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The Kings of Meal Prep — Working Moms — on How to Grocery Shop During Quarantine

From batching out proteins to saving on spices, these mothers have been meal prepping since before it was a thing

In COVID times, you’ve got to make your grocery store trip count, as we venture to our foodmarts on a highly stringent schedule. I am not a cook, or even much of an aspiring cook, so there have been many times where I’ve returned from one of those nervy quarantine market runs with a bounty of ingredients that don’t add up to much of anything. Sausages, tuna, balsamic vinegar, red wine, peanut butter, turmeric, leeks, Frosted Flakes — nearly $100 worth of stuff I love dearly — unloaded into the fridge with no rhyme or reason. 

A few days later, I’m already out of dinner possibilities. 

How did this happen? Why am I the most inefficient grocery shopper of all time? How am I supposed to live when I’m not able to leave the house at peak hours for the red peppers I forgot? 

Clearly, I’m in need of advice from those who mastered self-isolation cooking long ago — mothers, particularly mothers who have mastered the art of meal-planning. 

This strategy might be familiar to you if you grew up in a household with a working mom who could only afford enough free time for a single trip to the supermarket. With just 45 minutes in the aisles, those moms could feed us breakfast, lunch and dinner for an entire school week with resources to spare. 

A lot goes into good, maternal meal-planning: a well-honed sense of frugality; an understanding of the sort of hardy foodstuffs that can be used and reused over the course of multiple days; and the modesty to stay in your own lane and not blast off into brash culinary discretions that are both high-cost and low-yield. 

This kind of thinking is foreign to me, an urban professional whose dinner strategy usually involves wandering into my local bodega at 5:45 p.m. daily, but it is the sort of thinking we all must engage in now that modern hunter-gathering instincts are a public health hazard. As one mom put it to me, quarantine has forced her to shop exactly as she did decades ago, when her kids were growing up and she needed to limit the amount of time she spent in the grocery store as much as possible.

To that end, it’s time for me to put a stop to all of my vamping and get to the incredibly helpful advice numerous working moms provided me on how to grocery shop like a pro.

Buy Your Ingredients for More Than One Meal

A tip that’s downright universal among moms: Buy proteins that can be rehashed for at least one extra meal. Because while it might be fun to splurge on, like, a narrow coil of artisanal pork loin, that’s not the most economical way to shop. Instead, think two days in advance. Here’s Sue Levinson, a mother who balanced raising her kids as a single parent with her own insurance business, describing her strategy: 

“I would try to cook things that I could use twice, but I would change them the second time. Let’s say I’m doing roast chicken. The second night, we’d have chicken tacos. Or I’d make spaghetti sauce with pasta, and the next day use it for a chicken cutlet parmesan. I tried to keep everything in the same family.”

What you want to avoid, explains Levinson, is to come home with five different cuts of meat, with no idea how to put them together in a smart way. Not only is that expensive, you might find yourself needing to make a supplementary grocery run, after realizing that your pantry needs cilantro for the chorizo that somehow made it into your cart. (Why has chorizo made it into your cart? Who do you think you are?) We don’t have that luxury in quarantine, so shop smarter, not harder. 

You Aren’t an Expert Chef, So Stop Buying Like One

Some people can open their fridge, absorb the mishmash of miscellaneous items inside, and combine them into a gorgeous meal drawing off their expert palette and adept knowledge of kitchen apparatuses. We tend to call these people “professional chefs.” In all likelihood, you are not one. But neither was Levinson, or millions of other working moms across the country. Still, they were able to consistently deliver good food on the table. Their secret? Recipes. They humbled themselves to rely on cookbooks.

“I’m not the kind of cook who can go into a store and say, ‘Oh, that looks good, I’m going to try that.’ I’d shop with specific recipes in mind,” Levinson tells me. “I’d sit down, look at recipes and think about what I want to cook, and I’d specifically buy ingredients based on those recipes.”

This can come with a millennial spin if you want. Stock up on four Alison Roman recipes and go to town at the grocery store! Just don’t be duped by the New York Times‘ flavor-profile hegemony. Go ahead and swap in mayo for the aioli. Nobody is looking.

Try to Buy Certain Ingredients Every Week

Look, even if the idea of pulling out recipes and building a meal plan around that is overwhelming, there are still ways to cheat the process. In fact, mothers recommend buying some ingredients on every trip to the market, which can fully ensure that the shopping process is as brainless as possible. Levinson always had fruits and vegetables on hand, as well as chicken, pasta and canned pasta sauce. “I’d also have one fish per week,” she adds.

Sarah Jennings, a mother who worked at the Parks & Recreation Department in the state of Vermont, echoes some of Levinson’s recommendations, while adding that weenies, beans and mac and cheese can be an excellent stopgap when money is short and you don’t feel like recipe hunting. She also says that you should have olive oil on hand at all times, for the usual utilitarian reasons.

“Olive oil is a safe bet because you can use it in everything. You can make a salad dressing out of it, you can marinade with it, you can throw it over a sheet pan,” she tells me. “Olive oil, plain white flour and sugar, and you’re good.”

Don’t Be Overwhelmed by the Spice Aisle

“What the fuck are ground cloves?” That sentence has been uttered countless times over the past two months, as cooking-averse people confront the enormity of seasoning requirements in the average Epicurious recipe. But as our grocery schedule contracts, so should your spice drawer inventory. Jennings says she relied on the catch-all blends with a country’s name on the labeling — stuff like, “Italian Seasoning.” “You could go buy oregano and a bunch of stuff like that, but the blends are cheap,” she advises. “Especially if you have a tiny apartment, and you want to conserve space.”

Leave the army of teaspoon dashes for a fatter, more bountiful time. For now, rely on a stout plastic shaker of taco seasoning to bear the load.

When All Else Fails, Use Technology to Your Advantage

Emily Siegel, a working mom to two boys in Dallas, tells me that she takes meal-planning to an unprecedented level. After searching in vain for a comprehensive, year-round culinary schedule, she decided to create her own. 

“I started by brainstorming our favorite meals and then I bucketed them into three categories: 1) meals that can be thrown in the oven; 2) meals that can be thrown together; and 3) meals that can be thrown in the crockpot. Once I grouped them, that’s when I started mixing and matching them to create not just one week of meals, but six weeks of meals,” she tells me. “I then created corresponding grocery lists for each week so I didn’t have to recreate the wheel week after week. Now each Saturday, all I do is pull out the plan for each week with its list, and I assign meals to each day based on what we have going on that week. Then I’m set.”

Siegel describes this invention as a meal-planning “hack.” Now that her shopping lists are on an algorithmic rotation, she “literally” never has to think about what’s for dinner. 

So many of us are working from home right now, and Excel is collecting dust. Why not leverage your corporate instincts into a meal plan?

After all, it’s what mom would want.