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How People Who Suck at Cooking Are Surviving Quarantine

Desperate for sustenance, quarantiners who are unable to cook are relying on microwavable macaroni and Lean Cuisines

“I hate cooking,” exclaims Michael, 27. When California, his state of residence, enacted a stay-at-home order in response to the spreading coronavirus, he frantically stockpiled frozen dinners. “I usually get food at work on weekdays,” he explains. “We have a fully stocked kitchen, catering or a $15 work expense for lunches. On weekends, I have some basic stuff in my kitchen, like bananas, milk and cereal, but I mostly eat out. I get brunch and dinner with friends, so I hardly cook.”

Out-of-work and unable to access many of the restaurants that once kept his stomach full of food, Michael has adopted a more muted daily meal plan. “Yesterday, I had toast and a banana for breakfast, a frozen Trader Joe’s burrito for lunch, then a frozen Trader Joe’s lamb vindaloo for dinner,” he tells me. “I also usually snack on some nuts, fruit or chips throughout the day.”

Nevertheless, Michael seems generally content relying on microwaveable meals for the duration of his quarantine. But there are many others like him, who have zero cooking experience and are now completely reliant on prepared meals or delivery services for food. In stark contrast to those taking advantage of more time in the kitchen, pledging to improve upon their already-competent cooking skills while in quarantine, people like Michael, who normally rely on restaurants and convenient stores, have been forced to come up with entirely new means of securing sustenance.

“I bought a ton of rice in bulk, so I’m set for a month,” says Jacob, 23. “I also bought a ton of macaroni and cheese, but not too much, because then other people can’t get what they want.”

“Typically, I have macaroni and cheese for breakfast, then rice and ramen for lunch and dinner,” Jacob continues, adding that he hopes to mix things up by ordering pizza and Chinese food sparingly. When he exhausts his stockpile of macaroni, rice and ramen, he plans on “going out to buy stuff once a month.”

Logan, 31, meanwhile, has been relying almost entirely on delivery services, which he says have cost him an extra $300 nearly one week into quarantine. “Before, I’d usually eat something in the morning at my office or pick up something on the way,” he explains. “Every now and then, I’d go to Costco and get the Starbucks-style egg bites and heat those up beforehand. Then, at lunch, I’d leave the office, since it was a nice escape, and do a nearby restaurant. Then, I’d usually go to the gym and swing by a restaurant after.”

“Now, I’ve been forced to eat Lean Cuisines — I panic-bought eight — and order Postmates,” Logan continues. “I even signed up for their premium service, but I found that their service fees are too high and they’re always giving out coupons, anyway.” So far, he tells me that he’s only eaten two of his eight Lean Cuisines, as he prefers delivery — namely, ramen.

Logan has considered some other options, too, but he acknowledges that none seem very wise right now. “My parents live 45 minutes away, so there are still home-cooked meals within reach, but I don’t want to be near them and get them sick,” he says. “Also, I was driving to Jack in the Box and pulled up next to RuPaul at a stoplight, but I’m trying to avoid drive-thrus now.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Jackie, 28, has had help surviving quarantine thanks to no-contact food drop-offs from her parents. “My parents live in town, and they leave me ‘care packages’ on their stoop,” she explains. “Today’s contained pea soup, homemade bread, meat sauce for pasta and some disposable gloves. I then leave the Tupperwares from the last delivery and take the bag. Sometimes it happens at my stoop, but today, it was on theirs.”

Others are relying on more professional food-subscription services. One guy, 19, brags to me about how he has lived and continues to live on a steady stream of Soylent deliveries, which he says has saved him from his inability to cook now more than ever. Jonathan, 27, says, “I have a weekly subscription, where I get lunch and dinner Monday through Friday. They’re already prepared and just need to be heated up. Otherwise, on weekends, I’ve been going to the grocery store and getting prepared foods, like a wrap and some veggies, or I get these Norwegian flatbreads that are bomb.” He also relies on Ka’Chava protein shakes for breakfast every morning.

“The subscription company is local to Seattle, so the ingredients are really fresh,” Jonathan adds. “I’m definitely not surviving on macaroni and cheese.” (Poor, poor Jacob.)

But while Jonathan seems mostly pleased with his quarantine food situation, the impression from others is, well, mixed. “Quarantine kind of sucks,” Jacob says. “My food variety is limited. It’s very annoying, but I’m fine.” Logan, while not exactly pleased about his extra spending, counts himself lucky that he lives in a busy area of L.A., where food delivery services are assorted and enduring (as of now, at least). “Early on, people kept saying that all restaurants would be shut down, and I panicked,” he admits. “But so far, it’s been okay and they’re still open”

Michael, likewise, says not being able to rely on catering and restaurants is merely a slight annoyance, at least for the time being. “Luckily, I bought foods that I like,” he says. “They may not be the best quality or best prepared foods, but it’s still food that I enjoy, so it’s not the worst thing. The food at work — catering and kitchen food — isn’t much better than what I have now, so I mostly prefer to eat out. Even at work, I’ll choose to go out to lunch and charge it as a work expense, which I fortunately have the luxury of doing. I hate cooking and am a really bad cook, so I love eating out, because the food will most likely be better than anything I can make. I also just miss the option of going out anywhere and having so many options available, as I’m sure most people do.”

In an effort to lend a hand to the people I spoke with and anyone else stuck in quarantine without much cooking experience, I asked chef Leah Brady to share the simplest recipe she could come up with. She offered up this beef stew:

The Ingredients

  • 1 pound beef chuck, cut into small chunks
  • 1 small carrot, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 small potato, diced (leaving the skin on is fine)
  • 3 or more cloves of garlic, minced
  • Vegetable, chicken or beef stock (water works, too)
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil
  • Salt and pepper

The Recipe

Step #1: In a medium pot, heat oil. Season beef with salt and pepper. Place beef chunks into the pot and cook on medium-high heat until all sides are brown. Remove beef from the pot and keep in a bowl on the side.

Step #2: Add potatoes, carrots and celery to the pot, and cook for five to seven minutes, until slightly soft and until the onions have lost most of their color. Add garlic and cook for another one or two minutes.

Step #3: Add beef back into the pot with the vegetables. Turn the heat up to high, and add enough stock (or water) to just cover everything in the pot. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer.

Step #4: Let cook on low heat for about one hour, stirring frequently to prevent the bottom from burning. Once most of the liquid has reduced and the meat is tender, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Brady adds that you can, if you want to go above and beyond, serve the stew over rice or egg noodles. “It might seem a little daunting,” she adds, reassuringly.” But it’s super simple and easy.”

Beef stew or not, though, it sounds like as long as microwaves, delivery services and, of course, macaroni and cheese are accessible, even anti-cooks can eat. Nevertheless, most of them will be glad when this is all over and they can return to their favorite restaurants and convenience stores. Michael, in fact, tells me that his nearby Chinese noodle joint will be his first stop when he can go out to eat again. “They’re the best noodles I’ve ever had,” he says. “I crave them every day.”