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.

 

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