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Smart Food Strategies During the Pandemic

Observing the stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic requires individuals to do whatever they can to remain at home and limit travel to necessities: acquiring food and medical care, and going to work for “essential” workers and front-line healthcare staff.

As a result, going to the grocery can become an exotic pleasure – the one excuse you have to break your house arrest. But it can also be a source of stress and anxiety. Every time you go to the grocery store, risk exposure increases for you, and others around you.

These tips and insights, collected from the staff at the Office of Sustainability, are meant to optimize your grocery shopping trips in order to minimize future needs to go out. They can go a long way in protecting your own health, and the health of the essential workers at the grocery and other places, simply by preventing encounters and opportunities for transmission.

In addition to increasing efficiency in your food procurement and management at home, these tips aim to reduce packaging and food waste, provide flexibility, and save money.

We also invite you to seek the balance between shopping for what you need to keep you at home for a couple of weeks at a time, versus stockpiling for worst-case scenarios. Panic buying just contributes to shortages — and more panic, so please do not horde food and supplies. There are many assurances that supply chains are strong and farmers and food producers are working diligently to ensure there is plenty of food to eat.

Do It Yourself

For those who have this privilege, staying at home creates some opportunities for more involved recipes. Cooking and baking can be great activities if you have kids that also are looking for something to do. Make measuring into a math lesson. Or have them read the recipe to practice reading. Many meals or staples (like those below) can be made in larger quantities and stored for later use.

 Consider making   

  • Bread: Yeast bread is quicker, but if you don’t have yeast, you can make your own sourdough starter. Most bread freeze well, so make two and freeze the other if you don’t think you will eat it right away.
  • Salad dressing: Oil-based dressings last on the counter for quite some time, so if you are making it, make enough for at least a couple of meals to save you time later. You’ll be amazed by how many variations you can make with a small set of ingredients.
  • Pizza dough: Also freezes well and is fun!
  • Tomato sauce: Tomato season is coming up! Make a big batch and freeze in meal size-servings sizes or process through canning.
  • Sprouts: Easy to grow, nutritious. In winter, it’s a great way to get hyper-local fresh veggies in your diet. It takes about 4-5 days to get sprouts. Just rinse them daily, then float the sprouts in cold water to separate and remove the hulls. They last for about 1.5 weeks in the fridge and can be used top many foods or as a replacement for salad greens.
  • Granola: make a large batch so that it lasts you a long time.
  • Cookies: make a bunch and freeze some of the dough for later.

Some good equipment to have on hand

  • Dehydrator: to dry fruits and veggies or process yogurt.
  • Sprouting jar or tray: you can convert a glass by cutting down a window screen to fit the shape of the opening and putting a ring on it to secure it).
  • Canning supplies: glass jars with canning lids, a jar grabber, and a large pot).
  • Reused plastic containers: such as quart yogurt containers for freezing soups, broth, and other dishes.

If you have the space, get some chickens! They eat your food scraps and give you amazing eggs and fertilizer.

Grow your own: start a raised bed or turn your turf into a garden. If space is tight, grow herbs in pots – anything to increase your resilience and independence!

Prevent Food Waste

Stocking up with the goal of not going to the grocery store for weeks on end has the potential to waste tons of food if you aren’t careful (and if your food spoils, then what is the point of stocking up?). Keep these tips in mind to stretch freshness and aim for zero waste!

  • Learn the truth about expiration dates. There’s a lot of inconsistency out there that results in unnecessary food waste.
  • Repackage food as needed for freshness (especially once you open something).
  • Where possible, do not expose pantry foods to light, heat, or humidity.
  • Prioritize eating fresh foods with a shorter shelf life in the first week after your grocery trip. Store them properly to extend freshness.
  • Prioritize eating things that are open first, and eat your leftovers!
  • Make meals by repurposing old/extra food. Some examples include rice pudding or fried rice from old cooked rice; bread pudding or croutons from stale bread; broth from ham bones, chicken bones, etc.
  • Clean out your fridge and pantry: now is the time to pull out those odds-and-ends ingredients and figure out something you can make with it. If you really aren’t going to use it (ever), get rid of it or offer it up to someone else to create space for your next grocery haul.
  • If your milk is getting close to the expiration date, slowly heat it to about 180 (just before a boil), let it cool in the pot, then repackage it in glass jars or a pitcher to extend the shelf life. Don’t store your milk in the refrigerator door as it will be more exposed to temperature changes each time you open the fridge.
  • Turn milk into yogurt. Yogurt lasts much longer in the fridge and is very versatile. Unlike store-bought yogurt, there is no added sugar. You can strain the yogurt (let sit in a colander and cheesecloth for a couple of hours) and make a firm yogurt cheese plus whey. Whey can be used to add nutrition to rice or soups. It can also be used to ferment sauerkraut.
Share with your Friends and Neighbors

 Let your neighbors and friends know when you are going to the store and offer to get things for them too.

 When you have abundance, offer it up.

 Barter, trade, and share!

 Create a culture where it is ok to ask and offer – for a cup of sugar, a helping hand, etc.

 Are you tight on space? Maybe a neighbor wants to have a garden but doesn’t have the time. You have the time but not the space – work something out!

 Create or join a community garden to grow your own food

 Foster a sharing economy to reduce barriers to DIY. Many tools can be shared rather than purchased (garden tools, specialized kitchen tools, etc.)

Procure your Groceries

It’s a great time to support small grocery stores and local farmers, many of whom are offering deliveries and curbside pick-ups. Curbside STL, a resource developed in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, compiles farmers and restaurants offering curbside pick-up and delivery. 

 Going to the Grocery Store   

The goal for your grocery store shopping should be to go as seldom as possible. Plan ahead. Make a list and have everyone in your household review it to ensure their necessities are taken care of. Stick to the list.

 Tip #1: If you are driving to the grocery, only send one person from your household. If you are biking or walking, perhaps send one person into the store, and have others wait outside to help with carrying.

Tip #2: Stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer with versatile ingredients that will go a long way and can be combined with many other ingredients. Purchase in bulk. Only purchase perishable or freezer items that you can feasibly store.

Tip #3: If you are planning to wipe down your groceries before putting them away, skip the disposable wipes. Instead, make a bleach solution (4 teaspoons per quart of water) and use a clean rag. Be sure to wash the rag after use. For added safety, you can wait to unpack non-perishable dry/pantry goods aside for a couple of days to decrease the likelihood that traces of the virus remain. Wash your hands well after use, and wipe down counters, refrigerator handles, and any other surfaces that you or the groceries touched.

 Sample list 

  • Grains & dried beans: will keep well and are easy to incorporate into a wide variety of meals for fiber and protein.
  • Pasta: great for quick and versatile meals
  • Flour: time to try out bread making! Baking can also be a fun pastime with kids (or without!)
  • Garlic: necessary for many types of recipes, and an immune system booster!
  • Lemons: Lots of applications, including salad dressings, dressing up water, hummus, etc. Peel and dry the zest for other applications.
  • Vegetables: cabbage, carrots, celery, broccoli (don’t get anything pre-cut, which quickly decreases shelf life).
  • Fruits: apples, citrus, and dried fruit keep well. You can peel the zest of citrus, dry them on the counter, and add them to hot or cold water for additional flavor.
Take a Break from DYI

When you are tired of cooking from scratch or eating the old stuff from the back corners of your fridge or pantry, support area farmers and local restaurants. Consider ordering “family style” or off a catering menu to reduce packaging waste and have more leftovers for freezing or eating throughout the week.

Find some great restaurants in your area through these resources: