Social distancers take note, too.

By Julia Sklar
Updated March 15, 2020
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As the COVID-19 virus spreads around the globe, and the US public health system struggles to support a rapidly growing tally of patients, staying nimble as the situation evolves is paramount. That means when public health officials suddenly ask civilians—including those who appear in good health—to practice social distancing, we need to quickly rise to the occasion; and people who are showing symptoms need to self-quarantine. For many people, these decisions are not easy, and mean losing out on hourly pay, rejiggering childcare, or missing meaningful life events, but they will ultimately help “flatten the curve,” according to public health officials.

Reacting quickly to changing circumstances also means that not everyone will have had time to fully prepare to live out of their cupboards, to cook multiple meals a day from home, or to feed people in batches (to the extent that you’re able to, without introducing contagions, check on your neighbors who live alone, are elderly, or might be too sick to cook for themselves; talk through the door, if necessary, and offer to leave food outside).

Below is a roundup of ideas for how to cook well from pantry items you might already have on hand, or that would be good to stock up on, as well as food that can be made in batches, frozen, and eaten over time. The CDC recommends that people who show symptoms self-quarantine at home for 14 days.

Cooking from Your Pantry

If you’re planning for the above eventualities, but they haven’t hit yet, now would be a good time to do some basic grocery shopping if you haven’t already. Although many grocery stores in the US have been hit by waves of panic-buying over the last few days, it’s very likely that they will restock, so do as much as you’re able to now, and check back in a few days if they seem wiped out.

What follows are generally good pantry items (which I’ll expand to include the freezer) to have on-hand that can be combined in a diversity of ways, and that also offer an abundance of complementary nutrients. For many items, a recipe idea from MyRecipe’s archives is linked; for some of these pantry recipes, you might not have every ingredient on hand, and that’s okay. For example, you can skip the pancetta in the carbonara, the rice vinegar in the peanut noodles, etc. Do the best you can with what you have. It’s still going to be tasty.

Without further ado, some useful pantry items to stock up on or ideas for what to do with them if you already have them: bread (you can freeze what you’re not using and thaw as needed), beans, lentils, peanut butter, canned artichoke hearts, grains (oats, rice, etc.), frozen vegetables (spinach, peas, and broccoli thaw and cook up particularly well; frozen carrots are better avoided and fresh carrots will last a while in the fridge anyway), pasta, canned tomatoes, canned soups (which are obviously their own meal, but if you want to throw it back to the 50s you could even go with cream of mushroom to use as an ingredient in something else), chicken breasts (freeze immediately after buying), canned tuna, canned coconut milk, anything preserved (like pickles or kimchi), oils (canola and olive are enough for most recipes), butter/margarine (which you can freeze if necessary to extend shelf life).

Other good items to stock up on that are perishable, but have long shelf lives: eggs, root vegetables (carrots, onions, potatoes of all kinds, garlic, etc.), citrus, apples (refrigerate to increase shelf life), aged cheese (like Parmesan), tofu, and yogurt.

Cooking for Later

If your prepper attitude extends beyond pantries and into the realm of actually cooking, then a great place to focus your energies is on meals that freeze and portion well, especially if you’re concerned about being stuck at home for 14 days and not feeling well enough to cook. All of the following can be microwaved to reheat, often benefiting from a spritz of water to rehydrate them: Big pots of risotto are perfect blank canvases for any other meat, vegetable, or seasoning you have on hand; casseroles are an obvious choice usually, but in this case I’d have to vote most of them off the island because they tend to lean on a lot of dairy products, but if you happen to be stocked up on shredded cheese, ricotta, and/or milk, then go for it. If you’re lacking in the dairy department, stuffed peppers are a good option instead. And then of course there’s soup—pureed soups, simmered soups, and broths.

As you cook any of the above recipes—either the batched ones or the pantry-based ones—store the root ends and outer skins of onions, the peels from clean carrots, the carcass from a whole chicken, or any other edible scraps, into a bag in the freezer. This is a stone soup in the making. When it’s sufficiently full, throw the contents into a stock pot, cover with water, and bring to a really gentle simmer. As it simmers, keep tasting the liquid until it reaches a flavor concentration that you like, salting as needed. This can take hours, but where do you have to go under quarantine or social distancing anyway? When it’s done, the broth can be stored in the freezer for months and used to either make more complex soups later, as the base for sauces, or sipped as is for nourishment.