Comfortable in a Food Rut

If you are what you eat, then I am a series of predictable choices.

I have always been a creature of habit, but a recent project forced me to confront my repetitive nature in the kitchen. Two weeks ago, I started taking a photo of each meal I eat. I post all of the photos on Instagram, where I have cultivated a visual food diary, capturing a foodstagram of each breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

When I began this project, I hoped that sharing all of my meals would force me to shake up my food patterns. I thought I would discover new ingredients and challenge myself to try unfamiliar recipes. I envisioned a year of experimentation and growth, and at the very least, the possibility to dazzle my followers with my culinary dexterity.

So far, this hasn’t been the case. Scrolling through my Instagram, what amazes me the most is my relentless repetition. My page reads like a chessboard, a zigzagging pattern of avocado toast and eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and tacos. The only dazzling thing about it is the near perfection of my eating pattern.

In the beginning, I scrolled through my homepage and felt queasy. Did I really eat oatmeal that often? When had my pasta dishes become so tired and predictable? Is it possible to eat too many eggs in one week? For someone who talks a big talk about eating adventurously, I had dug myself into a well-worn food rut.

So what’s the problem with a food rut? We all have habits, why are they so much more egregious in the kitchen?

When I googled “food rut”, I found dozens of articles about how to avoid one. Everyone from Bon Appétit to Psychology Today has something to say about shaking up food routines. Try new spices, they say. Go vegetarian. Read some new cookbooks. Or throw out all your cookbooks. All of these sources have a similar thesis: a food rut is a bad place to be, and you’d better get the hell out if you want to be creative and inventive and have fun in the kitchen.  

Reading through these articles, I had a few misgivings. Sure, I had once despised my own predictability, but now, two weeks later, I’ve come to appreciate the familiar grooves of my food rut and the shelter it provides.

When I was growing up, my parents made a pot of soup every Sunday afternoon. Vegetable soup, split pea, lentil, leek and potato, it didn’t matter. We ate a bowl of soup before every dinner, sometimes adding water to the pot to make it last the week. I used to complain about our nightly bowls of soup. “Can’t we have something else?” I’d ask. I didn’t know it at the time, but I saw through the repetition and knew it for what it was: a well-developed food rut.

Now, I look back at those bowls of soup and think of the warmth and stability they provided. They ushered in a time when we would all be together, even if just for an hour, and now I can’t smell soup without thinking of my parents.

In some ways, I think the contention over food ruts stems from the larger debate over tradition. Eating repetitively invokes a sense of tradition, like going to church on Sundays or opening presents on Christmas. Think of the turkey and mashed potatoes you eat every Thanksgiving. We call that tradition, but could it also be a long-standing food rut? One so delicious that we never thought to question it?

Tradition is a prickly thing. It can comfort in one breath and damage in another. And it’s most dangerous when it goes unquestioned, like the plate of avocado toast and eggs I eat every morning.

But when you boil it down, tradition gives us something to depend on. Something unchanging amidst a tumultuous world full of uncertainty. So what if you ate spaghetti and meatballs for dinner three times this week? I bet you enjoyed each heaping plate, the smell of garlic and tomatoes no less comforting because you’d smelled it before.

Be an adventurous eater and a fearless chef. Sample challenging recipes, try new restaurants, and conquer unknown ingredients. But if you find yourself in a food rut, don’t fret. There’s comfort on familiar paths and even more on a familiar plate.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor