This post is meant to help and inspire. This isn't meant to make anyone
feel bad about how they are dealing with the end of everything normal.
(at least for now). Don't look at these pictures and read these words and think, "I'm not doing it right. My life is pieces and I am not enough."
You are enough.
If you are putting calories in your mouth and your children are putting calories in their mouth on a daily basis, you are enough.
So why am I even writing this post?
Because if you get bored, and if you realize, like me, that a big part of you staying sane during stay at home orders is delicious food, maybe this post can help.
I thought that maybe if I laid out how I'm organizing the food part of my life so that delicious meals are part of my daily existence, it would help someone else that is struggling with this part of our new normal.
The Covid Pantry
Let's talk about what your kitchen looks like when you go three or even four weeks between grocery shopping (don't worry, if this seems like an impossible idea, I explain how I do it without breaking my brain later on in this post).
Week 1 is a gluttony of bananas, fresh herbs, leafy lettuces, green onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and (for my husband and kid) store bought sliced bread. It's life as normal, whatever "normal" looks for you and your family. Even if you aren't eating as many plants as me (seriously, no judgement. Do what is working for you. Food and bodies are personal and YOUR business) likely you aren't buying anything at the grocery store that won't last a week. It's when you go beyond a week that it gets tricky.
In week 2 I still have most of my dairy - milk, cheese, and soft liquid dairy stuff that comes in containers. Depending on the limit for eggs at the grocery store at my last trip, I'll either have enough eggs to eat them whenever I want, or I'll be hoarding them for baking so they will last 3-4 weeks. All the meat is in the freezer and being thawed on an as-needed basis, and I'm taking a hard look at any perishable fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are still around at the beginning of week 2. Is it time to make a shaved carrot salad to salvage the last of cilantro? Cook up a batch of green pancakes or miniature pizzas to finish up the fresh spinach? Make a big pot of pasta with blanched veggies, bread crumbs, and bacon drizzle?
Here's examples of when I did just those things.
I made these little pizzas in week 2 when the spinach needed to be cooked. Half baked them, and then froze them. Voila! frozen personal pizzas ready to be baked all the way and have an egg added. You could make a ton of different flavors.
|"Have to use up the produce noodles" speaks for itself. Finished the sauce with a dollap of oil/fat of your choice and a bit of cream (but wouldn't it be good without the cream and bacon bits or sausage instead???) and added toasted bread crumbs on top to give it some texture. |
|If you don't care about the cilantro, this salad recipe, which is featured in a recent post, is a great week 3 and beyond recipe. Carrots keep amazingly well.|
|Green pancakes. You can either make a special pancake batter like I did that is specifically for green pancakes....or you can use your favorite pancake recipe OR a complete boxed pancake mix and start stuffing it with your wilting vegetables. Freeze the left overs (put a piece of parchment paper in between) and reheat over the next couple of weeks.|
|Mushrooms don't keep well past 7-10 days in my fridge, but if I use them in this Turkey or Chicken Tetrazinni and make half for now and freeze the other half before baking in a foil pan, I can have Tetrazinni now AND in a couple weeks when mushrooms were a distant memory. I haven't used canned mushrooms in this dish, BUT I BET THEY WOULD WORK LIKE A CHARM, making this a solid week 3 and beyond dish. Making dishes like this (enchiladas, baked ziti, tetrazzini) and freezing half of it prior to baking is something I've been doing a lot and is a nice way to have a lazy dinner in weeks 3 or 4.|
Week 2 is perhaps the hardest of all as I transition from perishable to stable shelf or long lasting fridge food. What substitutions can I make? How can I use this before it goes bad? Do I eat scrambled eggs or save them for baking next week? Do I eat my frozen easy means now because i'm feeling blah, or save them for later?
Here's a big secret. You get past week 2, and everything beyond that is easy.
My "use it up!" list (more on this later, but it's a piece of paper on the fridge where I write down things that are in danger of going bad) is very active and my planned menu moves around (again, details on how I keep track of meal planning later) to accommodate fresh ingredients that need to be used. That broccoli ain't going to make it another 3 days, better switch that to tonight...
