Let me guess. You’re used to going to work, eating out, ordering in and now, you’re forced to pretend like you know how to prepare a meal for yourself. And now that cities are shutting down restaurants to help flatten the curve against the threat of the coronovirus pandemic, you’re stuck at home with nowhere to go and little to eat.
Sure, you could always slang some ramen noodles, eat cereal for dinner and survive on frozen pizza for a few days, but that’s just depressing. Restaurant delivery may still be an option but if you keep that up, you’ll blow your budget.
So if you’re tired of eating Lean Cuisines and soggy delivery burgers, now is a great time to start cooking with more confidence. Below, is a comprehensive list of kitchen, grocery shopping and cooking tips you can use to make the most of your time and budget while you’re quarantined. No, this is not an even shorter version of the Four Hour Chef and it wont turn you into a Food Network star overnight. Think of this as a cooking while quarantined emergency kit for the home cook trying to figure things out on the fly.
If you have any comments or questions, please add them below. We’ll be checking this post regularly and updating the list as needed.
1. Make room for essentials
So if you thought we’d start with actual cooking tips, sorry, we’re not quite there yet because there are more important matters to address first. These are survival times and the goal should be to find a balance between managing your food budget, minimizing waste/spoilage and limiting the amount of times you need to actually leave home. The worst thing you could do is buy a bunch of food without a plan for how you’ll utilize or store any of it.
Here are three things you can do to optimize storage in your home immediately.
Step 1: Purge
If you have a tight space in your freezer or pantry, dump all the stuff you haven’t touched in 4 months. Get rid of the fenugreek, the fancy mustard and the thing you only keep in your fridge for the days your random friends comes over. If you haven’t used it in months, there’s little chance you’ll be using it in a pinch. We don’t know how long this situation is going to last, so if we’re going to make room for anything, it should be the things you absolutely need.
Step 2: Consolidate
If you’ve somehow managed to open two of the same thing and you’re sure they’ll be used, either get rid of the one that’s already open or start consolidating. It doesn’t matter if they’re different brands. Once they’re all mixed together, so long as they’re the same product, you’ll have created your own blend. This is fine for things like sauces, olive oils, salsas, condiments and dry storage goods. We wouldn’t recommend you do this with dairy products.
Also, now is finally your chance to use those ridiculously tiny plastic containers you have that only hold 4 oz of food. Think about it. If you only have 3 oz of ranch dressing left in a 28 oz container, either use it, toss it, or throw it in a smaller container to make room in your fridge. If you have them, you may be able to store thick liquids in plastic Ziploc bags too. Whatever it takes to make room…do it!
Step 3: Breakdown boxes, cartons and jugs
Lots of shoppers have already raided the freezer section in their grocery store which is smart because frozen foods have a long shelf life. But frozen foods can also be really bulky which take up critical space in your freezer. So here’s what you can do.
Take them out of their boxes or cartons so you free up more space in your freezer. This goes for frozen dinners, pizzas and anything that is sold in a carton. If you’re concerned about not being able to recognize them without the box, then take a picture of it next to the carton it came in. Also, be sure to take a picture of the instructions so you’re not guessing the oven temperature or microwave time when it’s time to actually eat it.
Items that are stored in plastic bags like mixed vegetables and fries aren’t as bulky BUT if they’re in big bags, consider transitioning the remaining food into smaller freezer bags to make more space. Honestly, even if you have a pint of milk in a half gallon container, pour it out into a clean glass and cover it with cling wrap. Lastly, if you have a Sharpie, now may be a good time to label things that have been removed from their packaging so you know exactly what’s in it.
2. Grocery shop like a pro
In our e-book, Eat BETTER on a budget, we have an entire chapter dedicated to grocery shopping, but we didn’t write it with a quarantine in mind. In a situation like this, taste and nutrition are still top priorities but we have to be more mindful of shelf life which means you should be looking to purchase products that have multiple uses and can be stored easily.
Here’s a list of products we’d consider staples during a quarantine.
