HOW TO ADJUST AND ADAPT WHEN THE GROCERY STORE SHELVES ARE EMPTY AS WELL AS A LIST OF BASIC ESSENTIALS YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE ON HAND
I don’t know about you, but I would say we find ourselves in special circumstances at the moment in more ways than one. From self quarantines to social distancing to empty grocery store shelves, it can be hard to stick to the meal plan when what you need isn’t available. So what do you do then? What does it look like when it comes to meal planning in special circumstances?
After winging it for a few days, we’ve adapted and adjusted our expectations as well as our usual meal plan. Here is how my family is handling the meal planning situation right now.
I come up with pretty simple weekly meal plans at the beginning of every month and what I send to frugal friends on Meal Plan Mondays is typically what I cook. I’m not buying many exotic ingredients or making complicated meals.
I make what my kids will eat and our budget will allow. This doesn’t mean we eat a lot of processed junk food either. We have a few less than healthy items on the snack menu, but an overall rather healthy diet.
I keep it simple, we spend less money, and the kids actually eat. Win, win right? Well, with the current grocery situation I find myself constantly adjusting. We are by no means desperate, but I am trying to ensure that doesn’t become the case.
MAKING ADJUSTMENTS WHERE NECESSARY WHEN MEAL PLANNING IN SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES
Okay, the first rule of thumb is to not waste food. This is always the goal, but in this situation, it is more imperative. We have groceries. We have lots of unopened goodies in the cabinets to munch on. But I’m holding out.
Last week I wasn’t able to buy everything on my grocery list. That’s not a big deal; we have a modest supply of toilet paper in the cabinets to get us by and I had bought a few more pantry items after our no-spend month to build our pantry back up anyway.
So after anticipating school would be closed (it was) until at least the 30th (Spring break is next week anyway) I went into planning mode; if I can’t make it to the grocery store next week what do I need to do to ensure we make what we have lasts?
A few adjustments had to be made to the meal plan; I obviously can’t prepare meals for which ingredients were not available. I didn’t find veggie burgers our family likes at Aldi and as bad as it was at that store I knew Walmart would be even worse. So, that’s one dinner that has to be removed from the list – two weekends in a row.
I had also planned on shrimp fried rice one night, but since I wasn’t going to Walmart we just had chicken fried rice that night instead. Luckily I had already bought rice the previous week and didn’t need to wade down that aisle.
EAT THE FRESHEST AND OPENED FOODS FIRST
This may seem like a no-brainer, but try telling that to my kids! They know that there is unopened Chex mix and peanut butter cereal in the pantry. They also know they want it now. But I know we still have bagels and Cheerios from last week left. We’re eating those first.
We typically have some ramen around. Recently we’d added to our canned food stock to make an emergency kit. I do not want to open those up until the fresh vegetables and meat have been eaten. We’ve gone back to buying frozen meat and vegetables in the store in anticipation of shopping less frequently.
So yes, we technically have more options than we’re allowing ourselves, but we have fresh foods and leftovers that will spoil if we get into too many of those options too early. Does this make meals a little less boring than usual? Maybe. Do we waste less food this way? Definitely. Boring it is.
GET CREATIVE WITH RECIPES
It’s important to know what ingredients are crucial and which you can skip in a pinch if you don’t have everything the recipe calls for to fix what is on the meal plan. You can substitute lots of ingredients with just a quick Google search. No eggs? Try mayonnaise or applesauce. Most dinner dishes will be just fine if one spice or minor ingredient is missing.
Pastas are pretty interchangeable as well. It doesn’t have to be perfect when circumstances are extreme, it just has to be edible. As long as you’re putting as nutritious as possible of a meal on the table regularly try not to sweat it too much.
BUT STILL KEEP IT SIMPLE WHEN MEAL PLANNING IN SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES
Now is not the time to decide to learn elaborate new recipes that require special or hard to find ingredients you probably won’t finish. Keep it simple and basic so you are more likely to find what you need in the store or already have on hand what you need to make the dish.
