How Limitations Can Unlock Creativity in the Kitchen (and Beyond)

Michael Benninger
5 min readJun 5, 2020

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are dealing with a slew of new restrictions in our lives. We’re not able to spend time with all of our loved ones; we can’t go to restaurants and bars we formerly frequented, and we’re unable to travel to places we long to visit. And there’s yet another way in which these restrictions are affecting us — and that’s right in our own kitchens.

During the past few months, grocery stores have been picked clean by panic buyers, and coronavirus outbreaks in factories have caused some people to fear food shortages. Consequently, many of us have been confronted by bare shelves at supermarkets, forced to make do with whatever’s still in stock. This, in turn, has left our pantries looking paltry, while our refrigerators are now barren coolers smattered with edible odds and ends. And while having fewer ingredients certainly has its drawbacks, such limitations can also lead to wildly creative concoctions.

In a recent episode of Checking In, our short-form in-app audio series about lives lived remotely, Blinkist’s head chef, Ed Leach, offers insight into how he’s getting through the pandemic while caring for his wife and two young daughters. He describes how he’s bought the bulk of his food at a single grocery store near his home and how he has to ensure that every meal he prepares is suitable for his nursing wife and newborn baby.

Despite these restrictions, however, Ed believes the circumstances many of us are currently facing can be a positive factor when it comes to creativity. So if you’ve been eyeing your fridge and feeling fresh out of ideas, Ed has some tips about how to transform minimal ingredients into magical meals.

Creative Cooking in the Age of Coronavirus

Ed is obsessed with creativity, and for him, there’s no better way to express this passion than through food. He even compares cooking a meal to playing a jazz song, wherein different ingredients represent different notes. And when it comes to the current crisis and working with limited options, Ed explains how constraints can play a pivotal role in the creative process.

In his episode of Checking In, Ed reveals how home cooks can still prepare their favorite recipes even if they’re lacking some ingredients. The secret is to substitute missing items by getting creative with what you do have. For instance, if you’re craving spaghetti and meatballs but you don’t have any pasta, Ed suggests using ribbons of carrots to replace the nonexistent noodles.

In the kitchen, it’s common for home cooks to get creative by thinking outside the box and incorporating an assortment of flavors. But now that we’re all stay-at-home chefs with limited ingredients in our cupboards, we’re forced to think inside the box by cooking with what we do have at our disposal.

Say, for instance, you only have only four ingredients in your kitchen. Rather than preparing the same meal over and over again, Ed suggests using one ingredient as the major player in a meal today, then using the same ingredient as a minor player in a meal tomorrow. So even if you only have a few ingredients, you can make several dishes by selecting different flavors to be the stars of each plate.

By adopting a creative mindset when it comes to cooking, it’s easy to prepare a variety of imaginative meals even if you have relatively few ingredients. Yet it’s not only in the kitchen where limitations can lead to creativity. Having fewer options and more constraints has been a key factor in many innovations.

Creativity with Constraints

Working with limitations can be the key to innovation in more areas than just cooking. The first step is to realize that constraints can actually be a boon for creativity rather than an obstacle. In Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love, author David Sturt shares an anecdote about a writer and illustrator named Ted Geisel who dreamed of helping children learn to read in the 1950s.

Geisel was passionate about literacy and empowering children to understand the building blocks of the English language. Yet on one of his early assignments, Geisel’s publisher limited the young artist to using a list of 225 words that most six-year-olds had in their vocabulary. This lexicon primarily consisted of one- and two-syllable words, most of which were nouns rather than verbs.

Instead of allowing these limitations to hamper his progress, Geisel viewed the constraints as a challenge. Shortly thereafter, he had a breakthrough moment when he realized that two of the words on the list, “cat” and “hat,” rhymed. Then, in 1957, Geisel published The Cat in the Hat under the pen name Dr. Seuss. The book was an instant hit with children and parents alike, and Dr. Suess’s stories continue to influence young minds around the world.

Using Obstacles to Your Advantage

The concept that constraints fuel creativity isn’t just anecdotal. In fact, a study from 2015 found that resource scarcity can actually enhance creativity by allowing people to transcend traditional thought patterns and conceptualize novel constructions. And similar to how limitations can lead to innovation in the kitchen and in literature, restrictions can also lead to advances in computing.

In Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build a Web Application, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson — two of the minds behind the project management tool Basecamp — explain how limited resources can drive digital innovations by forcing software developers to focus on what they have to work with. In that book, the authors encourage readers to welcome constraints rather than try to remove them and to leverage limitations as a guide instead of allowing them to induce panic.

Continue Learning About Creativity

If you’d like to learn more about creativity and how to harness it, Blinkist’s library includes several books about the topic, including Stretch: Unlock The Power of Less and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined and Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. So the next time you’re staring at your fridge wondering what to make, remember what chef Ed says: For creativity to be successful, you must embrace constraints.

Originally published at