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How to Spice Up Your Cooking Life

Illustration: Michael Witte

Sometimes even the most devoted cooks get cool to the idea of cooking. We wondered what sex experts would have to say about that. Turns out, lots.

If you perched on a counter in my kitchen almost any day this month and observed me in full holiday-season cooking flow— humming and stirring and almost disappearing behind a barricade of cookbooks and simmering pots and pans—you might not believe that there have been days, weeks, even months when I have entirely lost the will to cook.

Oh, but there have been. Even cooks like me, blessed with what some consider an abnormal level of enthusiasm for heirloom carrots and pulled pork experimentation, with a perfect willingness to cook 25 pies for a friend's wedding, have dark days when kitchen work feels far more like a dreary chore than pleasure. On those days, when we look at a bouquet of perfect purple kale, all we feel is a great big pile of "meh." We are tired, uninspired. We know that someone needs a massage, and we're pretty sure it's not Mr. Kale.

For all those cooks who suffer from the curse of culinary burnout and boredom, I've convened a panel of advisors, including foodies, certainly, but also some sex and relationship experts, to help you reawaken kitchen love.

Why the sexperts? Because what goes on in the kitchen and what goes on in the bedroom are weirdly similar: passion, pleasure, appetite, heat, satiety, falling asleep afterward. When we're in our right minds, cooking and sex bring joy and sustenance, feed body and soul, and make human beings capable of great miracles like the city of Paris and pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, we have a knack for stockpiling a mountain of crazy in our pantries and in our beds—a load of guilt, shame, self-doubt, perfectionism, and general neurosis that can build up and bury our healthy, joyous, creative, life-affirming appetites.

Be gone, crazy mountain. Get thee behind us, boredom. Ahead, everything you've always wanted to know about turning up the heat, rekindling your relationship with your kitchen, and adding a little spice to your cooking life.

"A" IS FOR APPETITE

Step one for more fun: Ask yourself in all seriousness what you really feel like eating. Don't ask your spouse, or your kids, or your guests. You. Are you craving something crispy or silken, sweet, salty, or spicy? "Engage the senses," advises Elizabeth Grill, PsyD, a couples therapist and associate professor of psychology at the Weill Cornell Medical College. "This is a great exercise for sex and for cooking and eating. Too often, people are distracted, thinking about what needs to be done, what didn't get done, what has to be done tomorrow. Instead, focus on sight, smell, touch, and taste." Make your own mouth water. When we stop and really think about what we most feel like eating, it's almost impossible not to get excited about cooking.

Often, though, zeroing in on our deepest food yearnings is harder than it should be.

"From the neck down, many of us are out of touch with our desires," says Tammy Nelson, PhD, relationship therapist and author of Getting the Sex You Want. "We haven't been taught to listen to our bodies. It's a challenge, particularly for women, to tune in to the sensual needs of the body and get in touch with what we crave."

As with sex, so with supper. "So much of not feeling like cooking is that you are out of touch with your cravings, with what you want to eat," says Kate Christensen, novelist and author of Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites.

Feeling bad about your body—a sport that vies with baseball for the national pastime in America, for women and even for many men—can make getting in touch with those cravings even more difficult. "I grew up in a family of women with weight worries," says Ask Amy columnist Amy Dickinson, author of the food-filled memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them. "It goes pretty deep. There is a lot of shame injected into the idea of eating and craving food. It becomes a guilty pleasure instead of a way to nourish your body."

And let's face it, unless we are talking about House of Cards or Cutthroat Kitchen, guilt and its BFFs, shame and anxiety, are the archenemies of both sexual and gustatory pleasure. Logically, we may understand that neither French fries nor salad possesses moral weight, but the effects of food shame are insidious. Whenever an intelligent, thoughtful person says to me, "I was bad," there's a part of me hoping against hope that what follows will be a dramatic confession involving bank robbery, embezzled funds in secret accounts in the Caymans, and possibly shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. What I don't want to hear is what invariably follows: "I ate one of those big muffins."

Repeat after me: Eating shall not be a taboo!

COOKING IS PLAY

When I asked David Lebovitz, dessert chef, blogger, and cookbook author, what he most enjoys making, he answered, "Marshmallows."

Huh?

He explained: "I'm always amazed that when you stabilize meringue, it becomes something soft, pillowy, and fun to eat. It's one of the most satisfying projects you can tackle."

