Ask the grumpies: How do I deal with meal planning with an uncertain pantry?

Hannah asks:

I’m used to cooking by recipes and buying ingredients each week based on the recipes I chose on the weekend.  Now I can’t do that because grocery times for curbside or delivery are not only scheduled 2 or 3 weeks out but in general a third of the things we try to order aren’t available (generally things like eggs, flour, etc., but also random things like Swiss chard)  What have other people been doing in this “era of unprecedented recipe substitutions“?

Recipe substitutions are definitely one thing– depending on what you’re trying to make, spinach or really any green will work in place of Chard.  I actually used the greens on beets recently because I was craving something and I was reminded how chard-like they are.  The internet will help if you’re not used to making substitutions.  Of course, it’s nice to know that you’re going to need to make a substitution when you’re doing the grocery shopping– I’ve been using the “comments” space for my preferred substitutes, but some personal shoppers are better than others.  Still, in a week when you’re going to be making chard, you might just get some loose leaf spinach for a salad earlier in the week (this is something we did this week) or frozen spinach to keep in the freezer as part of your pantry (we do this with broccoli, though frozen broccoli has only been available once for us and fresh broccoli has been pretty reliable).

Another thing you can do is stock up your baseline pantry and then do the menu planning *after* shopping.  Here’s a post about what’s in our pantry (or at least what we try to keep in there… back in the days when we left the house).  That can get a little difficult in terms of perishables though, because you generally don’t keep perishables in your pantry and if you’re not doing menu planning before, it’s hard to know what refrigerated things you should get.  But you may be able to keep things in your pantry such that you can always make bean chili, for example.

So that leads to flexibility.  Go ahead and menu plan your week (I guess 2-3 weeks in advance?), but also have back-up meals that you can make if you get, say the leeks but not the eggs you wanted for your leek and egg dish (that you’re hoping to make from Ottonlenghi’s Simple this week, just as a non-random example).  Keep in your back pocket flexible recipes like stir-fry, things in sauce over a starch (if you can find pasta or rice) or over a piece of meat, sandwiches, and so on.  If you’ve been able to get any frozen veggies or chicken, these are something you can add to fresh to use up extra veggies.  Standard flexible things can be rough because there’s so much demand for things like rice and bread, but you can often substitute carbs (as @scalzi demonstrates, anything can go in a tortilla, like sauteed beet greens with some cheese) or even just not have the carb.

We’ve personally been playing grocery store roulette with things like milk, butter, sugar, and flour (have I mentioned DH’s stress-baking?  I was wrong when I thought he was going to stop doing so much).  I just ask every week and say we’ll take any substitutions.  And some weeks we get it and some weeks we don’t.  Some weeks we have a bit too much and some weeks I worry that we’re not going to make it through the week.  (I’ve also ordered flour online, but nuts.com now seems to be out.)  And for things like free and clear dishwashing liquid, instead of saying “any free and clear dishwashing liquid” which resulted in something with scented with red dye last week that had “gentle” in the title (DC2 gets hives, and I get hives with most fragrances), I’m trying to pick one of every brand but say “no substitutions”.  If I end up with four dishwashing liquids then we’ll be set for a little while.  If I end up with zero, at least I’m not getting one I’m allergic to.

Of course, flexible meal plans take a higher mental load than what you’ve been doing, most likely.  I’m not sure how to get around that if you also want variety.  (If you’re ok with just eating the same food and it’s the same food that the grocery store has, then you could do that…)

Here’s another post on different cooking systems from back in 2010.

Grumpy nation, how have you been dealing with menu planning during the pandemic?

29 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How do I deal with meal planning with an uncertain pantry?”