As much as we love to eat fresh salads, herbs and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, unless you’re eating them pretty quickly, they’re at risk of spoiling which means you’re at risk of wasting money and putting yourself in a position to go to the supermarket more frequently than needed. So to get your filling of fruit, consider making smoothies instead of eating them fresh every day. But if you must eat fresh fruit, we’d recommend eating fruits that have longer shelf life like apples, bananas (if refrigerated), grapes, cherries, plums and blueberries. Avoid fruits like raspberries, pears and pineapple because they over-ripen and spoil quickly. Basically, any fruit that bruises easily should be avoided. Also…while we prefer organic produce, they tend to spoil quicker, so now may be the time to buy conventional and save a few bucks too. Click To Tweet
If you’re looking to get your fill of greens, consider salads in sealed plastic instead of the mixed greens in hard-plastic cartons. The bagged salads typically have sturdier greens and cabbage in them which don’t bruise as easily. They also take up less space in your refrigerator and can survive being smushed. If you MUST have a salad, then consider greens like arugula, baby kale and romaine lettuce over mixed field green blends because the blends have really delicate greens in them that spoil quickly. When one green spoils, it triggers spoiling for the entire batch and you’ll end up wasting salad. Specifically, we’d recommend avoiding spinach, chard, red leaf lettuces and boston/baby bibb lettuces. In short…the more delicate or tender the green, the quicker it will spoil. Stuck to sturdy greens like kale and cabbages. Click To Tweet
If you’re looking for fresh vegetables, you can’t go wrong with root vegetables. These include carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squashes, rutabagas, beets and turnips. They can all be grilled, roasted, steamed, pureed, stewed and can last weeks when stored correctly in a dry and cool area. Like fruit, you should avoid delicate vegetables like zucchini, yellow/crookneck squash and avocado unless you plan on eating them in the next few days. Again, if they bruise easily, leave it in the store.
3. Start stewing, Braising and slow-cooking
If ever there was a time to break out your InstantPot or slow-cooker, it’s now. This is especially helpful if you’re working from home and can’t afford to spend a bunch of time in the kitchen. By using a slow cooker, you can start your meals in the morning and by the end of the day, you’ll have something ready to go for dinner!
This week in the r&R household, we’ve made curried chick peas with spinach and a dirty rice with grass fed ground beef and hickory smoked bacon. Both of these dishes will feed our family for the next few days and can be refrigerated for at least a week. Once that’s done, we have some frozen seafood and chicken thighs in our freezer for a few Thai and Tex-Mex inspired meals.
Stews, braised dishes and slow cooked meals are also great because there is a high margin for error. If you’re a rookie with a knife and you cut the veggies too big, it’s all good! When you’re cooking with low heat over a long period of time, everything pretty much falls apart anyway. If it needs salt and pepper at the end, you can always just add it. If it’s too salty, you can always throw a potato in there to help absorb the salty flavor. If its a little ‘canny‘ from using all the canned ingredients, add a tab of butter to round out the flavors a little bit.
Stewing and braising are similar but are technically two different cooking techniques. Either way, both are great for a quarantine, because they don’t require a lot of work hovering over a stove and the finished product can be reheated easily. We go into detail about how to master each of these techniques and more in our e-book. You can also get a free sample of the ebook in one of our earlier blog posts. Our goal was to help readers master five core cooking techniques so they can maximize the variety of foods they can make on a budget.
Every little bit helps, so you if you’re interested in purchasing our e-book, you can use the code SAVE25 to save 25% at checkout.
Here are a handful of other tips you may find useful if you’re stuck at home and not really comfortable in the kitchen.
- If you’re buying frozen seafood, or fish that has been exposed to moisture, pat them dry with a few paper towels. If needed, gently press into the flesh with the paper towels to absorb any additional liquid. This will help your fish to not stick to a pan or grill while you’re cooking it
- If you’re cooking ground beef or turkey, turn up the heat to medium/high heat. The goal shouldn’t just be to remove the pink but to actually brown the ground meat. In most cases, the meat may go from cold (pink) to cooked (light brown) and then start to release a liquid. Don’t stop there! Keep cooking it until that liquid evaporates and when it does, add a bit more oil so you can actually brown the meat. By doing this, you improve the texture and flavor of your dish. Once you’ve gained a nice dark brown color, then you can add your favorite sauces to finish your meal.
- If you’re cooking pasta, season the water aggressively with salt. If the water stops boiling after you’ve added the pasta, then put a lid on it to bring it back up to a boil. Stir it up so the pasta doesn’t stick together at the bottom of the pan and when it’s 90% of the way tender, drain it using a strainer. Then, lightly coat and toss the pasta with olive oil so it doesn’t stick together. When you’re ready to eat, heat it up in a pan (not the microwave) and stir the pasta in your sauce to cook it all the way through for the remaining 10%.
These are tough times and while it’s easy to just pop something in the microwave or the oven, we all know that is likely not the best decision for our health. By cooking at home, you have greater control over your budget and wellness during these tough times.