I have started and stopped this post on stocking your pantry and freezer about a dozen times. I was worried that I’d come off as a crazy doomsday prepper. Or a panic shopper. But to give you the truest insight to my push/pull, stocking up on food is counterintuitive to everything I stand for. You see, I am a self described essentialist. I am constantly paring down in our home to what we need and use. No more, no less. Two sheet sets per bed. Two towels per person. Seven tea towels. No duplicate utensils. Only the pots and pans that I use on a regular basis. Our home is small, our kitchen is tiny, and this chosen lifestyle has served us well.
That is until the pandemic started looming, and I found my needs shifting.
Starting at the end of February, 2020 I began to feel anxious about the coronavirus. As a professional organizer I often ask my clients “How much is enough?” In the weeks leading up to the pandemic lockdown, it turned out that my own definition of enough, especially in regards to my food storage began shifting from getting by on a week to week basis, to stocking up.
I did my first pre pandemic shopping trip in the last week of February. It wasn’t so much planned as it was going with my gut. I started by buying some disinfecting products. My anxiety immediately dropped. The next day, I shopped at Grocery Outlet, buying a variety of meats and fish for the freezer, and doubling up on my normal grocery staples. Shopping this way helped calm my fears. A week later, as the news became more grim, and as sheltering-in-place went from an if to a when, my anxiety rose.
I decided to buy more food.
This time I was strategic, rearranging my fridge and freezer to judge the free space. I then took a critical look at both my freezer and pantry to see what frequently used items I could add. We don’t eat processed foods, so this meant keeping an abundance of fresh, frozen, and pantry ingredients on hand. I filled out my list and went shopping. Once everything was bought and neatly put away, I felt better prepared.
I did my last pre pandemic shopping trip a week later, the very day Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Again, my anxiety had spiked, a lockdown appeared imminent, and I wanted to make sure I had everything we might need to shelter-in-place for the time being.
I pulled into my local Grocery Outlet around 1pm that afternoon. The parking lot had a smattering of cars and everything appeared to be completely normal. I questioned my sanity. On this shopping trip I picked up extra food for the pets, backup laundry products, and veggies for the soups and stews I was planning to freeze. In a fit of genius, I bought baking supplies thinking that if we were going to be housebound, making baked goods sounded comforting!.
By the time I left the store 45 minutes later, the parking lot was full and people were streaming into the store. I avoided panic shopping by mere minutes. Thank God!
Once home, and while it was still fresh in my mind, I made a running list of meals that would use up the foods in my freezer and pantry. And let me tell you what. I am so glad I did this because my list guided me through the weeks ahead.
Driven by anxiety, and the goal of filling the freezer with all manner of foods, I cooked nonstop for the first two weeks of the lockdown. Good thing because once the third week rolled around, I hit anxiety burnout. That week was spent on the couch reading. I did brush my teeth twice a day, but that’s about it. Fortunately all those casseroles, pasta sauces and soups in the freezer could easily pick up the slack. With the exception of fresh produce, herbs and eggs, picked up by my son and his girlfriend as needed, I was able to avoid the grocery store for a full month.
So, how’d I do? Well, I am happy to report it went well. During the lockdown, creating a meal plan based on what I had in the fridge, freezer and pantry was incredibly helpful and meant that nothing went to waste. Best of all, avoiding the visual of people panic shopping was a blessing for my jumpy lizard brain. I was also glad I wasn’t forced to rely on grocery delivery services which, in the beginning of the pandemic were running a week to two weeks out and delivering roughly half of what people had ordered. That informed my decision to eventually don my mask and gloves, and venture back into my regular grocery store.
Fast forward to the present day. Nationally, our COVID-19 numbers have spiked, and many states, including our own are tightening up. A six week shelter-in-place order may be on the horizon sometime this winter. None of this surprises me. After using up most of what I bought earlier this year, I have spent the past six weeks stocking up again. I now suggest you do the same.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m solely going to focus the rest of this blog post on food and not cleaning products or toilet paper, although the same rules would apply. I’m also going to clarify that I have a small kitchen with a cupboard for a pantry and a normal sized fridge and lower drawer freezer. I reconfigured here and there to make additional food storage work but in my kitchen space is limited.
Here is what I learned about stocking up on food:
Be mindful of your storage space, particularly freezer space, and stock up accordingly.
Stock up on what you already know you will use. The popular thinking is One for now, two for later.
Stock up on what gives you a simple pleasure. For me, that is my perfect morning cup of french press coffee, complete with my favorite non-dairy creamer and a scoop of flavorless collagen protein. I now have enough to get me through the next few months, which feels comforting. The same thinking would apply for those of you that enjoy a special afternoon snack with a cup of tea, or a glass of wine in the evening. When the world feels out of your control, these little treats go a long way.
Meal planning is vital. Make a list of six to 10 SIMPLE meals that you enjoy and buy those ingredients that can be frozen, live long-term in your fridge, or be stored in your pantry. While you’re at it, stock up on carrots, celery, potatoes, bell peppers, ginger root, and onions. Just about every savory recipe uses one or more of these staples.
Stock up on frequently used pantry basics. For us this means olive oil, ghee, vinegars, condiments, tinned tomato products, chipotle in adobo sauce, peanut and almond butter, jams, soup stocks, marinated and pickled vegetables, canned tuna and anchovies, jars of marinara sauce, rice, lentils, beans, split peas, and a variety of pastas.
If you bake, now’s the time to buy flour, cocoa, sugars, yeast, etc. Store in a cool, dry place. Nuts are stored best in airtight containers.
If you eat meat, buy it in bulk and subdivide into freezer bags. I freeze backup bread and bagels. Butter can be frozen without a change in texture. I always have a smoked turkey leg in the freezer to add a wonderful umami flavor to my split pea and lentil soups. Did you know that you can freeze cheese? The caveat with freezing cheese is that it becomes crumbly when thawed, so freezing is best applied to shredded cheeses. I buy a block of feta cheese, crumble smaller portions into a snack size baggie, and freeze. Feta literally thaws out in minutes and can be that extra somethin’ somethin’ on salads and in sauces. You can also freeze ricotta and cream cheese for sauces and casseroles. Bacon, sausages, and lunch meats can easily be frozen in their packaging then thawed out in the fridge as needed. I’m not a fan of frozen vegetables, but I do keep a couple blocks of frozen spinach for when I make lasagna.
Avoiding food waste, I routinely freeze random things. If you only use half a tin of tomato paste, spoon the remaining half into a snack size baggie, push the air out, and toss it in the freezer. To use, simply toss your frozen knob of frozen tomato paste into your pan. It thaws in seconds. I also freeze unused chiles in adobo, and leftover wine. Clean vegetable and herb scraps, chicken bones/carcasses, and bits of leftover chicken get frozen together in a big ziplock bag for when I make stock.
Think about making food ahead when you have the energy. Besides stocks, soups and casseroles, I like to freeze bags of cooked shredded chicken, homemade matzo balls, and even bechamel sauce.
And finally, make sure you have enough of those items that support your cooking. Frequently used herbs, spices and seasoning blends, kosher salt and black peppercorns, garlic, lemons, parchment paper, non stick cooking spray, and ziplock bags.
Going into the pandemic, I was worried I was going to waste food and money. That concern turned out to be unfounded. But what I gained was an appreciation for the flexibility of a well stocked kitchen during a difficult time like this pandemic. By thinking ahead and shopping strategically, I have provided myself with enough food options to never hit kitchen burnout.