We live in unusual times. “The new normal.” “A virtual reality.” “Social distancing.” I would love to limit my use of these clever phrases to a good game of consultant-lingo bingo, but thanks to COVID-19, everyone is all too familiar with these terms and their far-reaching implications. How we eat is no exception. Restaurants and bars are shut down in most major cities. The grocery store supply chain is severely disrupted causing inventory challenges and shopper anxiety. Even avid home cooks are faced with the new reality of planning and executing three meals a day, every day, at home.
It is not all bad. In fact, this nasty little virus has something wonderful in common with food. This virus, and its implications on our health, our lives, our economies, is creating a rare moment in time where all of us, together, are sharing a common experience. It is not unlike food in that unique and special way. No matter our differences, food brings us together, even while we are busy social distancing. This virus, at least in its more positive moments, is also bringing us together.
While on the subject of making lemonade out of lemons: I appreciate all the positivity and reframing the internet has to offer. Truly, I do. But I am also a realist, so let’s get real. This social distancing thing is not, in fact, a giant Pinterest board of gratitude journals and happy family moments. This is hard.
My husband and I are fortunate to still have our ridiculously busy careers; in some ways, work is busier than ever. We are juggling our new part-time jobs: remote learning facilitator. We are doing all of this with far less support from our village and outsourcing partners. We are not alone in that struggle. I can barely fix that for myself. I certainly cannot fix that for all of you.
Here is what I know: we all have to eat. For me, cooking (and eating) is a way to reconnect with myself and my family during these very, very stressful days. I imagine, if you are reading this, it is for you, too. Writing, incidentally, is another way, so here I am, back at it, after a hiatus. As I have adjusted to this “new normal” of social distancing, I am focusing on one of the perks: lots of time in the kitchen. Along the way, I have gathered my thoughts, tips and tricks, and favorite resources to share with all of you.
baking at home by jenn kosar
Social distancing has sent us all back to basics, so most of this is not revolutionary. Some observations reflect a lifetime of cooking and eating, but with a new focus on those old lessons now suddenly more important in our daily lives. Some tips are a product of doing what I normally do (meal plan, shop, cook) under highly strained conditions. My passion for protecting our vulnerable small business community — most notably restaurants — has risen to the surface. And yes, the silver lining: I have more time to cook and play around in the kitchen, and have discovered a few new resources I’m eager to share.
Helping others as we try to help ourselves.
A quick note before we begin. I wish you all good health during this time of social distancing. Physical health is of course top of mind, but perhaps even more important, I wish you strong mental health. If you have the resources to help others stay healthy, I have included links to ways to help those who may be experiencing food insecurity, as well as ways to help food-related small businesses and the restaurant industry.
This may be the most intense meal planning ever.
If you are already a meal planning pro, your biggest challenge right now is likely inventory management. I live in the New York City area where social distancing and shelter in place orders are causing higher than normal demand for grocery delivery services like Fresh Direct, Amazon Fresh, and Instacart. The supply chain is severely disrupted, in part for expected reasons, but also thanks to the unfortunate (but human) response to stress: panic-buy and hoard groceries and other supplies. I imagine grocery stores in all parts of the country are struggling with new shopper patterns as we all spend more time in the kitchen.
If you are not used to meal planning, this is even more stressful. I am a casual meal planner (check out my post on the basics of my own meal planning routine), and I had a near panic attack recently trying to manage it all. It is a complex web: current pantry items, refrigerator and freezer inventories, precisely timed grocery delivery orders, and three weeks of advance meal planning. All of this has become necessary to compensate for challenges in grocery availability, make sure we have the right ingredients at the right time, minimize food spoilage, and avoid unnecessary grocery store trips. It is admittedly a lot to manage (or at least a lot more than this restaurant lover is used to).
