How to use the Grocery Store During a Pandemic

Early on in the C19 panic-buying days, which was only about 2ish weeks ago, people were doing some super-crazy things, like buying out entire stores supplies of toilet paper and meat.  It was awful and greedy, and impacted a lot of limited-income people.

I’m an advocate of keeping a full pantry, fridge and freezer, but I want to differentiate between what is a ‘good’ stockpile and a ‘bad’ stockpile.

Here’s some helpful hints on how not to be a jackass at the grocery store.

Good: Buy extra so you don’t have to go out more than once every few weeks.
Bad: Strip the store of things you don’t even need and more than you can eat, or with the intention of reselling at crazy prices.   Feeding off people’s fear isn’t good business, it’s icky.

Good: Buying things you like to eat so that you can eat them over the next couple weeks
Bad: Buying things that are WIC eligible when you can buy another brand (they literally cannot) and stockpile shopping in the first couple days of the month when SNAP benefit recipients, who likely never have enough food anyway, are in dire need of resupply.  Sure, go to the store if you need a few things, but save your big shops for later.

Good: Thanking the people who are going to work every day so you can eat.
Bad: Voting against policies that would give them increased job security, benefits, and living wages.

Good: Buying what you need.
Bad: Grabbing the last thing on the shelf because it’s there, even if you don’t need it.

See?  Not complicated.

 

Home Bound

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

 

As I write this, 664,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19.  Over 30,000 have died.  When in a matter of days it was reported that an otherwise healthy 17 year old and an infant died, my calm shattered and ice water ran through my veins.  We are still on the uphill slope of this, the curve that everyone is now trying to flatten is a mountain, and we are less than halfway up the side.  2 of the 4 of us have compromised immune systems.  The only thing we can do is hold the line, stay home, sterilize everything, and hope for the best.

As I drove my children to their Dad’s house for a couple days, I passed a church that summarized, even for those of us that aren’t particularly religious, the correct direction:

No Services
Keep Praying

And so I am, for all of us.

We are safe and sound here, as much as we can be.  I just stocked us up again on groceries, and our meat deliveries continue.  Eggs are an abundance that we can share by leaving cartons on the front porch for friends and neighbors.  To our monthly meat deliveries I’ve added Misfits Market, until the garden and CSA start producing.  I’ve learned the local cheese shop delivers as well, so if we find ourselves in need of cheese, we have options.  I know that what we are experiencing is positive luxury, and my gratitude is boundless.   I also know we’re helping keep some local businesses in play, and for that I’m happy as well.

Knowing that our intentional isolation is the only way, and that still there is risk to us focuses me in on what matters.   I am content to just be home.   I plant, I work in the yard, clean the house, and cook.  Oh, and Eli and I juggle work – which is impossibly busy for me and very much the same for him, plus homeschooling kids.  There’s no relaxing or boredom here, no need to think up things that will fill our time.  We take it day by day, trying to balance all the things, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.

There’s a lesson in all of this – there is only now, and we have to take advantage of it, live our lives.  Nothing is written.

The other night a surprise snowstorm blew in, and Eli and I went for a long walk in it, coming home soaked and chilled to the bone, but pleased to have had the outside world to ourselves. We try to walk as much as possible these days, needing the fresh air.  My son has even taken to occasionally disappearing to the play set in the backyard, sometimes accompanied by his iPad, just to be outside.  And probably away from us, as there’s a lot of togetherness happening.  Still, the kids are happy about my prolonged grounding at home.

Spring came back right after our snowstorm, with a few daffodils showing up in the yard, and the lilacs turning green with buds, and the snow melting by morning.    Yesterday we started clearing out the trench bed.  Asparagus Season is only a few weeks away, and the yard needs a great deal of work.  We haven’t figured out where the bricks to finish the garden beds are going to come from if we can’t go buy them – there are old, crumbling bricks in back of the garage that we can use as placeholders at least.  We would like to paint a bedroom, but that, too, requires a trip to the store no one should risk.  We definitely need a lawn mower, rather than a service this year.  At some point we may have to manage that, but not quite yet.

