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  • Writer's pictureLaura Weiler

Meal Planning and Cooking, Quarantine Edition

This is not a new topic on the AOS blog, but the crazy times we're currently living through call for a revamp of the previous meal planning post. Making three meals a day for the entire family every day, day after day, is no joke. Maybe it was fun at first—I'm going to bake my own bread! I finally have time for a layer cake from scratch! Let's try handmade pasta!—but it got old fast. Maybe you never really liked cooking and this situation just feels like torture. Either way, everyone has to eat, so...

Organize your pantry, fridge, and freezer.

Not in a 'massive undertaking to look perfect on Instagram' way, but quick and basic. Because if you don't know what you have, or you can't find it, you can't eat it and don't know if you need to buy more—or not. And searching for things is frustrating and we don't need more of that right now.

A few quick tips:

  • group like items (all pasta together on one shelf, all breakfast items together) — if you do only one thing, make it this one

  • use a box or bin to contain items that are prone to falling over (i.e. bags of chips)

  • remove outer packaging (when it makes sense) so you can see what you have (esp. if your kids are prone to leaving empty boxes in the pantry)

  • in the fridge, group like items or categories and dedicate a shelf to leftovers so they aren't forgotten

  • in the freezer, group like items (prepared meals, frozen vegetables, breakfast, etc.) and subdivide the space with containers if you have a deep drawer freezer. If you're feeling motivated, check out this post with more freezer organization tips.

Find simple recipes—simple ingredients, simple prep, simple clean-up.

Now isn't the time for obscure oils and recipes with a 27-item-long ingredient list (unless that's how you usually cook). Simple is less likely to be frustrating—and nobody needs more frustration right now. This collection of 5-ingredient recipes from Smitten Kitchen is a great resource. If the thought of doing the dishes AGAIN is enough to make you want cereal for dinner, try a one-skillet meal or a sheet pan dinner so there's less to wash. (Bonus: sheet pan dinners usually involve a little chopping/prep but are then hands-off. Pop it in the oven and go do something else instead of standing by the stove.)

Make a list of go-to recipes.

Having a list is great when you're struggling for ideas. Anytime you make something that everyone likes, that has an uncomplicated ingredient list, that comes together quickly, has an easy and readily-available ingredient list, etc. add it to your list. When you just can't think of what to make for dinner, check your list. (And put those ingredients on your shopping list!)

Involve your kids.

Yes, this might be more work up front. But there's payoff—kids are more likely to try new foods if they help prepare them. You'll be teaching them important skills they'll use throughout their lives. Check off math on the school learning plan by using baking cookies or slicing pizza to teach fractions. If they're old enough, you might even be able to put them in charge of the meal and take the night off! ;) Two of my favorite sources for finding recipes my kids can make are America's Test Kitchen Kids' Recipes and Real Mom Nutrition.

Shop (or order) with a flexible plan.

Now is not the time to make an extra trip to the grocery store (or incur another delivery fee) because you forgot something. Keep a running list of anything you run out of (this is a good habit outside of quarantine, too) so you don't forget to buy or order it.

Why flexible? In normal times, you make your list and buy what's on it. Right now, you might order boneless skinless chicken breasts and get bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. Or get the the grocery store and realize that you have two options for meat, neither of which is what you were looking for. If the things you buy can be used for many things instead of just one thing, it will be easier to adjust your meal plan.

Think about shelf life—stock up only if you'll eat it (or freeze it) quickly enough. Some of my favorite long-lasting meal-building items to stock up on include canned tomatoes (to make pasta sauce, tomato soup), canned beans (good for soup, or black beans and yellow rice), chopped green chiles (Mexican soups, enchiladas), rice, farro (the best farro salad), frozen vegetables, tortillas (check the date when purchasing), pasta, gnocchi, oatmeal, and meat that freezes well (chicken, ground beef, ground turkey, sirloin tips).

Use your freezer—to preserve food and save time later.

If you have more fresh produce than you can use before it spoils, you might be able to freeze it. Dice bell pepper and use later in omelets or soup. Bread getting stale? Run it through a food processor and freeze the crumbs—easy homemade breadcrumbs! Chop potatoes or carrots and use for soup or beef stew. If a recipe calls for citrus juice but not the zest, zest it anyway (which also makes it easier to juice) and freeze the zest wrapped in wax paper. Use a leftover rotisserie chicken carcass to make homemade chicken stock and freeze it. And don't throw out your parmesan cheese rind—save it for the next time you make soup. (Add to the pot while the soup simmers and discard before serving. It adds great depth of flavor!)

Use your freezer—to freeze meals and save time later.

Freezing meals is something I recommend doing all the time, because it's a huge time saver. Having meals (or meal components) in your freezer is great right now because it's like giving yourself a night off. And it's not much extra work. Here's how: let's say you're making lasagna for dinner. Double the recipe (or split it in half) and bake one for dinner and wrap one for the freezer. Making meatballs? Double the recipe and freeze half. Make one, freeze one. Cook once, eat twice. (I do this all the time, because when we have an evening with 5 activities and no time to cook having dinner options in the freezer makes life easier.)