Before moving to Paris 10 years ago, Lebovitz worked for years at Chez Panisse as a dessert chef. In short, he has real kitchen game (his most recent cookbook is a beautiful volume called My Paris Kitchen). And still: marshmallows. I was charmed by the answer, by this serious cook's childlike sense of fun.

Marshmallows. I had an immediate confectionery epiphany. Only the fear that running my ancient KitchenAid during an interview might be construed as rude prevented me from hauling my phone and recording equipment into the kitchen so I could start separating eggs to make my own marshmallows while I talked with Lebovitz. The revelation wasn't so much the marshmallows themselves (although now that we're thinking about them, let's all plan to have homemade marshmallows in our hot chocolate this winter) as it was the importance of the question: What do you love to make?

Following my yak with Lebovitz, I pondered that question. If this were an infomercial, this is where the crazy person—in this case, me—would be hollering maniacally, "It really, really works!" I hadn't been feeling particularly discontented in the kitchen before I pondered the marshmallow equation, but, having done so, I had a new reluctance to set foot outside that room. While I should have been doing laundry or raking leaves or typing this piece, I instead stewed and jellied and roasted and kneaded and mixed. From old favorite recipes, I baked gingerbread and buttery cloverleaf rolls and simmered pasta sauce that made my house smell like my childhood. I shaved Brussels sprouts into paper-thin disks to re-create a raw kale and Brussels sprout salad I loved at a friend's house. I tested out Smitten Kitchen's take on Ina Garten's classic spaghetti and meatballs and the ketchup-glazed buttermilk meat loaf from Diane St. Clair's The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook, just because. I cooked as I did when I first started cooking for myself, unhindered by thoughts of anything except deliciousness. I cooked for the fun of it, for the tactile pleasure of playing with dough, for the smell of tomatoes roasting, for the wisps of hot-pink foam in the boiling purple jelly.

Sounds like a lot of work to someone who doesn't understand the joys of cooking. But, done in this spirit, preparing food can be as enjoyable as consuming food. Cooking is the Play-Doh and macaroni art of adulthood, only now you don't get in trouble for trying to eat what you made.

Cooking, done right, is play.

KIDS RUIN EVERYTHING … BUT ONLY IF YOU LET THEM

There are few things that kill cooking fun faster than an audience of tiny haters. Bulletin: Some children—not yours—are picky eaters. I speak as a former championship-level food problem child. I had a number of strong aversions—tomatoes, melted cheese, wine in any sauce, and food touching other foods. Should I detect a hint of Burgundy in the beef stew, or should the gravy from my meatballs, placed carefully by my mom in the far outpost of the northern hemisphere of my plate, somehow flow south and tragically make contact with the distant salad, there may have been retching. There may have been tears. I am amazed, looking back, that my mother allowed me to live. And that she continued to cook with such enthusiasm and good cheer.

When I spoke with Nelson about the role having children plays in decreased fun in the bedroom and in the kitchen, I added apologetically, "I mean, I know it's not as if kids ruin everything …"

There was no hesitation. "Oh, they do," she laughed. "On average, having kids decreases marital satisfaction by 70%. This is across the board, and it happens to virtually everyone. It is bad for your marriage to have kids."

Grill agrees: "Our work lives are busy, and then with kids on top of that, we are just thinking about dishes, laundry, work, and kids. The first things to go are sex and food."

It's not just the lack of time that can suck all the fun out of a parent's cooking life. It's the exhaustion of trying to appease a little hater who is, I'm here to testify, perfectly happy to hate if given the option. As with most wars, appeasement is not a good strategy.

"I'm so impressed with my sister because she hasn't changed the way she's cooked since my nephew arrived," observes Marisa McClellan, creator of the food blog Food in Jars and author of Preserving by the Pint. "I've seen so many people change the way they cook after they have kids. They start to think, "Oh, the kids hate that. They won't eat that," and they give up."

And do not fear that, if you stop catering to your kids' dislikes, they will stop eating or grow up eating only white rice and hot dogs served in separate bowls. My mom's sane strategy of one meal for all/please try everything/you don't have to eat what you hate produced four adults who eat everything and anything with the appetite and enthusiasm of cartoon goats. Still don't believe me? Ask France. "Here, when people have kids," reports Lebovitz, "they don't change the way they eat. Years ago, a friend said I should do a post about French baby food. I went to the supermarket and found that baby food is a tiny section. Because French kids eat what their parents eat." Merveilleux.

