Part 2: The Goods
So if you’ve read Part 1 of this little blog series then you’ve learned some handy tips and tricks to use in meal planning for weeks or months at a time. This may help inform your shopping trips to make sure you’re less wasteful of both funds and ingredients, and it cuts back on impulse buying as well as the amount of times you need to venture out into the public pandemic lands!
But maybe now you’re taking a step back, looking at your filled in monthly meal calendar, and you’re thinking, “Yikes!”, “This doesn’t seem very healthy”, or “This doesn’t really include enough staple and shelf stable foods”, or “Ayiyi! I have family members with particular dietary needs, how can I keep everyone fed and happy even with special dietary requirements?!”, and “Am I forgetting anything?” …So then what do you do?
I’m going to outline some considerations into category groupings for you to review. They may not all apply to you and your household’s situation, but they may provide a launching point for fine-tuning your own planning.
A. Economy and Perish-ability
Certainly one of the main concerns for almost every household will be cost! Stretching the dollar per servings provided in the food. For this reason I tell you – if you weren’t already aware – dried bulk grains and beans, as well as frozen and canned vegetables and fruits, are going to stretch the farthest – (compared to box meals, frozen dinners, ordering out etc…) But don’t go buying them willy-nilly just because it feels nice to see your pantry cupboard full. Or because you figure if you get a random varying selection then surely, you assume, it should suffice for enough meals? Instead, buy with plan in mind so nothing goes to waste – that means have recipes already predetermined! How much of what kind of bean or grain does each meal you plan to make call for? Do the math of the servings per packaging and make sure you buy enough. Same goes for your canned and frozen veg.
Also, remember the adage “waste not, want not.” The etymology of this phrase traces to the 1700s, but it was popularized in the United States during the 1930s – no surprise there, with that being the time frame of The Great Depression, in times of scarcity every little thing ideally needed to serve a purpose and not be wasteful. What this looks like in practice for your planning means that if a recipe you’re making calls for 2 cups of cooked beans, but the bag of dried beans you’re buying can make a total of 8 cups of cooked beans, then also come up with a plan for those other 6 cups so you don’t end up with a partially used, open bag of beans sitting around doing nothing else for you!
Now this isn’t to say you should just focus on shelf-life and not eat fresh vegetables and fruits of course. In terms of nutritional value per bang for the buck the produce selection goes like this:
- Locally grown, in season = most nutritious
- Regionally grown, in season
- Grown wherever, but “in season” at the time wherever it was grown and harvested from (e.g. Tomatoes in the summer may come from somewhere near by. Tomatoes in the winter probably come from somewhere further south and/or warmer like California or Mexico. Apples in the summer may come from South America, apples in autumn are more likely local or from the pacific northwest such as Washington and Oregon etc…)
- Frozen fruit and vegetables
- Canned fruit and vegetables
The other produce form worth mentioning is dried fruits and vegetables. While they do have excellent shelf stability, where they fall on the nutritional value scale has a lot more to do with the manufacturer. How was the produce grown (is it organic?), how it is dried (dehydrated or freeze dried?), how is it preserved (are chemicals added “for color and freshness”?)… Non organic dried fruit and veg brands are more likely to add unnecessary extra “ingredients” such as sugars, and things to make the coloring appear bright – (which is just a marketing ploy and has no bearing on the freshness or nutritional value of the food.) In some cases dried fruit/veg may be able to retain more nutritional density than both frozen and canned options, in some cases it may not, but over all I would say dried fruit and veg is pretty tied with frozen and canned fruit and veg, nutritionally speaking.
Obviously fresh produce can only keep so long compared to many of your other pantry staples. You may plan one whole month’s worth of recipes and go buy nearly EVERYTHING on your shopping list for it, but if you try to buy one month’s worth of fresh produce some of it will no doubt have begun rotting in your crisper before you get around to using it nearly 30 days later.
