Reader Suggestions: What to Cook During a Pandemic
Cooking at home is not new for the frugal crew, but cooking at home during a pandemic is a slightly different proposal. Many of us aren’t going to the grocery store as often as we did in the Before Times, some ingredients can’t be found on the shelves, and many folks are looking to decrease their grocery expenses as we watch the economy do a weird and unpredictable downward spiral (check out my Uber Frugal Week: How to Manage Your Money in the Time Of Pandemic and Recession for money-focused thoughts).
Furthermore, restaurants have been (or still are) closed and take-out options are limited. If you used to cook at home 7 nights out of 10? You’re now cooking at home 10 nights out of 10. Plus breakfasts, lunches, and snack time, snack time, also snack time, and then there’s snack time. My kids eat all day long, no matter what I feed them. I once gave them each a chicken breast for a snack and they were back 20 minutes later demanding more.
Given all these new variables in the kitchen, I was compelled to seek the advice of my most trusted frugal resource: you people. So today I bring you a Reader Suggestions compilation of recipes, ideas, tips, and hacks for cooking it up through a global pandemic.
Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions.
Pandemic Menu Planning in the Frugalwoods Home
The biggest change for my family was the loss of our once-a-week grocery shop. Now, it’s more like once every two months. This isn’t an issue for shelf-stable stuff (flour, quinoa, dried beans, olive oil, WINE, spices) or for meat and eggs (which we buy from our neighbors and pop the meat into our deep freeze), but it is tough from a fresh produce perspective. Normally, we buy bananas, apples, pears, grapes, cucumbers, salad greens, peppers, avocados, limes/lemons, and more every single week.
Now, we make that stuff last as loooooooong as possible and then turn to frozen fruit and veggies. We’re sort of limping along right now until our garden starts to produce salads for us. That being said, I’ve surprised myself at how creative and resilient our pantry is: when we run out of bananas (which we eat on our oatmeal every morning), I turn to the homemade applesauce I canned last summer.
Applesauce on oatmeal isn’t a traditional pairing, but my kids like it. When we run out of apples, I defrost frozen berries we picked last summer and pop them in the microwave–my kids love, love, love warm berry mush-in-a-bowl. I usually eat a salad with lunch every day and that’s been hard to substitute (which is probably why I just planted 37 rows of arugula and spinach…. ), but I’ve resorted to my classic frozen veggies in quinoa dish.
My family’s focus is on decreasing the chance that we catch the virus or unintentionally infect others. Since we don’t HAVE to go to the grocery store weekly, we don’t. Instead, we stock up every 6 weeks or so and then get creative with our pantry and freezer. This has been a great exercise in eating up our backlog of food (looking at you, chard in the bottom of the deep freeze… ) and a good chance to expose our kids to new and different food combinations. Pandemic cooking might not be your ideal, it might not be your very favorite foods, and you might find yourself putting applesauce on oatmeal, but it can be done.
Mrs. Frugalwoods Cooked A Dinner: End Times are Nigh?
I don’t know where else to admit this: you guys, I cooked dinner for us. Once. I haven’t cooked dinner since before we were married (which, yes, was twelve years ago). I’m a tad concerned about what the pandemic is doing to me–now I cook????!!!!! WHAT?!?
Heretofore, my husband cooked all dinners (and breakfasts) and I assisted with lunches, baked goods, and snacks. Now, I’m a person who made roasted lemon garlic asparagus and salmon from our garden (the asparagus was from the garden, not the salmon) by myself (with the aid of four different recipes) and it was edible.
I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I actually, kind of, uh, enjoyed it? And I find myself looking at the recipes you all suggested today and, umm, reading them… I even might make some of them. I’m not sure how to process this new information, so let’s just get to it and find out:
What Frugalwoods Readers are Cooking During the Pandemic
Bust Out Yo’ Cookbooks (and online recipes)
Hope shared, “I love cooking from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” cookbook (affiliate link). The recipes are easy, substitutions and variations provided, and use simple, whole food ingredients. My other favorite recipe source is Budget Bytes, most of their recipes are cheap, easy, and turn out great. I do find that I have to double pretty much all her seasonings, but that might just be me! Since the pandemic, we have been focusing on cooking food we really like and look forward to since we aren’t eating out or doing socializing anymore. We already made our own stock and cooked with dried beans, but have done even more scratch cooking lately. Some favorite recipes: Mark Bittman’s No Work Bread, Budget Bytes’ Slow Cooker Vegetarian Lentil Chili, and Budget Bytes’ Slow Cooker Chicken and Dumplings.
