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Quarantine Cooking

How to Spend Less, Shop Less, and Have More Fun in the Kitchen

Ah, cooking. The world is divided. There are those whom cooking sparks much joy, and those whom cooking sparks relatively (or absolutely no) joy. 

These days, there’s the added challenge of cooking with limited ingredients, and scrounging through what’s left on the grocery shelves (where are you all-purpose flour?!). Not only that, but you’re trying to keep your grocery budget at a very manageable size. All these constraints? We love constraints. Because where there are constraints, creativity blooms.

I sat down with one of our unofficial YNAB cooking gurus, Emily, to pick her brain on all things groceries and food. By day, she manages team members’ travel arrangements and flawlessly coordinates mind-boggling logistics. By night, she’s a bonafide home-chef extraordinaire who became a master learning from her mom growing up. We sat down to chat.

Rachel: Have you wanted to cook more or less these days?

Emily: More. Definitely more! I don’t know what else to do. I’m not gonna go read something or make a craft, or play a game. Baking and cooking is my default, either that or talking to people. So now, during quarantine? I’m cooking. 

Rachel: What have you been making?

Emily: Lots of pasta, sandwiches, things with beans, potatoes and eggs, stir fry, breakfast burritos. I bought udon noodles that are already cooked (you just have to steam them) and then I add frozen stir-fry veggies with egg and tofu. We use stuff from the freezer, like a roast I’ve been meaning to use. 

Rachel: My mouth is watering already. Ok, so you clearly find a lot of joy in quarantine cooking. What tips do you have for someone who isn’t finding much joy in quarantine cooking?

Emily: You know, if dinner doesn’t look like dinner, it’s fine. If you eat cereal every night, it’s fine. Don’t stress about it looking a certain way. You’re rolling with the punches. You might say, “Ok, here’s how I’m feeling mentally right now, so we’re having toast. Eggs and toast. That’s it.” Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

If or when you’re feeling up to it, this can be a time to be creative, experiment, and have fun. Cooking can be a mood booster: you’re creating something, you make a complete product (it usually tastes pretty good!), and it’s done. There are a few things to keep in mind if you don’t cook a lot to make it a more enjoyable experience:

If You Don’t Cook a Lot:

  • Start simple. Make recipes that include flavors you love but not too many ingredients.
  • Cook with somebody else on Zoom. Turn it into a virtual date with a friend.
  • Read the recipe all the way through before you make it. 
  • Prep your ingredients before you start cooking.
  • Turn on music or an audiobook while you cook.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to do it. Make sure you’re not rushed or stressed.
  • Have the right stuff. If you have pans that are a mess, knives that are not sharp, it’s just not fun. 

Rachel: And how about those that also find utter joy in cooking? We have all the time in the world now to create! 

Emily: It’s a great time to experiment!

If You Cook a Lot and Want Some Inspiration:

  • Recreate your favorite restaurant recipes at home (note from Rachel: for shameless or closet Taco Bell fans, this crunchwrap supreme recipe is awesome and totally guilt-free in my book because it’s homemade)
  • Get fun ingredients like capers, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes (anything that makes something basic like pasta feel fancy or different).
  • Try picking up a cheese you’ve never heard of before and using it in a recipe. To me, new flavors feel more like a luxury.
  • Since flour is so hard to find, use a kind you’re not as familiar with and learn how to use it. Something like buckwheat flour isn’t actually wheat—It’s gluten free and you can use it to make pancakes, biscuits, waffles. Just be ready for them to look darker than you’re used to. 
  • Try flourless desserts (flourless chocolate cake, no-bake cookies, rice krispie treats where you brown the butter).

Rachel: Brief aside, I tried this brown-the-butter trick after I talked with Emily (because of course I was craving rice krispie treats after we talked) and it was amazing. UH-MAZ-ING. Ok back to the low-key genius of Emily. 

  • Look in the ethnic food aisles—there seems to be more items available there right now. 
  • In stores where boneless skinless chicken breasts are out, try cooking a whole chicken, or use chicken thighs.
  • Use frozen veggies and fruits that aren’t as popular, like brussel sprouts, if you can’t find the normal varieties. 

Rachel: What are some of the things in your quarantine pantry?

Emily: You know, I think of my pantry like a budget sometimes: you want the necessities covered but then you want some flexibility—you want things that make it fun. 

  • I have so many beans! I usually buy canned beans, but now that I have an Instant Pot, I am more willing to cook dried beans.
  • Tuna
  • Soups
  • Canned peaches, pineapple, pears (I use canned peaches on oatmeal, or mix them for a fruit salad)
  • Canned green beans because they’re the only canned vegetable I really like
  • Powdered milk (I always have the non-instant kind to use for baking)
  • Rice
  • Lentils
  • Spaghetti sauce
  • Pasta
  • Salsa
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Cereal 
  • Oats (old fashioned or steel cut) 
  • Peanut butter 
  • Sesame oil 
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Ginger (fresh or ground)
  • Garlic

This is where it starts getting more fun:

  • Chocolate chips
  • Brownie mix
  • Ice cream (not really a pantry item, but can you blame me?)
  • Trail mix
  • Mixed nuts
  • My husband’s favorite crackers
  • Fun cereal 

Rachel: What dishes would you recommend right now that are cheap, easy, and made with ingredients you can find in the store?

Emily:

  • Potatoes have been in stock at the store even when other staples aren’t. You can make a baked potato and put a chunky canned soup (or canned chili) on top. Bonus if you add cheese!
  • Baked sweet potatoes with shredded chicken and any sautéed veggies that sound good.
  • Make scrambled eggs with veggies and salsa
  • Make peanut sauce with stir-fry noodles and veggies. I use this peanut sauce recipe a lot, thinning it with hot water to taste. 
  • Make tuna salad and add garbanzo or white beans to make it go further
  • Use black beans or pinto beans in taco meat, or kidney beans in sloppy joes (you can think of beans as a supplement to use less meat and make your meals more filling)

Rachel: Do you have any specific recipes to recommend?

Emily:

Rachel: I can’t wait to go make all of these. Except those lentil burgers. They seem scary. But I’m pumped for the rest. Any final thoughts for the sheltered-at-home chefs out there?

Emily: I really just encourage you to take the pressure off of yourself however you can. Whether it means cooking a lot more as an outlet or whether it means the whole family eats cereal every night, give yourself permission to go whatever route you need each day. 

Rachel: Well, there you have it! Quarantine cooking that’s heavy on joy, easy on the budget, and full of mostly-in-stock ingredients. What’s for dinner?!

Want tips for cooking on a budget? Watch Ashley take us through her cooking adventures:

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