Meal Planning During the Pandemic

It has been nearly 5 months since our household went into quarantine as a function of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve left the house for walks around the neighborhood, grocery shopping, prescription refills, and medical appointments. Otherwise, we’re doing our best to remain socially distanced from our fellow humans to the extent possible.

I’ll freely admit that I’ve been spoiled during the eleven-and-a-half years that we’ve lived in Beaverton food-wise. I never had to engage in meal planning because we live a very short walk from a really good grocery store. Pre-pandemic, I made a habit of going up there every other day or so, often making food choices in the spur of the moment. We were also blessed with weekly trips to the Beaverton Farmer’s Market for fresh produce and the joy of mingling with our fellow residents in the various stalls. And I never worried about things being out of stock. Worst case, I’d just have to visit a second grocer.

grocery shoppingThere were quite a few shortages during the first month of the pandemic, and yours truly had to figure out how to meal plan and cook to keep our fresh fruits and vegetables from going bad. With a bit of practice, I’ve got a system down that limits grocery shopping to one big trip every other week plus a weekly outdoor drop-in to our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick-up. There are still shortages, but I’m really impressed by how well our grocers have stepped up to the plate and worked toward keeping their environments safe.

Here are a few short-cuts that we’ve developed to simplify meal planning and procurement:

FIRST: We’ve standardized on two of the three major meals per day. Breakfast consists of cereal (or oatmeal), protein shakes, and fresh fruit. We always make a big salad for dinner with lots of colorful vegetables, beans, nuts, and blueberries. I keep fruit, snack bars, and hummus and crackers on hand for late afternoon snacks.

SECOND: We eat our big meal of the day between 1 and 2 in the afternoon. That’s where I add variety to the line-up and make decent-sized quantities to allow for left-overs. (I don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking every day!) Each 2-week period generally contains a big vegetable stew (or curry) with rice, a tortilla dish (e.g., enchiladas, tacos, or casserole), a chili or bean stew, a grain-based dish (e.g., risotto, polenta), and stir-fried greens with either marinated tofu or tempeh. Having spent nearly 5 years cooking my way through 10 cookbooks, I have a lot of great recipes from which to choose.

THIRD: I created a standardized shopping list for the stuff we eat all the time and then customize it for the variable luncheon fare. It’s set up according to the layout of the store so that I can make efficient use of my time while there. When I get home, we spend a chunk of time washing and prepping the fresh produce for storage in airtight containers. That helps keep things fresh for as long as possible. I also cook with the least hardy materials in the first few days after the big shopping trip so they won’t go soft or bad on me. Grocery day has become a time-consuming affair, but we’re set-up nicely for the ensuring two weeks thereafter.

FOURTH: I’ve stocked up on nonperishable basics – e.g., protein powder, beans, grains, oil, vinegar, cereal, crackers, canned goods (which we use sparingly), condiments, dried fruit, nuts, spices, coffee, tea, V-8 juice (my husband’s favorite), and dog food. I’ve also loaded up the freezer with leftover stews, vegetables, and fruits. I’m prepared in the event we see some shortages and/or our household has to batten down the hatches due to illness. We’ll eat it all eventually, but it provides a measure of comfort to have a slightly elevated food inventory.

FIFTH: I keep track of “Best By” dates for our food inventory and make sure we use the stuff closest to expiration first. For the most part, we’ve got plenty of time to deal with it all. However, I’m sensitized to the issue having cleaned out my parents stores and tossed a lot of canned goods that were years past their useful lives.

We’ve been a predominantly home-cooked-meals household for several years now. As such, our adjustment to the quarantine food-wise has been quite easy. I will confess, however, that I miss the occasional nights out to local restaurants and look forward to the time when we can frequent them again.