I used to plan our meals on a week to week basis, and the weekends every other. As it dawned on me that going out would be more and more difficult, and how my grocery delivery service started falling short on the items I wanted to get but ended up not getting, I took stock of my pantry and made a plan.
It helps that I live in a two person household. It’s really just me and my almost 16-year-old son. He is a very picky eater, but though his repertoire is not that diverse, he does eat a man size portion of most things. (Like a 10-12oz steak)
Here are some learnings from the almost 5 weeks we have been staying home here in New York. It’s made me more conscious of the food I prepare and shop for, and at the same time, made me more particular about my food choices. I think I’ve learned to look at food shopping in a different way since the prospect of having difficulty getting what I need became a persistent thought.
These are really very simple, common sense steps I’ve kept in mind to keep myself well-stocked — but not to the point of hoarding — and more importantly, calm and sane through the seemingly crazy time most others are going through.
(1) Take stock of what you currently have, then make a list of perishable and non-perishable items you usually use to help you plan. After one month of staying home and going through the stress of shopping locally at my usual grocery outlets and online sources, I think things have somehow settled down a bit from the initial panic. I have notice, though, that there is still quite a list of items that are no longer available for online delivery. We cannot think in terms of regular shopping cycles. I have found myself shopping with a timeline of shopping again in three weeks.
Staples like cereal and milk should be top of mind. Keep in mind how much your household consumes in three weeks. Be it in terms of staples or food in general — rice, bread, snacks — make that three week grocery list. Separate the perishable and the non-perishable.
(2) Explore substitutes and alternatives to fresh/perishable items such as milk. My son usually does 2% milk — I do non-fat. He doesn’t like the ultra high pasteurized milk that doesn’t need refrigeration until opened, so that limits my options for him greatly. For myself, though, I’ve bought a small can of powdered milk (nothing like the original but we make do!), and have switched to my favorite non-dairy creamer. Pasta is always a reliable go-to. If your family is heavy on spaghetti sauce, then make sure you have the ingredients as well.
My son normally consumes a 25 lb bag of rice in around two months. While I would normally wait until I am down to around a quarter of a sack, I now have an extra bag. This proved wise because my normal source, Walmart online, now runs out of the rice — something that had never happened before. It was reassuring that the item became available again after the panic buying ensued, but I’ve noticed that of late, it has not been available.
If you are heavy on bread, keeping an extra box of pancake mix wouldn’t hurt, and you might want to learn how to bake some yourself. Angelo and I are still all agog over some cheese bread we discovered during one of our dinners out, and I am going to try baking some in the next day or two. And this one required a special kind of flour!
(3) Identify your family’s preferred canned goods and stockable staples. Mac & Cheese is always a winner, and I think I kind of overdid the stocking up on that one, but at least I know that I have leeway in consuming it, even if things begin to go back to some semblance of normalcy. It’s shelf life makes it a good choice for kids meals.
I think I got my little guy worried when I asked him to choose his preferred canned good item. He used to love this Campbell Spaghetti O’s, and when I had him try that with and without meatballs, we settled on it although it was no longer as good as he used to remember. Still, it’s a back up.
(4) Choose the produce you need to refrigerate based on the real estate it will occupy in your fridge. My fresh produce now runs two weeks and even more when it came to items that could be kept in the freezer for extended periods of time. I have a regular refrigerator so I can’t really stock up for any longer than that. I tried to be more mindful of the fruits and vegetables I bought so that I didn’t waste space. I also tried to make the dairy products I bought more efficient by trying to use them in more than one way.
If you are used to buying in bulk, separate the servings into freezer storage bags that you can freeze on top of each other. The original packaging might end up too bulky, taking up more space than necessary, if you store it as is.
(5) Make a meal plan. I’m really a very spontaneous cook. In fact, I leave it up to my son to decide what he wants for dinner – as long as I have what I need to make that specific dish in my fridge. With the work from home situation, I’ve thought of easy to prepare lunches like this to-die-for Vegetarian Chili recipe that sustained me for more than a week of this hearty Three bean Treat. (Something I will write about later.). The meal planning also helped me to make sure that my pantry has the ingredients I need, and at the same time, made me use my ingredients efficiently.
For example, I have sour cream and shredded cheese for the chili, but also bought flour tortillas so I can use the same two ingredients for quesadillas.
Now is the time to be creative, more so when you don’t have the luxury of hopping in your car when you realize there’s something you need that you don’t have in your pantry.
There’s a lot that we cannot control given all that’s happening around us. If we can sit back and know that our family will not want for food and we are able to sustain the supply to make this happen, that’s one big load off our shoulders.
I’m saddened to think of those who are experiencing hardship right now and who are struggling economically. I’ve always said I can always subsist on rationed meals, but I don’t think and cannot imagine that for my son. I imagine what a big worry that is for those who have two or more children, and those feeling the economic crunch of being displaced in the workforce. I am blessed.
There are so many things that lay heavily on me no matter how much busier things have gotten since the corona virus took over our lives. But that’s another post. Let’s start with the pantry, and hopefully, we’ll all be better New Yorkers and people in general, after all this is over.