So we putter with what we have, like so many generations before us, only with infinitely more resources.  And we rest.  This morning, I watched the rain.  I woke up early and started some seeds, when it was dark enough that I still needed a lamp to see by.  I read, and I wrote.  I sat, at peace with where we are right now.  My children were asleep upstairs, so too my husband.  The world begins to green around me.  Thus far, we are only touched by isolation, not illness.

And I cook.  We still have some onions, butternut squash, and potatoes from our Thanksgiving stock up, but these need to be used quickly now.   The onions will go into some French Onion Soup this week.  We have 2 small pumpkins hanging on as well, ready to turn into Pumpkin, Sage and Fontina Lasagna.  Eli’s birthday is coming up, so we’ll need to celebrate that as well.

For tonight, it’s simple.  Stuffed Spaghetti Squash – simple and delicious.  Serves 2, just double the recipe for more.
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Here’s how to make it:
1 medium spaghetti squash, halved and seeded
Small container of pesto
2 oz goat cheese
1 lb ground turkey or lamb
2 small onions, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan, to top

Preheat oven to 400
Oil a baking sheet and put the halved squash face down on the sheet
Bake until tender, about 40 minutes

While the squash is baking, saute the ground turkey, onion and garlic in a pan until turkey is cooked through and onions are soft.  Add salt and pepper and set aside.

Remove the squash from the oven and flip until they are rind-side down, let cool slightly

Mix the cooled turkey mixture with the goat cheese and pesto until well combined.  Load up the squash ‘boats’ with the mixture, and top with Parmesan, Asiago or another grated hard cheese.

Return to the 400 degree oven for 15 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted.  Serve immediately.

 

 

Passing Through The Shadows

 

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You can only come to the morning through the shadows – J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s hard to know what the right words are for what we, as a human race, are experiencing right now.  COVID-19 is exploding, we are, by and large, socially isolating, and the future, always both sort of fuzzy and somewhat predictable, all of a sudden isn’t predictable at all.

Even though we have plenty of food, warmth, light, running water and employment, and most of all each other, which are the greatest gifts imaginable, fear creeps in.  Like for the rest of us, seeing or hugging my family and friends could result in a death sentence for one or more of us.  We have no guarantee of supply chains remaining intact.  No one yet knows when or if immunity testing, vaccines or treatments and diagnosis is going to improve.  There’s a lot to worry about right now.   I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t worry a lot for us and others.  As I write this, we are about at 300,000 diagnoses, and almost 13,000 deaths from C19.  I know we are just at the beginning, with the numbers continuing to escalate.

That said, I’ve tried to hang onto the things I can control and celebrate whatever gifts are out there.  Our world has contracted to 5 people in the course of the last week and a half.  Eli, I, the kids and their Dad, with the adults working their tails off to make sure that we partner, make transitions between houses simple, and communicate openly and honestly with the kids as much as we can.

And yet, I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t seeing the gifts in the situation.  We’re all home a lot more.  I’m getting more sleep, no longer waking up at 3 am to catch planes (sometimes waking up at 3 am to worry though).  Yesterday, the 5 of us took a long walk through a local state park, and then Eli and I worked in the yard for a while – it’s spring cleanup season, and that waits for no one.  We have family time, time to cook at home.  We have an abundance of love and affection for one another.  We are able to keep friends and family supplied with fresh eggs.  We are able to be generous to those around us.  We are adding love and kindness to the world, a world that desperately needs it.

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And spring is coming, something that I have endless gratitude for.  My seedlings are coming up, and more are getting planted every week.  The yard is starting to green, and our Forsythia is beginning to show it’s colors.  Here and there, crocuses and daffodils are peeking out.  Yesterday, the sky was impossibly blue.  We ran and laughed and watched the chickens peck in the yard.  Today, it’s about setting up my permanent work space, as having all of us home all day has meant some restructuring of spaces.

