As the world continues to isolate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has become abundantly clear: we’re all cooking a lot more than we used to.
But for every person who sees sourdough baking, pickling projects or Alison Roman recipes ad infinitum as a fun pastime, there’s likely another for whom cooking from scratch is an entirely new concept—and there are plenty of pragmatic reasons for this. Individuals who live alone, or with roommates, or those for whom day-to-day life simply didn’t allow for elaborate home cooking may be more accustomed to prepared meals, eating out, or ordering in. Meal planning, which is essentially everything from recipe-reading to scheduling to actual grocery shopping that happens before anything hits the stove, then, might be less an instinct than a burden—or, more than that, an entirely new skill.
We don’t often talk about meal planning as a fundamental skill. Usually, it’s the actual cooking we focus on instead of the laundry list of things that happens beforehand: budgeting, timing, and waste reduction, among other factors. While they’re among the more mundane aspects of feeding yourself, they also are, arguably, more important than the act of cooking itself. Which can make COVID-19 home-cookery all the more intimidating—and none of us need added stress right now.
Here are some tips to help navigate the process of planning what, when, and how to eat.
Step One: Timing
The first step in meal planning isn’t so much about food as it is about time: start out by determining how many days you want to plan for. Buying supplies for a week looks profoundly different from picking up a thing or two for dinner later that night. With health authorities recommending people limiting grocery shopping outings to once weekly at most, this has to be a strategic exercise. Account for variables such as transit (how much can one person carry at a time?), mode of delivery—or if grocery delivery is feasible, affordable, or even available in your area. There’s also cost: delivery or not, for many, household incomes have been reduced: what you end up cooking might reflect what’s affordable in stores right now. In short: think about how much food you need to get you through, say, a week. (It might help to also plan for some unexpected circumstances, like not being able to leave the house for more food as soon as you’d like, and pick up some extra supplies just in case.)
If there’s a culinary or creative element to the meals you want to make (and there absolutely can be), planning for them is less about satisfying cravings and more about anticipating them. Sylvia Kerr, a registered dietician and social worker, says that part of planning for meals involves considering how much time we want to spend preparing them. “If we’re assuming that folks are home, [cooking is] a productive way of taking care of at least a half a day,” she suggests. And that’s not in reference to elaborate, involved cooking: “You now have time to look at recipes, if you’re not a cook-off-the-cuff kind of person.”
Step Two: Getting hungry
Next comes the relatively fun part: actually dreaming up some meals. Kerr suggests dusting off old recipe books, calling family members for reminders of old dinnertime standbys, or asking friends about what they’re cooking right now as a way to add a bit of enjoyment, socializing, even structure, to the process. For some of her clients who are parents, she says, “dinnertime is now a family affair,” with kids getting involved in the planning. It’s a great way to alleviate boredom, make mealtime interesting—and avoid surprise upturned noses.
For people cooking just for themselves—and Kerr includes herself among these—she suggests considering making big-batch dishes and portioning them off for multiple meals. Staggering two to three items across alternating lunches and dinners maintains some semblance of variety, coupled with the time and cost efficiency of cooking large meals.
You can, of course, plan to cook made-to-order-style for every meal of the week, but you still might want to include some easy-to-assemble or grab-and-go (er, stay) items, such as sandwich cuts and crackers and cheeses or dips.
On the topic of convenience, now isn’t the time to give yourself grief for throwing a box of Kraft Dinner or two into your cart. We can’t all be expected to braise ourselves through our collective anxiety, 100 percent of the time. This also applies to vegetables; don’t be afraid to buy canned or frozen. There’s nothing wrong with making things just a little easier on yourself.
Step Three: Taking Stock
The next step is sort of a half-pace backwards: take inventory of what you already have to figure out what you need. Now that we’re a few weeks into isolation, you may have already stocked up on pantry staples such as flour, sugar, salt, and cooking oil, plus some beans and legumes. Take a look at the fridge and freezer, too; the latter is particularly important, since batch-cooking often requires freezing. Consider, too, how many fresh fruits and vegetables you have, and whether the ones you’d like to buy will spoil very quickly. Try to centre recipes or meals on these items, and other things that you’ve been keeping in your pantry for a rainy day. Now’s a great time to get accustomed to using slightly past-their-prime veg on hearty blended soups, for instance, or to dig that bag of farro out of the back of your pantry!
Step Four: The List
Finally, the biggest piece of the puzzle: making your shopping list. Again, here, there are variables. Taking into account steps one and three—the pantry inventory you just did and how many days’ worth of meals you’re covering—list out everything you’re picking up. Don’t just write down the meals you plan to eat each day; consider factors such as the time it will take to prepare each one (block out days if it helps), batch-cooked items you can eat multiple times, —and when you’ll do that; and which fresh items you’ll need to cook and eat first, before they go off. Also, plan for some backups: you might not be able to find everything you need right now, so consider substitutions for individual items and also entire meals.
It might help to literally draw out the framework of a week in your household’s meals — use a digital calendar, if that’s how you usually work best, or try a whiteboard or sheets of blank paper (which you can then, conveniently, affix to your fridge door). If you plan for a fancier or more elaborate meal one night a week, try to balance that by bookending it with simpler dishes that are light on prep and time. Think of how you might usually eat, and try to work those habits into your new routine—if Fridays or Saturdays were usually reserved for eating out, for instance, consider using one of those nights to order takeout.
Consider, also, which steps you can do in advance: will you be soaking dried beans, for instance? Are there prep steps—such as chopping vegetables, proofing a yeasted bread, or preparing a stock or sauce—that can be (or need to be) done a day or two before you actually plan to eat an item or dish? Cooking isn’t a one-shot deal; it’s more a continuous, fluid process, where multiple dishes are in various stages of doneness at all times. This might sound overwhelming, but home cooking, like so many things, is sort of like riding a bike—once you get moving, in the right gear for you, it’s easy to coast along smoothly.
And then get to the store—safely, respecting social distancing protocols, and cognizant of your own limitations, of course.
Right now, the planning portion (basically, everything you see above) is only part of the cooking equation. Cooking may make us feel productive, but it’s important to consider that under duress, productivity is not always possible—and our appetites and habits surrounding food are often affected by stress and anxiety. To this end, Kerr says, practising patience and forgiveness is key. Yes, it’s important to adopt habits of austerity and scheduling surrounding food, as access is now limited, but there should also be space to accommodate your own anxieties and struggles.
Takeout five nights a week might no longer be an option—but, as struggling local restaurants begin to make their food available via pickup or delivery, consider allowing yourself some takeout once a month, or every other week, or as your budget allows. Flexibility is going to look different for everyone. “Accept the fact that this is going to be a challenge,” Kerr says. “This is a challenging time for everyone, and underlying that is your own relationship with food. There is no point in sugarcoating it—pardon the pun.”
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Maureen Halushak, editor-in-chief, Chatelaine