  1. gwinne Says:

    Yeah. meal prep is putting me over the edge. My household consists of a largely paleo adult, a teenage vegetarian, and a picky 8 year old who eats mostly carbs and cheese. There are virtual NO meals we can all eat everything, which means i am often making 2 dinners, plus the other meals, and it’s just too much under the best of circumstances. I’ve been keeping extra cooked pasta in the fridge because failing other options, Tiny Boy will always eat pasta + parm. In those circumstances LG is also having pasta I will have a potato. Thankfully LG is willing to eat things cooked in the presence of meat (like carrots that came from the same pan as a roast chicken…)

    We’ve been going through insane amounts of butter. I will need to find flour (there was an unfortunate spilling incident during a teen baking project). I thought we had enough tortillas but will need to find or learn to make.

  2. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I think that would put me over the edge even without the difficulty in getting supplies! I refuse to make more than one meal, but like you do with the pasta they can always have a healthy alternative (for us it’s usually leftovers, fruit, or a sandwich) if they don’t want the main meal after trying it.

  3. Steph Says:

    I’m cooking for one, which admittedly changes the volumes and balance of these things, and also means I’m only just starting to run out of some basics that I got back in February. But basically I’ve just been approaching it as “A meal is a carb and a protein, and ideally also something that resembles a fruit or vegetable.” Carbs are mostly bread, rice, or pasta, proteins are meat. beans, tuna, or peanut butter, and fruits/veggies have taken a variety of forms so far. (Pasta sauce is a vegetable) So I can buy generically in those categories and then figure it out as I go. It’s largely simple meals – pasta+sauce+pre-cooked chicken sausage, rice+flavored tuna pouches, rice+fried eggs, chili, peanut butter sandwiches, etc.

    I’ve also ordered takeout ~once/week from my favorite Thai place, which helps break up the monotony and gets me outside. 2 entrees typically yields enough food for 3-3.5 meals.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We haven’t done takeout yet. Though my sister ordered us frozen pizza from Chicago that should be coming today (!!!!! I am unnaturally excited about this even though DH makes good Chicago style) after dc2 mentioned missing having pizza with her.

      • Steph Says:

        Awwwww, that’s so cute (though bittersweet, I’m sure).

        I was initially hesitant to do takeout, but I really want this place to stay in business (they have decent food and my favorite delivery people, though I am not getting delivery right now), and I was admittedly having some food fatigue from my own cooking.

  4. becca Says:

    I can happily report that the spreadable brie can be mixed with pesto to make pesto go further on pasta.

    For grocery delivery, I’ve mostly been dealing by ordering multiples of what I would like. Like if I get either fresh spinach OR a salad kit, I’m good. Ordering multiple cheeses and snacks. If they are all available, I freeze or put it in the pantry.
    I was remarkably bothered by the idea of minestrone soup with no carrots, but once made it was just as delicious as with carrots. I think I like the *idea* of carrots moreso than actual carrots?

  5. teresa Says:

    My perspective is skewed since my household is two adults who don’t mind eating the same things over and over but I’ve been relying a lot on recipes that mostly use pantry staples, dried fruits, and root vegetables/things with a long shelf life. So I stock up on sweet potatoes, onions, beets, apples, etc whenever I can knowing they’ll last even if the store doesn’t have everything I want next time. That ends up being a lot of black bean and sweet potato tacos (sometimes minus the tortilla), various turmeric lentil soups or madras-style lentils, grain and roasted root vegetable bowls, a curried chickpea salad, and the recipe for apple and sausage farro mix that’s on the side of the trader joe’s farro package. We’ve also been making a large takeout order from the most niche of our favorite restaurants every weekend- usually getting ~4 entrees and a couple sides. That ends up being 4+ meals for two adults and adds some variety while supporting a business I really really don’t want to close.

  6. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    NOT WELL. I don’t believe in making more than one meal so NATURALLY I have become the weak link who requires alternative meals between my fibro related diet and general stress-nausea killing my appetite. I desperately want all the carbs and I can’t have most of it (particularly the gluten carbs) because I’ll swell right up like the Goodyear blimp. Meanwhile JB and PiC are enjoying their delicious sandwiches and pastas and other carby delights. PiC is enjoying his weird pantry foods though – he had a quinoa, black bean, spam, brussel sprouts and cheese bowl yesterday.

