Heaping Helping: Shenandoah Briere – Pandemic’s early restrictions made me more efficient at meal planning

Daily Gazette reporter Shenandoah Briere prepares her oven roasted chicken and asparagus for a pea and mushroom gravy and rice dish, as she prepares her weeklong meals.
Daily Gazette reporter Shenandoah Briere prepares her oven roasted chicken and asparagus for a pea and mushroom gravy and rice dish, as she prepares her weeklong meals.

When you’re a reporter who can often be found covering late-night meetings or wondering when you might get called out of the office to cover an event, having food already prepared can be a blessing.

But the truth is, I didn’t get into meal prepping because of the job.

I needed to find a way to force myself to eat healthier, and I knew if it was prepared ahead of time I would tell myself to eat it so that I wouldn’t be wasting the money spent on the items needed to make each dish.

All of that holds true today, as I find myself with a new job in a new city where I don’t yet know all of the good takeout spots and am always too exhausted to cook when I get home. And as one of my co-workers pointed out, when you live alone and make food, you’re bound to have leftovers for days.

But trying to prepare meals during a pandemic has been one of the most interesting educational experiences of my life.

If you thought trying to find toilet paper was hard during the pandemic’s early days, imagine walking into your favorite grocery store — mine is Aldi — and not seeing much in the way of meat, or any other items for that matter.

While supermarket shelves have mostly returned to normal, I remember the very beginning of the pandemic when people were advised to shop less often.

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“Plan to shop for two to three weeks’ worth of food at a time,” some newscaster would say.

That advice struck me because I planned every week, then shopped every week.

I didn’t want to force myself into arriving at a time when I had to cook food I had planned to eat two weeks earlier — and was now salivating for something different.

But I did it. I learned to prepare for two or even three weeks at a time.

I grabbed items I knew would last longer, which occasionally meant foregoing fresher items for their frozen counterparts.

I also grabbed a couple extras of items when they were finally back in stock, though always making sure to leave enough for the next person.

It was unusual trying to plan so far in advance. Not because I didn’t love what I was cooking, but I missed the freedom of being able to decide what new recipe I wanted to try out, then easily going to purchase the items.

All of that went away with the pandemic.

And with the crisis came a new anxiety in a way: Ever try to plan something, then go buy the items only to realize none are left? Imagine that, but with food.

There were times I walked into the store, list in hand, ready to breeze through my shopping trip, only to stop dead in my tracks when I couldn’t find the boneless skinless chicken breasts or flour or rice I needed.

Items were flying off the shelves faster than store employees could stock them, and I didn’t dare ask when they would have something back in stock or if they had more in the back.

Instead, I learned to always have a Plan B — or C and even D — just in case an item I needed couldn’t be found.

I got into creating meals where I could substitute items if needed. Spaghetti with meatballs, but no ground beef in stock?

Try ground turkey. Or even ground sausage. I swear, once it’s topped with sauce you can’t really tell the difference.

Want pasta but can’t find any? Try veggies instead.

I never thought investing in a vegetable spiralizer would save my meal prepping, but it did. I realized there were lots of other ways to incorporate veggies into dishes. One trick is to just use cauliflower rice as a substitute for pasta altogether. It tastes so good with tomato sauce and turkey meatballs.

I also discovered that a good replacement for flour was oats that I blended down into oat flower. I think it also adds a bit of a different taste to whatever I’m making.

But more importantly, trying to prepare meals during a pandemic taught me that not everything had be planned out. I learned to let myself enjoy food more by trying new things.

While I still love to meal prep for work, I learned the weekends were for enjoying a dish cooked that day — or even a night of takeout.

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Categories: Food, Heaping Helpings, Life and Arts

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