Need ideas? Check out this Pinterest board with recipes that are freezer-friendly, plus some general tips for freezing food.

Don't forget breakfast! Make muffins and freeze some for another morning. You can also freeze breakfast sandwiches, freezer smoothie kits, pancakes, waffles, banana bread...

Don't think of this as a quarantine-only activity—all of these tips are equally great for busy schedules and hectic mornings when life looks more normal.

Tips for freezing meals:

  • Always label and date your food. Add cooking instructions so you don't have to look them up later.

  • Wrap well to prevent freezer burn—two layers.

  • Disposable foil pans are great for freezing, but if you don't have them, line your regular pan with heavy duty foil and put the whole thing in the freezer. Once it's frozen, just remove the pan and put the foil-wrapped food into a plastic freezer bag. When you're ready to cook, put it back in the pan to thaw in the fridge. Bonus: less clean up later!

Don't throw out your food scraps.

The hardest part about shopping less frequently might be running out of fresh produce in between trips. Regrow what you can! Green onions are probably the easiest things to regrow—even I can do it and I kill most plants. All you need is an empty glass or jar and a small amount of water. They're far from the only thing you can regrow though—check out this list for other ideas.

For the most part I like to cook (really I like to eat, but, you know...), and I've picked up some knowledge and tips over the years, but I'm far from a food professional. So I asked Jeanne Givelekian (FNTP and Holistic Chef) of Purposeful Eats to help with ideas for food-related situations we might find ourselves in right now (or anytime, really). She graciously answered questions and gave suggestions:

I have no motivation to cook but I can’t eat any more of my kid’s frozen chicken nuggets. What super simple and healthy-ish dinners can I make that don’t take a ton of effort or ingredients?

I totally get the no-motivation to cook. As I make out my weekly menu plan, I like to have at least one meal that offers an easy-to-prepare option, allowing me to enjoy the feeling of feeding my family well but eliminating the stress of a complex meal.

Naan Bread Pizza

Naan bread is easy to find in your local grocer and makes the perfect personal-sized pizza. Set out a variety of toppings for a create-your-own pizza night or explore a new flavor like BBQ Chicken Pizza. The way I like to make it uses Sweet Baby Rays BBQ Sauce for the base, shredded gouda cheese, cooked shredded chicken (grab rotisserie to make this super simple), then top with sliced red onions, corn and chopped cilantro. Roast at 425°F for 8-10 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and browned.

Kale Salad This superfood makes a delicious salad. Combine with quinoa, which is a plant-based complete protein, and you have a simple meal. Pomegranate adds a fun sweet-crunch to the salad. If buying the whole fruit to prepare yourself is intimidating, many grocers have pomegranate ready-to-use in the produce section. You can substitute sweetened dried cranberries for the pomegranate as well.

Broccoli Cashew Stir Fry comes together very easy and you can add a protein choice like chicken or beef.

Any recommendations for good TV snacks that won’t leave me feeling gross? Popcorn has gotten boring.

The two most commonly desired components of a TV or movie snack are crunchy and sweet. One word of wisdom is to pre-portion your snack size. This will allow you to enjoy the snack without eating too much, which attributes to the feeling gross feeling.

Try making nut mixes—a great protein and fat source that satisfies the crunch. Here are two recipes for seasoned mixes to kick your snack up a notch. Sweet & Spicy or Honey Spiced

Not a nut fan? Consider rice cakes or sliced apples with nut butter.

I always crave something sweet in the afternoons. Any ideas for something that will satisfy my sweet tooth but be healthier than a bunch of cookies?

Grab and go snacks are one food prep I try to work into my weekend routine to ensure that there are wise options for the week ahead. The key components for a wise snack option are protein and fat. Together these provide enduring energy, which is really what your body is signaling if you are craving sweets.

Energy bites are a well-rounded snack. Made with peanut butter (but you can use any nut butter or seed butter of choice), whole-grain oats, plus a sweet element that satisfies.

Hummus and veggie sticks

Guacamole, salsa and chips

Nuts and dried fruit

Nuts and cheese

I am stuck in a breakfast rut—cereal, cereal, cereal. What can I make that’s new and different?

Breakfast is an important meal to remember. Our bodies need the fuel to adequately break the fast of sleeping and prepare for the day ahead. Recipes that include protein, fat and carbohydrates (the power trio as I like to call it) are key. Here are a few ideas:

Oatmeal topped with nuts, fresh fruit and drizzled with maple syrup or honey

Avocado toast – whole grain toast with butter and avocado slices

French toast – a fun way to get eggs into your morning meal. Enjoy with real maple syrup.

Yogurt parfaits – try vanilla yogurt topped with berries, granola and drizzled with honey or maple syrup

Breakfast burritos – you can make these in advance and simply pull out for each meal

I hope these tips and recipes help make feeding everyone less of a chore, or at least help you break out of a rut. If you have any questions or suggestions, leave a comment below! I'd love to hear what works for you.

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