    I’m averaging take out once a week to help with the mental overload.

  7. Debbie M Says:

    Some of my friends have noticed they can make last-minute updates to their grocery orders. So you can start an order before you know what you want, and then update the day before when you know better what you want. That strategy doesn’t help with the subs, though.

    My biggest problem is with certain staples. Doing without eggs for a while was rough, but they are back in stock. We’re still okay on flour, but I haven’t seen the kinds I want (white whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour) in ages, so we’re rationing what we have. Fortunately, I got two big packages of toilet paper (they were on sale, so I always double up when that happens) right before the rush.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We can do that with one of our grocery stores but not the other. We can also leave notes about substitution preferences for one of them but not the other. So I guess another suggestion is to check the different grocery stores! (Though presumably Hannah has already done that.)

      • Debbie M Says:

        Interesting. And I bet stores that aren’t offering some services now might start offering them later, so it’s good to keep paying attention to your options when you’re ordering.

  8. Omdg Says:

    My main way of handling this is to simplify meals significantly, and over order. But I’m not much of a cook and grew accustomed to eating this way during residency. We also buy online and assemble the order over several days, which helps. I admit to occasionally losing my mind when someone eats something I had earmarked for later in the week.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh good point— I needed an Orange this week so I bought two (and a bag of clementines just in case) and sure enough someone ate one of the oranges reminding me to tell them not to eat the second.

  9. J Says:

    Hi, I don’t see your email on this site, so I’m posting a potential side question for your consideration. I always love your posts and the suggestions so I figured I’d give it a shot!

    Do you see any benefits for me holding my daughter back from starting kindergarten? Her birthday is a few days before the cutoff.

    Reasons for holding her back in my head: another year of relaxed preK learning, slight advantage for her getting into gifted programs, more confidence (potentially). Drawbacks that I see: 1) she might be bored academically if she is the oldest and this might lead to behavior problems, 2) it would cost more money to pay for another year of full-time preK.

    I don’t see much research on girls being held back. It’s mostly about boys.

    Thank you in advance if there is any interest in this question.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      This is the wrong blog to ask that question— both of my kids are grade-skipped and I feel really sorry for kids who have been redshirted unless they’re really into sports.

      • J Says:

        Thanks, good to know. You feel bad for redshirted kids bc they are unlikely to be challenged? Sports aren’t a deciding factor. She’s registered for kindergarten but I was getting cold feet. My mom was a hs teacher in CT (she’s been retired for years but still on newsletters lists) and there is some push from teachers to have 6 be the starting age for K.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Actual advice: take it one year at a time. Start kindergarten and see how it works out. Or do the preschool’s academic K and start first grade the next year if that’s a thing allowed in your state.

        I have not heard age 6 K as a thing anywhere. 5, yes, but not 6.

        Some kids are still challenged but those kids also lost out on a year of reading and math. There are a number of reasons I feel sorry but one of them is that growing up everyone knew who had started late or “flunked kindergarten.” Which isn’t that nice a thing. If it’s literally right before the deadline maybe it’s not as noticeable.

  10. First Gen American Says:

    Meat, veg, starch….lots of combinations there. We still eat too much pasta, too much cheese, too much bread. I bought some frozen shrimp thinking I would make all these new things with it…and I like shrimp. I just don’t like cooking it. Somehow I figured if I was trapped with no other options, suddenly I’d be okay deveining a bunch of shrimp to add variety.

    Turns out, I was wrong and the best meals have been the ones I could just shove in a crockpot and quickly assemble at the end of the day because I am just exhausted trying to get through all my work stuff, the kid stuff and the geriatric caregiver stuff. I say it’s all been fine and manageable but I think it’s a lot harder on everyone than many of us realize.

    You’re either out of work and stressing about money or still working trying to do double duty. This is not a sprint. It not even a marathon…we’re all trying to run ultramarathons right now.

