Amid panic-buying and hoarding, local food blogger Lauren Vavala explains how to keep your kitchen stocked—and health-conscious—during a worldwide health crisis.
As the new coronavirus continued its march across the United States, snapshots of empty grocery store shelves were splashed across the internet.
People were over-purchasing pasta, poultry and toilet paper as though grocery stores would never see another shipment. But clearing out every flavor of ramen wasn’t really necessary. Grocery workers attempted to restock shelves as quickly as they could while restricting how much customers could buy of certain items. (Sorry, only one to two packages of toilet paper now.)
During this pandemic, it can feel like you need to purchase everything you’ll want to eat for the next several weeks in one trip, but in reality, it’s important to make a plan to buy versatile items that will last and make a variety of meals. You can continue to go back to the grocery store (ideally during off-peak times to maximize social distancing) for fresh ingredients.
Lauren Vavala, the Delaware-based food blogger behind Delicious Little Bites, shares her tips on what to keep in your kitchen, how to continue to incorporate fresh ingredients and what to make for dinner tonight.
Stock up on essentials (reasonably)
Make sure your pantry, refrigerator and freezer are stocked with necessities to make versatile meals.
Vavala recommends basics like flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, yeast, cereal, rice, quinoa, pasta, and dry or canned beans.
Canned soups, pastas, boxed meals, pasta sauces, canned chicken, canned tuna, nut butters, jelly, nuts, seeds, granola bars, dried fruits, bread and crackers are also great to have on hand for recipes and snacks.
“These ingredients open up a lot of possibilities for complete meals on their own, like breads, pancakes, muffins, oatmeal, pasta dishes, sandwiches, soups and a ton more when combined with the refrigerated and frozen staples,” she says.
For refrigerated items, aim for foods that have longer expiration dates, Vavala says. This includes eggs, cheese, nondairy milks, butter and yogurt.
Almost anything—fruits and vegetables, meats, seafood, bread and packaged meals—can be frozen to extend its shelf life.
Spice it up
A well-stocked spice cabinet can make all the difference when cooking at home.
“You can buy premade spice mixtures that you simply sprinkle onto chicken, beef, seafood, pork or even vegetables,” Vavala says
Pinterest and Google offer recipes if you want to make your own spice mixtures.
Vavala recommends having basil, parsley, chili powder, curry powder and cinnamon for flavors that stand out on their own, as well as classics like onion and garlic powders.
“It’s also helpful to have different sauces like soy sauce, Worcestershire and Buffalo sauce that are shelf-stable,” she adds.
Fresh produce is your friend
As people began to stockpile, it was clear one thing was being ignored: fresh produce.
“Fresh produce is actually a priority for me at this time,” Vavala says. “My family bought a range of produce from [ones that go] bad quickly to fruits and vegetables that tend to last longer.”
She recommends more enduring fruits and vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, apples, and oranges. Items like berries go bad quicker.
“I strongly recommend eating the produce with a shorter shelf life first, then working through some of the longer-lasting foods,” she says.
From fresh to frozen
If you want to buy fresh produce but are worried you won’t be able to eat it all before it goes bad, you can freeze it.
“First, I would attempt to buy already frozen fruits and vegetables and try to consume what you already have while it is fresh to save space in your freezer,” Vavala says.
But when you do plan to freeze fresh produce, she says berries are an easy option.
“Simply put them on a sheet pan in the freezer until frozen, then transfer them to a freezer bag. This helps keep them from freezing in one big clump,” she advises.
For vegetables, Vavala says some—like peppers, onions and tomatoes—can be chopped up and frozen immediately. Others, including broccoli, green beans and asparagus, should be blanched first.
Meals for the whole family
On her blog, Vavala shares a host of recipes for families to try.
She recommends her Black Bean Burgers, One-pan Chicken (or beef) Enchiladas Pasta, and Blueberry Overnight Oats. For quick meals, she suggests Garlic Parmesan Shrimp and Pasta, Instant Pot Smoky Beef Chili, and Southwestern Chicken and Quinoa.
You can also plan meals by searching websites to match what you already have on hand. There’s no need to go to the grocery store with so many bloggers and publications offering “pantry meals,” she says.
Don’t be afraid to modify, Vavala says. Just because you don’t have a specific fresh vegetable doesn’t mean you can’t improvise with frozen.
Now that the kids are home more, keeping lunches interesting can be a challenge.
“I think the best options for quick and easy lunches that kids will actually eat are soups and sandwiches,” she says. “There is just such a wide variety of flavors to help them from getting bored.”
If all else fails or you don’t want to waste food, there are always leftovers.
“Get creative with any leftovers from dinner the night before. For example, leftover chicken can be turned into chicken salad sandwiches with dried cranberries or blueberries and/or walnuts or almonds,” she says.
Beyond your own kitchen
In a time of uncertainty and crisis, it’s important to lend a hand and think about others in your community.
Vavala suggests offering to help your elderly, sick or out-of-work neighbors when you need to take a trip to the grocery store.
And remember: Don’t hoard and try not to panic. Everyone needs to be able to buy groceries.
“We don’t have to resort to eating Spam yet and hopefully never [will],” she says. “We have electricity and the ability to refrigerate, freeze and cook our foods.”
Learn more about Lauren Vavala and her recipes at deliciouslittlebites.com.
Published as “Comfort Food” in the May 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.