Today marks Day 21 of “Staying at Home” for our family. 3 weeks ago today, with little warning, our schools closed indefinitely and our world changed dramatically. Suddenly our entire family of 4 was living/working/schooling from home all day, every day. And everyone was eating at home, all day, every day. And we were no longer going to the grocery store multiple times a week.
We suddenly had to be really strategic about what we cooked and ate, thinking about what food was in the house and what was going to go bad soon. It is a work-in-progress, but after 3 weeks, we have a bit of a routine working for us. So sharing all our best meal strategies for minimizing waste, maximizing pantry items and staying sane while feeding a family of 4 (including 2 teen boys, one with celiac disease), and still eating healthy and delicious food!
Prior to this new “stay at home” existence, I used to go to the grocery store a lot.
Between being a food blogger who cooks and photographs meals to share with others, and being the mom of 2 teen boys with voracious appetites –one of whom has celiac disease and must adhere to a gluten-free diet, I would go to one of many stores, probably 5 times a week.
Once or twice a week, I did a big shop but, other times I would just pick up an item or two — maybe some fresh vegetables or fruit, fish or chicken, something at the farmer’s market or even special gluten-free pasta from a local store.
I took for granted that I could drop by any number of stores, to pick up anything we needed, any time.
Enter the “stay at home” existence…. At the same time we suddenly became a family of 4 living/ working/ schooling and eating at home, we were also asked to limit our trips to the grocery store.
And, I had to rethink how I cooked and how our family ate.
We suddenly had to be really strategic about what we cooked and ate, thinking about what food was in the house and what was going to go bad soon.
At the same time, we were trying to adjust to everyone eating every meal at home.
It is a work-in-progress, but after 3 weeks, we have a bit of a routine working for us.
So sharing all our best meal strategies for minimizing waste, maximizing pantry items, staying sane while eating every meal at home and still eating a variety of healthy and delicious food!
Meal Strategies and Meal Planning Overview
Meal planning can be overwhelming for many of us in the best of circumstances, so now– with more people home all day and less trips to the grocery store — it can seem daunting.
Keeping current “stay at home” considerations in mind, the below tips help make meal planning as simple as possible, while still allowing for maximum flexibility and enjoying great tasting food!
One note: as a family, we has opted not to rely on take out or prepared food. If you have safe gluten-free options in your neighborhood and can afford to support local restaurants, that is is a great option for breaking up the week too!
Simple Meal Strategies
1. Choose dishes with minimal “super fresh” ingredients and maximize pantry items.
Most the dishes we make are fairly simple, using basic ingredients, but now, more than ever, we are sticking with dishes that require minimal “super fresh” ingredients and counting on pantry items.
What do I mean by “super fresh”?
I mean things like herbs or vegetables that don’t last long or seem to go badly quickly.
We are leaning on recipes that use more pantry items – seasonings, oils and vinegars, canned or jarred veggies and beans, rice, quinoa, pasta, and more hearty vegetables like potatoes, onions, squash, spinach, pepper or vegetables that keep well.
That doesn’t mean that we’re not making any dishes with some of our favorite super fresh ingredients, but it does mean that when we meal plan, we are giving extra thought to using those items in the first.
For instance, my family loves eggplant and I have know idea why, but it’s one of those veggies that doesn’t last long for us (we’ve tried room temp and fridge!)… so if I purchase eggplant, we’ll cook with it and make a stir fry or a pasta sauce within the first few days.
2. Purchase ingredients for maximum meal flexibility
When meal planning, I’m thinking of specific ingredients more than ever, and how I can maximize them across multiples recipes.
One way I’m doing this is by purchasing ingredients we use a lot to give maximum flexibility in creating any number of dishes.
So shop ingredients you know you will get maximum use from. That is, ingredients you use all the time, across a variety of recipes.
For our family, even in “normal” times, I know there are certain fruits and vegetables we go through every week, no matter what we’re cooking. Things like scallions, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, snow peas or snap peas, avocado and certain herbs like parsley and basil.
With these in our house, we can whip up a variety of dishes ranging from pastas to stir fry to burgers.
So I don’t have to know exactly what we’re going to eat every day of the following week, but with certain ingredients in the house, I know I can respond to cravings or moods and cook something.
3. Maximize any one ingredient
Another way I’m maximizing ingredients is by thinking of multiple uses for ingredients while meal planning and shopping.
For instance, if I want to make Buffalo Cauliflower Tacos for dinner, I will plan on purchasing a head of cauliflower. But I know I will have left over, so I’ll look for other recipes that might use cauliflower in some way…. For example, I could through some in the food processor and add it to fried rice later in the week which is a completely different use so we won’t feel like all we’re eating is cauliflower!
I’ll do the same with fresh herbs because rarely does a recipe use an entire bunch of herbs and we don’t yet have the luxury of picking what we need from our patio garden… hopefully soon!