Julie said, “One of my go to meals especially in the summer is veggie fritters- different every time and we call them fridge surprise- shred a zucchini (squeeze out the water in a towel), shredded carrots, broccoli, corn, shredded cheese (we use cheddar but whatever you like), whatever else you have/like/leftover/want to sneak in your kids, onion, shallot, garlic, chives, herbs, spices and mix add 1-2 eggs and 1/2 cup flour to bind it together (GF works good). Fry in a bit of olive oil in a pan until brown each side (like a pancake). They reheat easy and freeze well. We like with ranch dressing, salsa or sour cream with sriracha. This is the original recipe we used.
Torrie said, “Thanks to cooking from my pantry and not wanting to turn on my oven (due to the creeping temperatures outside), I have been giving my Instant Pot a LOT of love lately, which is how I came up with this little gem of a recipe that we’ve already made quite a few times: Instant Pot Mexican Ground Beef + Rice Casserole.”
Kate recommends, “Potato and green pea curry. What is nice about this recipe is that any vegetables can be subbed in.”
Sarah loves, “Soup! The New England Soup Factory cook book is wonderful (affiliate link). We haven’t had a bad soup from it and it makes lots for freezing! We will also split a pound of meat between 2 different meals rather than use a single pound in one meal.”
Kelly said, “The cookbook Cook Once Eat All Week is my go to (affiliate link). I think the design of the book is brilliant for saving money and time preparing food. For each week, it gives three very different recipes that center around the same main ingredients (awesome for bulk shopping), a shopping list, which saves me SO MUCH TIME, and step by step meal prep directions. I usually do an hour or two of prep on Sunday or Monday, and then have three easy dinners that I can get together in just a few minutes all week. The recipes are delicious. I highly recommend this book. My other favorite frugal recipes are soup and grilled cheese, stir fries, quesadillas, burrito bowls, and pasta. I always have the pantry ingredients for these on hand.”
Jennifer wrote, “I have been making potatoes in batches twice a week. Cheap and nutritious and versatile. I have been eating a lot of Ponachos lately with whatever Mexican style toppings I feel like.”
Jonathan said, “I’ll plug my friend Angelo Todaro for my favorite go to (Oven Roasted Chicken Thighs). .99-1.99/lb for chicken thighs. Add a solid side of vegetables and grains and you’re good to go!”
Sarah likes, “Turkey (or chicken) Pot Pie using veggie scraps to make the broth.”
Cindy said, “I love so many things on the Budget Bytes website, especially the one pot dishes (less clean up, yay!). She has recipes from around the world, provides cost breakdowns from a standard grocery store, kindly provides a “Jump to Recipe” link on each page for easy access, and sells a variety of meal plans for dirt cheap, if that’s your thing.
Her recipes also use a lot of the same ingredients so you don’t go crazy trying to keep a house stocked with pantry items you’ll only use a handful of times. Love it! Our favorite is the Greek Turkey and Rice skillet. I usually quadruple the recipe using my dutch oven instead of a skillet. We either eat it all week or freeze a bunch for later.”
Emma shared, “I’ve found that rice, bean, and root vegetable combos make a tasty nutritious meal and can last a while if you’re trying to avoid trips to the grocery store. A specific recipe that I make that is really yummy is a Moroccan stew and all the ingredients last for weeks so you can save it for the end of your meal plan before having to venture out to the store again, or it can be made ahead and frozen. It’s frugal if you like to cook and already have most of the spices on hand— if not, you can probably improvise the spices to whatever you have in your cabinet. It also uses a small jar of artichoke hearts, so if you really want to keep the cost down you can eliminate that and add a smidgen more broth to compensate for the missing liquid from the jar.
1 c vegetable broth (or any broth of your choice)
1/3 c olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 sweet potato, diced
29 oz can chickpeas
1 red pepper, chopped
28 oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
3 whole cloves
Pinch chili flakes
1/2 cup prunes, pitted and halved
1/3 cup dried apricots, diced
8 oz jar artichoke hearts, reserve juice
1/2 cup black olives, pitted
3 tablespoons brown sugar
Cumin (to taste)
1/2 lemon, juiced (optional)
1 c slivered almonds (optional)
1. Heat the oil in a large sauce pan and then add the onion and garlic; sauté until softened.
2. Add the sweet potatoes, chickpeas, red peppers, tomatoes, and all of the spices except for the cumin and cook at a medium-high temperature for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
3. Add the stock, prunes, apricots, and liquid from the artichokes.
4. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Reduce heat if coming to a boil.
