Keep calm and cook on: Tips on cooking from your pantry during a pandemic

Addie Broyles More Content Now

People are getting ready to spend a whole lot more time in the kitchen.

It’s a good time to start thinking about falling back in love with cooking at home.

That means digging deep into your pantry and freezer, keeping tabs on what you have on hand and buying ingredients responsibly.

Here are some thoughts on keeping calm and carrying on - in the kitchen - during the coronavirus pandemic:

Treat fresh food like gold. Fresh produce makes a huge difference in terms of what you can make and how much you’ll enjoy it, so make sure to use whatever you have on hand before it goes to waste. It’s a good idea to have a few bags of frozen vegetables in the freezer, but use up fresh produce first.

If you’re cooking mostly at home for the first time in a while, you might not have much in your pantry or freezer to start with. There are a number of other options to get pantry staples and even fresh goods to your house.

Consider meal kits. If you have no idea where to start shopping or cooking - and don’t mind spending a little extra per serving - you would probably benefit from trying a meal kit from companies including HelloFresh, Blue Apron, Green Chef, Purple Carrot, Sun Basket and Marley and Co. They will ship both the ingredients and the recipes directly to your house.

Pick a food rabbit hole and go down it. Maybe there’s a stack of food magazines you have been meaning to go through or a specialty food blog bookmarked on your computer. This is a great time to pull down any cookbooks on your bookshelves or look at the folder of clipped recipes you’ve been collecting for years.

Start making a list of meals you think you might want to make, using the tools and ingredients you have on hand to help guide which ones you pick. That might mean you’re making risotto or samosas for the first time, but cooking new foods will help keep you from getting bored.

Even if you don’t usually make a meal plan, it can benefit the whole family to have something to look forward to if everyone is staying close to home.

Let recipes inspire you, but don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have every single ingredient or don’t want to make every component of a dish. Spices and seasonings can be transferred to other cooking techniques, and vice versa, so a barbecue chicken pizza recipe might inspire you to make barbecue chicken nachos, or instead of making a Spanish chickpea stew, you might use Indian spices.

Get organized. I’ll admit it: My pantry is a mess. Half-opened bags of pasta and chips, forgotten bottles of barbecue sauce, cans of tuna that I really need to eat already. Taking some time to clean out the pantry, fridge and freezer will make them much more enjoyable to use. I’m hoping to move as many dried ingredients as I can into jars and replace the light in my pantry so I can (finally) see what’s in there.

Lean into the legumes. “Cool Beans” author Joe Yonan says he can’t think of a single dish where meat is used that beans couldn’t also work, and I think he’s right. Lentils are also versatile and can go into veggie burgers, kitchari or even as a substitute for ground beef on Taco Tuesday.

Love your leftovers. I’ve been on a leftovers soapbox for months, and now is definitely the time to find ways to spiff up leftovers by working them into other meals, freezing them for later or making an effort to eat them before they spoil.

Pull out those air fryers, countertop griddles and Instant Pots. If you can’t use them now, there’s no sense in having them. The same is true with the backyard grill. If you’re not “grilling,” you can heat a cast iron stove or comal on top of the fire or gas flame and enjoy the evening outside.

You love your grains, and so do bugs. Even the best cooks on the block have dealt with pantry moths or weevils before, so if you haven’t used your flour (or rice or crackers or cereal or cornmeal) in a while, check to make sure they don’t have little critters, which can multiply quickly and put a damper on your pantry party.

Plan ahead, but stay flexible and alert. And don’t panic. I don’t like the idea of running out of eggs or butter, but I’m also not going to stockpile them. My plan is to just keep an eye on my supply of perishable (and nonperishable) goods and restock them when I can, while maintaining a sense of optimism that I can make it work, as former “Project Runway” mentor Tim Gunn would say.