With social distancing guidelines turning into stay-at-home orders in many places, you may be worried about being able to buy and afford groceries. Stores are restocking their shelves often, but with so many people scrambling for the essentials, it’s not uncommon to see bare shelves by the time you arrive. And if you’re like many Americans who are worried about saving money during the coronavirus pandemic, you’re probably looking for ways to reduce spending.
Learning how to stretch the pantry items you have at home is a great way to save money and limit the time you have to spend at the store, which is important for your own safety and to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The following tips will help you reduce waste — and maybe pick up some money-saving habits that will come in handy long after the pandemic has ended.
Cook with perishables first and freeze them for a later date
Fresh vegetables only last so long, and you don’t want to waste money right now. Rather than panic-eating your greens until you can’t stand the sight of spinach, cook meals with them now and freeze a few servings for later.
“Pick a Saturday or Sunday and involve the whole family in making huge batches of different dishes: turkey chili or green chili with white beans, things that are stew-y and freeze well,” advises “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi. “Then pack them in quart containers so you can take out just what you need.”
Meal prepping can also be a great self-care activity, as it leads to a healthier diet and overall lifestyle. And self-care is crucial right now.
Practice the “first in, first out” rule
Organize your pantry and fridge according to the “first in, first out” (FIFO) principle, which means putting your newest food items in the back and the oldest in the front. That way you don’t forget about that bag of carrots or can of soup you bought a few weeks ago and avoid letting good food go bad.
Learn how to keep produce fresher longer
Even if you’re cooking with produce regularly, you want it to last as long as possible. There are lots of handy tricks for extending freshness, such as storing mushrooms in paper rather than plastic bags, wrapping broccoli and lettuce in tin foil and sticking a paper towel in with your salad greens to absorb moisture, which slows down wilting. BuzzFeed has a great list of easy hacks to keep your food fresh.
Skip the elaborate meals
You may be tempted to try your hand at creative or fancy dishes to stave off boredom but keeping it simple will help stretch your groceries longer. Food Network star Jessica Tom suggests preparing ingredients such as rice, beans and vegetables separately, then combining them into different dishes at mealtime. So, rather than putting together a Mexican casserole that might only last a day or two’s worth of meals, you can use the separate ingredients for bean dips, frittatas and soups, getting more bang for your buck.
Buy less expensive cuts of meat you can combine with grains and starches
Writer Bill St. John recommends purchasing less expensive cuts or meat that can be slow-cooked
into stews and soups (longer cook times bring out the flavors, St. John says), you end up with dishes you can freeze and eat for several days. Adding grains and starches to the dishes adds a little extra to each serving, allowing you to ration the meat more easily.
Don’t let any food go to waste
Before scraping your dinner scraps into the trash, think about how you can use them tomorrow. That leftover hamburger meat could be turned into a serving of chili for lunch, and those last few bites of peppers and onions would be perfect in an omelet. Rice is especially versatile, according to blogger Julia Mullaney, as it can be used in casseroles to stretch the servings or in rice pudding if you’re having a sweet tooth craving. Even if you’re not sure how you’ll use them, save them anyway and let inspiration strike tomorrow. The important thing is finding a use for all the food in the house.
Practicing a no-waste policy will also reduce your need to order out, which can be a huge money-saver.
Learn to make substitutes for your favorite treats
Comfort food can be a great way to distract from COVID-19 stresses, and familiar flavors are reassuring when you’re facing uncertainty. But with grocery stores scrambling to keep shelves stocked and growing numbers of communities issuing stay-at-home orders, running out to pick up a few key ingredients is not easily done. However, you can likely make a good replica of your favorite foods from what you have in the house.
Substitute an egg
You can make your egg supply last longer by using fruit purees, nut butters, mashed potatoes and tofu as egg replacements in recipes (though not all at the same time, of course). Check out this list of egg substitutes before you make your next grocery run.
Go by freshness, not sell by dates
People often throw out food that’s perfectly safe to eat simply because it’s past its sell by date. Generally speaking, you’ll know when something has gone off — if your meat smells bad, for instance, or your vegetables start taking on a liquid texture. But if you’re not sure whether something is safe, Tom Colicchio, advises that sell by dates are often arbitrary and not necessarily good indicators of whether food is still edible.
Rethink your eating schedule
Now that you’re spending a lot of time at home, eating may become a default activity — especially if you’re anxious and prone to stress eating or tend to snack when you’re bored. But habitual snacking depletes your pantry, making it more likely you’ll have to go to the store or that there will be days when you’ll have to do without your staples.
Consider making individual snack bags for each day so you don’t go overboard and think about whether you actually need three large meals a day. Eating a regular-sized breakfast and dinner but a smaller lunch, for instance, can slow down your food usage.
Obviously, you should prioritize your body’s needs and your health conditions. But being mindful of how much you’re eating and only preparing necessary meals (with the occasional comfort food thrown in) can help you save money and avoid extra trips to the grocery store.