bored and back into something cooking on the stovetop, something else in the oven, and a baked good cooling on the counter!

      2. Make a "Chopped" basket. Take four ingredients from your freezer, pantry, and fridge, then force yourself to use them in a dish. I love doing this.

        1. CH What's for Dinner thread has been great recently. Even though I skip over all recipes / meals with sausage, there are plenty of ideas for my needs.

          Aging ingredients in the pantry, freezer or (especially) refrigerator are often the source of "must use" inspiration.

          Favorite flavors -- if not my own, then my spouse's -- will get me started. The lemon salad dress and lemon pasta sauce from What's for Dinner both met that, and lemon hollandaise for asparagus looped into it as well.

          Sometimes, though, it's just nice to have a meal out and let someone else do the cooking (and cleanup). Returning to the kitchen refreshed after a day of rest may be all that's needed.

          2 Replies
          1. re: MidwesternerTT

            Indeed, the WFD thread has inspired quite a few meals for me. In fact this Saturday I spotted a bruschetta chicken recipe which inspired my own version which looked and probably tasted quite different but I was off to the races once the idea was in my head.

            1. re: fldhkybnva

              WFD really inspires me. The ideas range from quick, easy and basic all the up to fine dining at home. I don't think I could ever run out of inspiration on this site.

          2. I read a large amount of food blogs, and that's where I get most of my ideas. Actually I confess I don't read them. I follow many on Pinterest and Facebook, and will check on a few... if the recipe of the day looks good I read on, otherwise I just close it out. I will also occasionally buy a new cookbook that strikes my fancy. This is the one I'm working with right now, it was reviewed on one of the blogs I read and it looked interesting: http://www.amazon.com/One-Pan-Two-Pla... I was getting stuck when having to come up with good things to make for 1 or 2 people since many of what I find are for 4+... and while I love leftovers, I get sick of eating the same stuff 3 days in a row. I'm making my first dish from it on Thursday.

            Also, in March I was "working my way through the freezer/pantry". Some of it was because of finances, but some of it was because I just wanted a challenge and I had a too full freezer. Doing that instead of buying new stuff all the time lends itself to creativity I think. Not everything I made in March was great, and this past week I was getting pretty bored, but the first few weeks were a fun challenge.

            I also had fun making the tikka masala from March's DOTM. I had never made anything close to indian food before, so that was a good introduction and I'm on the lookout for more recipes to make in that realm.

            1. You mean besides the wealth of information pouring out of the pages of this site?

              well if CH should ever fail me..........food blogs from all sorts of sources most def. fill in the rest.

              1 Reply
              1. re: HillJ

                Yes, I get many an idea from Chowhound and when I get an idea Chowhound is the place to help me refine that idea to make it successful which is why I love this place though recently nothing has really inspired me but of course with every new post is a potential new idea.

              2. Have a globe handy? Spin it, put your finger down, and find out about the cuisine, down to the local local level.

                Is there a food you dislike? Can you look at various preparations you've never had?

                1 Reply
                1. re: Kris in Beijing

                  thats so funny you say that. When my son was small we kept a small globe on the kitchen table and each night we would talk about where our food came from (potatoes from Maine, etc) as well where the cuisines was inspired from-india, italy etc.

                2. For me it's usually the ingredients that inspire me most. What can I find at the market, what meat, poultry our fish looks interesting/new? Sometimes its the combination of things I've picked up that lead me to decide on a dish but if that fails, then I hit Eat Your Books (search engine for your cookbooks) and plug in the ingredients I have and "voila" a list of recipes I could make. I usually pull a few books off the shelf and I might cook from one or, decide on a dish and take ideas from all the books.

                  Participating in the COTM has also provided me with endless inspiration. I've learned more about cuisines, ingredients and techniques than I could ever have hoped.

                  I used to cook a different ethnic cuisine every Saturday night but now Saturday is usually my night off and we either eat out or pick up something delicious and bring it home.

                  I do have a large-ish (ahem..) collection of cookbooks and love just pulling one off the shelf at random and taking inspiration from the photos or recipes.

                  Finally I love trying to replicate a favourite restaurant dish we've enjoyed or heard of. I like to read menus from my favourite restaurants and see what they're cooking.