    Good luck everyone and give yourselves a break.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We only buy devined shrimp now that has either been peeled or that has had its back cracked open. We have some on our list next week…I hope they have it in stock…maybe I should say no substitutes…

  11. M Says:

    I will echo the meat, carb, veggie strategy. I used to cook fancy stuff, and I still do sometimes, but most days it’s choose your meat (salmon, chicken, ground beef, ground turkey, etc. — most of this is frozen so we just thaw in the morning or the day before), choose your starch (white potato, sweet potato, rice, quinoa — this is all in the pantry), and choose your veggie (broccoli, asparagus, etc, etc. — we stock up on whatever looks fresh every week and eat a lot). You can use seasonings, herbs, etc.

    There are also classic combinations that work with many ingredients. Stir fry some veggies and meat. Serve with rice. Make a chili with meat, tomato sauce, beans, and whatever veggies you have on hand. Same idea for soup. Do some of the “one pan” meat/roasted potato/roasted veggie dishes.

  12. Matthew D Healy Says:

    My longtime standby has been a large pot of soup. About once a week I take the pot, which is about half full, out of the fridge and put on the stove. I add water, assorted ingredients (veggies, grains, legumes, seasonings, etc.) and bring to near boiling. Back off heat and let it become soup. Serve some for dinner. After dinner, put about half the volume of the main pot into a number of microwaveable containers. Put pot and containers in fridge. When wanted for a meal, just take out one of the containers and microwave.

    Each time I shop, I get a few extra canned/nonperishable items. Some of these extras I drop off at local Food Bank, and some go into Pantry in case we get symptomatic and have to self-isolate for two weeks, or local supply situation gets worse. Fortunately, we have a walk-in pantry just off the kitchen; sometimes both of us are in there together looking for something. It’s NEVER been as full as it is right now.

    VERY adaptable. I find if I have *some* fresh ingredients each time then it tastes fresh even if some items are canned/frozen/dried.

    We buy food twice a week. Once a week we use the curbside service at our local Co-Op: order online the day before, indicating which items can be substituted with best equivalent available, and select pickup time. Park in designated space, pop trunk, phone to say “I’m here.” They put in trunk so I don’t have to leave car.

    Once a week I go to supermarket in person wearing face mask and so forth. Supermarket doing what they can to make it as COVID-safe: frequent sanitization, one-way signs in aisles to facilitate keeping distance from other customers, transparent partitions at checkout lanes, etc. I’m trying to keep my minutes per week inside any building other than home as few as possible but am reluctant to give up on in-person shopping entirely.

    This week BOTH Co-Op AND Supermarket had TP!!!!

    Regarding sanitizing of purchases: stuff needing fridge I put on my deck and swab with sanitizing wipes. Room temp items spend at least 24 hours in car before I take them in. Yes I’ve seen the research saying coronavirus can last several days on plastic, but after 24 hours the risk is pretty small: the paper everybody cites says the half-life of the virus on plastic at room temp is about 7 hours, so in 24 hours any virus has been reduced by an order of magnitude. And on paper or cardboard the virus dries out even faster.

  13. jjiraffe Says:

    I wrote about what we’re making, ordering and eating, as well as the pantry staples we’ve been able to keep in stock: https://jjiraffe.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/in-the-kitchen-during-shelter-in-place/ One tip if you are using Instacart: Order from the most random and least popular store you can find on their menu. We’ve located a small store I’d never heard of before and have had tons of luck and fast delivery. Plus, it’s nice to support a smaller business. It’s marginally more expensive than Safeway but with much better produce and meat. The one caveat is even this store doesn’t have flour.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      TIL that instacart people can’t see the detailed substitution notes I make from the grocery store webpage. (I’ve been going through the grocery store directly rather than through instacart.)

      • jjiraffe Says:

        That’s not great. The Instacart delivery person texts us while they are in the store to flag substitutions, and makes their own suggestions which was pretty cool…of course when there’s no flour, there’s no substitutions possible. ;)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We do get the texts… I just know not to bother making notes now.


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