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Plan meals and keep your kitchen organized throughout the coronavirus shutdown

For everyone who is now cooking at home, meal planning and some convenience items can help to keep your kitchen running smoothly.

Pantry staples
Pantry staplesRead more

Squinting through the rosiest-tinted glasses, you could see our nation’s current confinements as an opportunity to hone your own food routines. The upside could harken a time unknown to recent generations: Enjoying family meals together, building wholesome dishes from a well-stocked pantry, and gaining kitchen confidence through regular hands-on practice.

But assessment of what and how you and/or your kin will eat starts with a plan — one that will allow you to get you through takeout and delivery and diminished grocery choices. We’ve rounded up advice that will help beyond beans and soups.

Prepare for more varied meals.

Many of us will have to get used to producing more foods at home, but that doesn’t mean “3 squares” per day. That applies to lunch that might have been taken at work or at school. Eat only when you’re really hungry; keep midday meals easy and light, such as fruit, yogurt, and nuts.

For singletons, especially the ones who aren’t accustomed to a substantial morning nosh – a black bean quesadilla or thick slice of banana bread topped with cream cheese can serve as breakfast or lunch, filling either slot with a piece of yogurt and fresh fruit.

For families, at-home cooking ace, chef, and cookbook author Sara Moulton says a “themed” approach can enliven those what’s-for-lunch issues. On Panini Day, your crew could assemble their own sandwiches from an array of sliced cheeses and cold cuts, with lightly oiled or buttered skillet or griddle at the ready. Place a pot lid on top for panini browning/melting. On Salad Day, start by making a batch of vinaigrette in a jar: ¼ cup of your favorite vinegar, 2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard and several hefty pinches of salt. Add ¾ cup of extra-virgin olive oil, seal and shake till emulsified. Put out greens, small tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, shredded rotisserie chicken, canned tuna or cooked white beans, nuts or sunflower seeds, dried cranberries. Stash the remaining vinaigrette in the refrigerator for a week.

Add convenience items to change things up.

In normal times Elizabeth Fitzgerald directs the Culinary Literacy Center at the Free Library in Philadelphia. With her “mom hat” on, she suggests these cost- and time-saving ingredients:

Jarred curry paste (red and green): Stir a teaspoon into vegetable sautés, marinades, soups, sauces, and dips. This can work with pestos, too.

Jarred ginger paste: Ditto, plus it can be used in sweet and savory baking.

Bouillon concentrate (she likes Better Than Bouillon brand): Besides their long refrigerated shelf life and ease for making stocks, these spoonable mixtures will boost the flavor as you cook rice and grains.

Bagged coleslaw mix: Reduce chopping time for stir-fries and vinegar-based slaws for topping sandwiches, grain bowls, and tacos.

Frozen puff pastry and/or pie dough: Quiche is good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Fitzgerald repurposes leftover vegetables by combining them with a whisking of eggs, milk, and cheese that she pours into dough that takes minutes to fit into a pan. She bakes it during cleanup and family bedtime, so a next-day meal is ready to go.

Large plastic box of spinach or arugula: The fresh, pre-washed greens tend to stay fresh and are available for tossing atop a pizza or into a pot. When you don’t have room in your fridge, blanch the greens in boiling water for a minute, drain, cool, and pack into a smaller container.

Make the kitchen fun.

Play music: Whoever has chosen the dish of the moment gets to pick their favorite. It makes cleanup time more enjoyable, too.

Spread it out: Instead of regular plating, create a sharing board where a main, sides, and dessert can be displayed on a single surface. You can also create sheet pan dinner, roasting vegetables tossed in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkled with seasonings you enjoy.

Use wraps. Use wonton wrappers to make large ravioli, whose insides can be a mash of leftovers. Try your hand at dumplings with a package of gyoza wrappers. Fill egg roll wrappers with what might normally go into a sandwich or fruit pie, then bake or fry, and serve with an appropriate dipping sauce. Spread cream cheese and jam on flour tortillas, roll, and cut into pinwheels.

Practice it. Knife skills are basic and valuable. The more you do, the more adept you’ll become. Kids who aren’t at sharp-knife level can use a bench scraper to portion cheese, cut fresh herbs with scissors or use their fingers to break down heads of produce into florets, says Virginia cooking instructor Mari Coelho. And the resulting (practiced) chopped onions, peppers, and garlic can go into the freezer and shorten subsequent meal prep.

Plant it. Websites and online videos offer all the instruction you need to get your own stash of greens, etc., going, and this is the right time to get all hands involved. When kids are invested in the growing and making of foods, they are more likely to eat them up.

Keep the kitchen on a timeline.

Use these four strategies to avoid creating a 24-hour grazing facility and to limit “boredom” eating.

Maintain a schedule for mealtimes. Nancy Tringali Piho, a Washington-based dietitian, suggests “shutting down the kitchen” and limiting “boredom” eating. This is also a time to raise your family’s consciousness regarding food. “I don’t want my guys to be eating too much just because the refrigerator is so stocked right now, she says. “We’re lucky, but we keep in touch with friends in Italy who are undergoing real hardships.”

Default to comfort/familiar foods. Now is not the time to introduce new or fancy dishes. Piho’s family opted to start with lasagna and outdoor-grilled burgers and sausages. That said, she makes sure to include healthful elements to each meal.

Know your family’s kitchen strengths. Make sure everyone in your family pitches in. One of Piho’s sons likes to cook and is happy to prep for meals while the other reorganized their refrigerator and freezer, which came in handy for inventory purposes.

Don’t delay cleanup: Put away edibles after dinner. Turn on the dishwasher and turn off the kitchen lights.

Remix your meals.

After Mary Sandifer, a social worker from South Philly, roasts a chicken, she shreds the cooked meat for barbecue sandwiches and adds the rest to soup. Her partner, Chris Walker, also can use some of the leftovers which he mixes with onions, peppers stir-fried with rice or ramen noodles for chi chi.

Snack simple and smart.

Baby-cut carrots and homemade popcorn. For the latter, it can be as simple as heating 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil and 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels in a pan over medium heat. Lid on, shake once or twice when popping has begun; it’s ready for flavoring once the popping stops.

Be flexible.

Be flexible, about where and how you serve your meals and about how you plan for them. This might seem contradictory when you’ve committed to a week’s menu, but you can’t always count on what will be available to restock your pantry. With her family on a tight budget, Sandifer says this is especially helpful when grocery shopping. Last week, she and her 7-year-old son, Cameron, wanted fresh blueberries to make pancakes. The fresh and frozen fruit was sold out, so they picked up a blueberry muffin mix instead.

Bonnie S. Benwick is a Washington-based freelance editor and writer. Follow her at and @bbenwick on Instagram.