5. Stir in the artichokes, olives, brown sugar, and cumin. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes.
6. While you are waiting, toast the almonds in a dry frying pan.
7. Stir in the lemon juice if you choose to use it.
8. Serve over rice or couscous.
9. Optional: sprinkle with toasted almonds.
Ellie enjoys, “Lots of potatoes, onions, carrots…cheaper root vegetables with accents of the more expensive items. This is the best carrot soup I’ve ever had—I made it plain, both with broth and water, and no difference. Super filling and creamy and perfect.”
USE IT UP: The Waste Not, Want Not Mindset
Allison shared, “I am less concerned with saving money while shopping or cooking the cheapest things and more concerned with using up everything we buy. I freeze a ton of things, and even things like… If I don’t finish a beer and it goes flat, I freeze the rest. It becomes a delicious addition to a braise or stew. Leftover gravy, tiny bits of sauces, etc – freeze ’em. Your future self will thank you! Here’s one of my favorite quick and easy pantry-staple meals: Tuna pasta with peas. You’ll need pasta, canned tuna, frozen peas, and some kind of acidic brightener – I like lemon here, could also be white wine or even a splash of white or apple cider vinegar if that’s all you have. Salt, fresh ground pepper, a dash of chili pepper flakes, and any fresh herbs you have (especially mint and basil this time of year), or none at all. Freshly grated pecorino or parmesan, if you have it. It’s ok if not. Boil pasta in well salted water. Peas go in for the last few minutes. Drain, but reserve a bit of the water. Add one or two cans of tuna (I like to add in the juices/oil too), plus the pasta water, and the acid element, herbs, salt and pepper and chili flakes to taste, parm. Delish!”
Kim shared, “Jennifer’s Recipe (named after the former coworker who gave me the recipe):
1 can kidney beans
1 can black beans
1 can garbanzo beans
1/2# fresh tomatoes, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar (toss to coat)
Drain and rinse beans. Add all ingredients (except tortilla chips) to bowl. Toss to coat with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Enjoy with tortilla chips.”
Jenn wrote, “Since our quarantine started, I try to shop only about every 2-3 weeks at the most. And I’m trying to maintain a zero food waste policy here too (which I should have anyway) – I’ve been using less meats… lots of beans- so exploring various middle eastern recipes a lot- I already like Thai/Asian cooking ideas- soups, etc. Potatoes are a fave in our house- I’m also discovering certain greens that grow in the wild in our neighborhood that are edible and healthy- (do your own research carefully) that lets me go longer before needing to shop again.”
Krista said, “We’ve been making quinoa bowls when our fridge is starting to get bare. We chop up any veggies that are starting to go bad, add in some salad, quinoa, and any meat or beans we have as leftovers. My husband does a great job making yummy vinaigrette dressings that go well with whatever ingredients we used.”
Nicollette shared, “One of my favorite go-to frugal meals involves primarily sweet potatoes, chickpeas, and rice (white or brown). First, I’ll chop up some sweet potatoes into .5-1 inch cubes and add to a baking sheet. I also add a can of rinsed chickpeas to the sheet and season with spices (I change it up but usually do s&p, cumin, smoked paprika/chili powder, and garlic and onion powder. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes and 350 for 5-10 minutes or until potatoes are roasted on the outside and soft and cooked on the inside, and the chickpeas should be slightly crispy. While those are roasting in the oven, I’m cooking up a pot of brown or white rice. When everything is cooked, I assemble a bowl with rice, add scoops of the seasoned potatoes and chickpeas, then garish with cilantro and slices of avocado, maybe a dollop of sour cream if you like, couple of dabs of hot sauce even. If I’m feeling extra decadent I’ll cook an egg sunny side up to add on top. Yum and nutritious!! And for like a dollar a bowl.”
Spreadsheets to the Rescue!
Mandy wrote, “I have an Excel sheet where I enter the kilo/pound price of our favourite and most used grocery store items and where we buy them. They are automatically separated by grocery store (online too) and I have categories for the sale prices on the items that do tend to go on sale so I know what my stock up price is. For our common items I have them memorized, but for items only purchased a few times a year its really handy. It took time to set it up but now I rarely have to change anything and I have access to it on my cell as well. The first year I did this I saved 1,800€ / 2,000$ and we are only two people in my household. We bought the same exact things, we just knew the buy price on most of them. A perfect example is that one local grocery store sells Canadian maple syrup in 3 separate locations in the store (foreign, organic, baking) and all for different prices!”
