This is a brief guide for thinking about putting together and maintaining a pantry with healthy food you like that will last for 2-4 weeks. Having that much food on hand is part of the standard emergency preparedness advice. These are just a few hints and tips for implementing that advice.
This guide is intended to help readers who are:
- Perhaps a bit challenged by change. You may have had to change your normal way of eating during this crisis due to restaurants being closed, near-daily grocery store runs being unwise or impracticable, markets being closed or significantly curtailed in their capacities, and other ordinary ways of getting food otherwise being unavailable.
- Trying to stay healthy. It can be really tempting when you are stressed and your normal, healthier food is not available, to reach for ultra-processed foods. These are foods filled with sugar, fat, starch, and other additives. Examples include cereal bars and frozen dinners. Eating ultra-processed foods is strongly associated with obesity, certain cancers, and other health problems. Conversely, eating whole foods instead – like fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, eggs, fish, and dairy products such as milk and yogurt with no sugar or other additives – is associated with a range of better health outcomes. Including sanity…
- Trying to stay positive. Eating ultra-processed foods is also significantly, directly associated with depression in a dose-responsive way.
- Trying to mix it up. We all have to try new things under new conditions. While it’s often said that fresh is best, there is no one kind of food or diet that is proven best over all others. One of the main findings of modern nutrition science has been that we don’t really understand why traditional diets seem to work better than the more modern substitutes when we try to break them down into magic-bullet vitamins and other constituent parts. Just eat real food, try a lot of things, and see what you like.
What this is not:
- General advice on staying healthy food-wise at different stages of possibly dealing with COVID-19, which is on the main page instead.
- A standard list of emergency food rations, most of which are heavy on ultra-processed foods associated with bad physical and mental health outcomes.
- A guide to finding food if it is just flat-out scarce where you are. Hopefully that is not the case. We do not know how to advise you if it is. Maybe another situation where it couldn’t hurt to have some of those big multi-vitamin pills that fizz into water.
- A list of recipes. There are plenty of those on the Internet. Think about what sounds good and look it up to see how someone else has already tried it.
The very real challenge this general advice responds to is one that we all face: To keep well in body and mind by eating a balanced diet composed of a variety of real foods… at a time when access to fresh food is – at least for now, at least a little bit – more constrained than under normal conditions.
Given this challenge, it probably makes sense to think about your food supplies as fitting into roughly three categories: Food lasting about one week, a few weeks longer in the fridge, or much longer in the cabinet. Of course, most people began eating their favorite shelf-stable emergency supplies (or emergency cookies) already in the first week of sheltering in place. (Testing is important!) That’s fine so long as you keep topping up your emergency stores in case of, well, emergency.
Fresh and perishable
Hopefully you are well, your neighborhood is not a current COVID-19 hotspot, and ideally you even have a mask and disposable gloves. In that case, go out and buy fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, fish, and meat (if you eat them) about once a week. The earlier you go, the lighter the foot traffic in stores (usually) will be, and the easier it will be to keep your safe distance. Use good hand hygiene and change your clothes when you get home.
Even better, especially if you are middle-aged or older and / or have a chronic health condition – or feeling remotely sick / symptomatic – arrange for delivery instead. Many grocery store chains have online order and delivery services. In some cases, you may need to ask neighbors or friends for help. Ask that groceries be left at the door in order to better protect yourself and others by staying in and minimizing contact. Wash your hands after touching something someone else may have touched and before eating.
Fresh and perishable food is the original fast food, because it can require very minimal prep to make it into snacks or meals. Carrot and celery sticks, bananas and berries, and cottage or sliced cheese make quick and easy snacks. A bit of nut butter or yogurt can add the protein and fat veggies and fruits need to have a little staying power.
Of course, this is also the territory of foods such as lettuce (the basis of many great salads), ground beef (the basis of many tasty casseroles, like shepherd’s pie or potato paprika mash), and fresh dairy products (milk, cream, cheese – the basis of many soups, dips, and sauces). If you are not used to cooking for yourself and don’t know the first thing about making any of these things, think about what you like and look up how to make it. A good general protocol for salads involves washing the ingredients (like lettuce and paprika / bell pepper), breaking or cutting them up, and tossing with a bit of olive oil, vinegar, and any fresh/dried fruit, nuts/seeds, cheese/tofu, or herbs you want to add.