It doesn’t take much to change up a meal and keep it from getting old. If you’re a creature of habit like my crew you might even take comfort in having a fairly set menu. Bonus points if most of the dishes on your menu require similar ingredients so you don’t have to add much to the list for each individual meal.
This saves not only frustration in the store when shopping during this current panic season, but money, and time as well.
IF POSSIBLE SUPPORT A LOCAL SMALL BUSINESS BY ORDERING TAKEOUT
In most areas ordering takeout or delivery is still an option. If you are in a position to do so, give them some business when you can. We have made the decision to try to order takeout once a week from some of our favorite local joints, particularly the ones who have announced they’re feeding the kiddos who might not otherwise get a good meal while school is out.
We want to support these places so they can continue to do good in our area. This will also help alleviate the need to grocery shop quite as often and give me a night off from cooking. If you are financially in the place to do so and in good health I encourage you to consider doing the same.
It takes some of the stress off of you and puts money back into the local economy. It also makes meal planning in a pinch easy.
ITEMS YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE ON HAND OR BUY WHEN IT’S UNCERTAIN WHEN YOU’LL BE BACK AT THE STORE
You may be wondering what items you need to keep stocked in your pantry at all times. I addressed what needs to be in your emergency kit in Panic vs Preparation: a Minimalist’s Take. It’s a lot smaller list than you would think based on pictures I’ve seen recently of the panic buying that’s been taking place.
Revisit that list and tweak it for your dietary needs. Keep that food separate so it is easy to access in true weather- related emergencies. But there are also several items you should keep on hand for everyday cooking that have relatively long shelf lives and can come in handy in a pinch.
Just keep in mind that two weeks of groceries on hand is a safer bet than a few days to a week. Let that be our new rule of thumb. It will definitely make meal planning in special circumstances easier in the future.
If you do not bake often do not worry about buying every type of sugar or cocoa. If you have dietary issues the grains or other items will also change as well. Items you should typically have on hand include:
DRY/SHELF STABLE GOODS
- extra virgin olive oil (or other vegetable oil of your choice)
- all-purpose flour
- baking soda
- baking powder
- cocoa powder
- evaporated milk
- cane sugar
- brown sugar
- maple syrup
- rice (we keep brown and white)
- pasta (we typically keep spaghetti or rotini, ramen, as well as egg noodles on hand)
- dried fruit
- seeds (we keep flax and chia)
- nut butter
- old fashioned oats
- canned beans (we don’t typically keep these)
- canned vegetables
- tomato paste
- tomato sauce
- butter (I buy unsalted)
- fresh fruits and vegetables
- condiments of choice (mayonnaise, mustard, any sauces for your favorite recipes)
If you aren’t much for cooking and want to keep things simple and convenient, here is the list of items our church regularly asks for in our food pantry. It can make for a great in-a-pinch shopping list.
- macaroni & cheese
- spaghetti sauce – canned tomatoes, whole or diced, tomato sauce
- canned meats – tuna, chicken, Spam, Vienna sausages, etc
- canned pasta – ravioli, spaghetti & meatballs, etc
- soups, chili, stews, chicken & dumplings
- canned fruit or fruit cups
JUST DO THE BEST YOU CAN AND COUNT IT AS A LESSON LEARNED
I’m sure there are many of us, myself included, who aren’t quite as prepared as they assumed they would be in a situation like this. By the time we realized we might need to be it was happening and people panicked.
Nothing good comes from panic. It can be easy to resort to fear, but let’s avoid that. We’ll all benefit from taking a deep breath and calmly assessing the situation. Don’t buy more than you need. Don’t buy more than you can eat.
And in the future, should anything prevent us from going to the grocery store we will be much more prepared to handle meal planning in special circumstances.
When we come out on the other side of this I think the world is going to look a little different. I think our approach to preparation and savings and community will all be different. I’m hopeful that that turns out to be a good thing.