Pantry Staple Combos
Kel wrote, “A favorite here, that everyone in the family likes including the toddler, is egg lemon soup (avgolemono in Greek).
Recipe, for a batch big enough to serve four adults for dinner and provide leftovers:
- Sauté an onion, diced small, in olive oil. When it is translucent, add ¾ c of Arborio rice.
- Add 6-8 cups of chicken broth. Boxed is fine.
- Cover and simmer for twenty minutes, until the rice is very soft. Taste for salt.
- Meanwhile: using a stick blender in a large glass measuring cup, blend together the juice of three lemons, and eight eggs.
- When the rice is very soft, ladle a cup or two of the hot broth into the measuring cup while running the stick blender continually to temper the eggs. (You can also do this with a hand mixer on high, or a whisk.)
- After the eggs are tempered, pour them into the pot, stirring continually. Heat until you get a couple of bubbles to thicken, and then stir in some fresh or dried parsley for color.”
Jude likes to combine, “Chick pea, spinach, and coconut milk curry. I add any extra frozen veg to this and two tins of tomato’s.
The spicy warmth is from grated ginger, garlic, chillis, a little brown sugar , cumin and garam masala. Finish with fresh coriander and lemon juice. Really quick, cheap and simple and delicious.”
Emily recommends, “Tuna spaghetti: one can tuna drained, one clove garlic, chopped parsley, half cup sun dried tomatoes in oil cut in half inch pieces, a few big handfuls of arugula. Saute all and serve atop pasta.”
Pauline shared, “One of my favorite things is green chile soup with a fried egg on top – this is a great breakfast.
Green Chile Soup
24 oz roasted green chilies, cleaned and chopped
1 chopped onion
2-3 minced garlic cloves
1 T oil
1/2 bunch cilantro chopped
1/2 tsp salt
4-5 C chx broth or water
4-5 C dairy – sour cream, milk, yogurt, etc
Saute onions & garlic, and 1 C liquid and then cook 5 min or so.
Add broth/water and chilies, salt, cilantro. Bring to boil and then simmer couple of hours.
Puree and add dairy.
Serve with limes, radishes, cilantro, red onions, corn tortilla strips.”
Kate said, “This cracker recipe is very flexible, and protein packed. Great for dipping into hummus etc. I am also really enjoying making and eating brownies!”
Kellie asked, “Who doesn’t love pizza? And quick, frugal homemade pizza? Start with some self raising flour, a pinch of salt and some dried Italian herbs. All cupboard staples. Sounds like the beginnings of any quick pizza dough, Yes? But then…grab a tin of chopped tomatoes and drain them through a sieve, keeping the liquid. Now use the tomato liquid instead of water to make the dough! The colour and taste is amazing! I kneed then hand stretch the dough, then straight into a fry pan, where the bottom of the pizza starts to bake and crisp up while I add toppings starting with the drained tinned tomatoes (You choose the rest- I go for mushrooms, black olives, pineapple, or whatever I have!). A medium heat is good and work quickly so as not to overcook the underside of the base . Then it’s in the oven to heat and bake the top. This and a salad, under 30 minutes to whip up…and ultra frugal.”
Lindsay said, “We keep a bunch of rice, pasta, tortillas, and beans in stock, as well as canned tomatoes and sauce. We also keep a bunch of frozen peas and corn in the freezer. Between that and our CSA, I am able to make delicious vegetarian meals from Budget Bytes. Sometimes I have to make substitutions, but it always still tastes good! Some favorites from Budget Bytes are the coconut curried lentils, dragon noodles, and spinach chickpea rice pilaf.”
Elsa loves, “Pasta with sauteed red bell peppers, broccoli, roasted chicken, cherry tomatoes and topped with Parmesan cheese. No sauce.”
Marcia was keeping it real when she said, “Pandemic cooking is driving me batty. It’s an awful lot of work to figure out what to cook when you shop every two weeks. This is true even though we get produce delivery. I make a weekly plan based on our produce box and what we have in the pantry. Because we are both working full time at home, our cooking has changed a little. We still don’t have more time (because, kids and distance learning).
We have actually been getting more takeout, at least weekly.
