Stockpile of Sundries: Planning for a Healthy Pandemic Pantry and Beyond

Part 1: The Tools

When the word went out nation-wide, that citizens should consider getting anywhere from 2 weeks up to 1 month’s worth of groceries, and then stay home in order to help flatten the curve of spreading Covid-19, a lot of people understandably became very worried or scared as a result of these orders.

The mind tends to take the news and run with it – “Well, if I need to stock pile, then I’d better REALLY stockpile! If 1 month is called for why not just go ahead and do 2? or why not 3? Oh no! What if everything about my known-world collapses and there is no more food?! Then I better stock up like there’s no tomorrow!” Conversely there has also been worries such as “How can I afford to stock pile enough?”, “What is ‘enough’?”, “How much do I stockpile to feed my whole family?”, “How do I stock pile and then make it last instead of stress eating it all too quickly while I’m just stuck at home?”

Pro Tip: Speaking from experience, your pantry doesn’t have to be this big or look this nice and neat to still be well-stocked and effective.

All of these lines of thinking caused many people to “panic buy” – which means not just stocking up on essentials of things which are immediately or soon needed, and that you’d regularly use anyway. Rather it is to stockpile all kinds of things which, in some cases, are even beyond what would seem rational or obviously usable. For example, I wonder how many people bought pounds and pounds worth of dried beans, but almost never actually make a point in their normal daily lives to cook and eat beans as such? Many people may not know what exactly to do with such things that they stockpiled – and if you don’t know how to cook it and don’t know what to make with it, are you really going to be inclined to use it? Maybe you will use it because it’s all you have, and/or you don’t want to waste it, but you may be unhappy or discouraged while doing so. Not to mention “panic buying” is what leads to sudden supply chain shortages which will inevitably effect everyone’s families – so best to shop responsibly with a plan in place.

For instance, if you have purchased more toilet paper than food then priorities may need some reevaluating.

The thought process involved in these fear-driven shopping excursions largely center on quantity per cost, and shelf-life for storage. Or even simply the craving of “comfort foods” for instant gratification coping. While these are important and valid concerns to address when planning a well stocked pantry, they cannot be your only considerations or you may end up with a hodge-podge of items which you and your family are not sure what to do with, and are not feeling fully satiated by. Additionally, having a bunch of odds and ends with no forethought plan on what to do with them, means you run the risk of having to keep going back to the store just to get random additional ingredients to build complete meals with. Thus defeating the entire purpose of the “Stocking up to stay home” directive in the first place.

It is just a fact of the times we live in that many people do not cook as much at home, or from scratch, as they did a couple of generations ago. Some would admit they don’t even know “how”. This presents an added challenge for some people who are wanting to stock up on food goods so as to stay as much away from public exposure as they can, and yet they aren’t experienced in planning meals and preparing them for themselves or family. These are indeed self-sufficiency skills which must be learned and practiced.

This old advertisement may hearken back to a time that is not in agreement with our modern era’s understanding and respect of gender roles. But what I think is to be appreciated within it’s sentiment is 1. There is value in having skills for various methods of cooking and being able to feed your family from scratch, and 2. Home cooking is the first, best line of defense when it comes to nutritional value and quality control of the foods you ingest!

Personally I come from a family of “doers” – meaning, we tend to put nose to the grindstone and “get things done”. Menu planning for weeks or even months at a time comes naturally to me, and though I knew both of my Grandmothers were adept “meal planners” they didn’t directly teach me what they did, it just seems the mentality that leads to such planning was enough of an inherited trait that I picked up on it myself as an adult, when taking care of my own household and needs. But to make use of a skill, and to be successful with it, requires more than just a mentality, it requires taking the action, doing the work, and whatever tools prove helpful for the process so that we can achieve what we set out to do.

On that note I will share here a link to the very basic digital menu planning worksheet that I made and currently use, just in case anyone else wants to try their hand at more detailed planning and pantry preparedness.
I used to do all of my planning on paper, as the tactile nature of it was easier for me to absorb mentally and really think it through, but that grew very tedious month in month out. Technology can help some things go faster, (or stay neater than my hand writing is at least), so I’ve moved to a digital table which I just reuse each month by adjusting the dates and filling in the changes to the menu plan. Once it is complete then I print a copy and post it to the refrigerator where all can see.

You will find the planner I created in google .docs HERE.

When you click on the link it will take you to my example version of the planner which is not able to be immediately edited for your use. In order to save it to be editable for personal use, you must go to where it says “file” in the upper left hand corner, and select the option from the drop down there that says “Make a Copy” (Note: This will only work if you are logged in to your own google account, or create a free google account/login of your own.) It will then save a copy to your own google drive which you can then rename and edit as you please, or even download to your desktop to use it offline.

How to Use the Planner:

  1. I shade in the boxes red if the day has already passed before the menu plan is active. For example, sometimes I may not get around to creating the menu plan, or going to the grocery store to buy the necessary items for the plan, until I’m already a few days into the month. So I fill those boxes in red to show I am not covering those dates on the plan as they have already passed.
  2. You’ll notice that the day 2 box on the example document has a menu plan that says “B -, L – , and D -” denoting a breakfast, lunch, and dinner planned. That is demonstrating one optional way to do the fullest menu plan that you can do, where each meal of each day is accounted for on the calendar. The reason the entire table is not filled out this way is because my own family tends to eat a lot of the same few things on rotation for breakfasts and lunches, to the point they are household staple items and need less day-by-day planning from me at this point. So in order to simplify my job of creating the plan (and keep it all to one printable piece of paper) I mostly just focus on accounting for dinners, while already knowing what main things to keep stocked for breakfasts and lunches.
  3. The “Notes” track of boxes under each date is where I make a note of something going on that day which may effect how that day’s menu gets planned. For example, if there is an event going on in the evening (such as a yoga class) then I’ll need to plan a dinner for that day which will be quick and easy to make, and doesn’t need a lot of time and planning. If there was a morning meeting at work maybe you would need to change your breakfast routine that day? If your company or school provides you lunch, then you’d change your lunch plans accordingly etc… Or maybe you’re going to be going on vacation and don’t need to plan anything to cook at home for a certain number of days? Then write in “on vacation” and leave the corresponding date block blanks. When there is a note in the note track I highlight it in yellow in order to make it stand out and be more noticeable and memorable.
  4. When planning your menu, think of what things you can cook that will be in large enough quantities that you can have it as leftovers and it will carry you over a day or two – meaning less planning over-all that you will need to do, and a bit less ingredients you’ll have to buy. It is highly recommended to cook in quantity and have leftovers as often as possible, because it is more friendly on your budget, as well as a time saver – (it saves time both in cooking preparation, as well as in mental space for the planning). Just be sure that the day you enter in a menu item which you know will produce leftovers, that you then enter the word “leftovers” for as many days relevant proceeding it, so that you know the meals for those days are already taken care of by way of the leftovers.
  5. Lastly, the list of “Regular Standby” foods at the bottom of the document, under the menu planner calendar, is a list of things I tend to always fall back on making and having ingredients for on hand. In other words, they are things I can turn to every month and plug in here or there into the menu calendar in order to make the “planning” easier. It is a good strategy to create a list of menu items you want to always have in the rotation, because then it saves some time and mental capacity for your planning in the future, you aren’t always having to come up with new things for every meal, of every day, of every month in other words. Also, it is a way to make the family happy, as you will have “crowd favorites” that you know everyone enjoys and looks forward to. You can even incorporate it around a sort of ritual tradition – such as something like “Taco Tuesdays” or “Pizza and Movie Night on Saturdays” etc…

Further General Words of Advice Include:

  • Don’t be afraid to look up new recipes every month to throw some new and different things into the rotation and keep it interesting.
  • But also don’t overwhelm your kitchen workload, your family’s taste buds, and/or your grocery budget by feeling overly ambitious or obligated to come up with new and/or exotic things to cook all of the time!
  • Plan for things you generally know you like and will indeed eat, in order to avoid impulse purchases and potential waste! In other words, shop with a plan in place instead of just walking into the store and randomly grabbing things that catch your eye as you go.
  • Be sure to include some allowance for treats such as desert and/or other “snack” foods like chips, crackers etc… If you don’t have at least some “treats” on hand then you’ll end up wishing you had. If you don’t plan to keep some enjoyment in your eating habits during any long-term lockdown, or even in a normal monthly routine, morale goes down, and you’ll be more tempted to spend extra money impulse shopping, and throw off the plan you painstakingly took the time to assemble.
  • If you find it difficult to plan for a month at a time then start by just filling out the calendar planner for one week at a time.
  • Since some grocery items are more perishable than others (e.g. fresh produce), and since budgets may not allow for purchasing a month’s worth of groceries at a time, it is ok to plan the menu with the whole month in mind but then only do the shopping for it weekly or bi-weekly. A special exception would be the Covid-19 concerns and needing to reduce public exposure, in which case the more days you can plan and afford to stock up for, in order to avoid going back to the store again, the better!
  • When it comes time to make the grocery list (either typed or written) there are two ways which I generally recommend structuring it: One option is to input all of your list items grouped into categories according to where you’ll find them in the store once you go to shop – this creates a seamless “traffic” flow as you navigate through the store from one side to the other. You will get in and out faster this way, stay focused, avoid back tracking, (and generally come in contact with less people) this way.
    The other option is to group your list items according to the menu plan recipes – this method ensures that you don’t end up forgetting anything you need for any particular recipe – For instance, lets say you need to buy spinach for more than one recipe. But writing it only once on your shopping list means you may not remember to buy enough to cover the multiple recipes you planned that need it! Whereas listing it more than once, but grouped according to ingredients per-recipe, reduces the likelihood of you needing to make extra trips back to the store just to get any forgotten but needed ingredients. Personal Note: Because I have the store layouts mostly memorized at this point, I can tend to accomplish goals of method #1 out of habit, so now I more often tend to use method #2 for the list making, as it keeps me from forgetting anything critical, especially if I end up needing to visit more than one store in order to find everything on my list.

Many times over the years, from friends, co-workers, and family alike, I’ve had people say to me, “Wow, you plan out weeks of groceries at a time? You cook from scratch regularly at home? I need to get better about that too!” – But often they’ll also admit they don’t know how or where to begin. Not knowing the how and where, when faced with something suddenly disrupting our daily routines and livelihoods the way this viral epidemic has, can indeed by a daunting and even scary thing! So I hope that by sharing these tips here it empowers you in learning a helpful new skill, and something which may be able to aid you in feeling more calm, collected, and in control of you and your family’s well-being.

Stay tuned for the next blog post as we continue on this theme –
Part 2: The Goods.

Are you at all unsure of what to buy to put your money where you mouth is, so to speak? That is, feeling unclear of what is best to stock up on? In the next post I’ll draw on my holistic nutritional studies background, my 18 years of plant-based living, my knowledge of special-needs dietary considerations, and my experience of planning meals for varying numbers of people, and I will give an example of what a well stocked pantry, optimized for health considerations, may include.

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