Soon I’ll be posting about things we are doing, and that you, too can do to pass the time, and keep occupied.  Recipes, crafts, and projects.  My eternally creative husband created a schedule for families cooped up at home.  For today though, I am focused almost entirely on the blessings around me. Sunshine, family, flowers.

This too shall pass.  None of us will ever be the same, and I think the world around us will change significantly as well.  But we will emerge from the shadows of COVID-19 into a new morning.  Almost certainly dented and dinged, and for many of us, grieving.  But we humans have a great capacity to keep on keeping on, and that’s the thing we must hold to now.  “If you are going through hell, keep going”, said Winston Churchill.

So keep going.  And may this shadow pass quickly for all of you.

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The Bright Side

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When I published my How to Manage A Grocery Stockpile blog post a couple weeks ago on Facebook, I got no small amount of ridicule in addition to the overall good reception.  As I tend to run to the mild case of worrywart, this honestly didn’t bother me, but a lot of people sort of thought I was overreacting just a wee bit.

Since then, Covid-19 fear, along with an exploding number of cases, has taken hold.  I’m grounded for the foreseeable future from travel.  School here is cancelled for at least 2 weeks, and I suspect longer.   A few nights ago my son and I went to the store just to finish our stocking up, and had what is likely an all-too-familiar experience now – the store was jammed, and shelves nearly bare.  Still, between that and another trip I made alone the next day, we got everything we needed, and some to give away to those who need more.  We even got a few pots of flowers to brighten the house.  While these weren’t essential, I’m so glad we did.

We are stocked to the gills. We weren’t binge-buying toilet paper, that we get through Amazon and have a case in the basement already, so there was no need to clean out shelves.  But we have cold and flu supplies and lots of food (plus wine and coffee!) and now there is nothing to be done but be home.   For us, the good news is that going for walks in our rural area, or me going for runs are solitary things that don’t require contact with others, so exercise, at least for now, is still a good option.  I can work from home.  Having extra time at home, as much as I like being with my team, is going to be a wonderful thing.  I plan to putter in the garden, clean out closets, declutter and organize.

I’ve been potting seeds steadily, for ourselves, and will start potting some for friends and loved ones.  Today I spent an hour or so working on cleaning out leaves and debris from the front garden – I need to spend most of next weekend and probably the following doing more.  While the weather, much like our economy and the future, feels a little unsteady right now, the garden binds me to the earth, holding me firm even when the world around me feels as though it may crack.

But this is the lesson of gardens, and of spring – whatever is going on outside of Sithean, the gardens must be cleaned out and prepared.  The seeds must be started.  The chickens tended, the eggs gathered.  The children too, need tending.

Our time at home, despite the unsettled feeling that comes from the unknown, is a gift.  Time will move more slowly.  We will need less, do less.  There will be fears for all of us, be they health, income or the overall economy.  We can only control so much right now.  Despite the feeling of precariousness in the world, I am grounded.

I wish the same for you and yours.

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Seeds 101

If you want to plan your garden really, really well, you should do exactly as I do, which is to say that the minute the seed catalogs arrive in December you should proceed to buy every seed package that catches your eye, regardless of how you’ll fit it in your garden space or manage it.

Or maybe not.  Ahem.

A lot of people find seed starting to be a little intimidating, but I promise it’s very simple.  You don’t need expensive equipment, heat lamps (they help, but not necessary) or lots of things like peat pots.   As a matter of fact, I have the most success when I go low tech.  If this is your first go, start slow.  You can iterate each year as you learn more about what grows well, what you eat, and what windows work best.  Some people go fancy, but I’ve learned over the years that this is what works here.

So grab a few seed packets of things you like to eat, and give it a try.

You will need:

  • Potting soil
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Plastic wrap
  • Tinfoil loaf pans
  • A Sharpie marker
  • Sunny window
  • Surface
  • Water

That’s it.

I’m less good at figuring out how much of anything we’ll eat, but I’m getting better.  So, I plant too much, but that’s ok.  As my older sister says, they are plants, not friends.