But like most things these days, some reframing is in order. We may be forced into this situation, but we are going to come out of it with ready-made weekly meal plans that we can return to again and again. Here are a few tips to make your meal planning successful both now and in that most wonderous future state:
- Perhaps obvious, keep those meals plans digital or in some other format you can save. Less obvious — save the associated grocery lists. Being forced to plan multiple weeks at a time will illuminate buying patterns in your perishable items that you can use in a multitude of ways: stretching your food dollar, minimizing waste, eating more seasonally, and using batch cooking and/or advance cooking (also known as “nextovers”) to minimize weekday meal prep stress.
- Take the time to determine the common non-perishable ingredients across your meal plans, ideally using a month’s worth of meals and recipes. If this thing goes as long as some predict, you’ll have even more big data to mine. This helps ensure your pantry supports your meal planning efforts (more on that below).
Spring is here. Time to clean out that pantry.
This may seem counterintuitive given that hoarding instinct thing I mentioned, but social distancing is a great time for spring pantry cleaning. Spring cleaning is as much about mental health as cleanliness, and we all know our mental health needs all the help it can get right now. Finding still-edible foods we are not realistically going to use and donating them is always a good thing (find your local food bank with Feeding America here). Alternatively, find a way to get excess food in the hands of our first responders by seeking out groups in your community preparing meals for those working hard at local hospitals.
Pantry clean-out is also a great time to get creative! Turn odds and ends into a delicious meal for your family (check out these ideas from Love & Lemons). If you are really stumped for ideas, or just want a great new podcast to listen to on those neighborhood walks, Samin Nosrat (author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a wonderful study on the science of cooking) just launched a ‘cooking emergency’ podcast called Home Cooking. It is designed to help listeners figure out what to cook based on what they have on hand; you can send your question in advance to email@example.com.
Once you have purged, determine your personalized pantry needs that support your cooking habits. The internet is full of helpful generic lists of ‘pantry basics’, but the beauty of all this social distancing home cooking is you can now more easily establish your own list of pantry staples. What you need to keep on hand for your household will vary greatly depending on how you eat, but consider these categories as you build your list:
- Baking staples
- Preferred spices
- Oils and vinegars
- Canned goods, including stocks and broths
- Meats and seafoods
- Refrigerator basics (dairy products, eggs, etc.)
- Frozen fruit and vegetables
- Healthy snacks
- Breakfast staples (coffee, tea, cereal, etc.)
- Wine, liquor, and bar items
- Cleaning supplies and other household items (the dreaded toilet paper)
After all that hard work, why not treat yourself to some new storage? Always purge first and evaluate what your storage needs truly are, and then consider some pretty options. Here are a few of my favorites. [note: I am required to remind you that if you happen to buy the exact item I link to on Amazon, here or elsewhere on this page or blog, I get a few pennies for your purchase. I provide them for your convenience, not the pennies.]
- Ball Mason Jars. I love these because they come in various sizes, and are good for odds and ends of things vs. taking up a lot of space when you are not storing a ton of something. They are also great for refrigerator storage of salad dressings, soups, and other liquids.
- Weck Storage Jars. Similar to Mason Jars, but with larger and more varied shapes and sizes. I love the pop of color in the orange tops.
- OXO pop storage containers. I love that they are square. It is just more efficient in cabinets and shelves. The downside is they can be either too large or too small, but for some things, they are just right, namely cereal, pasta, and snacks. For those with kids, they are easy for them to use independently.
Now more than ever, eat local.
Of course I am a fan of eating local, that’s what foodwithaview.com is all about! But now more than ever, our local restaurants — and really, all small businesses — need our support. It is safe to order takeout from local restaurants. They need our help to stay in business if we want them to still be here when social distancing is over. If your financial situation continues to support takeout dinners, plan a meal (or two, or three — whatever works) in your rotation. A few things to consider:
- New restaurants may be struggling even more than well-established favorites. Why not give a new place a try?
- Don’t count out restaurants that are usually limited to in-house dining only. Many are adapting to fit the times with new take-out and delivery options. Local readers can join SOMA Eats Local to get the latest information.