The strategy I’ve found works best for incorporating the fresh produce into your recipe meal planning, while minimizing needs to go to the grocery store is thus:
Recipes calling for more quickly perishable fruits/veg must be prepared in the earlier part of the month’s meal plan. This may include Tomatoes, Avocados, Cucumber, Summer Squash like Zucchini and Yellow Crook-Neck, Mushrooms, Spinach, Leaf lettuces and/or “Spring Mix” salads, and most fruits.
Recipes calling for produce which have longer “fresh” shelf life capacity can come later in the month. This produce may include hard/winter squash, potatoes of all kinds, cabbage, and cauliflower. Most hardy “cold season” greens can keep for a few weeks decently as well – including Kale, Collard Greens, and Broccoli. I’ve found Romaine lettuce hearts last longer than any other form of fresh lettuce purchased. Corn still on cob and still sheathed in its husk can keep for a decent length of time refrigerated. Citrus fruits have the longest “shelf life” of the fruits, followed generally by some melons and apples, and bananas can hang out for a couple of weeks depending on how green they were when first purchased.
Another cost-savings potential, depending on the amount of workload you want to get yourself invested in, is that it may actually be cheaper in some instances to buy a bunch of fresh produce and then go home and blanch it and freeze it yourself, instead of buying little pre-packaged frozen bags of veggies and fruits. Its not the most convenient thing, and depending on the produce it won’t always be the cheapest method, but it is something worth considering nonetheless when pinching every penny, or even simply looking for more ways to productively fill your time while staying at home.
Besides bulk whole grains, beans, and produce, some other staple items (with long shelf life) to plan to have on hand for scratch-cooking meal purposes include: Cooking oils. Flour. Salt. And sugar (or other preferred sweetener of your choice).
You may also want to check on how stocked you are in any condiments you use regularly in meals/cooking. This may include Ketchup, Mustard, Soy Sauce, BBQ Sauce, Salad Dressings, Bouillon cubes or paste, Salsa etc…
B. Whole Foods for Health and Affordability
This next point builds on most of the ideas in the first – in that the closer a food item is to its natural state, and the more in “bulk” you can then buy it, the more nutritious it will generally be as well as typically more cost-effective. But point A. was mainly centering around the planning for cost and shelf-life, so lets now talk a bit more about the nutrition.
Plant and Animal based foods have naturally occurring concentrations of nutrients that form during the growth of said food. The “healthier” the practices involved in growing the food are, and the riper it is at time of harvest before getting to you, the more health it will have to pass along to you. The more something is heavily pulverized and/or cooked – i.e. transformed in ways farther from its original state – the more nutrient loss it may suffer. (This is why many processed foods have to have vitamins actually added BACK in to the food product as part of its manufacturing and you see it on the “ingredients” list.)
Water soluble vitamins get left behind in the water used to boil something down. Frying could leach fat soluble vitamins out, as well as the exposure to the extreme heat damaging antioxidants, healthy fatty acids, and other beneficial compounds in the food. Cracking, grinding and pulverizing – particularly of nuts and grains – exposes them to oxidation wherein they begin to go rancid quickly.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t chop or cook your food in any way. I’m merely encouraging you to be mindful of how many steps, and how extreme the methods, it takes to get any said food item from the field to your plate essentially. But I understand convenience is king also – especially if you’ve got a bunch of stir crazy children at home with you, or maybe your workload increased while working from home, or maybe you’re mood isnt feeling very stable right now due to the weight of whats happening in the world, and so you want to, even need to, keep things gentle and easy for yourself? We all must find what our own “middle ground” is for coping, and make the menu plans manageable for us.
Here is an example of a line of reasoning to try and find what would be the middle ground for you and your situation while keeping health in mind…
Take oats for example – A common hearty breakfast food. They’re mineral rich and full of fiber. They have a good long shelf life. They are multi-purpose, in that they can be served as a hot cereal porridge, baked into snacks and treats, ground into a flour, and can be certified gluten free for those with such allergy concerns etc…
The most whole form would be to get the whole oat groat, which resembles a tough long grain brown rice. You can then cook it whole, much like you would do with rice, or you can first coarsely chop or grind it yourself in a food processor or high speed blender to make it more like the texture of steel-cut oats, or turn it into a flour. However, most people, (myself included!) are not going to bother with this (you’ve got to “choose your battles” so to speak).
