By Caroline Chambers, who juggles being the mama to a wild 15-month old baby boy (and has another due in September!) with freelance food writing and recipe development. She is the author of Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds. She’s sharing her tips for meal prep during a pandemic, in hopes it helps you navigate this strange time.
Meal prep during a pandemic
It’s been a weird month. It’s been a really weird month. But my little family is settling into this current rhythm of life, we’re getting more creative about ways to keep our toddler and ourselves entertained without leaving walking distance of our house, and we’ve perfected the art of taking conference calls while strolling our babbling 15-month old around the neighborhood.
My husband and I looked at each other this past Sunday night, after devouring enough carrot cake for a large group of extremely hungry adults, and came to the conclusion that there is one little thing that is definitely not working in our Shelter In Place lifestyle. Our diet. It’s not that we’ve been eating lasagna and cheeseburgers for every single meal, we’ve actually been getting two CSA deliveries a week, so we’ve been eating a ton of vegetables. But those vegetables have been, say, thrown into a cheesy baked gnocchi sitch, or sautéed into a cheesy chorizo frittata! We’ve blended up a spinach pancake batter to trick ourselves into thinking we’re doing something remotely healthful! Or, in my latest feat, grated up and stirred into a cake batter.
Food freedom during quarantine
I really love the concept of Food Freedom – indulging when it’s worth it, passing when it’s not, and never feeling any guilt about either decision. And here’s the thing, I feel zero guilt about all the indulging we’ve been doing this month. Learning to bake (and consequently eat) sourdough bread has kept my mind off of the fact that the food and beverage clients who I regularly develop recipes for have gone completely radio silent since the beginning of this mess, leaving my freelance income scarily low. Baking a batch of my Coronado Cookies momentarily distracted me from the fact that my husband’s and my east coast based parents are missing out on what has been my favorite phase yet of their grandchild’s life.
Using what we’ve got to create healthy meals
So, guilt? None. But we also don’t exactly feel like the best version of ourselves. As annual January Whole30-ers, we are full believers in the mind-body connection between eating well and feeling mentally sharper, and during this crappy, tough time, feeling our best mentally is pretty important. It took us a few weeks to get there, but we’re finally admitting that feeling our best mentally and physically might be even more important than an extra slice of carrot cake.
So we are turning things around! There’s absolutely zero chance that I’m going to Whole30-style clean out my pantry and throw away my sourdough starter and massive stash of cheeses. If I need to bake a batch of cookies as a coping mechanism, I’m going to do it! But I have come up with a few tips and tricks to help us eat more healthily with the kitchen inventory that we already have on hand. I bet that if you really take a deep look into your inventory, you’ll find that you don’t even need a big stock-up trip to the grocery store to start eating more healthily today.
#1 WASH AND PREP THE VEGGIES IN YOUR FRIDGE
Reach into your refrigerator and pull out every single vegetable that you’ve been considering eating for lunch, and then pushing aside to make a ham sandwich instead because it’s easier. For me, this included a 10-day-old head of romaine, some very sad looking celery, four different half-used bunches of fresh herbs, several pounds of carrots, and a spaghetti squash that’s been staring at me from my counter for two months.
I thinly sliced, washed, and stored the romaine in a Tupperware between paper towels to keep it fresh longer.
The celery inspired me to make a batch of tuna salad, which was devoured immediately by my husband and toddler.
The herbs were turned into a seriously delicious pesto! Find my formula for making pesto using absolutely anything below.
The carrots, along with several other half-dead veggies, were roasted at 425°F with oil and different spice blends for each veggie to keep things interesting.
Finally, the spaghetti squash was pressure cooked into oblivion by mistake (I blame the toddler) and thus turned into a mashed squash situation.
The squash and roasted veggies have now made THREE very different, extremely lovely leftover any-vegetable soups! Find the flexible recipe below, as well.
#2 REACH INTO THE VERY BACK OF YOUR PANTRY AND BLINDLY PULL OUT THREE THINGS THAT YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IN A VERY LONG TIME
For me, these things were raw walnuts, a jar of barley, and a bottle of hot chili oil.
I hate raw walnuts, but I love them toasted on grain bowls and salads, so I toasted them at 400°F for 10 minutes while I was already roasting some of the veggies from my refrigerator vegetable salvation journey. Are you out of your favorite coffee creamer? Make a nut milk creamer using absolutely any nut you find.
I cooked the entire jar of barley in my pressure cooker to have on hand for quick salads and grain bowls this week.
