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With most of us limiting our grocery shopping due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many of us are having to get more creative in the kitchen. Even those of us who tend to prefer restaurant and convenience meals are finding ourselves forced to prepare more dishes at home.Even for avid home cooks, preparing meals while shopping less frequently can be a challenge. How can we maintain balanced diets while limiting our grocery shopping? Here are a few ideas for essential items to stock up on.
Dry goods are some of the best products to stock up on during this difficult time. These basic items, many of them grain-based, can add a carbohydrate base to a variety of meals. Dry goods can often be bought in bulk quantities, making them both affordable and ideal for limiting your trips to the grocery store.For baking, various flours can be useful to stock up on, as well as sugar, cornmeal, cornstarch, baking powder, and baking soda. For breakfast, oats and cereals are good options. For hearty lunches and dinners, stock up on rice, dry beans, pasta, and lentils.
Oils, Sauces, Spices, Herbs, & Flavorings
Though dry goods are a fundamental part of many meals, these basics can be low on flavor when left unseasoned. Fortunately, many sauces and spices have a long shelf-life and are relatively inexpensive. If you still have the opportunity, consider stocking up on a few flavor-enhancing ingredients to add some variety to your home-cooked meals. Stock up on oils and vinegars of your choice. Vegetable oil, olive oil, and coconut oil are a few of the best options. Apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar are great for adding tartness to meals, too. Soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sriracha are ideal for making flavorful, Asian-inspired cuisine. Honey and nut butters can be good for adding to breakfast options, such as oatmeal, pastries, and yogurt bowls. Ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, salsa, and barbeque sauce can also be used to enhance a variety of dishes.
Spices and seasonings often last for years on the shelf, particularly if protected from heat and sunlight. A few basics worth having in your kitchen include: salt, pepper, whole peppercorns, thyme, basil, oregano, garlic, cinnamon, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, red pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin, curry powder, and chili powder. Though there are many more spices also worth considering, these basics cover many of the essential flavors found in popular cuisine.
Refrigerated goods may not last as long as frozen, dry, or canned goods, but a few refrigerated items are generally worth having on hand. When selecting products, grab those towards the back of the shelf, which often have a later expiration date. Milk, eggs, butter or margarine, plain yogurt, and shredded cheese are a few basics that can be used to enhance many meals. Eggs, cheese, and yogurt can be used for breakfast dishes as well as for adding a protein-packed punch to a number of lunch and dinner dishes.
If you have enough freezer space, frozen food is almost always worth investing in. Frozen fruits and vegetables are often the best alternative to fresh produce. Meats and other favorite frozen dishes, like pizza and fish sticks, may also be worth purchasing if you have the space for them.Frozen spinach and kale are great for adding to soups, pasta dishes, and egg-based meals. Broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and peas are ideal as side-dishes or as additions to stir frys, stews, and casseroles. Corn is another popular favorite, especially for Mexican and Spanish-inspired cuisine, such as burrito bowls.
Fresh fruit often tends to go bad quickly. Even if you generally prefer fresh fruit, frozen fruit can be useful when trying to reduce your trips to the store. Fruits like mango and pineapple taste great with breakfast, in smoothies, and also in stir frys and other ethnic-inpired dishes. Frozen blueberries and strawberries can also be added to breakfast dishes or used in baking.
Check to see if the foods you enjoy eating fresh can also be frozen. If so, you may be able to enjoy your favorite fruits and vegetables for weeks to come.
Canned and Shelf-Stable Goods
Though canned goods, shelf-stable products, and preserves often lack the flavor of fresh and frozen ingredients, such products are ideal for saving space in your refrigerator and freezer. Especially when quarantined, canned goods can be a great source of nutrition.
Canned tomatoes, in all forms, are a great basic ingredient to have on hand. Tomato sauce, tomato paste, and diced tomatoes are all practical choices. Canned beans also make for a healthy and filling addition to many meals, ranging from burritos to chili. Artichokes and olives can add savory flavor to a number of dishes. Canned fruit, such as peaches and pineapples, can be enjoyed on their own or as ingredients in breakfast and dessert recipes.
