Back-to-school shopping has begun. This year, it’s time to take stock of what we’ve learned during the pandemic so far.
As students and families try to prepare for online learning, safety-precaution-heavy classroom time and combinations of the two, it can seem trivial to be thinking about planning school lunches. But wherever students and parents happen to be at lunchtime, it’s still lunchtime, so it’s not too soon to start considering what to shop for and serve.
In the No-Cook Cooking universe, there’s another way to look at back-to-school deals, and that’s to take a positive, proactive approach to being ready for whatever the next challenge may be by gradually stocking your dream pantry.
A dream pantry helps you feel prepared, not panicky, whenever there’s a snowstorm, a stay-at-home mandate or simply the quaint-sounding pre-pandemic situation of unexpected dinner guests. What a dream pantry is stocked with, above anything else, are options.
If you’ve assembled a good supply of spices and spice blends over time, for example, you’ll be ready to season whatever meat happens to be in the grocery case that week. And if you have freezer bags on hand, you can divide a big package of meat into meal-sized portions and freeze it for the weeknights when you simply don’t feel like going to the store.
Let’s set some parameters here. If you put disinfecting sprays and antibacterial wipes on your dream pantry list, go ahead and delete them now; we’re talking “dream pantry,” not “fantasy pantry.” And it’s not stockpiling, either; a dream pantry isn’t built by blocking other shoppers’ access to necessities. What we’re talking about is maintaining a sensible supply of shelf-stable and frozen ingredients and the supporting players that’ll help you put them to the best use.
A dream pantry means you’re ready for all kinds of opportunities. Think of the staples you have run out of at different times during the past four or five pandemic months, and all the replacement hacks you’ve been proud of, and shop accordingly to keep them in stock at home.
On one hand, it’s the same advice your mom always gave: Look through the sale flyers in today’s paper, take a closer look at the coupons you saved from Sunday’s paper and check your favorite grocery store’s website for specials that your discount card can activate. On the other hand, it all feels new, because you have experienced empty shelves for the first time, and it’s unnerving. If you ran out of coffee for the first time ever during the past few months, you may have envied Mom’s ability to pull whatever she needed out of her freezer, and you’ve learned how comforting being prepared can be.
A dream pantry also gives you a chance to take control of something during stressful times in a positive way. Here’s your opportunity to cultivate a sense of “enough,” in which you feel confident knowing your family’s needs are met without being shackled by the expiration, regret and storage issues of “too much.” Don’t buy something you don’t like and your family won’t eat “just in case” because it’s on sale. You won’t save any money on food that doesn’t get eaten. Your dream pantry can be a secret weapon against waste and stress.
Be honest with yourself. If you know you will never soak dry beans overnight and simmer them all day in a slow cooker, don’t buy them, even if the price is right. That’s where panic buying takes root. Put items in your cart that you know you’ll use up by their expiration dates, even if there isn’t an emergency. This is your dream pantry, not someone else’s, so get real about your own likes and dislikes and your tolerance — or lack of same — for frontier cooking.
Here are a few ideas for making the most of back-to-school sales to move that dream pantry closer to reality:
» Maintain an evergreen list. Think of all the items that you never dreamed you’d run out of but did anyway when the pandemic snarled your shopping patterns. Pasta? Peanut butter? Freezer bags? Plastic containers for leftovers? Olive oil? Did you actually open that last can of beans? Make a separate evergreen shopping list on your phone of items that you could set aside now to use later. Establish a habit of checking your evergreen list after you’ve marked off everything on your main shopping list; if any of those items are plentiful, pick up a couple — especially if they’re on sale. A dream pantry blooms gradually.
» Pack a school lunch. Plan ahead for school lunches, even if school is happening at home. Making it fun can help cool down the chaos factor. If zippered sandwich bags are on sale, use them to make lunchbox-sized portions of crackers, dried fruits or carrots. That clearance-sale cookie cutter might help you make a crustless PB&J that’ll delight your preschooler.
» Open your cafeteria. Maybe you and your family prefer hot lunches. If your children miss their friends and the go-to school cafeteria items they shared, keep an eye out for back-to-school sales on their lunch favorites. An extra package of hot dogs, chicken nuggets or fish sticks in the freezer can help you turn around a frustrating day by serving a mood-lifting lunch out of the blue.
» Take your time. Set aside a few minutes for a proper lunch break, even if the kitchen table is your classroom. And if you are working from home, schedule lunch — and take it. Working from home finally broke me of a years-long habit of skipping lunch in hopes of getting just a few more tasks crossed off my list, and it actually helped me become more productive.
» After-school snacks still matter. If you’re studying or working from home, the lines between being on and off duty can blur. Schedule snacks that nourish with protein and vegetables. Is hummus on sale? Slice some celery sticks, apples or pita triangles to go with it. Planning a satisfying snack in advance may put the brakes on the endless grazing cycle.
Keeping your spring pandemic shopping experiences fresh in your mind, try to follow these two good-neighbor guidelines at the store:
» If the sign at the store says “Limit 2,” take only two. If you need only one, take one.
Hoarding does more than create what-was-I-thinking storage problems when you get home. It can mean that someone who doesn’t have the transportation, time or money to try another store misses out on something important.
» Try not to take the last one of something. If you don’t need it and you’re grabbing it out of empty-shelf anxiety, don’t feed the fear. Leave it on the shelf for someone else who actually does need it now.