5 Meal Templates When You Have No Idea What To Cook For Dinner

By | Thursday, April 30, 2020

One of the most predictable phenomena in a time of crisis is the swift devolution of one’s eating habits. Whether it’s a global pandemic, personal grief, a heinous few weeks at work, or a particularly awful breakup, emotional upsets of any scale can reduce the best of us to the scavenging habits of an opossum. Since my state’s governor shut us all down, I’ve certainly slapped peanut butter and honey on a tortilla and called it a meal more than once, and I’m sure it’ll happen again (perhaps with chocolate chips).

While succumbing to the culinary urges of your inner kindergartener can feel great in the moment, doing it over and over doesn’t contribute much to long-term wellbeing. And while not all times of crisis are exacerbated by limited access to grocery stores, restaurants, and other means for procuring healthier choices, I’m writing this during the ever-evolving coronavirus pandemic. We are experiencing very strange, unpredictable emotions and very strange, unpredictable pantry limitations at the same time, which can lead to some truly chaotic meals.

My balm of choice, regardless of the source of upset, is structure. Specifically, meal structure. No, this isn’t another ode to meal planning, since it’s hard to plan for pancakes when you don’t know if you’ll even find flour this week. I’m talking about flexible meal templates that promote at least some balance in your diet and minimize the soul-crushing boredom of canned soup or pasta-with-whatever again.

One caveat before we get started: I’ve been a vegan for almost my entire adult life and was a vegetarian for a while before that. As a result, I never learned how to cook meat. So while all eaters can use these formulas, you’ll find my suggestions lean heavy on the chickpeas.

Without further ado, here are five different meal frameworks you can use to shake things up or rein in the indulgence. 

A protein + a starch + a veggie

This is the go-to formula of twentieth-century moms and Instagram bodybuilders. I ate a dozen variations of this as a child, and for good reason: It hits all the high points of a balanced meal. No matter how you mix and match the elements, you end up with a pretty nutritious outcome. However, you should err on the side of my mother’s approach: Change up the ingredients, and love yourself enough to serve it on a real dish. Do not doom yourself (or your Instagram followers) to an eternity of identical plastic rectangles filled with aggressively segregated macros.

Here are some of my favorite variations:

  • Trader Joe’s soy chorizo + polenta + sauteed bell pepper
  • Soy-glazed seitan + rice + broccoli (plus spicy cashew sauce)
  • Ginger-sesame tofu + rice + quick-pickled vegetables (I like a combo of shredded carrot, daikon, and red cabbage)
  • Chickpeas + soba noodles + whatever veggies you’ve got (plus a ginger-soy sauce)
  • Falafel + couscous + bell peppers + cucumbers (plus a generous dollop of hummus and/or hot sauce)
  • Black beans + rice + onion (slap this on a tortilla, add hot sauce, and you’ve got my boyfriend’s favorite meal)
  • Whatever beans + quinoa + chopped bell pepper (extra delicious with balsamic vinegar and a chopped apple or mango)

A grain + a green + a bean

This is the vegan equivalent of the protein-starch-veggie trifecta. Every vegan in the world has heard of this, just as every vegan in the world has been asked where they get their protein. This holy trinity is our answer: There’s protein in pretty much everything. And if you eat enough variety, you’ll get plenty.

Like its forefather, this formula offers nearly unlimited combinations that can be dressed up in virtually unlimited ways. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Chickpeas + quinoa + kale or spinach (plus hot sauce or soy sauce)
  • Black beans or chickpeas + rice + broccoli (plus a spoonful of hummus or a peanut sauce and some shredded red cabbage)
  • Corn tortillas + lettuce + black beans (plus a pile of stir-fried veggies and salsa)
  • Lentils + brown rice + spinach (in curry form)
  • Roasted, spiced chickpeas + romaine lettuce + croutons (plus a Caesar dressing and whatever fixings you like)
  • Gnocchi + chickpeas + spinach (in soup form, with onions, carrots, and celery)

Many of the eight million Buddha bowl recipes on the internet tend to follow this formula, which offers a great avenue for inspiration. 

Kitchen sink _______.

Kitchen sink frittata. Kitchen sink sheet-pan meal. Kitchen sink pizza. Kitchen sink tacos or burritos. Kitchen sink cookies. Kitchen sink soup. Kitchen sink curry. Kitchen sink oatmeal. You get the gist. Pick a flexible canvas and throw in everything that makes even a modicum of sense. The goal here is to use up the half-eaten onions, the bell pepper or apple that’s just beginning to wrinkle, that bruised banana, the last quarter-cup of parmesan or almonds, the spinach that’s too limp for a salad yet still salvageable.

I’ve been eating a lot of variations of this wrap with whatever vegetables I have. Soup is another excellent way to free up a lot of fridge and pantry space. I haven’t made this dal recipe, but I hear good things. And of course, there’s virtually no limit on weird flavor combinations in desserts anymore. If Milk Bar can put cornflakes and marshmallows in a chocolate chip cookie, then you can do whatever the hell you want.

In addition to “kitchen sink,” recipes like this can also be called “garbage,” “everything,” or, my personal favorite, “compost.” So keep that in mind when you’re googling for inspiration.

The Sweet And Savory Switcheroo

I’m not talking about the reprehensible nightmares you see on those shot-from-overhead, sixty-second Instagram videos (lasagna cupcakes? Not today, Satan). I’m talking about genuinely delicious ways to change up the traditional flavor profile of a classic dish. Savory versus sweet crepes, fruit- versus meat-filled hand pies, cheese versus dessert pizza: These are just a few examples of foods that can pendulum swing from one category to the other.

One of my personal favorites: savory oats. If you haven’t jumped on this bandwagon yet, fear not: I saved you a seat. Here’s how I make it: add ¼ cup of rolled oats and ⅓ cup of red lentils to a small saucepan. If you’ve got them, add a clove of garlic, minced, and some finely chopped onion or shallot. Add 1-1 ½ cups of broth, depending on how soupy you like it, and cook over medium-ish heat for 10-15 minutes, or until it reaches a texture you like. Garnish however you want! I like mine with a spoonful of hummus, cherry tomatoes, and a few crackers, but the sky’s the limit. You could add a fried egg, avocado, hot sauce, salsa, whatever the hell you want. It’s a revelation and a testament to the fact that brown sugar and raisins have not cornered the market on oatmeal toppings.

You can also bastardize the burrito by spreading peanut butter on a tortilla, drizzling it with honey, adding a sprinkle of hemp or chia seeds, and wrapping it around a banana. There is nothing culturally laudable about this creation, but it’s delicious and moderately amusing to eat since one careless bite will send your lubed-up banana shooting out the other side (not that this has totally happened to me). You could, of course, mitigate this risk by slicing up the banana beforehand, but I like to live life on the edge.

Breakfast For Dinner

This one is a no-brainer but bears repeating. Breakfast tacos. Pancakes for dinner. Chicken and waffles whenever you feel like it. There are no rules, and time has no meaning. Weeks before the coronavirus arrived, I went to the office kitchen for my morning tea and discovered a coworker making a cup of coffee with one hand and eating a slice of cold pepperoni pizza with the other. It was 8:00 a.m. If he can engage in such shameless, legendary rule-bending in a professional workplace, you can have falafel for breakfast and a yogurt parfait for happy hour.


Whatever you’ve got rolling around the crisper drawer or hiding behind the Froot Loops, you can put together a pretty great meal if you’re willing to experiment a little bit. Forget your cares for a moment and pretend you’re on Chopped. Turn your carrot tops into pesto, serve your taco fixings with polenta, or jazz up some simple rice and beans with your favorite sauce. You deserve a meal that’s going to make you feel good while you’re eating it and in the hours and days to follow. Don’t worry about making it fancy. Just make sure it’s good.

Maggie Olson is a marketing professional and freelance writer and editor living in northeast Ohio. She is a voracious reader, a meal prep enthusiast, and a yogi/hiker/biker/runner/kayaker. You can follow her vegan cooking and baking adventures on Instagram at @maggieolson or find her on Twitter at @maggiebolson.


Image via Pexels

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