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April 09, 2020 / Thomas Ngo Aquino

Guide to Quarantine Cooking: 5 Tips for Smart Meal Planning

Chickpea-salad

With orders of social distancing in place across the country, we are all adjusting to staying at home 24/7. This quarantine is making many of us feel stressed out because it is uncertain how long this new normal will last. It is forcing us to adjust and rethink how we conduct regular tasks like work, exercise, cook, and take care of family members.

One area we want to help you with during this uncertain time is with quarantine cooking: how to plan, purchase, and create healthy meals given the unpredictable supply of food on shelves and the desire to reduce time spent outside. We put together this list of tips and tricks to help you meal plan for any specialized diet, inspire your creative side, and relieve some stress about quarantine cooking at home.

Start by taking a few minutes to look around in your kitchen to see what pantry staples you already have. When you are ready to purchase groceries, PlateJoy’s partnership with Instacart can deliver food right to your door so you can be fully stocked on any items you are missing.

1. Freeze Produce to Use Later

Two roasted berry milkshakes in glasses with straws

When it comes to quarantine cooking, reconsider how you store your food to save time spent outside and prevent food waste. For example, fresh produce is perishable which means it can spoil rather quickly (within one to two weeks). We recommend storing fresh fruits and vegetables in the freezer soon after you purchase them because most produce can be safely frozen for up to 12 months. This means you will not have to leave the house often and you will have high-quality produce ingredients for meals and snacks readily available. An added bonus is that when fruits and vegetables are frozen right away, you lock in their nutrients and flavor at their peak.

Any of your favorite vegetables can be frozen, just make sure to wash and thoroughly dry them first. Chop larger vegetables into smaller pieces and store them in an air-tight container or bag. Proportion bags of mixed vegetables like onions, carrots, and celery (also known as a ‘mirepoix’), then defrost them when you need a base for soups and stews.

Are your herbs wilting and looking a little sad? Soft herbs like basil and cilantro can be chopped and added to olive oil or butter before freezing in ice cube trays. Because they are frozen in smaller serving sizes, they are perfect for adding to dishes like pasta and sauces.

Freezing fresh fruit is just as simple. Like with fresh vegetables, wash and dry your fruit before proceeding. Cut larger fruits like apples and bananas into smaller slices to ensure evenness when freezing; but you do not have to cut smaller fruits like berries and grapes. Lay equal sized pieces of fruit in a single layer on a baking sheet because this helps them freeze evenly. Then, place the baking sheet in the freezer for at least 4 hours before transferring them into an air-tight container or bag. When you are ready to enjoy them, you can blend a berry and banana frozen yogurt shake, make homemade applesauce, or munch on frozen grapes as a snack. If you are searching for a way to pump up flavor and stay hydrated, toss a handful of frozen fruit into a pitcher of plain or sparkling water.

2. Get Creative with Canned Bean Recipes

Make ahead canned bean pasta salad on plate with napkin and forks

During the past few years, canned bean recipes have been rising in popularity and now is a good time to try them out. You may find long-forgotten canned goods in your pantry. Dust them off because they have a long shelf life and are great for quarantine cooking. Canned beans and legumes are some of our favorite vegetarian and vegan proteins because they are mini powerhouses of iron, fiber, b-vitamins, and other micronutrients. Whether you already eat a plant-based diet or cannot find any meat at grocery stores, you can pick from many canned bean recipes to create healthy, time-saving, and tasty meals. You can swap meat out and add canned beans and legumes to any salad, casserole, soup, stew, and stir-fry.

If you have a can of chickpeas in your pantry, you can turn it into a delicious condiment or snack. Quickly toss them in the food processor to make a creamy lemon coriander hummus. It is a zesty addition to a sandwich for lunch one day, and as a dip with crunchy carrots the next day. You can also turn a can of chickpeas into crunchy parmesan chickpeas. They need to be dried before roasting in the oven, so drain the liquid in the can and pat them down thoroughly with paper towels. You can use any of your favorite herbs, seasonings, and spices. The flavor combinations are endless.