- Chains and well-established takeout joints will likely weather this storm just fine. Focus on more at-risk businesses.
- Consider purchasing a gift card for future routine purchases currently on hiatus (again, with a focus on small business). Think about your morning coffee shop, favorite bakery, pizza Friday spot, or happy hour haunt. Even if they are not open, they may have ways to purchase gift cards — just reach out!
- Don’t forget food-related businesses. Consider small grocers, wine and liquor stores, or even organic farms. Many are willing to take phone orders and arrange pickups or deliveries.
photo taken by jenn kosar at liv breads in millburn, nj
Up your home cooking game, and upskill your household while you’re at it.
Even those of us who know our way around the kitchen have an opportunity here. Social distancing has given us the gift of time. That means more of those long, leisurely recipes we have been dying to try. We have the chance to practice whipping up quicker, but still homemade, meals. [Three of them. Every. Single. Day. Who knew how exhausting that actually was?] We can afford mistakes and do-overs right now. Take this time to up your home cooking game. And what about those other people you have been spending waayyy more time with? In our house, we have an isolation goal: more sous chefs by the time it is all over. My husband is already great at breakfast and the grill; by summer, he may have a few new recipes under his belt.
cooking at home by jenn kosar
How are we all going to get there? Well, that could be an entirely separate post, but some thoughts to get everyone started, from beginners to those more comfortable in the kitchen.
- Milk Street Online Cooking School is one of the best there is, and it is free until April 30.
- The Kitchn Cooking School
- Cook the entire cookbook. Perhaps just my dream, but we could all think like Julie Powell, pick a favorite cookbook and cook every single recipe. [While you’re at it, why not read Julie and Julia?]
- Forget the recipes and go freestyle! If you are not feeling super-creative, get inspiration from pantry cleanout articles like this one from The Kitchn, or consult books like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and really learn the fundamentals that make any dish come together.
- For the kids, follow Portland-based little.sous on Instagram and check out their 20 Days of Kitchen Activities for kids program.
- Work through The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs from America’s Test Kitchen or the companion Complete Baking Book for Young Chefs.
It is also a great time to check out a new-to-you food blogger and get some new recipes in rotation. Here are a few of my favorites to get you started.
- Pairings and Platings – not just recipes, wine pairings!
- Fats of Life – low carb, high fat recipes (check out her keto pantry guide)
- Nerds with Knives – I can’t get enough of the gorgeous photography, and their recipes focus on building complex flavors using spirits, beers, and wine.
- Spoonabilities – two guys with ‘real jobs’ who just love food and travel just like me, so I like their blog, a mix of recipes, travel writing, and online gourmet shopping.
- Foraged Dish – whole cooking with simple techniques and ingredients.
- Blue Bowl Recipes – my go-to when I need to remember how to make desserts, waffles, and generally all things baked.
- Half Baked Harvest – more beautiful photography and such variety in recipes, you are sure to find inspiration.
- Feasting at Home – seasonal and vegetable-focused recipes, for when you need inspiration for that farm share delivery.
Help if you can.
I promised links to more information about how to help in food-related ways. Here you go.
- Restaurant Workers Community relief fund
- No Kid Hungry
- Feeding America
- Feed the Children
- Meals on Wheels
I hope you found some inspiration for your next visit to the kitchen. If you’re like me, that’s in no more than two hours. (Seriously, these people never seem to stop eating!) Have any great isolation cooking tips and tricks? Favorite resources to share, newly discovered or old favorites? Leave them in the comments below, let’s all help each other make the best of social distancing — at least from a food perspective!
Don’t forget to follow me on Pinterest, Facebook or Instagram for all my culinary adventures, both in and outside the kitchen. Local friends can join SOMA Eats Local for updates on restaurant offerings during social distancing and crowdsourced ideas on how to help keep our local business and our community going from a food perspective.