Fresh and longer-lasting
While getting some fresh food weekly or so, you may also want to stock up on a few weeks’ worth of fresh food that will keep longer than a week. Garlic and onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes / yams, carrots and parsnips, citrus fruit and apples, yogurt / kefir, tofu, eggs, butter, and some cheeses, processed breads, smoked fish, and meats can be good for 2-3 weeks or longer. Most of these things can or should be refrigerated to lengthen their shelf life. Check the food packaging or reputable food safety websites (e.g., from the food safety regulatory agency in your country) if you’re unsure. And if something looks or smells funny: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Again there’s a huge mix of practical possibilities here for snacks and meals – some quick and easy, others requiring more time and effort. Quickies include apple slices, smoked tofu diced in cubes, hard-boiled eggs with salt, smoked fish, and bread and cheese. Slightly longer (e.g., 30 minutes to an hour) prep time is involved in still very simple dishes like veggie roasts (tomato, paprika, fennel, radicchio…), potato bakes (russet, sweet, etc.), or hot fruit trays (apple, pear, plum…). Always check the Internet for specifics on what you want to make, and you’ll see that there is no one right answer – just a range of things to try. But a good general protocol for roasting produce involves washing, dicing, putting a bit of oil and spices on it, tossing the mixture, and baking until it smells done or a fork goes in easily.
If you are able, you might stock up even more on a few weeks’ worth of canned, jarred, frozen, and otherwise shelf-stable foods that you like. Again, look for whole foods when possible, the less processed and filled with added sugar / salt / additives, the better. Keep in mind that it may be a little bit less intuitive what less processed but shelf-stable means…
- Produce. There is a vast array of available shelf-stable produce. Among these possibilities, frozen fruits and vegetables can have the highest nutritional value, because they have often undergone the least processing. Freezing shortly after harvest can seal in nutrients that might otherwise be lost during long shipping processes, so frozen produce can even be more nutrient-rich than fresh. Here are some examples of shelf-stable produce you may or may not like, and ideas of things to make with it…
- Frozen fruits and vegetables by themselves. Don’t underestimate the joy, when you’re hungry and tired, of being able to pull a bag of frozen peas out of the freezer, pour some in a small bowl, add salt and butter, microwaving and stirring until it’s hot enough, and put an immediate damper on your hunger. The same basic principle holds for other frozen produce – pumpkin, corn, cherries, berries, etc. (minus the salt and butter on fruit).
- Frozen fruits blended to make sorbets and smoothies. If you have a blender, frozen fruit with a little honey dissolved in tea makes nice, easy sorbets. The hot tea helps the blender deal with the frozen fruit more easily. Similarly, frozen fruit with yogurt and milk or kefir (with or without added tea/honey or sweetener) makes easy smoothies.
- Condiments. Yes, these are condiments; but they are still (mostly) produce, too. Canned olives, Greek peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and sauerkraut can be used to flavor rice, pasta, and salads. Tomato paste on toast with leftover roasted veggies, dried herbs, and cheese can make a nice impromptu pizza. This is obviously on the more processed end of shelf-stable produce!
- Jarred and canned fruits and vegetables. From pumpkin pie filling made with canned pumpkin to pink lemonade made with jarred, mashed cherries – or just plain peas and carrots from a can, mixed with rice – there are a lot of flavor, texture, and color variations to be had here. Canned applesauce with a sprinkling of cinnamon is a kid-friendly classic. Vegetable soups with real veggies and tomato sauce that is essentially just tomatoes are also good options. Less processed is better. But if this is what you have, it’s good.
- Dried fruit. Dates, figs, raisins, cranberries, cherries, apricots… The list goes on. Dried fruit can sweeten up salads, corn flakes, and porridge, or give you a quick handful of healthy calories right when you need it – especially balanced out with some nuts for healthy fats and protein.
- Bulk. Frozen broccoli and cauliflower can be steamed, chopped, and added to rice or pasta to build more fiber and water (not to mention color and flavor) into your meal. The same goes for frozen peas and carrots. Kale and spinach. Green beans and pumpkin. You may have access to / prefer other staples or alternatives where you are… But think of frozen veggies not just as a food in themselves, but also possibly as enhancement for other starring ingredients, much like condiments.