You start, as with all things, with what you like to eat.   Also, unlike me, if this is your first time around, maybe not too much.  A couple kinds of tomatoes.  A few cucumbers.  Some lettuce, which is mostly spring and fall planting, but you can also keep some growing in a sunny window all winter. You make it manageable.

Spending about $40 on the supply list above, maybe a little less, will get you a garden that gives you approximately a salad a week.  Want more?  Plant more.  Not sure what you like?  Try new varieties.   If you have some really hot areas, plant some things like basil, that will give you a supply of homemade pesto.  Basil loves heat.  Herbs, which can be expensive at the grocery store, are super cheap and often easy to grow, even in pots on a balcony or windowsill.

So decide what you want to try.  And then you start to plant.

First, label the containers.  Know what you planted and the date you planted it.  This will help you keep track of what the things are and when you can expect to eat them.  For the tinfoil planters, write directly on the side.  If you have other types, use the popsicle sticks – on one side, the variety, on the other, the date.  At the top, of course.

Then, fill the containers about 2/3 of the way to the top with potting soil.  Add seeds, and then cover with more soil.

Add water to soak, cover with plastic wrap and set in the sun.

When the seedlings start to come up, remove the plastic wrap and keep them well watered.

I try to start about 6-10 things every week until planting season and then I try to pick something every week until November.  This works imprecisely for sure, but it’s the goal.

When the seedlings start to get big, move them to separate pots.  Prop tomatoes with those popsicle sticks and some twist ties if they start to droop.

Before you plant, you must harden off after danger of frost is past.  This means for a week or two you bring them out, and then bring them in for increasingly long periods.  It gets them used to the vagaries of outdoor temperatures.  First for a couple hours, and then lengthen until they have moved permanently outside.

And then you plant.

It’s a little work, and by the end of the hardening period I’m mostly cranky about the endless in and out effort, but really, it’s not much work at all.  And when you are eating your own zucchini or onions or tomatoes, there’s a pleasure in knowing that you started them from scratch.

It’s also it’s own kind of magic.  The seeds go down in the soil.  The plant comes up, and eventually becomes food, with water and sunlight. It’s the magic of the every day.

Which is the best kind of magic there is.  Happy Eating!

 

 

 

 

How To Manage A Grocery Stockpile

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So I’ve been reluctant to write this one, mostly because I don’t like the idea that I might be seen as a doomsday prepper.  And because local food is important to me, but I am still working on moving the needle even further to the home front, so I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But then there’s the Covid-19 virus, that is disrupting lives and the economies in 50 countries.  While it’s a flu, sure, it’s also spreading rapidly, and we don’t know how it’s going to evolve.  So I took a page out of Scientific American’s playbook and did some large-scale shopping.

A few caveats here before I proceed.  We almost always have our pantry and freezer full.  Why?  For a few reasons:

  • It’s an emergency fund you can eat.  If something goes badly in your financial life, it’s protection while you triage funds and make plans.  It’s come in handy for me more than once
  • It’s another kind of protection too, the kind that lets you know that what’s for dinner is possibly only limited by your imagination and saves on takeout
  • I travel, and Eli needs to feed the kids and himself while I’m gone, so we need a solid supply of food

I admit a filled pantry gives me a sense of safety.  I grew up in the ‘we don’t have a lot of extra’ crowd, and I spent a good deal of my early life burning the candle at both ends to make ends meet and keep a roof over my head.  Add to that having experienced both divorce and job loss, and I have a good bit of experience with the benefits of a full larder.

I don’t do it perfectly, and we forget about stuff with reasonable regularity (chickens are great helpers with that) but in a time where being prepared is probably a good step to performing your civic duty, here’s how we do it on the regular, and what we’ve done to be ready for the potential that we’re all stuck at home for a bit, sick or no.

The first thing is not to run out and buy a bunch of freeze-dried prepper food.  Unless you really like backwoods camping, and you go through it, while some of that stuff is tasty, you don’t have to switch up your eating patterns, and as a matter of fact, you really shouldn’t – it may seem like a good idea to buy lots of shelf-stable stuff, but the idea of food is that you eat it, and so you should focus on the things you eat regularly.