THEY CALL IT FOOD PORN FOR A REASON

"When sexual interest wanes, I encourage couples to try erotic books, magazines, and video," says Grill. When interest in cooking takes a dip, the same advice applies. Except with, you know, food books, magazines, and video.

"When I'm feeling burnt out, I leaf through magazines for inspiration—and I'm not saying this because Cooking Light's a magazine," says Isa Moskowitz, vegan chef and author of Isa Does It. "I have every cookbook in the world. I think I own 3,000. Pretty much addicted. But more than a cookbook or the Internet, magazines are just what I enjoy. Maybe it's because that's how I grew up looking at food. You know, you relax, lie in bed, and look at the pretty pictures."

Gesine Bullock-Prado, baking instructor and author of Bake It Like You Mean It, finds inspiration on the Web: "Pinterest can be your best friend. I keep a board of inspiration dishes pinned, things I've been longing to try that don't take a ton of time to prepare."

I've tried digital inspiration, but I'm too easily distracted. I start with the best intentions, entering a search for spicy Thai slaw. I skim one recipe, then spot a recipe for something called "lasagna cupcakes" and make an unscheduled detour; become discouraged that lasagna cupcakes are an actual thing; e-mail a friend to let her know about the lasagna cupcake situation; pin to Pinterest a craft project that I a) cannot do and b) will never complete; research the ways in which celebrities are just like me (they drink coffee and they wear sweatpants? It's like we're the same person!); scroll through every image on the tumblr site called womenlaughingalonewith salad (it was research for this piece); and watch cats playing patty-cake in English and French. When I'm about to be lured in by El Mejor Video de Gatos Divertidos, I realize dinner is 10 minutes away, and there is no slaw in sight.

I am definitely more of a Fifty Shades of Grey kind of person, and by that, I mean no, I haven't read those books (she writes defensively) and yes, I spent a disproportionate amount of time while working on this piece trying to find an opening for a Fifty Shades of Gravy joke (done). The point I'm trying to make is I like cookbooks best of all. I have a library of cookbooks I trust, by chefs I admire, and I spend way too much time at bookstores and libraries browsing. I keep a few at my bedside and read them when I am having trouble winding down from the day. If I were ordered to make Bullock-Prado's beautiful and insanely complex Because You're Mine Cake—it's a Frank Gehry–meets–ganache pinwheel dream that looks as if it would take a few hundred hours to complete—I might find it stressful, but no one, not even I, expects me to leap from my bed at midnight and produce that cake, and the lovely images relax, inspire, and entertain me like a grown-up bedtime story, a story of fun in the kitchen, lulling me to sleep in a way that no bleak Norwegian murder mystery can.

SET THE STAGE

"Part of cooking or the sex date is making a pleasant place for these activities, creating a zone," says Grill. "It's about staging something and separating your day into a different time." This means no pile of mail and empty lunch bags and laptops stacked on the counter (we're talking kitchen here, not bedroom) and no sink full of unwashed pans from last night's meal.

"We always pour ourselves a glass of wine when we go into the kitchen to start dinner," says St. Clair (who often cooks with her husband). "Instead of sitting down with a glass, we start cooking while sipping. It takes cooking out of the realm of chores and gives it a relaxed, celebratory feel."

A tidy space is inspiring, a glass of wine relaxing, and excellent kitchen tools make cooking dinner even more pleasurable. Good tools are the cook's sex toys, only much, much better. They are of course a matter of personal taste. "I find plastic kind of lifeless," says McClellan. "I love wooden utensils, spoons, spatulas. There's a tactile pleasure in doing something with beautiful wooden utensils."

Or think big. "My life was transformed when we went from a little kitchen stove to a six-burner Wolf," says St. Clair. "My husband and I can both work at the stove; he can brown the meat and I can be toasting nuts for couscous, and it gives you fast heat and drops to a simmer."

I am tool resistant, having come from a family that proudly cooked with (and complained about) cheap pans and dull knives and ovens entirely without temperature control. There are many tools that do nothing for me: apple peelers, egg separators, immersion blenders. (FYI: If you fail to completely immerse an immersion blender, you can, say, paint an 8 × 12–foot wall with carrot soup in under three seconds.)

