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Time To Get Out Of That Food Rut

Did you feel that bump? Here it is, a brand-spanking new year, and your cooking is stuck in a rut deeper than the cleft in Jacques Pepin’s chin.

Twelve months stretch before you, day after day of shopping lists, takeout food and meals cobbled together from some sort of meat and something that passes for a vegetable (no, green Jell-O doesn’t count).

Time to shake things up a bit. You learned the Macarena, didn’t you? So you can learn a few new cooking tricks - and they’ll stay with you long after Macarena has gotten a new boyfriend.

Now, we know the hard part about shaking up your diet is convincing your spouse and kids to go along. You make broccoli and fish-cheek stew three times a week because that’s the only thing they’ll eat.

So enlist them. Hand the kids a cookbook and have them plan a meal once a week. Set your spouse loose in the produce department and vow to cook whatever he/she brings back.

To get you started, here are 12 ways to wake up your meals, one simple idea each month to usher you through a year of wonderful food. So hit the kitchen. Time will fly when you’re having fun.

January: Try a new recipe each week for the rest of this month. You don’t have to buy new cookbooks or fill your house with pricey magazines; go to the public library and explore its selection. The Dewey decimal number for “cookery” (what libraries call cookbooks) is 641.5.

February: Try one new food a week (it’s a short month, so this will be easy). It could be a meat you’ve never cooked, like lamb (or ostrich, or buffalo). Or go to the produce department and poke around among the exotics, like chayote or Belgian endive. Many come with cooking instructions.

March: Expand your confidence as a cook. Try this: Read over the recipe, get out all the ingredients and line them up. Then put the cookbook in a drawer and make the dish using your instincts. It may not turn out exactly like the one in the book, but if you are working with good ingredients and you let your taste buds be your guide, you’re bound to come up with something edible.

April: This is tax month - time to think frugally. Teach yourself the habit of menu planning and making a shopping list. Look for ways to overlap dishes to make the best use of leftovers. Stick to the list when you get to the store to keep yourself from overspending.

May: Teach someone else in the family to cook. Make a deal with your spouse or older child that he (or she) will be responsible for planning and cooking one meal a week (takeout and restaurant food don’t count). And train yourself to keep your mouth shut if it isn’t done exactly the way you would do it. You learned from your mistakes. So will they.

June: Pick some of your own food. Strawberries will be coming in about now, and you’ll have plenty of other chances: peaches in August, apples in September, pumpkins in October. And by all means, take the children in your life with you. Nothing tastes sweeter than a strawberry eaten out in the field, while the sweat is drying under your shade hat.

July: Now that the weather is welcoming, eat one meal a week outdoors. Have breakfast on your patio, porch or apartment balcony. Take a picnic on Sunday afternoon. Eat out by the grill on Saturday night. Fresh air gives its own flavoring to food.

August: Go to the farmers market and buy one food you’ve never had before. Creasy greens? Baby squash? Give them a try. For pointers, ask the people selling them. If they grow it, chances are they’ve cooked a lot of it.

September: Try one new international cuisine. Thai it up, or delve into Russian. Even if you can’t take an exotic vacation, you can make your world a little larger. And if there’s no area of the world left that interests you, try going vegetarian for one week.

October: Want to appreciate your food? Focus on feeding others. Buy one item a week for a soup kitchen or feeding program, or find a few hours at breakfast or lunch to cook for a charity program.

November: Share the work with a friend or neighbor. Each of you makes a week’s worth of meals and freezes them, then swaps. Or get together with several friends and make a month’s worth of meals for the freezer, with everybody sharing the work and the bounty.

December: Clean out your freezer and cabinets and make a list of all those foods you bought and never got around to using. Make a menu plan that uses them up. That will force you to get creative, you’ll save money on groceries - and you’ll start 1998 with a clean slate.