                  Ultimately I think that in order for me to feel inspired there definitely has to be an element of a challenge involved. I get bored at the thought of repeating a dish and I'm not one to crave leftovers. I might visit a different market or butcher just to mix things up and see what's new and exciting.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Breadcrumbs

                    Yes, I feel as you do that I love the challenge. The past weekend was a holiday cooking extravaganza and the best part was that it includes many new dishes that required me to read and learn new techniques and then I was so thrilled to test them out and to find that they were successful and to have additional skills under my belt, ready for a new challenge. I often also will try to recreate restaurant meals - I now actually rarely have many meals that are better in the restaurant than at home.

                  2. Aside from Chowhound, I peruse Photograzing, Foodgawker or Tastespotting. These sites have led me to blogs and recipes galore.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: valerie

                      Yes, I used to do this and probably should again. I often will visit the sites when I have an ingredient I want to use and search that term specifically. I am sad that PunchFork is no longer.

                      1. re: valerie

                        Tastespotting and pinterest are mainstays for me.

                      2. Pinterest, blogs, cookbooks, restaurant menus I have saved, epicurious, google searches, CH, Magazine clippings (mostly Cooking Light and Real Simple).

                        1. All of the above....
                          ...and sometimes I'll take a trip to my local chef supply store and/or supermarket (like Bristol Farms or one of the large Whole Foods) or if you have a local ethnic food store (like Bay Cities in Santa Monica; I can never leave there empty-handed), and just walk around.
                          The idea is to find something, either a tool or an item, or combination of things, that you would not ordinarily think of.

                          Also, no matter how much you love something, sometimes you just need to take a break. This goes for anything -painting, writing, sports- anything that requires art, creativity and finesse.

                          Have fun!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Michelly

                            I thought it was just me...I do that nearly every weekend. My job is quite hectic and after years of 16 hour days I have decided to spend the weekends cooking and having a good time in the kitchen. Every Saturday and Sunday, I wake up, go to the gym, grab some coffee and browse the store. In fact, when I approach the meat, cheese and fish counters now they no longer approach me as they know that I'm usually not ready and just pondering and will walk away to think about it and come back. It's great to know them well as I can ask questions and of course they are always ready to help when I am. For the past few months, this has been the excitement that I was referring about in that I'll go to the store and spot both fresh salmon and swordfish and then visit the fresh veggies and then think about a plan by browsing the spice aisle. It's a great time! Also, as you mentioend the idea of something new is also a great inspiration. For example, as a lamb lover instead of the leg of lamb which I am most familiar with I branched out and went for the shanks which I had not only never eaten but never prepared myself and so had a great time learning about them and creating a wonderful Easter dinner.

                            Very true, I might have hit a lull particularly as work has been particularly hectic and so probably have lost the energy for a while but fear not I'm sure my passion excitement will return as they usually do.

                            For others looking for inspiration, I also will choose random traditions to encourage me to explore and be creative. For example, I am not Irish or Catholic but St. Patrick's Day I decided that we must do some form of beef and cabbage and then for Easter I almost did not do lamb but I decided that that's tradition and so why not which resulted in my first delicious lamb shanks, learning a new technique - braising, and straining my first sauce :) It really fascinates me that all of this learning and eating can be so stimulating and satisfying, but maybe that's just me as SO thinks it's so crazy that it delights me so much although he doesn't complain that he eats well.

                          2. For me that's easy. I simply browse through my own recipe collection on the computer. I began saving online recipes in the 1990s. I also had stacks of individual printed recipes from newspapers and magazines dating back to the early 1970s. About 12 years ago I scanned and digitized all the printed recipes. Since then I've saved many more online recipes. So now the collection amounts to about 2500 searchable recipes organized by category into files and sub files. It's actually a lot more recipes than I could use in my remaining lifetime but as long as I can browse through them, I'm never short on ideas.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Sam D.

                              wow, what a great idea. My saved recipes are in complete disarray - random emails, Pinterest tags, paper, Word documents. I should spend some time to organize them and then I'd be able to search which is just so brilliant! But, it's kind of like cleaning out your inbox, once it's such a mess the activation energy to make it better is quite high. I'm adding this to my list of things to do on my next vacation.

                              1. re: fldhkybnva

                                It will take some time but in the end. I'm sure you'll find that it was well worth the effort. Here are a couple tips. Make sure the document title, e.g. "Boeuf Bourguignon from Julia Child" provides enough info to identify the recipe name and, if possible, its source. If you're like me you might have several recipes for the same dish from different chefs or different sources. I always include the recipe source in the line under the title so that I can recognize the source and, if it's an online source, I can go back to that source in case there's a question so I can check to see if I copied the recipe completely and correctly.

                                I usually spend a couple minutes editing a recipe after I've copied it just because I like the style of printing (font, size, etc.) to be uniform, but that's just me.

                                1. re: fldhkybnva

                                  You may want to take a look at the Living Cookbook program to help organize your recipes.


                                1. re: Sam D.

                                  Brilliant I love it. I usually cook off the cuff with inspiration from several different recipes I might have perused but then just do my own thing when it comes time to prepare the meal and so I have been reminding myself to write my own recipe after I decide what to do in the kitchen which is a great idea as it's easy to forget and then have to review all the recipes again and decide what you did and did not like about them. Thanks for the tips!

                                2. Sometimes I just go out for dinner. Or eat ice cream. Or dessert for breakfast and breakfast for dinner.

                                  Sometimes I have to get away from all things "food." I took a vacation from this place most of last year.

                                  I don't beat myself up over it. It has always come back, whether it's because I'm trying something new or returning to an old favorite. Something out there in the world just grabs me, and I'm all about cooking again.

                                  1. It gets boring putting out breakfast/lunch/dinner on a daily basis. I enjoy going to a store I don't get to often (TJ, Whole Foods) and walk around. Looking at the prepared foods is always interesting - i like to focus on the ingredients and try to recreate them at home.

                                    Another thing- eat a meal out. Preferably someplace new or unfamiliar.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: cheesecake17

                                      I love this. Whenever I go to Whole Foods or Wegmans I scope out the salad bar which I rarely eat from but get ideas from.

                                      1. re: fldhkybnva

                                        The counter guys in wegmans are usually really great about giving prep tips.

                                    2. Oh my, I am right there with you. It is almost to the point of depressing and I haven't felt right at work or school. It's like I am losing the passion for cooking and would rather pick it up or do something super super easy and fast.

                                      I need new ideas like you I suppose. I do NOT want to lose this passion. Ever.

                                      I'd imagine that sourcing some local meat would get me going again and it might you too. That elusive hunt for off cuts and offal products was a fun one a while back but it didn't turn up any food in my town. I need to get back on the hunt maybe.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: rcbaughn

                                        My mojo has creeped back in mostly as I find ingredients I'd like to try. For example last week I braised lamb shanks and now I'm pondering what else I can braise with different flavor components or a new twist on roasted chicken has occupied by Google time.

                                      2. As mentioned in my previous post, I am deeply interested in pursuing the subtleties of cuisines form different cultures.

                                        I often attempt to "relocate" a simple dish.
                                        Spaghetti-- what would it take to make it Chinese? Brazilian? Finnish?
                                        Fried chicken- Korean? Peruvian? French?
                                        Hamburgers- Indian? Russian? Caribbean?
                                        Pork chops-- Thai? Eritrean? Fijian?

                                        For me, this is much more than a "spice blend" idea, but the appropriate sauce and side... although perhaps not too much of a change in cooking method.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                          I love this idea. This weekend I made stroganoff and then thought to myself, hey that was good, perhaps I'll try to create the Brazilian version. Also I'm still on the hunt to find the appropriate spices, sauces and sides for Peruvian chicken which I think is a fun food adventure as I love the takeout. Many of my ideas are attempts to recreate takeout food which I know can be improved with better, likely fewer, ingredients. It provides a combination of good food and an opportunity to learn, grow and tap into your creativity in the kitchen which is what I truly love about cooking.

                                          1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                            When I first started cooking, one of my favorite cookbooks was
                                            The Flavor-Principle Cookbook by Elisabeth Rozin. It presented the "flavor principles" of various cuisines, with authentic tasting recipes, accomplishing just what you're talking about. I just looked at amazon and abebooks and copies are pricey, but absolutely get it if you come across it at a reasonable price....I've found a couple in used book stores or thrift stores and passed them along to friends. Have fun, happy experimenting!

                                          2. We use cookbooks and recipes cut from magazines as part of our regular cooking. However, you do run out of inspiration and/or simply can't be bothered to cook the recipes. When that happens, our solution is to fall back on old favourites and/or very simple preparations. A few days of that and the interest comes back.