I keep the immersion blender on hand because my sister uses it when she comes to visit, and because I sometimes come to love a tool years after we first meet. Like my freezer. For years, I thought of it as the place old food goes to die. Lately, though, I've realized that freezers are hot. Inspiration hot and security blanket hot. A freezer stocked with leftover soup or sauce, cooked grains, bread, fruit, and baked goods can provide the inspiration and ingredients for superb home-cooked meals. I would date the freezers of many of the chefs I've interviewed. Consider, for example, the freezer of St. Clair. It is packed with beef, pork, and chicken that she and her husband raise on their Vermont farm. Oh, and wild salmon purchased from a friend who fishes off the coast of Alaska. Raise your hand if you want to go party in that freezer.

If I weren't already in a relationship with a freezer, I would be dating my Cuisinart. Again, it was not love at first sight. I thought of it as the stuck-up cousin of my blender. What was I thinking? Now it helps me whip up a vast slurry of ginger and garlic for kimchi or a batch of scallion pancake dough in minutes or less. I love my mandoline, even though I've lost its safety guard and, consequently, the tip of one finger, because it can slice papery rounds of carrot for a lemon, cilantro, and carrot salad, or perfect disks of new potato for gratin, or bushels of chunky rounds of lemon cucumbers for bread-and-butter pickles in an eighth of the time it would take me with a knife.

JUST DON'T DO IT

What do you do when the tools have lost their allure and all the strategies fail and the thing you want to do least in all the world is make dinner? The experts are unanimous: Just don't cook. Go out. Order in. Let someone else cook for a change.

"When I don't feel like cooking, my partner will cook great traditional Italian food," says Christensen. "I just sit back and let him do it. It's wonderful. There is no greater pleasure than being cooked for. There are sexual analogies here, but we probably don't want them in the magazine."

And by the way, spouses should have a technique or two in their toques for such times. "I'm the primary meal provider in our house," says Bullock-Prado. "But my husband is genuinely great at Japanese comfort food—I buy him the cookbooks. So if I need a break, I just have to leave one of my husband's cookbooks lying about for him to find."

To food people, real pros in the kitchen, a break from cooking is not a personal failure, a statement about gender roles, a responsibility dodge, or a sign of the end times. It is just, well, a break. These folks also advocate eating around, promiscuously. "When you go out to eat, you can reset your relationship with cooking," says McClellan. "There are two results. You either say, "That cost $60, and I can do so much better!" or you go out and eat something really good, a reset meal. I will go to a lovely Indian restaurant and think, "Ah! Brightness and flavor.""

McClellan is also a fan of potlucks. "There's no better palate refresher for me than tasting other people's food, and at potlucks you get to chat with people about food and preparation; it's a fun little social cooking tutorial." St. Clair agrees: "Our neighbors raise yak" (she's in Vermont, far from many restaurants), "and just the other day they called and asked us over for yak ragù. You can't turn that down."

DATE YOUR DINNER

To rediscover the pleasures of the bedroom, Grill advises clients to schedule weekly sex dates. "Couples struggle with it because they think, "If we put it on the calendar and plan ahead, it doesn't feel spontaneous. It feels like work.""

But dates—think first dates, wooing dates—are appointments. And it should be no different when you're married. "I say, "Look, you can be as spontaneous as you want, after you plan it,"" says Nelson, who also likes to recommend the date-your-spouse approach.

And if a sex date, why not a cooking date? "If you can work on creating a fancy, exciting, spicy, adventurous meal once a week," says Nelson, "you can absolutely get away with leftovers and some everyday meals during the week. Every meal will tend to be better from your cooking adventure."

"The rule for date nights," says Grill, "is that you give yourself time, so for cooking nights give yourself time without interruption to create shopping lists and get to the market."

Dickinson described the dating idea so beautifully that I'm going to end with her words: "I recommend that people learn to cook one favorite meal—a main and two sides, say—that they can do together. I recommend it to young couples so they can have that experience of moving through the kitchen together, doing that dance between the prep, the stove, the fridge, the sink. You have these glancing little encounters. It's like in The Big Chill, that awesome scene when the friends are cooking. They play music and start dancing, and cooking together allows them to reconnect. If you can find one meal to cook together, you get to spend 20 minutes, half an hour moving through space together. And that's something a lot of couples stop doing. I think it's a really wonderful way to reconnect. I'm not saying it's necessary. I'm saying it's a joy.