Instant pot: pasta. Either with marinara or Mac and cheese, weekly.
Instant pot: bean soup or vegetable soup.
Thai chicken and vegetable Curry. Red curry paste, a can of chicken breast (you can use fresh, but we always have canned), a can of coconut milk, vegetables.
Indian: red lentil dhal, or chana masala.
Mexican: beans and rice, quesadillas, burritos.
Chinese: stir fry or fried rice
I recently started using the app Paprika to keep track of my favorite recipes. You can also keep your pantry on there. I use it to make menus, and each time I have a good recipe, it gets added. (Bonus points if it uses pantry staples).
We eat a lot of salad and sandwiches for lunch.”
Beans!!! Boatloads of Beans
Laurel wrote, “I was having a hard time finding dry beans but finally found a source online. The catch? I had to buy a ten pound bag. I live in a condo so not a lot of storage. My cheap and really yummy recipe is to cook the beans (after soaking) with an onion, bay leaf and garlic cloves, then add wheat berries, veggies, and a jar of salsa. Presto – big, cheap pot of chili, most of which I freeze.”
Dawn said, “We have chickens so plenty of eggs. Egg salad is cheap for us. I also make quiche with a homemade crust, eggs, and whatever veggies need to be used up. Bean and rice bowls also with whatever toppings need to be used from the fridge or garden. I live in a rural area, and there is no such thing as a quick trip to town so I stocked up on items even before the pandemic. I will say it has made me more away of using up leftovers and using what I have on hand as we go to the grocery store even less than before.”
Erika shared, “Black Bean-Stuffed Sweet Potatoes is one of our favorite frugal meals. So easy to throw into the crockpot and everything is cheap and shelf-stable, so we love keeping these ingredients on hand for an easy, nutritious, meatless meal when we haven’t been able to go to the grocery store in a while. We cook beans from dry, too, which makes it even more frugal ($.90/lb black beans yields about five cans).”
Natasha wrote, “Lentil soup was a staple in my Mediterranean family when I was growing up, and has continued to be a favorite for my own family. One 16 oz package of lentils, two 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes. One onion, three carrots, and three celery stalks, a few cloves of chopped or crushed garlic to your taste. Saute the vegetables, add lentils and tomatoes. Fill up the empty cans with water and add to the soup. Add a bay leaf or two, lots of oregano, and adjust salt to taste. Simmer for about an hour until lentils are soft. The total cost is about $4.25, and it gives us 8-9 servings. We like to serve it with fresh home baked bread and a big salad. If you want the true Mediterranean experience, add a splash of red wine vinegar to your bowl.”
Charley said, “Peach and chickpea curry is the tastiest comfort food I know…. I switch the tinned peaches for tinned or frozen mango or clementines or whatever is there.”
- Get creative: use the ingredients you have and don’t be afraid to substitute it up.
Beans, root vegetables, quinoa, and rice remain the pre-eminent ingredients when you’re going for frugal, healthy, and quick (my three favorite things. Other than my kids–obviously they are more favorite).
- Everyone loves them some Budget Bytes. Now that I’ve cooked ONE meal, I intend to peruse her site and perhaps, maybe prepare another meal (no promises).
- A stocked pantry is a happy pantry; but, don’t lose sight of the frugal ethos of eating through your backlog of food:
- Don’t be keeping flour in there for two years.
- Don’t be buying another bag of rice when you already have two.
- Set your pantry up for success: shelve like with like and ROTATE to ensure you’re not harboring money-hogs or wasted food. Put the oldest items at the front and shelve their newer twins behind them. Use your ingredients in order of purchase date so that stuff doesn’t go bad before you can use it.
- Same goes for your fridge. If needed, take everything out, then put it back in again (this is what I usually do since it gives me a chance to wipe down the shelves and my kids find this uber entertaining).
- Same goes for your freezer. Do periodic inventory sweeps to see what’s lingering behind the frozen veggies (in my case it was that salmon!!!! GAH!).
- Lower your standards (I think I say this in every single post… ). Fresh fruit and veggies might not be available (or you might run out before your next grocery delivery/run). The ideal cut of meat you dreamt of might not be possible to procure. Go with what’s available and be flexible.
- The cook once and freeze method remains tried, true, and efficient. Here’s how we do it: The Dirty Secret Behind How We Cook At Home.
What are you cooking these strange days?
Never Miss A Story
Sign up to get new Frugalwoods stories in your email inbox.