I admit, that when I’ve stocked up and the house resembles nothing so much as a grocery warehouse suited to feeding a small army, I tend to feel a little chagrin about just how much overkill it is.  But after a long day at work, being able to make almost anything we want for dinner with minimal effort is a pleasure.  We’re all really busy, not having to run to the store for things here and there all that often is nice.  But that too, requires management.

So first, getting the stockpile.  The best way to do it is to buy extra when things are on sale – if pasta goes to $0.79 a box, I buy a bunch, for example, and about every 3 months I hit a big-box store for things we consume in volume, like beans, butter, tortillas, shredded cheese, and so on.  If you intend to stockpile for the Coronavirus, I would just recommend doing your usual shopping, but more so.  If you normally buy 3 boxes of pasta every couple weeks, buy 6.   Have enough for 14 days of isolation, and then a little.  Importantly, buy the things you like to eat.

Second, make a meal plan.  Get ingredients for your favorite meals, and get extras – you can always make food and put it in your freezer.   I’d recommend 2-3 weeks worth of planned meals and the ingredients, that’s 15 breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  The reality is that 15 days of planned meals typically lasts longer because you are eating up leftovers and sometimes no one is hungry around meal time, or a bowl of cereal sounds like just the thing.  I tend to think a 3-week meal plan will keep us for a month, but your mileage will vary based on how well you measure your intake.

Third, get flexible.  If you always buy fresh, consider frozen or canned in the mixture.  I personally don’t like veggies I haven’t preserved myself, unless they are things like baby corn or bamboo shoots, but I have a can of peas in my pantry for either a curry or just because the kids like them.  While canned peas aren’t the finest in nutritional value, whatever gets you through a few weeks of potentially no school seems like it’s worth it.

Fourth, get snacks and treats.  Unless you are a no-snack person or have no kids, trust me, after about a week trying to juggle working from home with kids who are bored out of their skulls because they have no routine and no friends can come to play….you are going to think that a few ice cream sandwiches and homemade cookies are the least of your worries.  I find it’s worth it to have the raw ingredients because a couple hours in the kitchen here and there with the kids is a lifesaver – it’s helping them to learn to cook or bake their favorite treats, it keeps them occupied, and once you invest in the basics, homemade is cheaper.

Fifth, as much as you can stock up on fresh foods, there’s only so much that you and your family will be able to eat before it goes bad.  There will be a point where salads and sliced fruit gives way to the frozen stuff.  It’s not ideal, but you will live, I promise.

Sixth, and in the Covid-19 case specifically – have the conversation with your household about the stocking up.  Why, what you are buying and aren’t, what happens when the strawberries run out, etc.  My daughter told me we could be isolated for weeks as long as we didn’t run out of Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken.  This I can make happen.  Find out what counts.  In my household, we adults fear running out of coffee almost as much as illness (I’m kidding – sort of).   So coffee is a key part of our stockpile, and I think we will end up with about 6 pounds of it in the house when our next Amazon delivery arrives.  6 pounds won’t last forever, but it should take us through a few weeks.

For a situation like this, I recommend setting a budget limit for yourself.  Otherwise it can rapidly get out of hand.  Trying to prepare for every single situation is fruitless.   I also recommend that at least once a year you go through your stockpile and inventory it – even mentally – clean out and organize.  I wipe down shelves, put like items back together, and take any stale crackers out to the chickens for a treat.

What do you buy?  Again – you know what you like to eat best.  But if your brain is shutting down at the idea of what a potential stockpile looks like, here’s some tips:

  • Shelf-stable milk or milk alternatives, such as Soy, Almond, etc.
  • Canned or frozen veggies, the ones you like
  • Coffee, wine, beer, juice – the things your family likes to drink
  • Condiments
  • Snack food – we have some chips, but also popcorn kernels, chocolate chips for cookies and raw ingredients for several desserts
  • Cooking oils, such as olive oil, butter, ghee, etc
  • Easy to access foods and prepared foods.  If you all get sick, no one is going to want to cook
  • Raw ingredients for at least 2-3 of your household’s favorite meals

Lastly, as you stockpile, remember those that live at the margins.  If you have enough to be generous, remember there are those who cannot afford to stock up, and reach out to your local food pantry or Meals on Wheels – for those who are housebound and have little, an extra bag of groceries is a lifeline.  And if nothing happens and you find yourself with a surfeit of food, donate then.

