Heaping Helpings: Joanne McFadden – The pandemic forced me to rethink my shopping, meal planning, priorities

Freelance writer Joanne McFadden's kitchen nearing the finish line of a major renovation.
Freelance writer Joanne McFadden's kitchen nearing the finish line of a major renovation.

Before the pandemic, I had gone on a pescatarian kick. It wasn’t a militant type of thing. Rather, it was a heavy leaning into eating more fish and exploring how many different dishes I could make with beans, lentils, grains and the like. I enjoyed the idea of reducing my carbon footprint by eating less meat, and I thought it could help my husband and me drop a few pounds.

On more days than not there were bowls of dried beans soaking or cooking in the crockpot, and all the vegetarian cookbooks were front and center in the kitchen.

A couple of weeks after the COVID-19 lockdown began, I had a telemedicine appointment with one of my doctors. At the conclusion of the appointment, he asked, “You’re only shopping once every three weeks, right?”

I was stunned. I hadn’t altered my grocery shopping habits, other than going masked, hand sanitizing, quarantining dry goods and wiping down refrigerated ones. I hadn’t changed the frequency of my grocery shopping.

The conversation made me realize COVID-19 was far more serious than I had even begun to grasp. It was all so new, and the world was feeling its way along with ever-changing information. Intellectually, I knew it was a grave situation, but I had yet to fully understand the gravity of the virus and how it was changing the world.

When I heard my doctor tell me that even an activity as routine and necessary as grocery shopping should be curtailed, it made an impact. What I took from the appointment was that I had better get even more serious about being at home as much as possible and that even necessary outings, i.e. grocery shopping, had to be limited.

Yes, I could have used Instacart and had groceries delivered, but it just was not something that appealed to me, having someone else shopping for me, and I had heard a friend’s frustration with it. So out came the cookbooks, and I launched a gargantuan meal-planning effort for three weeks at a time.

I found that meals fell into three categories. One was dishes that had fresh ingredients and had to be prepared in the few days following a shopping trip, lest ingredients, namely certain vegetables, spoiled.

Then there were dishes that had ingredients that needed to be used in a moderate amount of time but that would keep for at least a week or so. Lastly were the dishes that required no fresh ingredients or had the type of food, for example, carrots, that would keep for a few weeks. These could be prepared near the end of the three-week cycle.

This meal planning took me half a day, during which I made detailed shopping lists for all three grocery stores near me, based on the latest circulars, as thrifty shopping did not seem to be something I could shake. Raised by a mother who lived through the Great Depression, it was still ingrained in me to be frugal, even though my situation did not require it, as both my husband and I remained employed when COVID hit.

I created a form to help me keep track of the meals I had planned and to note any advanced preparation required, such as soaking and cooking dry beans to make them recipe-ready. Then I could place the little forms in order of when I wanted to prepare them.

Grocery shopping took an entire afternoon, as I hit the three grocery stores, loading up my shopping cart and then car with three weeks’ worth of groceries. When I arrived home, my husband wondered if we would be able to fit everything in the refrigerator.

The pescatarian diet turned out to be a good choice in the early days of the pandemic, as meat became a scarcity in supermarkets. COVID-19 completely disrupted the meat supply chain. The pandemic caused manufacturers to shut down meatpacking plants as workers became ill. That, coupled with the change in consumers’ habits — less or no eating at restaurants and an increase in cooking at home — meant less meat was available to purchase. According to Nielsen, meat prices shot up 43% in the eight weeks prior to April 25, 2020. I was, however, limited to the purchase of four cans of tuna at a time.

My favorite recipes turned out to be the versatile ones that I could choose to do fresh, or by small alterations push to the end of the three-week period. For example, the Broccoli Mushroom Noodle Casserole on p. 107 of the original Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen is one. (There are several copies available in the library.) This calls for fresh broccoli, mushrooms and an onion, which are cooked and then mixed with eggs, ricotta or cottage cheese, and egg noodles before being baked. This I prepared in the couple of days after my marathon grocery trips when I used fresh broccoli and mushrooms.