Week 3 is easy. Everything you have left can be eaten today...or next week. The hardest part is remembering to take meat at the freezer in time for it to thaw. Beans, rice, canned food, frozen stuff - have become your constant companions. You learn new appreciation for the potatoes, carrots, celery, apples, onions, cabbage, and citrus that are still dutifully hanging around your kitchen, ignored in the rush of getting their sexier and more perishable neighbors used up in the first 2 weeks. They are now ready to shine. Sure, you might have to go without the garnishes in their dishes that really make them sparkle, but really my beet and citrus salad is just as good without being garnished with fresh mint and cilantro as it is with. You may need to make some adjustments and substitutions for ingredients or exchange frozen for fresh (hint: succotash
is darn good made with frozen ingredients!), but I promise that you can still eat delicious, exciting food three weeks from your last grocery trip.
Here's some more good week 2, 3 and beyond meal ideas that I've made recently enough to have pictures of.
|Chicken curry salad. Celery keeps very well in the fridge for a couple of weeks. The compromise is usually not having fresh herbs at this stage. I do make my own bread and store left overs in the freezer for bread crumbs, croutons, etc. |
|Broccoli pasta. Can make without meat, or add sausage, bacon, left over poultry, or even beans! Because the broccoli is cooked down and soft, frozen broccoli would work well. |
|Expand your salad horizons! The beet and citrus salad at top is made with canned beets and while I'll have to leave out the fresh herbs, it doesn't suffer much. The slaw on the left hand side (with candied nuts....mmm....) does equally well with canned mandarins as fresh mango. And yes, that is the shaved carrot salad making another appearance. |
|Have soba or ramen noodles? How about an asian viningarette along with any of those last veggies and a shredded cucumber tossed? |
|Califlower and broccoli salad. You'll swear you just went to the grocery store. The best part of this salad is that it tastes even better 4 or 5 days after you make it. |
|Rice. Add canned veggies - mushrooms, artichoke hearts. Add mayo and some chopped celery and carrots that are still hanging around. |
|As long as you have flour and eggs...you can have pasta! |
|Nuts + oats = granola. It helps if you have an egg white or two to spare. Think beyond the sweet - this granola mix is a savory blend of cumin and cayenne pepper! The original recipe called for pecans, oats, and steel cut oats. I made it with walnuts and rolled oats only. Don't be afraid to make substitutions or ask someone with more cooking experience what substitutions might work. |
|My comfort food when all the good stuff is gone. Beans and rice that have been simmered with canned coconut milk along with a cinnamon stick, a bay leaf, stock, and some other spices. Eat it hot or cold for as many meals as it will last. |
|Grits is turning out to be my new covid pantry staple. I'm in california and definitely a grits newbie. If you are looking for something rich and decadent in weeks 2 and 3 and beyond, consider grits. Cook them in stock +/- fat (bacon!) +/- milk and then pimp them out to your delight - ragouts, baked, stuffed with vegetables...or just plain out of the pan with a bit of salt and pepper. |
Here's some of the staples that are typically left in my pantry after all the fresh stuff (herbs, perishables and dairy) is gone, with random notes. This isn't an exhaustive inventory of everything in my kitchen - just the things that I find the most important when I'm trying to come up with a meal and it has been at least a week before I've been to the store, and it's going to be another 2-3 weeks before I go again. For this post I'm focusing on ingredients and things to keep on hand for making recipes, which is the type food I enjoy eating - BUT I have plenty of boxed cereal, frozen foods, and canned soups on hand too. So please don't let the focus of this post encourage some fantasy about some sort of "perfect food landscape" over here.
- A complete pancake mix. When the eggs and milk are gone, this comes in handy when the family wants pancakes or waffles, especially if I'm getting nervous about how low my flour is getting.
- Tortilla chips
- Dried chilis. Only because it is a main ingredient in a pulled pork recipe I make on a regular basis that uses big, very cheap cuts of pork that I stock my freezer with
- Raisins and other dried fruit that was a good deal last time I was in the market (currently I also have figs in addition to rosins).
- Nut butters. I usually keep peanut butter and tahini on hand.
- Oranges. They last so long on my shelf!!!!! Same with limes. I have a lemon tree with some fruit still on it so not buying those right now.
- Couscous....an impulse buy last time when I couldn't find pasta or rice. Makes a good side when you are sick of rice and beans
- Ramen. I like to use the noodles to make cold salads and hot soups
- Boxed cereal
- Tortillas (I keep in the fridge to make them last. When they are gone I have Masa flour to make my own, or can make flour ones). But it's easier to use these.
