During normal times, grocery shopping can be a challenge. A pandemic, as no doubt all of us are learning, can take it to an entirely new level of frustration. What should we buy when our usual items are scarce? Below are some suggestions for stocking a “pandemic pantry.”
Fruits and Vegetables
Pandemic or no pandemic, fruits and vegetables are “a must” for keeping your immune system in top shape. In order to extend the shelf life of vegetables, consider buying them frozen without seasonings or sauces. For canned vegetables, choose ”no salt added” or “low sodium” if available; if not, consider soaking your canned vegetables in water for 30 minutes before cooking or, at the very least, rinsing them off before cooking.
For fruits, look for varieties canned in “juice from concentrate” or water. Try to avoid fruits canned in syrup—heavy or light. Can’t stand canned or frozen fruits and vegetables but want to limit visits to the grocery store? Fresh apples, potatoes, winter squash, onions, carrots and celery tend to have a longer shelf life.
Protein is essential for recovery after illness and repairing damaged tissue or muscle. Skinless chicken breasts, lean cuts of beef (look for the word “loin” or “round” in the cut), ground turkey and fish are great options and can be frozen for later use. Good canned options include low-sodium (if available) tuna, salmon or chicken. Don’t forget about non-meat proteins, such as unsalted nuts (all kinds), unsalted seeds (all kinds), nut butters, legumes (canned or dried), low-fat/low-sugar Greek yogurt, cottage cheese or eggs. Even tofu can be frozen!
An important staple, grains are a nutritional powerhouse and can be used to stretch meals over several days. Even better, they can be bought in bulk for cheap and have an insanely long shelf life when stored properly. Brown rice and whole-grain pasta are great choices and readily available, but why not take this time to experiment with an unfamiliar grain? Farro, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”), freekeh, barley and bulger are just a few of the many you might find on a grocery shelf these days; you might also notice bean-based pastas, which use dried legumes in place of wheat and tend to be higher in fiber and protein. Even better, these “specialty” products may be more available in a pandemic, as more familiar grains such as rice get snapped up quickly.
Don’t forget about oats (buy plain in bulk) and, of course, whole-grain bread, which can be frozen. If traditional bread is a scarce item, English muffins, pita bread and even plain rice cakes are good substitutes for toast and sandwiches.
Dairy and Dairy Alternative
For Americans, dairy is a major source of calcium, which is key in muscle function and healthy bones. Milk is also one of the few dietary sources of Vitamin D, which we normally get from sunshine. Being under quarantine orders can severely limit the time we spend in the sun! Although children under age 2 may need whole milk, adults should choose 1% or skim milk to limit saturated fat intake. Dairy milk can certainly be frozen, but there are several shelf-stable non-dairy milks such as almond milk, rice milk, cashew milk and coconut milk. Be sure to go for plain, non-sugared varieties.
To round out your pandemic pantry, keep dried herbs and spices on hand, which have a long shelf life. Broths (chicken, beef, vegetable, etc.) are a handy ingredient to have for soups, stews and casseroles, as are pasta sauces. Of course, don’t forget about healthy cooking oils such as olive or canola.
Buying groceries and preparing meals can be especially challenging during a pandemic. Go easy on yourself and use this time to explore some new options that may just become part of your meal rotation.