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While fresh is always preferable, I could use frozen broccoli and canned mushrooms to make this dish later, as I could purchase cheese with a “use by” date a few weeks out, and onions would keep for several weeks.
I also baked bread. I grew up in a home where we only ate my mother’s homemade bread, and when COVID hit, bread baking became all the rage. Enjoying freshly baked bread just out of the oven with a bit of butter became a simple pleasure during lockdown.

My essential-worker husband picked up milk at Stewart’s as needed. We ate a great deal of beans, lentils, canned tuna, fresh and frozen fish, and other vegetarian dishes for the first few months of the pandemic. As the situation wore on with no end in sight, I relented on the pescatarian. Although he had endured my pescatarian menus without complaint like a real trooper, one day I overheard my Texan husband (translation: raised on meat and potatoes) tell my daughter it was “hideous.”

I figured that if we were going to be stuck at home as the world struggled with COVID, I might as well let him eat what he likes. I added chicken, pork and occasionally beef back to the menu.

I would, though, at some point and very slyly, like to return to a largely, but not exclusively, pescatarian diet.

Kitchen nearly complete
In last fall’s Home edition, I wrote an article about having to renovate and sell my parents’ California home without being able to see it in person after it was finished.

Looking at the listing photos online, I experienced a profound sadness.

My parents had had the funds to renovate their home, but they chose not to, and they never got to experience the beauty of it.

This prompted me to carpe diem in my own home and redo our kitchen and half bathroom downstairs, and not wait until we are ready to sell it one day.

I wanted to do it now so that my family can enjoy a beautiful, modern space, not the dated kitchen that was at least a quarter-century old.

Marianne Clifford of Marianne Ashley Designs created the remodeling plans, and contractors completely gutted the spaces when the transformation began the first week of March. We look forward to its completion in early May when we will start preparing some delicious, healthy meals and enjoying dining at home in our new kitchen.

Tuna Walnut Fettuccine
This dish was a good one for the end of the three-week cycle because the ricotta would keep.

12 oz. package fettuccine
10 oz. package frozen peas
2 (6 oz.) cans tuna, drained
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup part-skim or fat-free ricotta
1 tsp. hot sauce
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup grated Romano cheese

Prepare noodles. During last 2 minutes of cooking noodles, stir in frozen peas. Drain.
Combine the tuna, olive oil, walnuts, ricotta, hot sauce and salt in a large bowl. Add the fettuccine and peas and mix well.
Sprinkle with Romano cheese.

Chunky Vegetarian Crock Pot Chili
To use this recipe at the end of my three-week cycle, I cut up the pepper after shopping and froze it. I also freeze this in Ball jars with plastic lids for lunches.

1 diced onion
1 diced green pepper
1 1/2 cups matchstick or sliced carrots
1 15-oz. can of mushrooms or 8-oz. package of fresh
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 1-oz. cans kidney beans, undrained
1 8-oz can crushed pineapple
2 tablespoons chili powder
Crushed hot peppers for more heat, optional

Combine all ingredients in a crockpot. Cook on high for 4 hours or until carrots are tender.

Mom’s White Bread
My mother used a dough bucket to bake this bread on a regular basis. She spoiled us. Makes 4 loaves.
2 tablespoons yeast
4 cups warm water
4 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
8-11 cups flour
5 tablespoons oil

Combine yeast with warm water and 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and let it stand until the yeast bubbles.
Combine the sugar, salt and a few cups of flour.
Add the oil to the yeast mixture, then combine with the flour mixture.
Add enough remaining flour to make a smooth, soft dough.
Knead for about 10 minutes, then put it in a bowl covered with a dish towel to rise for a couple of hours.
Punch down the dough and form into four loaves.
Place in loaf pans, cover and let rise until the dough is at the top of the pan.
Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes.
Remove loaves from pans and cool.

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Categories: Food, Heaping Helpings, Life and Arts


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