Planning food during a pandemic

In the days leading up to the COVID19 pandemic, photos of queues of people trying to buy food and that of empty shelves in supermarkets ( for some unknown reason toilet paper and pasta have been very popular!) have become the norm for a modern society used to having everything at the click of a finger (or a click on your computer screen). It is hard to get even delivery slots for food if you don’t want to shop in store.

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I saw this during early March when the panic buying had just started
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Within a few days, shelves were beginning to look like this!

I was also swept away by the societal urge or rather the herd tendency to stock up on food, although probably my shopping was nothing compared to the people who bought up shelves of toilet paper and even fought and got arrested over that.  I found that I had bought some extra onions and potatoes but its not too much of a problem to eat them.  Even then I have thought of some ways I could prevent myself from panic buying potatoes and onions or anything else.

  1. Make a food plan for each day and a grocery plan for the week: Write down a possible menu plan and what ingredients you may need. It is not always possible to find everything you need, so you have to be flexible about this.  Check if you really need to stock up a month’s supply of toilet paper or that you are a good enough baker if you are buying so much baker’s flour.  Food has limited shelf life and buying too much means you might end up having to throw it at the end.  There is a viral video of a man who stored hoarded items on top of his kitchen units, in the hallway, toilet and everywhere possible- creating trip hazards in the house and possibly, fire risks.  This also means that someone else didn’t get to have it- this is also selfish behaviour.
  2. If you really can’t find something, look up smaller stores: Many so-called ethnic or speciality shops have stocks of things not available in the supermarkets.  The last time, I looked they had toilet paper, pasta, bread flour and everything else- without the queues. Shopping at smaller stores helps them to keep going during the tough economic times. So it is a win-win situation.  I also learned some special recipes during my conversations when shopping.
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Smaller independent stores often have enough
  1. Look for long life items: These could be either dried foods such as rice, lentils, beans, etc. but also canned and frozen items.  I’ve no idea why people need so much pasta but I found that I could make many dishes by using brown rice for example- Chinese, India, Mexican, Japanese and Italian. Some fresh foods like onions, garlic, apples, and carrots also keep well for a long time.
  2. Freeze what you don’t need: I have prepared food and cut vegetables that might not keep in the fridge and so I’ve frozen these for quick meals. I have also frozen herbs (I found some on sale or about to be thrown by the shop and reduced).  Even opened canned food that can’t be used straightway can be frozen. I am also freezing milk in batches to use later.
  3. Share buying with neighbours: Buying in bulk will be cheaper and you may find that food shops will prefer larger deliveries, rather than small purchases.  Bigger shared purchases also bring down carbon emissions by reducing numbers of deliveries.  In my building, people have also shared shopping duties for older or ill people.  Many hygiene experts recommend washing hard items like produce, bottles and cartons while cardboard boxes, paper and cloth if left aside for 9 hours or more will kill any lingering virus on them.

There are many guidelines about disinfecting stuff bought from the shops.  But washing with water remains the cheapest and the most effective.  I’ve been washing all hard things like vegetables, bottles and cartons- a good habit anyway.  Research from the US National Institutes of Health found that the COVID19 virus survives for longer on cardboard – up to 24 hours – and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces such as door handles, plastic-coated or laminated worktops and other hard surfaces. So it might be a good time to reduce the amount of plastic you have in the home! Of course, with fresh produce that is used immediately, the cooking kills all bacteria and viruses.

The researchers discovered that copper surfaces tended to kill the virus in about four hours.  So I’ve been using all my Indian copper and brass plates.  Coronaviruses can also be inactivated within a minute by disinfecting surfaces with 62-71% alcohol, or 0.5% hydrogen peroxide bleach or household bleach containing 0.1% sodium hypochlorite. Higher temperatures and humidity also tend to result in other coronaviruses dying quicker, so if you can, wiping surfaces with hot cloths or using steam cleaner might be more environmentally friendly and even cheaper. On can follow common sense hygiene practices handed down from ages like washing hands and wiping surfaces often, separating raw meat from other foods, cooking and serving to the right temperature. Many religious or cultural practices also require this- Jewish, Hinduism, Islamic, Indian, etc.

Finally the best tip is not look at supermarket queues and avoid social media or news stories about food scarcity- herd mentality makes people scared and buy more than what they need.  It is estimated that in the UK, people have hoarded up £1billion worth of food while some may go hungry while there is enough food and grocery in the supply chain.  Social media and news sometimes stirs up unnecessary fears.  Believe that you will find what you need or become resourceful enough to use what you have! As the Italian writer, Francesca Melandri, who has been under lockdown in Rome for almost three weeks due to the Covid-19 outbreak, wrote,

‘First of all, you’ll eat. Not just because it will be one of the few last things that you can still do.

You will count all the things you do not need.

The true nature of the people around you will be revealed with total clarity. You will have confirmations and surprises.’

