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El Segundo Eats: Lessons in Quarantine Cooking

If you are able, try using this time at home to streamline your grocery shopping, plan meals, and teach kids to cook and bake.

By Jenifer Antonelli

The Safer at Home order that went into effect in mid-March drastically changed all of our lives in myriad ways, including how we shop and how we cook at home. As a personal chef, I used to shop for fresh ingredients almost daily for myself and my clients, and an abundance of ingredients was available on fully stocked grocery-store shelves. Now, of course, we must wait in line outside the grocery store, only to find upon entering that some shelves are completely devoid of many everyday staples. I’d like to share some practical measures that you can take to limit your grocery-shopping trips, stretch your grocery budget, and create healthy meals for your family.

Knowing that I should try to stock up on enough food to have a two-week supply on hand, I create a shopping list (which is more of a “wish list” now, when supplies of certain items are variable) of what I am hoping to find at the store. I have a limited amount of space in my fridge, so I take stock of the space I do have in there, in my freezer, and in my pantry before I go. Pantry items have the longest shelf life, so I like to start here since this is where most of us have the most physical space in our kitchens. I try to stock up on such baking supplies as flour, yeast, sugars, and chocolate. I also add rice, dried pasta, canned tomatoes, canned fish, olive oil, vinegar, condiments, olives, pickles, canned fruit, and lots of snacks, such as trail mix, energy bars, and dried seaweed to my list. Potatoes, onions, garlic, citrus fruit, and apples can also be stored for a long time on the counter, so these are great to have on hand when fridge space is limited.

I try to limit my coveted refrigerator real estate to dairy products—including butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk—as well as to eggs, deli meats, fresh produce, and juice that must be kept cold. It’s helpful to organize perishables by expiration date so you know what to use first. I also like to portion-out fresh meats into labeled freezer bags and freeze whatever I’m not going to use right away. Fresh seafood and produce are the first to go bad, so I also buy some frozen fish, fruits, and veggies to sustain us when the fresh foods have all been eaten. Once I get home from my shopping adventure and take stock of what I was able to find, I create a meal plan for our first week to try to utilize everything that needs to be eaten first, such as salad greens, berries, and other delicate produce. Heartier vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, cabbage, and celery, can be saved for next week. My family gets bored easily eating the same foods, so I map out a menu to alternate our carbs, proteins, and veggies: I make dough for no-knead bread tonight so I can bake bread in the morning for lunchtime sandwiches tomorrow. I then plan a rice dish such as a chicken and veggie stir-fry for later that night. Leftover bread is perfect for grilled cheese and soup for the next day’s lunch, then it’s pasta with Italian sausage ragu for dinner. Having this menu plan reminds me to take steps in advance, like allowing dough to rise or thawing meat safely in the fridge overnight.

One of the biggest goals for me right now is ensuring that I minimize all waste. The chicken backs I cut out of my whole, spatchcocked chickens get thrown into a freezer bag and saved for making homemade chicken stock later on. Those browning bananas on the counter get transformed into banana bread or peeled, cut up into pieces, and frozen for future smoothies. If the potatoes start to sprout, then we’re having a potato hash for breakfast the next morning. If my celery and carrots are starting to turn, I’m sure to use them as a base for a hearty lentil soup the next day. Adapting to cook like this has saved us money and reduced our food waste.

Finally, for all of my fellow parents trying to keep the kids occupied during these stressful times, I would like to encourage you to have them help you in the kitchen. There are so many lessons that they can learn by helping you cook right now. Cooking can help them with learning how to follow directions, math (especially measurements and fractions), and science (how chemical reactions help ingredients transform), as well as the practical and crucial skill of learning how to feed themselves. At the end of this quarantine, my daughter is going to be much more self-sufficient and confident in the kitchen. Plus, cooking and baking can be a creative distraction away from all that extra screen time right now. Cookie decorating counts as an art class in our homeschooling schedule.

I know these are uncertain times, but what if we use this self-isolation as an opportunity to teach our kids how to cook, stretch a dollar, live with less, and appreciate the value of eating together as a family? I’m willing to give it a try. Stay safe everyone!

Jenifer Antonelli is the owner of Vino and Viand Personal Chef Services.

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