And remember when you get home from your stockpile trip(s) to wash your hands.  I hope all of this is overkill, but if it isn’t, know that your efforts are going to help keep you and yours safe.

 

Preparing for Spring

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February has settled in, and in the last few days brought with it breathtakingly cold weather.  When I got up this morning, the thermometer hung at 5 degrees F.  The bunnies took up residence last night in a rectangular bin in the dining room, because we had officially landed in rabbit hypothermia weather, and being responsible for our pets becoming rabbit popsicles is not part of my life plan at the moment.

Cold of this depth brings stillness.  No one other than the birds are out right now.  Keeping the feeders full is something that is going to have to wait another hour, but feeding the birds is part of our winter responsibilities too.  Plus it is wonderful to watch birds I hadn’t seen since my grandmother’s time, like goldfinches and bluebirds, make an appearance.  But the lack of humans and cars, and ambient noise of anything other than Mother Nature’s creatures is such a gift.  Even where we are, in a sleepy town on a quiet road, this kind of silence is rare.

Lately I’ve been so deep in family life and work I haven’t stopped to take a look around much, but this morning, as I look out the picture window I remember what a magical place I’ve come to.  Just a house, to be sure, but not just a house either.  Sanctuary, for birds, wildlife, and us.  When we arrived here, I had no sense of how it would all work out, just that we belonged here, that I belonged here.  It was like holding my nose while I stepped off a cliff, with not much but faith in….myself?  The universe?, and the knowledge I could never uproot my kids again and so had to make it work to sustain me.

And oh boy we have made it work.  I haven’t achieved all the goals by a long shot – I still have no idea how we’ll pay off the house before Connor goes to college.  I’ve improved on our local food, but have by no means cut the cord from the grocery store. We definitely managed a significant amount more food preservation last summer than I had in previous years, but can we live on it?  Nope.   We’ve managed to build out plans for the much-needed renovation for this place over the last 18 months, but still haven’t figured out that one either.  Still, we plan to break ground next spring, gulp.  The house needs to be more airtight, we have to deal with water issues, and with 2 of us working at home, we need better spaces to handle it.  I also could use a closet bigger than a shoebox.

But we have done so much, and we’re not just making it work, we are thriving.

Which is why last night, as the 4 of us sat down to a roast chicken dinner, complemented by our locally-retrieved sweet potatoes, onions and potatoes to have a Mario Kart competition (the kids absolutely trounced the adults) I took a minute to reflect on where we are.   Like seeds with enough water and light, we took root here, first the kids and I, and then Eli.  And while some of it is just that humans have a great capacity to get on with things, some of it is that this place tended to us, as we do to it.

Despite the cold, spring is starting to show it’s imminent arrival.  Connor and I potted seeds for Sweet Peas, taking inspiration from My Country Life, as well as Hollyhocks and lettuce last week, and the first of the lettuce seeds are already poking up.  We’ll start more in a couple weeks, as our last frost date isn’t until the beginning of May here.  The chickens are still laying, but less these days.  Still, we have plenty of eggs for cooking and eating, and lots to give away as well.

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Lettuce Seeds

I have a lot of seeds this year.  My plans are to complete the garden with Eli, finally!  And to finish turning the front of the house into an herb garden.  The kids want garden space too, and I’ve gotten a lot of flower to put in the front of the house, an oft-neglected spot.  After weeks of relaxing weekends, I feel ready.  While there’s still a long stretch of soups and curries, and cozy nights in front of the fire ahead, and putting the winter running gear away is a long time off, I’m getting excited about planting and harvesting again.

Spring preparations start slow, but pick up speed as we move into March.  It may be a little ways off, but soon enough the windows will be open and the flowers blooming.