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Sunday, February 25, 2024

How to Plan and Cook Family Meals When You're in Lockdown

Why do people need to eat so often? Months into quarantine, cooking has become the bane of my life. I wasn’t always like this. I cooked dinner every day from scratch for my husband and two small children. But in the Before Times, we could meet friends at a restaurant. Or run to the grocery store for last-minute ice cream. There were breaks and treats built into our routine.

After five months of being trapped at home, preparing five meals every day (three meals and two snacks) for four people and only getting grocery delivery every other week, I’m burning out. My 3- and 5-year-olds refuse to eat anything besides marshmallows and croutons. My body is 80 percent soup from a box. I have to turn this ship around.

Desperate for meal planning help, I dove into apps, cookbooks, and gear. Here are the best tips and tricks that will keep me, and you, cooking and eating for as long as it takes to get to the other side of this global pandemic.

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Get Inspired

If you’re bored of cooking, I assume you already know your way around the kitchen. For example, you already have a chef’s knife and a frying pan, and you know how to dice an onion. You’re just at the point where you’ll gag yourself if you have to look at one more meatball.

“Burnout is real, and you need to give yourself a break,” said chef Alison Mountford, a long-time professional chef and the founder of Ends & Stems, an online meal-planning service that aims to reduce food waste while cooking and grocery shopping. When you’re planning your week (or weeks), “You need to plan in easy wins … some things that you know everybody in your house will eat that you can pull together without stress or worries.”

If you’re looking for more easy wins, a meal planning recipe app can help. I like Ends & Stems, which has recipes that are still doable for an experienced home cook, but more adventurous than I might have tried on my own, like ratatouille. For $3/week, you get access to a weekly personalized meal plan and access to the recipe archive. You can also sign up for Mountford’s newsletter and download different themed cookbooks (for example, Hangry features 10-minute recipes).

I also liked Mealime, which is free and available online, as well as via iOS and Android apps (you can upgrade to the Pro version for more features, like more recipes and nutritional information). After inputting our preferences, I got easy, kid-friendly suggestions that were already in my repertoire, like chicken fajitas.

My favorite website was Eat Your Books ($3/month). Like most overly ambitious home cooks, I have a long shelf full of books, aspirational magazines, and websites that I check regularly. Rather than poring through them trying to find the one buttermilk biscuit recipe I like (before giving up and Googling “easy buttermilk biscuit recipe”), Eat Your Books lets you search their database for recipes in the books, websites, and magazines that you already own.

Invest In Mealtime Building Blocks

I also started looking at TikTok, which is a goldmine for instant inspiration. One of my favorites is Vivian Aronson, better known as @cookingbomb on TikTok. She was a contestant on MasterChef and favors fun, colorful, Asian-inspired dishes that are very similar to the rice- and noodle-based dishes that I make for my own family.

“On YouTube, it’s longer tutorials, or if you want a more complicated dish,” said Aronson over the phone. “TikTok is something short and quick that you can learn quickly.” Aronson cooks a lot of fresh meat and vegetables, but her dishes aren’t complicated and she doesn’t always start all the way from scratch.

For example, one of her more popular TikToks shows a quick way to dress up instant ramen. “Stir-fry with some tomatoes and ground pork, add some garlic,” she explained. “It’s kind of like a tomato meat sauce, then you boil the ramen and put the sauce on the noodles. You can use some of the package as seasoning and it tastes pretty good. And it’s pretty quick.”

Instant ramen is a building block for a fast meal. Mountford also suggested prepping other building blocks before dinner time. For example, if you really like tacos, you can start pre-making batches of pickled onions to keep in the fridge. If you like pizza, you can pre-make tomato sauce and pesto and keep batches in the freezer.

“It limits the amount of time you work every night,” Mountford explained. “If you’re used to eating at a more interesting level, just make basic ways to finish off the meal more quickly.”

You’ll have to figure out what quick starters and shortcuts your own family likes through trial and error. For example, my 5-year-old has started premaking batches of cinnamon sugar to sprinkle on toast, and “pink sauce”, a mayonnaise and ketchup concoction that goes on fries and pizza.

Another, slightly more sophisticated starter that has become a favorite in our house during quarantine is Omsom’s lemongrass BBQ. Developed in collaboration with chef Jimmy Ly of New York City’s acclaimed restaurant Madame Vo, the starter is a marinade for sliced pork shoulder, tofu, or shrimp. After I fry it, all ll I have to do is boil water for rice noodles and shred some mint.

Write It All Down

When you have to gear up for the grocery store like you’re heading into WWII-era trenches, it can be a source of anxiety. There’s always grocery delivery. Mealime and Ends & Stems will both send a list directly to a grocery shopping app.

But if you shop in person, Mountford’s first tip for streamlining grocery shopping is to keep your grocery list somewhere where you can access it the minute you run out of something. She uses a simple pen and paper. After several grocery-store related meltdowns, I upgraded my simple fridge whiteboard to a McSquares weekly planner, so I can plot out meals next to their ingredient list.

“It’s important to have a list out that you’re constantly adding to,” said Mountford. “The moment you think, ‘I have to go to the grocery store, what should I buy?’, You’re going to forget things. Or you’re going to fill the list up with things that sound nice but you don’t have a plan around.”

Apps like AnyList will allow multiple users to contribute to grocery lists. You can also share a Google Doc with your partner or roommates. However, I personally find the tiny hurdle of having to find my phone to be too much of an obstacle to keeping any online grocery list up to date.

If you do like to keep a list online, Mountford suggests using a spreadsheet to upgrade your grocery game, personal-chef-style. Organize each of your groceries by section—dairy, meat, vegetable—to whip in and out of there as fast as possible. It’s more efficient, and it’s also helpful to limit your possible exposure to Covid-19.

Make It Fun

This is much easier to do if you have children in your house. But since Mountford, Aronson, and I all have young kids at home with us, I thought I’d mention it. When I asked her for sources of inspiration, Mountford joked, “You should look around at who lives with you.”

Kids, especially small ones like mine, love to help. Getting them to buy into the cooking process by choosing vegetables, or daring them to hold a prawn, doubles as an educational activity, a bonding moment, and makes it much more likely that they’ll eat the food you make.

“You don’t have to be a chef, but your kids should at least be able to cook a meal,” said Aronson. “That’s why it’s important to introduce them to cooking from a young age.”

Having kids in the kitchen also takes the pressure off from making a meal that seems social-media-worthy. Every time I have pretensions of grandeur, a small pair of hands comes and slides the melty cheese right off my perfect piece of pizza.

That brings us to the final, most important tip: Please don’t worry about getting dinner absolutely right. Food is such an emotionally loaded topic for so many people. Maybe you worry about your kids eating three separate courses of meat, carbs, and vegetables for every meal. Maybe you’re worried about gaining the “quarantine 15” pounds, or perfect, posed Insta shots are the only constant source of communication you have with your mom right now.

Right now, just let that go. You’re a parent, or a caretaker, or a full-time employee in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic. You’re not a lifestyle influencer or a contestant on MasterChef. If your kids are getting fed, they, and you, are fine.

“I’ve been cooking for hundreds of people for so many years. Most people like the same things over and over again. Nobody’s judging you,” said Mountford. If all else fails, putting bowls of marshmallows and croutons on the table has seemed to be working pretty well over here.

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