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Adjusting to Frequent Cooking at Home Under Coronavirus Quarantine

Woman busy talking over the phone and making her nails oblivious to the kitchen burning behind her.

We’re living in crisis times, but you also don’t have anywhere to go but home right now. So if you’re in my boat and still dependent on Grubhub but cash or the available restaurants are running out, here’s how you can adjust without risking a call to the fire department.

Podcast Version:

I’m losing long tracks of time in the quarantine. This uncanny new reality has set in for about a month, but there’s things a lot of us are still screwing up or just plain not getting used to. 

I’m a veteran of working at home, so that hasn’t been the wrench in the gears in terms of cranking out total maladjustment here. Like millions of people, I find it’s the social distancing part that sucks the hardest even if my outings were just me and my phone. What makes the joys of working without pants into torture is losing the ability to leave my apartment (neighborhood, if I can safely get a walk in for fresh air and exercise) for days on end.

I just had an ice cream bar at 11:30 in the morning. Because fuck it, there’s no rules now. Time has no meaning and pure entropy reigns. Society is crumbling like the Chambers Street subway station. All those doomsday preppers who’ve been filling bunkers since Bush was in office are smugly sneering at us from their silver ingot hoards and powdered cream cheese kegs right now. 

Plus, these “ruby cacao” ice cream bars were the last pack in the freezer aside from store brand ice pops that are mostly slurry and rendered corn syrup. No one wants those even in end times. As the rest of the snack just wound up on my two-day gym pants, I must state that ruby cacao is also overhyped. It looks pretty but doesn’t taste anything remotely like chocolate encasing ice cream should taste. Oh god, when was the last time I had human contact with someone beyond the mailman?! Anyway.

As much as it sucks being unable to just go places when I want– which is normally one of the perks of making your house your workstation and having a flexible, results-oriented work arrangement–nothing sucks harder than being incredibly sick and unable to get medical care at an overwhelmed hospital, or worse yet, dying from this, SO STAY INSIDE! Flatten the curve! The lockdowns aren’t a civil liberties violation, they’re a public health precaution!

On that note, one of the most painful losses for many single professionals, especially New Yorkers where it’s such a huge part of our culture, was the curtain call of dining out as we maintain self-isolation. For us work-at-home types, going out to eat isn’t just to slake hunger but often an escape and a way to bond with our communities. Not to mention an excuse to wear real clothes, or at least just leave the house for a sandwich and Wi-Fi if we can’t leave the athleisure behind before getting Matty Bevers-esque couch sores.

If you didn’t watch Broad City, Abbi asks him how it’s possible he’s been on her couch long enough to get a freaking COUCH SORE.

But it’s not just breaking out the pans and making sure the stove actually works that’s made the adjustment so agonizing. It’s that if you have no one to share the cost, labor, and results with, it really feels like that effort has been a bigger waste of time than browsing your average dating app. Families and even couples without kids go through groceries faster than those who fly solo, but they’re feeling the pain too as they’re forced to log into multiple Zoom meetings per day while maintaining a coronavirus homeschool for their traumatized, disaffected children WITH NO OUTSIDE HELP!

I occasionally made my own bread on a weekend or two and pretty much only had breakfast at home the past few months. It’s been rough adjusting to having to be my own house slave, and I swear to god the first thing I’m doing when this nightmare ends is going out for every single meal for at least two weeks straight. So if you’re in my boat and still dependent on Grubhub but cash or the available restaurants are running out, here’s how you can adjust without risking a call to the fire department.

Restaurants Are Still Open For Takeout and Delivery, But the Grocery Industry is Winning

Top view of takeout meals.

Food distribution is all screwed up right now because people are cooking at home more than ever before. For some people, this isn’t much of a change. For people who are on the road constantly, busy single professionals, and people who hate to cook? This is an irksome and unwanted change. 

Some people find cooking meditative, others find it agitating and distressing. I vacillate between the two, but am usually squarely in that second group.

Many restaurants are still delivering and offering takeout, even letting you get booze as takeout providing you order at least one food item, to the point #GreatAmericanTakeout was trending on Twitter. Restaurant industry groups started the hashtag in a bid to increase local restaurants’ revenues, which have been in freefall due to dine-in options being knee-capped to slow the virus’ spread. Landry Restaurant Group, best known for those chain restaurants near convention centers like Morton Steakhouse, started losing $1 million per day after the WHO declared a pandemic. Chains and franchisors with significant capital will bounce back from this easily. Independent restaurants, including franchisees, will bear the brunt of all this and are temporarily closing or even shuttering permanently.

So depending on where you live, and your food prep preferences, you can find that you have far fewer options than before. In my neck of The Bronx, I estimate about 25% of the restaurants I normally see when browsing delivery apps have stopped accepting deliveries. It’s hard to tell if they’re temporarily offline or sadly, have totally shut their doors. But I find that this whole cooking at home thing is exhausting as hell, so I keep my orders to once or twice a week for a good equilibrium since frozen dinners and prepared foods are hard to come by now at my local store and Instacart.

Finding a good equilibrium can be hard if every place is closed, though. If the store’s out of your favorites from the freezer section, keep the following bits in mind! (Also, TIP WELL if you order in. At least 25%. No excuses.)