And the unopened bottle of chili oil that I bought at a cool Asian market over a year ago and haven’t thought about a single time since? Well, I haven’t actually done anything with it yet, but I put it out on my kitchen counter versus keeping it hidden in the back of the cupboard. Maybe I’ll fry some eggs in it for breakfast, or make a spicy almond butter salad dressing with it?
No doubt the three things you pull out will be totally different than mine. So here’s what to do: google “how to use _____.” Yep, it’s that simple. And if none of those search results inspire you, please send me a DM on Instagram and ask me for ideas! Coming up with cool ideas for how you can use a half-empty bag of coconut flour is way more fun than distractedly watching yet another Netflix special.
#3 REORGANIZE THE FREEZER, AND MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU
Do you even know what’s in the depths of your freezer? I only moved into my current home three months ago, and even I have multiple spooky frozen mystery ingredient Tupperwares in my freezer. I finally organized it into three sections – 1) meat, 2) fruits, vegetables and prepared foods (dumplings, cauliflower gnocchi, etc.) 3) breads, nuts, sugars, ice cream, etc.
Getting organized has helped my freezer actually come into play when I’m deciding what to cook. Now that I can actually see what those items are, I’ll open it up every couple of days to remind myself of what I have to work with.
Grab the oldest thing in your freezer, and force yourself to cook dinner using it tonight! Mine was a plastic baggy of pulled pork that my husband cooked in November. I crisped it up in a skillet and made tacos!
We’re on day 5 of our cleaner-lockdown-lifestyle, and we are feeling pretty dang fantastic. I’m still enjoying my nightly bowl of I’m-Pregnant-I-Deserve-This ice cream, and George is still exercising his passion for India Pale Ales. But we’re sleeping better, thinking sharper, and just overall feeling better. Which is a big win right now! Whether you choose to join us on our healthier-ish lockdown eating journey today, next week, or absolutely-never-it’s-a-global-pandemic-and-you’re-eating-pasta, I hope these tips help you make the most of your current kitchen inventory.
Flexible recipes to try during your quarantine:
Grain bowls and salads are great, but if you need a warm, comforting dish? It will blow your mind that this delicious bowl of soup, made from absolutely any veggies you have, is just a few minutes away. So far this week I’ve made a Miso Roasted Squash and Celery Root Soup and a Creamy Curried Coconut Carrot Soup. I made those titles up just now, but they sound pretty great don’t they? This recipe makes 1 serving.
1 cup roasted (or sauteed, or pressure cooked) vegetables
¾ to 1 ¼ cups stock, warmed to a simmer
Salt and pepper, to taste
Optional seasonings: 1T fresh herbs, 2t miso paste, 2t harissa paste, 2t curry paste, 1-2 T milk of choice, 1T citrus juice, a big pinch of any of your favorite seasonings
ADD vegetables, ¾ cup stock, and any of the optional seasonings to a blender and blend until smooth.
BLEND in more stock if needed to achieve your desired consistency.
TASTE and adjust seasonings, if needed.
Depending on how much you seasoned your vegetables, you might need a lot more salt and pepper, or you might need none! Don’t forget to taste and adjust the seasonings until you love it!
Starchier vegetables like carrots, potatoes and winter squash will need more stock to become a soupy consistency. More watery vegetables like zucchini, roasted tomatoes, or sautéed mushrooms will need less.
Fridge Clean-Out Pesto
Makes about 2 cups pesto
3 cups fresh herbs or greens such as arugula, Swiss chard, or kale (I used cilantro and parsley)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup nuts (I used toasted walnuts)
2 garlic cloves
Juice of 1 lemon (or 1 to 2 tablespoons of a light colored vinegar – I used rice vinegar)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
ADD all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. You may have to scrape down the sides a couple times.
TASTE and season with more salt and acid (lemon juice or vinegar) if needed.
Hot tip: if you’re Parmesan isn’t already grated, cut up the block of cheese and blend it first, by itself. The blender turns it into grated parm!
Caroline Chambers was raised on the robust flavors of the South – salty, smoky, savory – and developed an appreciation for the fresh coastal flavors of California when she settled into her first home as a newlywed. It was there she began a deeper exploration of her culinary identity, founding, owning, and operating a farm-to-table catering company, transitioning into culinary R&D, recipe development, and food styling. She’s worked for publications and brands including the New York Times, Constellation Brands, the Food Network, Self, Mealthy, and Eating Well magazine. She is the author of Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds. She currently lives in Carmel, California with her husband, George and son, Mattis. Connect with Caroline on Instagram.