How to Battle Kitchen Burnout (And Still Get Dinner on the Table)

I’m staring into my freezer at eight a.m., pawing through vacuum-packed lumps of chicken and bags of frozen bananas to find anything that might easily turn into dinner. I know I need to use the greens I got last weekend. I dream of someone else fitting all the pieces together.

I’m not cooking tonight, I say to my husband, who is lost in his screen, trying to fit in a few early hours of work before he wakes our daughter. He nods absently.

I start to put away a cookbook that’s sitting out, but stop and scan the photos, picturing how I used to love shutting myself in the kitchen, rolling a tray of herb-dotted meatballs to simmer all afternoon. Spaghetti. There’s a jar of sauce on the shelf. Just make spaghetti.

That night, I go through the motions again.

“Burnout is not the same as stress,” psychotherapist Anna Lindberg Cedar explains to me on the phone. “We experience stress with the adjustment to any life change, positive or negative. Getting married causes stress. Job promotions. But with burnout, you stop functioning. You stop doing the things that you typically care about, or you do them, but not very well, or without much feeling. You begin to lose touch with who you are.”

“The most painful part,” she notes, is that burnout “attacks things that we typically love so much, the activities that used to bring us joy and pleasure.”

I’ll stop here to recognize: It’s a huge privilege to have a fridge with fresh food in it, a cupboard stocked with boxes of pasta. So many families right now are struggling with food insecurity, on top of the pandemic and all of its attendant crises. But whatever you’re facing right now—whether you’re in isolation on your own, or out advocating for racial justice; whether you’re facing a terrifying work situation or smoky orange skies, or juggling childcare and remote learning and all the rest—it’s likely your surge capacity is depleted. And if, like me, cooking was one of your outlets in the past, it’s possible, after all these months of meals, you’ve lost your kitchen mojo, too.

On Instagram, my friend Rachel Khong captioned a recent photo of a home cooked-meal: “Can you believe we have to eat every day?” To many of us, meals—and the decisions required to make them—feel like waves folding one after another onto the shore. It’s relentless. And while a few of my friends still seem to be enjoying their pandemic cooking (and baking) projects, as things unravel, I’m seeing more notes about burnout on my Instagram feed. We are all struggling to feel any spark.

I ask Cedar what we can do. “You do need to give yourself some form of pleasure and rest, even when you’re in a crisis,” she explains. “Giving yourself the time to have access to another sensation”—a moment of pleasure—”is going to be really important for your sustainability.”

And that means, she says, acting against what burnout

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