Does your social distancing diet consist of an extraordinary amount of Pringles and Oreos? We get it—those snack items are convenient and cheap. However, there’s a better way to eat while stuck at home.
As Americans adjust to the concepts of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, we also have to reconceptualize the way we eat.
Since sheltering in place has become the norm, social media has lit up with images of perfectly shaped cinnamon rolls and a startling number of sourdough starter tips. These aspirational and beautiful photos can create a serious sense of food envy for folks who don’t know a saucepan from a skillet.
And for many Americans before the pandemic, kitchen skills and knowledge were considered optional. They were nice to have, but not necessary in our app-based, on-demand food delivery world. But this notion seems to be changing fast.
We love(d) eating out
In a survey last year, 56% of Americans said they eat out at a restaurant, order takeout, or get delivery two to three times a week. And according to Gallup, the number of Americans sitting down and eating a meal in a restaurant on an average day remained steady since the 2008 recession—at 45%.
But although the percentage of restaurant meals has stayed consistent, we were spending more than ever. 2019 was a banner year for restaurants. The National Restaurant Association projected a nearly 4% increase in sales at eating and drinking establishments, representing a new high of $863 billion, with continued growth expected in 2020.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. According to a survey of 5,000 restaurant owners from March 1 to March 22, nationwide sales are down 47 percent.
This also meant many inexperienced home cooks took a look at their sparse shelves last month and felt a creeping sense of dread. Where to begin when your skills in the kitchen top out at boiling water?
Start with your pantry.
Why you now need a well-stocked pantry
Americans are cooking more at home these days, and many are taking their first crack at preparing a full meal.
And let’s dispel a common myth—cooking is more than simply following a recipe. Food prep starts with getting the right ingredients and having a plan. And since daily trips to the grocery store aren’t exactly feasible these days, strategy is everything.
It all circles back to a well-stocked pantry. If you are one of the millions of Americans who find themselves lost in their own kitchen, it’s crash-course time.
FEMA provides a basic list for a two-week food supply in case of emergency. This list includes the shelf life of some items and how to do basic food prep. It also offers solid info on stretching your food supplies.
Our advice: Begin with what you and your family like to eat and generally know how to prepare. This isn’t the time for exotic ingredients and food adventures—unless that’s your thing! For everyday meals, stick with a few basic items that can work in a variety of recipes.
Kevin Curry, the fitness and food expert behind Fit Men Cook, has helped people get comfortable cooking for their health. Since the quarantine began, his no-fuss approach to food prep has taken on new meaning. His Instagram is full of videos of the gorgeous, nutritious, and simple meals he’s created at home.
The food expert’s key takeaway to make your pantry truly perfect?
“I would look for ingredients that you can incorporate across several different meals,” says Curry. “A poke bowl sounds great to make, but you wouldn’t want to make it because the ingredients are so specialized.”
He also advises shopping in the bulk-foods aisle.
“Look for things you can buy in bulk that can stretch across several meals. When you’re trying to feed so many people at one time, you can also reinvent the ingredients with spices and sauces,” says Curry.
Let your tastes inform your pantry staples. If you don’t love lentils, don’t expect romance to bloom in this time of crisis. Pick foods that fit your flavor profile.
We also found a pantry checklist from the Food Network, which lists anchovy fillets and chipotle chiles as must-haves. These items make sense if you have an adventurous palate, but perhaps not if you’re struggling to get three squares on the table seven days a week.
Adding to the complication? Many staples like pasta might be scarce at grocery stores right now.
Curry’s quarantine shopping checklist is heavy on protein (no Doritos!) and flexible enough to satisfy everyone. There’s tofu and frozen edamame for the herbivores, as well as shelf-stable basics.
We’ve put together this primer to help you stock your pantry. You can use these items, along with your choice of protein and vegetables, to create a number of meals.
- Spices: Salt, pepper, cinnamon, and some seasoning blends (e.g., Italian, taco, and ranch)
- Canned goods: Soups, stock, vegetables, tomato sauce, pasta sauce, beans, fruits, and fish
- Grains: Oats, rice, and cereal
- Cooking oil: Olive oil, canola oil, and nonstick cooking spray
- Dry goods: Box mixes (e.g., pancake, brownie, and corn bread), flour, and sugar (granulated and powder)
- Snacks: Nuts, dried fruits
- Condiments: Ketchup, mustard, salsa, sriracha, hot sauce, soy sauce, and teriyaki sauce
- Vinegar: Red wine, rice wine, and balsamic
Don’t overstuff your pantry
While you’re grocery shopping, buy just what you need. There’s no need to clean out the shelves.
Curry reminds us there’s been no disruption in food supply chains and that hoarding food out of panic has unintended consequences.
“While you should have enough food for two weeks, panic buying and, in some cases, hoarding groceries does more harm than good as it puts grocery workers at risk (because of crowded stores), potentially contributes to future food waste, and blocks supplies and food for the most vulnerable among us,” he says. “So buy what you need for you and your family. We’re in this together.”
Can’t find what you need at the store? Contact local restaurants or bakeries. Many have set up makeshift grocery operations and may have scarce items like flour, yeast, and eggs. It’s also a way to help keep local businesses afloat at this time.