- Soups, etc. Some shelf-stable veggie or veggie-based soups, sauces, and dips are ready-made. These will be more processed. You can also make your own based on frozen veggies that will probably end up being more nutritious (and maybe tastier) than what you can buy in a can or jar. Lacking fresh food entirely, you can make great vegan broccoli or cauliflower cheese soups with just steamed frozen veggies, spices (salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, powdered garlic and onions are nice), boiled cashews for creaminess, and nutritional yeast for cheesy flavor. Steamed spinach / kale with the same additions (or just mashed up with a soft cheese and some spices) makes nice, creamy dip. A blender helps with these sorts of dishes, but with adequate boiling (for cashews) and steaming (for veggies), a potato masher will also do just fine.
- Carbohydrates. This one is more intuitive for most people. Pasta and rice, oatmeal and other porridges, and flours tend to be extremely shelf-stable and versatile as the basis of meals. You probably want to vary them to keep your diet diverse, to avoid nutritional deficiencies and boredom – and to vary the effort level required of you in cooking. (Baking your own bread or brownies using whole grain flours will probably take considerably more work than, say, microwaving a packet of two-minute rice, throwing some olives and cheese on top, and calling it dinner.)
- Go for whole grain whenever possible with rice, pasta, bread, flours, etc.
Better yet, try to substitute complex for simple carbs and opt for lower glycemic index alternatives whenever possible. For example, serve both sweet potatoes (complex carb) and potatoes (simple); opt for nuts, seeds, unsugared dried fruit, and cheese in salads instead of croutons; try replacing pasta with zucchini in your favorite noodle dish.
- Protein. While protein comes in many flavors, it’s probably a good idea to have a think about adding umami (meaty / hearty) tastes to your stay-home pantry with protein. Some of these tastes are vegan (think smoked almonds/tofu or nutritional yeast), while others are not (tinned sardines being a classic emergency food staple). As always, eat what you like, but do think about giving yourself as much variety in healthy foods as you can and desire to support your immune system – and your psychological well-being – in this difficult time.
- Go nuts. Now is a good time to increase your intake of nuts, an excellent source of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. A handful of different types of nuts (cashews, sliced almonds, sunflower seeds…) can add a lot of texture and flavor to a simple salad. Nut butters are also nutritious, but are an easier way to pack on the pounds since it’s easier to eat a lot more calories more quickly that way. Slather a bit on apples slices or celery sticks to increase the feeling of fullness. Cashews can be added to soups (to be blended) for additional creaminess. Just a plain handful of nuts can clear your head when you can’t think straight to make a real meal.
- Seeds and nutritional yeast are other good vegan sources of protein. Seeds (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin) can be baked onto green “chips” (fresh spinach / kale tossed with salt and oil and baked) or other veggies in for an oven roast (potatoes / eggplant), or added to soup, mash, or dip for a bit of crunch. Nutritional yeast can be added to the same dishes for a cheesy flavor.
- Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart… Some people say you should always make your own from dried beans, because it’s cheaper than using the canned preparations, with or without added sauces. Others say you should have both types, since “fast food” is sometimes what you want. Still others say, if you’re going to eat those beans, you need to find your own apartment…
- Canned fish is another good source of protein and healthy fats, although weekly intake should be limited depending on the type due to concerns about mercury content. In general, the larger the fish, the riskier. Sardines and anchovies are some of the safest from this standpoint as they are smaller fish, and so have less opportunity to accumulate heavy metal pollution from other points in the food chain. They can be added straight on toast with a little vinegar. Tinned sardines and mayonnaise can also be used to make a hearty dip for crackers, or to fill out a plate of rice and veggies.
- Longlife (also known as ultra-pasteurized or ultra heat treated) milk. Vegan milks also tend to be longlife, but dairy milk offers more complete nutrition.
- Other shelf-stable flavorings, fats, and comfort foods. If you don’t already, it’s a good idea to have some vinegar (balsalmic, red wine), miso paste, soy/tamari sauce, and other basic spices (iodized salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, thyme, oregano, basil, cinnamon, sugar / sweetener of your choice…) to experiment with cooking differently during this different time. Fats other than butter tend to already be shelf-stable – olive oil is a common favorite for its heart-healthy properties as well as its taste, coconut oil is another that is safer for high-heat cooking due to its higher smoke point. While now is not a time to live off ultra-processed foods (unless that’s all you can find for food), it is also not a time to push yourself to give up that cup of coffee / tea / bite of chocolate / ice-cream that makes you happy. If you can hide away a jar of cherry preserves, Nutella, or whatever else your weakness is – for “emergencies” – do it, just try to balance out what makes you happy with what makes you healthy.