Canned fish, like tuna, salmon, anchovies, sardines, and mussels are an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. If you enjoy seafood, stock up on tinned fish. Fish can easily be added to dishes containing vegetables and grains, allowing you to enjoy simple and nutritionally-balanced meals with little extra effort.
If consumed in moderation, processed meats can also be added to your pantry stock. Smoked sausages, for instance, can be thrown together with eggs for a fast breakfast, or combined with vegetables, beans, and rice for a Cajun-inspired dinner.
If you’d prefer to stock up on meat-free options, look for soy-based alternatives like shelf-stable tofu. Dried seaweed is also healthy and packed with protein and minerals. Dried fruit, granola bars, and nuts are also great, healthy options that will leave you feeling full and nourished. Plant-based milks, such as almond, soy, and coconut milk can also be used in place of normal milk, and, when left unopened, often last longer.
Though it’s best to focus on healthy options, feel free to treat yourself to a few indulgent processed snacks of your choice, too. Some potato chips and chocolate bars might be just what you need to get through the stress of this crisis!
When stored properly, some fresh goods can last for a long time. Potatoes, as well as sweet potatoes, can
stay fresh for a couple of weeks when stored apart from onions. Potatoes can be roasted, mashed, or made into oven fries. They’re one of the healthiest and most filling carbohydrate options you can choose.
Onions are, of course, another fresh product that, when stored properly, can stay fresh for weeks. Whether fresh, roasted, grilled, or pickled, onions can add flavor to almost any dish. Cheap and long-lasting, onions are an ideal ingredient for quarantine cooking.
Cabbage also lasts a long time, even when fresh. Though a few leaves may wilt over time, many types of cabbage can stay fresh for months in the refrigerator. Make a cabbage soup, serve it in an Asian-inspired noodle salad, or mix it in with your favorite source of protein in a stir fry. Carrots and other root vegetables also tend to stay fresh longer than most types of produce. Add root vegetables to a variety of roasted dishes, soups, and slaws.
Thick-skinned winter squashes, such as acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkins can be stored at room temperature for long periods of time. Roasted squash, when seasoned well, can make for a particularly flavorful side dish. Pumpkin can also be used in savory dishes, or sweetened for use in breakfast dishes or baking.
Fruits like apples, oranges, and pears are some of the longest-lasting types of fresh produce. When refrigerated, these fruits can even stay fresh for months! Add apples to cabbage for additional flavor or add to protein-based dishes for enhanced sweetness. Make homemade stewed apples or applesauce as a healthy dessert. Use oranges to add a tangy zest to your main course, or enjoy them with breakfast or as a snack. Pears are also delicious in baked goods, on oatmeal, or as an extra ingredient in salads.
Though fresh goods may have the shortest overall shelf life, including some fresh produce in your diet is a great way to maintain your health. If you can, include a few of these fresh ingredients in your meals over the coming weeks.
Nowadays, many recipe websites let you search for recipes based on the ingredients you have at home. Simply Google “recipes based on ingredients” to find such sites. Many may not have as many recipes as traditional recipe websites, but the suggestions are often simple, and can give you an idea of the things you can make with the ingredients that you have.When in doubt, don’t be shy about modifying recipes, too! You don’t necessarily need to have a specific hot pepper or curry powder, for instance, to add spice and flavor to a dish. Make modifications as needed, and don’t be afraid to add some extra spices or sauces once you’ve served your meal. Sometimes, a dash of salt, a sprinkling of garlic, a touch of honey, or a dollop of butter is all a dish needs to bring out its inherent flavor.
Have fun and be creative while cooking and baking in quarantine! With luck, you just might discover a new recipe that you’ll use for years to come!
Photo: © eldarnurkovic / Adobe Stock