If you wanted to buy some oats still as close to whole form as possible, while saving yourself some steps at home, you can get steel cut, or you can get whole-rolled oats – a form which then helps speed up their cooking time (where the whole groats have been pushed through a machine that flattens them, which is something we do not have the ability to do at home in our own kitchens!)
But say you still can’t take the time to cook steel cut oats, or even a whole rolled oats? Then you can get plain quick cooking oats. “Quick Cooking” is simply where they’ve taken the whole rolled oats and chopped them up a bit further so that when you cook them they absorb the moisture quicker, thus reducing the total cook-time.
But maybe then you don’t have the ingredients to flavor and dress up your oats how you want to? Say you don’t want to take that time? Or maybe your kids just won’t eat it that way? Well then you get the quick oats that come in pre-flavored serving packets. But note that this is the least cost effective per serving, and generally the least “whole food” form to obtain said oats.
…Actually, the least whole food form would be a processed oat based “cereal”, the kind you’d eat cold in some milk. That is so far removed from the original whole grain form, even more so than pre-flavored quick oats pouches. But we all generally have to cut corners sometimes, and make various sacrifices, so you just need to figure out what that’s going to look like for you and your family. For example, maybe you compromise on the pre-flavored quick oats pouches, but that’s made up for by ensuring the whole family eats plenty of fresh vegetables as opposed to canned?
With whole food nourishment considered as the baseline for our planning, we now move on to the next point…
C. All Quarantine and No Treats makes you a Dull, Grumpy, Sad Person
That heading may be an overstatement for some, but I think its safe to say that the phrase “comfort food” exists for a reason. And if there’s anything that the mass collective consciousness and physical body needs right now during these times, it is a nice little dose of comfort.
Notice I said “nice” and “little”! – I’m not advocating any binge eating of course, it is unhealthy, it can be unsafe, and its uneconomical. I am not suggesting that feeling depressed, angry, stressed, confused, scared or any other sensation is an excuse to respond in proportion with food, let alone junk food particularly. But ultimately food equates to survival, and it has been part of human social connection surely since the dawn of humankind, therefore it is not unreasonable to expect that food at this time is going to take on all sorts of various meanings and levels of importance for people, coping with their feelings, and even in merely trying to survive.
Some people may plan and possess the most fortunate of circumstances to be able to use this time of self-isolating as an opportunity to try cooking more, eating healthier and getting into better shape. Others are not so fortunately privileged. And still others may have the best of intentions but then their feelings, or obligations that arise, prevent them from being as busy in the kitchen as they may have originally hoped.
Basically all of that is to say that smart pantry planning ought to include some quick and easy foods, some snack foods, some things you may consider “treats”. For health and economical reasons this shouldn’t make up any majority of the pantry, but to leave it out entirely could find you weeks in to this whole mess of a situation feeling more sad, less motivated, bored with your food options, too tired to cook AGAIN and so forth.
Personally I think one of the best treats for a wholesome feeling is homemade chocolate chip cookies. But it is something which, in my busy “normal” every day living, I rarely take the time to indulge in. Now I’ve been social-distancing at home for over a month and in that time I’ve made a big batch of chocolate chip cookies for the whole family twice. We’re not eating desserts and junk left and right and with every meal of every day etc… but having those few instances of that different special thing to look forward to does make a nice counter balance to some stress and “sameness” of the situation.
It doesn’t even have to be a sweet treat. Another quick and easy go-to “comfort” food for my family is to have a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup. Did I make the tomato soup from scratch? Nope. But I use one that is organic and has no sugar or preservative chemicals added. And we are a non-dairy household, so the cheese is a different sort of exception all together – but even in the realm of dairy-free cheeses there are more vs. less healthy options to choose from.
D. Planning for Special Dietary Considerations
Another important point of your planning is what to do when anyone in your household may have special dietary needs. Of course the easiest thing is when everyone in the household eats the same way, that way no extra special things need to be accounted for. Perhaps during these “stay at home” times the family can come to an agreement wherein at least any of the “shared” family meals will cater to the person(s) with dietary needs/preferences, so you don’t find that you’re having to purchase for and cook up 2, or 3, or 4 completely different meals at a time, every time?