- Whatever meat was a reasonable price, in my freezer
- Salsa and condiments (lots and lots of condiments...customize to your family's tastes and the meals you have planned)
- Canned/boxed stock, canned enchilada sauce
- Canned beans
- Canned tomatoes and pasta sauce
- Canned veggies
- Nuts - whatever was a good price
- Frozen puff pastry
- Frozen convenience foods - in my family it's breakfast bowls and sandwiches
- Frozen fruit and veggies
- Spices and extracts - customize to your family depending on what's on the menu. As long as you have salt, don't bother buying any you don't have a plan for. As you need them for your upcoming meals, buy them and you will gradually accumulate ones that you use.
- Flour - I found a 25 bag when I was at the store last time so it's in my freezer and I refill a container in my cupboard.
- Baking soda and powder
- Chocolate chips and cocoa powder
- Grits. I actually have cornmeal in my cupboard, but my use of grits has made cornmeal a lot less necessary lately. Cornbread requires flour, milk, and eggs - things that I'm often out of in 3 or 4 weeks. Grits is more versatile for me right now.
- Oats - I keep rolled on hand, but picked up some steel cut oats too.
- Rice. If I can find it I like to keep sticky/sushi rice and basmati.
- Dried beans. Pick ones you like!
This isn't some perfect list to aspire to. Lots of suitable food items aren't on it, like lentils. Lentils don't agree with my GI tract, and so I don't buy them and cook them. This list is a starting point.
Shopping and meal planning for 3 weeks
There are two major barriers to grocery shopping for an extended period of time. The first is the outlay of money that is required to do all that shopping at once.
It isn't any cheaper for my family to shop for one week at a time compared to 3 weeks. I spend about the same money per week. Yes, it's an investment to be able to shop for so many weeks at a time. It's scary to write the check at the grocery store for double or triple the amount, knowing that I'm buying perishable things that could as easily go into the trashcan as my mouth.
That brings me to the second barrier. Buying things that will actually feed my family for a couple of weeks without it ended up on the trash can, or having to eat un-fullfilling and weird things because I didn't plan my food well enough.
I can't help you with the first thing, but I can share how I solved the second. Knowing I have this system in place and proving over and over that very little will go to waste if it's in place and I will eat well, makes it a little less scary to write that check and buy ALL that food at once.
Pre-pandemic I shopped once a week for groceries, but there was always enough food and ingredients around that I could easily skip a week if I needed to (out of sheer laziness or being over scheduled). When shopping for 1-2 weeks at a time I didn't need to preplan my meals out - I just kept ingredients and foods on hand that I knew I could combine into meals. But that changed when a couple months ago I decided that I was SICK AND TIRED of having the "What are we having for dinner conversation." You know exactly the one I'm talking about.
"What do you want for dinner?"
"I don't know. I'm not hungry right now."
"It's 4:30. If we don't decide now then we won't eat until 6 and you have said multiple times you want to eat before 5:30."
"I can't think of food until I'm hungry."
"FML" Me either choosing to either once again use my mental energy to *cook something* or passively aggressively sit on the couch and engage myself elsewhere until the rest of the household is hangry and wondering why dinner wasn't done an hour ago.
So I did something about that.
I created a chart, with two squares for each day. Two weeks fits on a single sheet of paper.
Then I went through my recipe binder and cookbooks and made a sticky note for every single main dish that was in my family dinner rotation. Some are good for week nights, others like chinese steamed pork buns are a weekend affair unless there's a stash of them in the freezer. None of these are special or fancy - they are all tried and true recipes that I know will turn out and we will eat.
Then I stuck all the stickies to a piece of paper. I sat down with my paper template and starting filling in the boxes, one sticky per day.
Boom boom BOOM! Weeks of meal planning done. I'd sit down and do 2-3 weeks at a time.
The extra column for each day was for notes - when I needed to pull out certain meat from the freezer in order to have it thawed for a meal later on that week. When the turkey needed to be brined. A side dish that I wanted to serve with the main. A special breakfast or dessert I planned on making.
If I wanted to try a new recipe, I wrote it in rather than putting a sticky note. If it turned out well, maybe it would get it's own sticky note and be placed in the regular rotation.
