A Guide to Quarantine Cooking

As more people find themselves preparing their own meals, a nutritionist and a writer-turned-home cook offer tips on how to shop and feed yourself during the pandemic.

broccoli, nuts, shrimp, canned goods, almond milk and other staples for quarantine cooking
broccoli, nuts, shrimp, canned goods, almond milk and other staples for quarantine cooking

On a recent evening, I sliced a few cloves of garlic, grated some mozzarella cheese and opened cans of white beans and tomato paste to prep a pantry recipe for my latest attempt at quarantine cooking. Like most people, I am limiting my trips to the grocery store during the coronavirus outbreak and choosing items with a longer shelf life, which sometimes means experimenting with ingredients I don’t commonly use. The chopping and prepping was a calming activity, and the result was a nutritious (and deliciously cheesy) meal that served as leftovers the next morning with an egg fried over it.

I wasn’t always someone who had a bunch of parsley, a knob of ginger and a head of garlic on hand. And the fact that I can move somewhat confidently between the pantry and the refrigerator while assembling ingredients, knowing where to reach for what, still surprises me. (Once, a roommate caught me staring at frozen vegetables in a pan with pasta, dumbfounded.) Over the past few years, I began to discover the inherent creativity in cooking and appreciate the way it could help me de-stress and nourish myself better. Today, with stay-at-home orders in place, I’m especially grateful for the solace cooking provides.

Whether you’re like me, pursuing “creative cooking” and finding extra comfort in the process, or you’re stretched thin and in need of ideas to prepare yet another meal for the day, quarantine cooks have one thing in common: “Despite everything, we still need to eat,” says Helen Conza, a clinical nutrition supervisor at NewYork-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. So what are the best items to stock in your pantry? What’s important for beginner cooks to know? And what are some recipes worth trying? Conza shares with Health Matters how she is grocery shopping, cooking and eating well during the crisis.

Have a shopping plan, but be flexible

You want to limit your time inside the grocery store. Go in with a shopping list so you know exactly what you need and where to find it. However, it’s just as important to have backup items in mind — and be willing to try new things — because not everything may be in stock.

“My husband and I recently chose a chicken thigh recipe for our slow cooker because we noticed chicken breasts and leaner cuts are flying of the shelf,” says Conza. “Then we couldn’t find thighs, so we chose another bone-in chicken part to use instead.” (I could relate: I recently found myself making pork chops for the first time because that’s the only meat that was available, which then worked well for pork fried rice a couple of days later).

“On our last trip, we bought ingredients for a taco salad — ground turkey meat, avocado, kale, black beans, tomatoes and some frozen corn,” adds Conza.

This also isn’t a bad time to incorporate weekly vegetarian nights. Conza recently tried her hand at portobello mushroom burgers. “I know they aren’t the same as meat, but they were still good,” she says.

Infographic showing healthy items that may last longer for quarantine cooking

Start simple and stay balanced

If you’re new to cooking, start with basic recipes. “Food can be delicious even if it’s simple, and you might not be able to find the zillion ingredients for a complicated recipe,” says Conza, who encourages choosing foods high in fiber like broccoli and nuts that will keep you full longer, and flavoring foods with herbs and spices.

“It’s important to remember that we should still balance our meals,” she says. “This is especially important for beginners who may be suddenly cooking for themselves a lot more.”

Even though you may be using pantry items more, there’s no need to sacrifice fruits and vegetables. “We’re lucky that the stores are still open and we can still buy fresh produce along with frozen fruits and vegetables,” she says. And positive lifestyle habits, including food choices, can help you stay healthy and boost your immune system, the body’s complex system that fights infection and disease.

Prep meals and snacks

As a healthcare worker, Conza is still commuting to her job in Lower Manhattan from Hoboken, New Jersey, so she relies on meal and snack prep to help her get through the week. She and her husband often make a big batch of soup and chili. “Turkey chili is my favorite. It has a lot of pantry items like beans and canned tomatoes, so it’s pretty easy to make from the stuff you have at home, and it’s hearty,” she says. Conza also keeps oats handy to put in smoothies and for an easy breakfast. “You can make a bunch of overnight oats and have breakfast ready for the morning,” she says.