(I have not printed her entire article but you can find it here)

Mindful cooking and happy eating

I love cooking and even though I have a chronic illness and suffer from tiredness and pain, I feel it is something I can do and actually enjoy it!  So over the years, I have devised ways to cook well, easily and cheaply.  The money saving is essential because the ingredients I use are organic and fresh, and cost much more than conventional stuff. Also, obviously it has to be healthy cooking too.  So money has to be saved in other ways. So here are my top 20 tips. You may not agree with all of them and some of these go against ‘conventional wisdom’, so please feel free to comment below.

  1. Eat between the hours of 8-00 am and 8-00pm.  Apparently this the optimum time for food to be digested properly as the body clock starts slowing down. In fact, it starts to do that by 6-00pm but as I usually don’t finish work by then and have to cook from fresh, the food is not ready until about 7-30pm.  Try to make your first meal the biggest and the last one the smallest and don’t snack in between.
  2. Oil is one of the most expensive ingredients, so use it sparingly. It is also healthier to use less oil. On the other hand, I use butter and ghee for cooking too. I have found that these ingredients add a richness to bland starchy foods such as pasta, potato, breads and rice so that you end up eating less of such foods. A dollop of butter in pasta sauce adds amazing flavour.
  3. Put a lid in the food that is cooking- it makes it cook faster, save energy and therefore cheaper, and the flavours get locked into the food by doing so.
  4. Eat seasonally and fresh- so that the ingredients will be cheaper and have more flavour.  More flavour also mean that less salt and other condiments will be needed to make the food more tasty.
  5. I don’t agree with the concept of mise en place, i.e. getting all the ingredients ready and then cooking, for all types of cooking.  Stir frying is one example where this technique would be useful.  But the leaving the chopping until you are ready to cook is better as the ingredients are fresher.  I often let the oven or pan warm up while I am preparing the vegetables.
  6. We don’t eat ready prepared desserts anymore. Not only are they expensive, wrapped in plastic but also do not taste nice.  We might have healthier desserts such as fruits or my homemade yoghurt or even a piece of dark chocolate.
  7. This trick I learnt from my grandmother- no more than three flavours together.  This gives such a clean but tasty flavour.
  8. We have at least one component of the meal that helps with digestion as I have real problems. So we can have yoghurt or fermented vegetables (kimchi) or sauerkraut along with the main course.
  9. The bulk of the food is vegetables, with about 30% meat or other protein.
  10. Clean up as you go along, putting away items in the dishwasher/sink for washing and removing peels and other waste from the work surface. It makes tidying up later much easier.  One pot cooking is marvellous- so much less to wash up and also saves money.
  11. I cook in steps. So I might marinade something a day earlier or defrost something couple of day earlier and so on. Some of the cooking such as gravy or fried vegetables might have been made earlier.
  12. Always have something in the freezer that can be defrosted the day before so that you can eat as soon as you can, instead of rushing to get a chilled meal from the supermarket.  It has been many years since I’ve had a supermarket meal and now if I have a small mouthful, I realise how ghastly they taste.  I suppose our tastebuds get used to such food and only until you’ve had a good long break, that you realise that these foods have no flavour at all- mostly salt and sugar to give it some.
  13. Find ways to reduce food waste.  So I use the potato skins, broccoli stems, bottoms of lettuce, carrot or radish leaves, etc. (I will put some recipes later on).IMG_4358.JPG Even with meat, there is hardly any waste- only after using the bones to make broth, I throw them away.  I don’t have a big composter (I have a home made composter which can only handle a small amount each time) or a garden, but our bodies are the best composters.  Avoiding buying foods that have parts that need to be thrown away is also good.  But some are inevitable such as lemons and bananas. So I will use the skins of the lemons for making washing up liquid or lemon zest. Banana skins can be used for polishing shoes and wood but I don’t like the smell and these skins tend to be my biggest throw aways. If you have a garden composter, then you can be a bit more wasteful.
  14. You can wash out ketchup, jam and sauce bottles with water and add that flavoured water to soups or curries. Then your bottle is also ready for recycling. Soups are nourishing and filling- you tend to eat less if you have the liquid and solid together as with soup.
  15. Many bloggers advise buying in bulk. I live in a flat and there is little space to store sacks of grains or pasta. Also I have found that spices lose their flavour if kept for too long. So buy little and often. It might be more expensive but it is better value.
  16. I have problems cutting hard vegetables such as pumpkins and squashes. So I bake them whole and make soups or mashes out of those.  The seeds can be dried and eaten.
  17. This is a great trick I learnt- if some of the ingredients have been in the fridge and freezer, take them out so that they are at room temperature before you cook them. Not only does it save energy but also improves flavour.
  18. I get my vegetables and meat delivered from the farm- local, seasonal and fresh. This saves me trudging from the supermarket carrying bags of shopping which I can’t really do.  It is also expensive. I can plan out the meal for the week depending on what I receive- so it also saves time and money.  Also there is less packaging to deal with as these come with hardly any and if they do, they are taken away by the delivery company. One less thing to do!
  19. I try not to have drinks with food. I keep them separate.  Juices can be expensive. Water is good enough!
  20. Finally, try to eat mindfully with those you love. My uncle used to say that food eaten in good company always tastes better!