I keep my stickie's general - "beans" could mean baked beans, or white beans with a ham hock etc. Sometimes I get very specific because I don't want to forget a particularly good recipe - there's a general "stirfry" sticky note, but also a "sweet and spicy pork stirfry bowl" so that I don't forget about a particular wonderful recipe.
At that point I still only shopped one week at a time. I generated my weekly shopping list by looking at the upcoming week (even if I had meal planned beyond that), made sure the ingredients were in the pantry or on the shopping list, added that to a list I kept of all the things we ran out of that week, and voila! Shopping time with a minimum of mental energy expended.
The stickies are easy to move around if for logistical reasons I need to switch something around - for example if I was depending on getting a trip at a good price to do tri tip, followed by enchiladas the next night for dinner, but couldn't get tri tip that week at the store because of price, it's easy to replace with hamburgers and hotdogs - or whatever I saw that was a good deal at the grocery store. Dinner tonight or tomorrow isn't set in stone - it's on a sticky note! Move it around if needed!
So, how did all this change when I started shopping for 3 or 4 weeks at a time?
- Flexibility is key. My stickies get moved around more than ever. After I come home from the grocery store when I can't get the ingredients that I thought I would. Sometimes expiration dates of what was available dictate that meals get switched around. Sometimes my husband decides he really wants roasted broccoli as a side one night and the broccoli pasta with sausage that was on the menu in three days has to turn into marinara pasta with sausage. The stickies help remind you that nothing is set in stone. Move them, switch them. Getting heavy on left overs? Take off the sticky for tonight, move it somewhere logical based on the perishability of the ingredients and designate tonight as "left overs." (this was me last night. Kabobs got bumped which was totally fine because the meat was still frozen, the onions will last a while, and the pineapple is canned...and I told everyone to dig into their choice of left overs).
- My "I ran out of" list is now a "running low on" list.
- Instead of my meal stickies getting put on the calendar according to how much time I have for cooking after work and travel obligations, they are planned based on how perishable the ingredients are. Bean recipes are in weeks 2 and 3. Leafy green and fresh herb recipes make their appearance in week 1.
- I started a new list that are the items in the pantry or fridge that are in danger of going bad. With buying so much food at once it's easy for something to get lost in the back of the fridge. Now, when I'm rummaging around for something and I come across radishes that are starting to look a bit sorry, I put them on the list to remind myself to use them. Sometimes I'll rearrange my sticky notes to accommodate those ingredients. Sometimes it's a matter of a simple substitution for something that can wait a bit longer to be used for something that has to be used right now, and sometimes it just a simple choice of what vegetable I'm going to use on my breakfast sandwich this morning. When I use it up or throw it out, I cross it out.
Pictured: It's been a week since I've been shopping. The potatoes have been around a while (from the shopping trip before this one!) and need to go, same with the oranges. The grapes, asparagus, and fresh thyme are what's left of the week 1 perishable produce that needs to be eaten ASAP.
Preparing for a shopping trip is still the same, although the list is a lot longer. I look at my next 3 weeks of meals and add those ingredients to the items from my "running low" list. The running low list is mostly pantry items that are multi-purpose for cooking, that I listed in the first part of this post, along with standard breakfast and snack items for my family, which also means I could extend the life of my pantry another 7-10 days if I *had* to, beyond the planned meals.
What if all of this is really overwhelming?
If meal planning is new to you and shopping for even one week would have constituted long range meal planning and shopping, consider breaking in yourself gently. For week one plan whatever meals your heart desires. Then, for weeks two and three only put food on the menu that is relatively non perishable. Canned food, dried food, nuts, apples, citrus, frozen fruit and vegetables, potatoes, frozen pizzas, muffin mixes, complete pancake mixes.....don't worry about labeling food good and bad. You shouldn't do that as a general rule anyways (I will not get on my soapbox right now I promise), but another way to think about it is that reducing your trips to the grocery store matters far more for your health than whether you should eat cereal or a veggie omelet scramble for breakfast. For right now just buy the calories you know you will eat and won't spoil before it's time to eat them. Once you've been through a couple 2-3 week shopping cycles it will get easier.
Now excuse me, my fridge is calling me and it's time to go eat!