The planning also provides her a sense of stability. “Getting the coffee pot ready at night for the morning brew, packing my breakfast and snacks so that I know they’re ready to go makes me feel better about my day and week,” she says. “It’s comforting.” The same goes for if you’re working from home. Having a meal plan and doing some prep work will help structure your day and keep you eating healthy.

Make mealtime family time

Meals aren’t just about food. The social aspect of meals remains important, even during a time of social distancing. “One of my nutrition beliefs is that meals are important for family time,” says Conza. “No matter how late it is, my husband and I always come home to share a meal together. That is a source of comfort and normalcy for me.”

If you’re on your own, try to make a point to sit down and enjoy the meal, or FaceTime or Zoom with a loved one to share it together. I’ve also tried to find some community in my meals. When I made meatloaf recently, I packaged some up and walked it over to a cousin who lives nearby. It was a welcome errand and good excuse for exercise.

Take a cooking break when you need one

Order in when you’re getting tired of the nonstop quarantine cooking. “My husband’s excuse last night was that ‘the avocadoes aren’t perfect yet, we can’t make the taco salad,’” Conza says with a laugh. “It’s also a nice way to support a local business that might be struggling.”

I have taken a couple of breaks from my quarantine cooking over the past few weeks to walk to my favorite Thai restaurant to pick up dinner and support them, and the treat has felt extra special. I also use it as an excuse to meet a friend for a socially distant walk together.

For someone like me, who is working from home during the pandemic, planning and preparing meals provides structure to my day, sustenance, and a creative outlet. For one of my last meals before my next grocery store trip, I turned to a cookbook I hadn’t looked at in a while, Keepers, by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, and found a recipe that only required spaghetti, cream, a can of whole peeled tomatoes, garlic, salt and red pepper. Score: I had all of those, and I got to work.

Conza shares her taco salad recipe below, along with two quarantine cooking friendly recipes courtesy of A Taste of Wellbeing: Favorite Recipes from the Registered Dietitians and Chefs of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, a cookbook created by NewYork-Presbyterian’s employee wellness program, NYPBeHealthy, in collaboration with the Food & Nutrition Teams.

Taco Salad

1 bag chopped kale, massaged with sea salt, lemon, and olive oil
1 cup frozen corn (thawed under running water)
1 can black beans (rinsed until the suds disappear)
1 package lean ground turkey ground (cook in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, stirring to break up clumps until it crumbles and is no longer pink, about 10-15 minutes)
1 package low-sodium taco seasoning (follow the instructions on the packet)
2 on-the-vine tomatoes
½ an avocado
Toss the ingredients together and sprinkle with cheese and a dollop of Greek yogurt (or sour cream).

One Pot Chili

Yield: 8 servings, about 2 cups each

1 can (15 ounce) black beans and 1 can (15 ounce) white beans, both drained and rinsed
1 can (14.5 ounce) and 1 can (28 ounce) diced tomatoes 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground turkey
1 medium green pepper, chopped
1 medium yellow pepper, chopped
2 medium red onions, sliced
1 can (6 ounce) tomato paste
2 medium sweet potatoes, chopped
1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
1 ½ tablespoons chili powder
1 ½ tablespoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons light sour cream

1. Heat large pot over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and cook ground turkey with ¾ tablespoon cumin, chili powder and garlic powder for 5 minutes or until mostly brown.
2. Remove turkey from hear and set aside to cool.
3. Keep large pot over medium heat; add the other 1 tablespoon olive oil, onion, and sweet potato. Cook for 5 minutes.
4. Add 1 large and 1 small can diced tomato, chopped green and yellow peppers, black and white beans, tomato paste, ground turkey and remainder of cumin, chili powder and garlic powder. Cook for 50 minutes or until sweet potato is tender.
5. Top with 2 tablespoons light sour cream. Enjoy!

Everyday Breakfast Oatmeal
1 cup steel cup oats, dry (makes approx. 4 servings)
3 cups water
1/2 cup organic mixed berries, fresh or frozen
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 tablespoon hemp seeds
1/4 cup almond milk

Instructions per batch:
1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil over high heat, stir in 1 cup oats.
2. Reduce heat to low and bring oats to a simmer. Cook uncovered for 30 minutes or until tender.
Instructions per serving:
1. Measure ¾ cup steel cut oats from batch and place in bowl. Stir in berries, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and almond milk. Refrigerate leftover oats. Serve hot or cold. Enjoy!

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