You should also take in to account how “special” products for differing diets may actually be more scarce at the store right now. If they are unique enough outside of the mainstream American diet then the store probably doesn’t typically keep much on hand any given week anyway. – If they maybe only have a small handful of people buying the item(s) once or twice a month usually, then they’re not suddenly going to think to order a bunch more of it right now. Conversely, if its something that’s growing in trend – such as a keto or paleo diet specific product, or even something gluten free – there may be more people clamoring for it than you ever could have imagined, meaning despite the store’s best efforts to keep supply up with demand, its just not going to be readily available.
For these reasons, when you’re going to purchase specialty dietary items, this is one area where you may want to consider going a bit beyond “plan” and at least doubling up on what you’re getting. You may not need it right away, but you may need it later and not be able to find it. Don’t go wiping the entire shelf out if it can be avoided, that’s just common courtesy. But if you’re buying 1 or 2 boxes of a special gluten free crackers you normally eat and like to have on hand, go ahead and get 3 or 4 instead, to last you twice as long and reduce risk of running out and not being able to find it again.
The same rules of basics staples we’ve been talking about otherwise still apply to the particular dietary needs. But if people in your household eat differently, consider where the compromises can occur which can make things more cost effective.
e.g. Can everyone just eat the gluten free hamburger buns so that two types of buns don’t need to be purchased? Or maybe, because the gluten free buns are more expensive, its better to purchase both types, but knowing the one person eating the gluten free buns will have them last 3 times as long if they have the buns all to themselves? These are the types of mathematical decisions you’ll need to make to be most effective in your planning and pantry stocking.
E. Final Notes
Don’t forget Fido!
If you’re stocking up for your household then your pets need to count too. While there may be less likelihood of any pet-food shortage, the whole point of stocking the pet’s pantry is still to avoid how much you’re going to need to be going out in public risking exposure or spreading of the virus. If your pet is on a special diet of any kind (especially for a medical reason) then definitely get a bit extra if you can, as the more rare/small-company “special” brands and formulas could be more likely to see issues of shipping delays, ingredients/manufacturing shortages etc…
Also, when you are considering quick and easy, and/or healthy, shelf stable options to stock up on don’t forget about the kinds of supplements that act as meal replacers and enhancers. Such as protein powders to be added to smoothies or homemade protein bars. Greens powders to enhance smoothies or juices and be an easy way to get more green foods into the diet. Fruit powders for adding to smoothies, oatmeal, or yogurt. And “super foods” such as dried goji berries, chia or hemp seeds, maca root powder etc… they are called “super foods” because they are very nutritionally dense – meaning a little bit of them goes a long way in terms of giving your daily diet a dose of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy fats.
In summation, the foundation of wholesome pantry planning would look like this:
- Bulk Grains = Rice, Oats, Barley, Buckwheat, Quinoa, Amaranth, Millet, Rye, Wheat
- Bulk Beans = Black Beans, Split Peas, Lentils, Garbanzos, Bean mix blends etc…
- Cooking Oil = Grapeseed, Olive, Avocado, Sunflower, Coconut etc…
- Sweetener = Organic Cane Sugar, Honey, Maple Syrup, Agave Nectar, Coconut Sugar, Date Sugar etc…
- An all purpose flour (Obviously a gluten free blend version if that is needed by anyone in your household)
- Mineral rich Sea Salt or Pink Salt
- Plenty of condiments, sauces, seasonings and spices to round out and complete meals
- A few “quick an easy” meal options and additions, such as: Pasta with a jarred sauce. Ramen noodles. Bean soup, Rice pilaf, boxed Casserole mixes, and “one skillet” frozen dinner blends etc…
- Some easy, go-to, snacks and treats, such as: Chips and Salsa, Cheese and Crackers, Yogurt with Granola, Chocolate bars etc…
- Nutritional supplements and/or “Super” foods
- Whatever is needed for your pets