Aside from canned beans, you may have other items in your kitchen to use. Get creative with canned bean recipes and pantry recipes that help you use what you already have on hand.

3. Stock Up on Nuts and Seeds

Cocoa roasted pumpkin seeds on counter with extra powder on spoon

In addition to canned and jarred foods in your pantry, we recommend stocking up on dried goods like nuts and seeds (the latter is a smart alternative if you have a nut allergy). They offer a dose of heart-healthy fats, fiber, and protein. They can also add flavor and crunch to a dish. To enjoy them in the simplest way, roast them in the oven or toast them on the stovetop in less than 10 minutes. You can also incorporate nuts and seeds into your day by:

If you have any left over nuts or seeds, we recommend storing them in the freezer in an air-tight container or plastic bag. Most stay fresh in the freezer for up to 12 months which can help reduce the frequency of your grocery trips. Make sure to bring frozen nuts and seeds to room temperature before using them in a recipe or snacking.

4. Batch Cook to Save Time and Use Pantry Staples

Zucchini Parmesan quiche with side salad on plate with fork

During quarantine, cooking time can seem like a big ask given our busy schedules of working from home, doing household chores, and taking care of the family. A time-saving idea is to batch cook, a method to prepare full meals in bulk or to cook portions of meals in advance. By doing this, you can extend the life of any food items that are about to expire or spoil, prepare ready-made meals for the days and weeks ahead, and pack and deliver meals to loved ones who cannot leave the house right now.

There are many ways to batch cook:

When meal planning and batch cooking, it is important to properly store your food. If you are going to eat it within a couple of days, store it in the fridge. Otherwise, label with the date and store your meals in the freezer so they last longer. Depending on the meal, frozen foods generally stay good in the freezer for up to three months. After this, you may start to notice things like freezer burn, which will affect the taste.

5. Repurpose Day-Old Bread

Loaf of bread and knife on cutting board

If your bread has gone stale, you do not have to throw it away. Day-old bread may not be a top choice for sandwiches, but it can be perfect for other dishes. Because stale bread is dry and tough, it acts like a sponge to soak up liquid and flavor in recipes like a tropical coconut french toast or stuffing. Stale bread can also add a crunchiness to dishes when turned into small croutons for salads or fine bread crumbs on top of a weeknight pasta dinner. You can also toast thin slices of day-old bread to make crispy crostinis to enjoy with your favorite dips.

If day-old bread is not your cup of tea, you can revive it and reverse the staleness. Try this trick on bread that has become slightly stale:

  1. Lightly spritz your slice of bread with some water and place in a microwave-safe bowl.
  2. Cover with a dampened paper towel, and heat in the microwave for 10-30 seconds.
  3. The stream created in the microwave rehydrates the bread, and it should come out revived and ready to consume.

The next time you have day-old bread, there are many options to enjoy it, save money, and reduce food waste, especially during this time of quarantine and food scarcity.

The Takeaway

While our nation-wide mandate to stay indoors remains in place, we hope that our meal planning ideas makes quarantine cooking a lot easier. Now you are armed with tips and tricks to help you cook with less prep work, reduce your food waste, and save time and money.

We encourage you to store fresh fruits and vegetables in the freezer to reduce food waste and the number of trips you need to make to the grocery store. You can also stock up on an arsenal of useful foods in your pantry, including canned beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Try batch cooking to stock up on ready-to-eat meals. Even day-old bread can be revived for use.

Quarantine cooking might initially feel stressful but it does not have to be. With these tips, you will not only conquer this challenge, we hope you also have fun creating and enjoying delicious and healthy meals.

Thomas Ngo Aquino
Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics

Thomas Ngo Aquino is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics with over a decade of experience in fitness, food-service, and tech industries. He teaches clients about gentle nutrition, science-based practices, and body positivity. In his spare time, Thomas volunteers at a local animal shelter walking dogs and helping them get adopted. He is also an avid baker and is learning how to bake bread regularly.

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