So if I need a cilantro for a rice and beans dish, I might decide that it’s a great week to also make our Cashew Herb Salad Dressing to switch things up for lunch.
Another way to maximize any one ingredient is to cut recipes in half… I am doing this a lot with big salads.
Rather than making the full portion of a salad, I’m making a half portion, saving the ingredients and also keeping it interesting from a flavor perspective because I’m not eating any one salad for too many days in a row.
4. Switch up the dinner flavor profile day to day
To keep meals joyous and satisfying, even as we’re eating many of the same types of food, we’re switching up the flavorful profiles.
So we’re rotating Italian, American, Mexican and Asian flavor profiles. We’re also sneaking in some Indian flavors for my husband and myself!
This may seem like a simple ideas but when you plan your meals this way, you really appreciate all the different flavors and can enjoy all the basic foods in your house like beans, pasta and rice because they taste so different!
5. Build in “Leftover Days” for dinner
This has been a sanity savior for us!
We literally plan that every 2-3 days, dinner will be a variety of leftovers.
And we aren’t necessarily all eating the same dish. In fact, we’re usually all eating something different — one person finishing up a stir fry sauce with some extra veggies and rice, another finishing up a baked ziti, another a veggie burger or soup… you get the idea.
It reduces the amount of “new” cooking we are doing each day which in turn reduces the overwhelm and exhaustion.
And it reduces waste because we are literally eating everything in our fridge.
So embrace left over days — they are no longer a day of boring food, but a break from cooking!
6. Freeze extras for another day
This has also been helpful in reducing the amount of cooking on any given day.
If you’ve followed me a while, you know, we are big fans of freezer food!
We freeze soups, sauces, baked goods, burgers….
So now, more than ever, we are freezing any extras for another day. That way we don’t feel like we have to eat soup or burgers or pasta sauce 3 days in a row or until we no longer want to eat it ever again.
Instead we enjoy it once, maybe twice and freeze it for another day. Maybe even leftover day for someone!
7. Keep lunches simple
If you follow my Instagram stories, you know my son loves a big breakfast. And before “school” each day, generally eats eggs, toast and a smoothie.
Since this is how we start our day and we don’t want to feel like we are cooking/ cleaning all day, we tend to keep lunches really simple.
For lunch, the boys are happy with frozen pizza, boxed mac and cheese or burgers on the grill, all of which are relatively low effort.
My husband and I have managed to stick with our usual “pre-stay-at-home days” of big salads or quesadillas or something as simple as pb&j on rice cakes, the simplicity of which can make me insanely happy these days!
8. Pace your baking/cooking
Along the lines of “leftover days”, we are working hard to pace our cooking and baking throughout the week so we don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of cooking and cleaning on any given day.
It’s really about what works for you but we’ve approached this several ways… some days we cook and bake, other days we eat only what’s already been prepared and can be heated up; some days we’ll bake but not cook anything new; other days we’ll cook a new meal but not bake.
Whatever you opt for, it’s helpful to not feel like alll you’re doing is cooking, baking, cleaning all day.
As for baking, what’s working for us right now is to make one muffin/ quick bread type recipe a week and one dessert type recipe a week.
This, in addition to keeping our regular freezer stash of energy bites and frozen treats stocked, is satisfying our need for comfort food and sweets!
9. Be flexible.
This applies to all aspects of meals.
First, when cooking, be prepared to make adaptations as you go…
Realize you don’t have fresh cilantro for something you want to make? Try using dried corriander as a substitute or use fresh parsley instead or skip it!
A recipe calls for swiss chard, but you only have spinach? It will work beautifully!
Trust yourself in the kitchen and learn to skip or substitute ingredients as necessary when cooking. It may taste slightly different, or it may not, but being flexible while cooking is key when you can’t just run to the store.
Of note, it is much more difficult to be flexible with baking and is not generally advised. Baking is based on chemical reactions and swapping flours or skipping ingredients can completely change the outcome if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Also, as we discussed above, shop with flexibility in mind. Purchase ingredients that give you maximum cooking flexibility.
And lastly, if you planned on making a particular dish and suddenly no one wants to eat it, pivot. Don’t make it. Make something else. Even in times like now, you don’t have to be locked into to your plan.
Go with your food moods, cravings and enjoy!
10. Keep a running shopping list
This last one may seem obvious… but it is a lifesaver, now more than ever!
I have a running list in the notes section of my Iphone, all the time.
I used to have the luxury of looking up recipes and double checking ingredients while at the market. But now, as we are trying to minimize our time in stores, it is more important than ever to look at recipes and make a list of any ingredients needed prior to shopping.
In fact, keep a running list of anything you think of throughout the week that you’re missing or running out of, so that you can pick that up as well.
Hope all these tips help!
Tell me…. Did you find this helpful? How are you managing staying at home and eating every meal at home? Any other tips you can share?