You Don’t Have to Cook a Doomsday Amount if You Don’t Want To

Leftover food

A piece of “common knowledge” cooking advice I find incredibly tedious is to cook in bulk so you have leftovers. No Karen, I don’t want enough mac and cheese to last me through the Cold War. If you have an average or large family, those recipe proportions are perfect for you. Maybe you’ll even need to double them. But for single people and couples without kids, the yields are freaking ridiculous.

I always loved my compact fridge. It’s great for a traveling shitposter. Cut so much off my electric bill and made my tiny kitchen just slightly more walkable. (NYC kitchens are not for gourmands who want to constantly roll out dough, if you put a new plate in there with me it’d get crowded.) But it’s definitely not been the best thing to have in the middle of an apocalypse where buying 3-5 weeks worth of food at a time is the norm. Since it still mostly suits my needs though, I have no plans to upgrade to a larger fridge at this time because I don’t even know how the original owner of this place managed to get a full-size fridge in here.

But it COULD be the time to invest in a chest freezer, if you’ve been pondering this purchase and have both the space and wiggle room in your budget for those higher electric bills. Magically getting room for a chest freezer somewhere in here is the only way cooking in bulk could possibly be tenable for me, and if a small one exists, this might be the impetus to put it in the corner of my living room like an icebox.

So maybe the lede was buried on this one. But most of all, you don’t HAVE TO cook in bulk if you don’t want to.

Now is a good time to experiment. In our old lives, cooking at home had higher stakes because slaving over a stove after getting groceries meant sacrificing something else: a workout, coffee or dinner with a friend or date, paid work, or just some time to relax. Parents are seeing the value of teachers and babysitters more than ever now: the cooking-averse are seeing the important role of food service and delivery workers if they didn’t already. Pre-pandemic, wasting some ingredients meant you went hungry while needing to get your work done, and leftovers were likely to go in the garbage if you suddenly cooked a bunch of things and had other places to be the next day. (That’s partly why cooking in bulk never worked for me.)

Figure out what kind of dishes you like and proportions that work for you. I have severe executive dysfunction, which often causes me to procrastinate on household management things, and hate the prospect of eating the same thing for more than two days in a row. I try to only cook for 1-2 meals and anything beyond that gets frozen, tossed if it didn’t come out good.

Don’t let other people guilt or shame you about this. Are their asses getting in your kitchen to help you? Nope. Cook in bulk if you like to. But you don’t have to wind up with a catering pack dish of lasagna if you don’t want to. It’s okay to make just a little. As a treat.

Think Carefully About What Size Containers, and Other Food Storage Solutions, You Should Have on Hand

Stacked storage of raw veggies in plastic containers.

This is one of those things that totally sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Having the right amount of reusable containers on hand can be tricky depending on how much storage space you have, if you have a dishwasher or not, the kind of food and other items you tend to keep at home, and so on.

I have a slew of random, assorted Sistema containers I picked up at my local Marshall’s over the years. I like them because they’re so airtight, literally nothing else gets in. Incredibly durable plastic too, unless they fall out of the freezer. I’ve had to throw out numerous containers that cracked like glass when they froze, so if you plan on freezing with them instead of using plastic bags or reusable sandwich bags, make sure you get something MEANT to be tossed in the freezer!

But let’s be real: some things are better off thrown into a zipper or sandwich bag, tossed in the freezer, and you go on with your life. Unless you have a chest freezer or one of those Subzero beasts, you don’t have as much storage space as the main fridge component. And if you’re in compact city like me, welcome to the pity party.

The problem with having to cook and freeze more is you’re also eventually going to run out of food storage bags, so buy those puppies in bulk. Don’t panic buy them. But buy what you think is realistic for your household’s needs to minimize having to keep ordering or making trips to the store. If you have a set or two of reusable sandwich bags, even if they’re freezer-safe, try to conserve them for refrigerated or shelf-stable items so they don’t get trapped in the Arctic morass of forgotten, calcified pasta and vegetable bakes and half-eaten ice cream containers doused in a layer of permafrost.

Whatever You’re Making Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect

Sample of a hospital cafeteria food.

I say this as someone who has been stuck spending too much time on Twitter for my own good: social media is a Pandora’s box, in that there are hope and good things at the bottom but the point is it can get incredibly toxic real quick.

When it comes to image-heavy social media like Instagram and Pinterest in particular, there is so much pressure to beautifully stage photos. On Twitter, you might get a few likes from the people you know, have a gram-worthy image that goes viral, or wind up being ridiculed because your food doesn’t meet the arbitrarily perfect standards set by irony-poisoned shitposters.

Even if you don’t use social media at all, that pressure is still there. Home and garden and cooking magazines, and TV shows, set the stage in the past while today it’s the influencer class that can make us feel bad if what we made doesn’t come out very pretty.

So I’m here to tell you from the other side of the shitpost: it’s okay your dish isn’t pretty.

It doesn’t need to be on this Crate and Barrel tablecloth. Your Target dishes are just fine. Need to mitigate contagion risk in your home, or you’re disabled if not just plain tired, and use paper plates? Go for it!

We’re living in crisis times, but you also don’t have anywhere to go but home right now. So long as whatever you made tastes good, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t need to be aesthetically pleasing for a Food and Wine shoot. Hell, post a picture on Twitter about how you love your ugly children and find ways to bond over food that deviate from the norm.

And if it still came out tasting like shoe leather because we can’t all be Emeril, see if you can get a discount on a bulk catering order from Panera. Hope you got a chest freezer!

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