Non-Doomsday Prepping Part 4: Filling in the Gaps
Some years back, I started writing a cookbook because I realized a lot of my younger clients had no idea how to shop, store, and cook affordable food. A lot of families are living on takeout and spending fortunes on food, having to dine at restaurants or hit the grocery store deli every day, and eating incredibly unhealthy diets as a result. When they tried to eat healthy food, they failed because it was expensive and hard to prepare. In addition, it occurred to me that because they were living day by day, meal by meal, they were unprepared for any emergency (such as the coronavirus we’re looking at right now, job loss or family illness).
So I came up with this concept I called “non-doomsday prepping” – the notion of having a wide variety of shelf-stable food on hand so you can cook at home using ingredients that are on sale, while also being somewhat prepared for emergencies as they arise. Prepping doesn’t mean you’re crazy or weird, it’s actually a great way to save money over the course of time, and it doesn’t even have to take up lots of space.
I’ve divided my cookbook up into smaller essays and I’ll share them here for anyone who is interested.
Since we do have an actual non-doomsday prepping situation on our hands right now with the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve reshuffled my original cookbook layout to get all the grocery lists into your hands as quickly as I can. I do have recipes and meal suggestions forthcoming, but for right now I think the important thing now is for those of us with very little experience in stocking up and cooking from scratch to understand which of those myriad cans and jars and boxes lingering on the store shelf are really helpful and which of them are better left behind.
Remember — our goal is to have a wide variety of shelf-stable foods on hand, and that way regardless of what fresh food is affordable/available at the store any given shopping trip you can usually make something not only edible, but delicious out of it. No more running to the store every day after work for must-have ingredients for this recipe or that recipe. No more giving up and just ordering pizza (most of the time, anyway). And if NO fresh food is available — which may sadly end up being the case, if we have to hunker down for extended periods of time – you can survive on those pantry foods without going mad from food fatigue. (The Internet is a fantastic resource for many recipes involving off-the-beaten-path shelf-stable ingredients you may never have tried before, like golden mushroom soup, Fritos, or French fried onions)
Non-doomsday prepping is NOT about going out and buying massive amounts of dehydrated camping food you’ll probably never eat. It’s about embracing preparedness as a lifestyle, not only for emergencies, but also because planning ahead and stocking your pantry with things YOU WILL ACTUALLY USE when such items are on sale, is the best way to affordably provide your family with home cooked meals regardless of what happens to be on sale any given week. Thus, we will be focusing on actual foods that human beings really eat and not things like wheat berries, soy grits, and powdered eggs. (If you want those things, that’s fine, but I really do urge you not to waste money you don’t have on getting them – especially not putting them on a credit card. In all likelihood they will be sitting on your shelf 10 years from now and you’ll still be making interest payments on your credit card.)
As for these lists I’ve compiled, you do not need, and in fact, should NOT go out and try to buy all these things I mention here at once. It is fine if you don’t ever have all of them (in fact, I insist that you don’t!) It is fine if you don’t ever have but a fraction of them on hand at any given time. These food lists are not goals; they’re tools to be used as needed. Buy only what is on sale, when it is on sale, as none of them are must-buy. I never have even a majority of these things, but they’re things that I have found handy in making meals when cooking from my pantry. They will not be wasted over the course of time because they are not perishable and you can keep them for a while.
Many of these ingredients are NOT super important staple ingredients. The necessities were covered in Part 3 – Staples and Beyond. The food lists in this piece are (mostly) things you could live without but make life a little nicer to have around – and they will last for a while, so you can buy them on sale and save them till you need them. It may seem strange to include foods that are not the most basic of basics in a stocking up series, but we are trying to approach prepping as a lifestyle and not a last resort. A lifestyle has to be enjoyable and sustainable, or it quickly falls by the wayside. And as we’ve all learned to our chagrin these past weeks, everyone rushing out to the grocery store to stock up DURING an emergency is a surefire way to end up with empty store shelves and people who need the basics to end up with nothing. Plan ahead and have a variety of goods on hand and you can’t go wrong.
While non-doomsday prepping is certainly beneficial in case of emergency, the goal above all else is saving money and freeing people from the vicious cycle of subsisting on expensive and unhealthy carryout meals. That means if you have a hankering for Thai green curry or buffalo chicken or pasta puttanesca, you can make it easily without having to go to the store where you end up buying 20 other things, or being tempted to say “oh heck with it, let’s go out to eat”. Plus, most of these things you can easily get by with just keeping one on hand (possibly two if it’s something you know you use a lot and/or you hit a good sale). You don’t need to have 27 bottles of hot sauce “just in case”. Save that shelf-space for things you will likely be needing more frequently than once every few months.
And with coronavirus panic buying (or ANY panic buying, because this same situation could arise in any emergency) clearing the shelves of staples, who knows, you may end up with nothing but mostly-optional ingredients to choose from. If we end up social distancing for 18 months, and we very well may, it’s nice to know you can actually make something pretty tasty at home from cans and packages, even when it’s something you’re not accustomed to eating.
As always, if something looks like you wouldn’t like it, skip it. But do be open to trying something new, even if you don’t think it’s something you would like.
Oh and one more thing – you may be thinking “but I can make a lot of these things on my own!” and you are almost certainly correct. But I have found that many times (so many times) when I try to go this route, I spend as much or more on ingredients than I would have for the ready-made versions…and then I never actually make the homemade version. It’s happened more times than I care to recall, and has often has ended up with wasted food and money.
The perfect is the enemy of good, and the good is the enemy of the good-enough. We’re talking about being prepared for emergencies here – not only disastrous emergencies that affect the entire nation, but everyday emergencies like job loss and temporary emergencies like everyone having the flu. Whatever prevents you from getting groceries as often as you would like (even if that’s just lack of money,) that’s what we’re prepping for. In an emergency, you may be taking care of sick or injured people. You may be sick yourself. You may be hitting the pavement all day in search of a new job. You may be working a second or a third job. Or it very well may be that there is no pressing emergency, and you’re a person who maybe just doesn’t know very much about cooking, who is already working and taking care of small children too, and cannot afford to carry on eating at restaurants twenty times a month. Regardless of your circumstances, good enough is good enough!
The idea of making your own taco seasoning or french fried onions is fun for many of us (and if it’s fun for you, that is great! Please share your recipes in the comments section!) but for others – including the people who need this series the most – it’s a daunting notion and may end with them feeling so overwhelmed they give up and go buy a rotisserie chicken. We’re trying to balance a lot of different considerations with non-doomsday prepping, so in many arenas “more perfect” is definitely easy to envision, but for many people chasing perfect ends up with them facing defeat where they otherwise could have succeeded.
I’ve aimed at striking a balance between affordability, health, long-term storage, and do-ability for busy people, even in the case of emergency or an extremely jam-packed schedule. Non-doomsday prepping is not going to be the most perfect way to achieve any single one of those goals individually, but is hopefully a compromise between all of them for the best of all worlds.
10 basic beverages
Beverages are of course not necessities, but if you’re stuck at home for a long time due to job loss or some type of civil/medical emergency, having something good to drink now and then goes a long way towards battling food fatigue. Drinking nothing but tap water gets old fast.
Black tea, decaffeinated herbal teas (most people like chamomile and mint if you’re not sure what to buy), coffee, shelf-stable non-dairy creamer (it’s there in a pinch when you’re out of milk) hot cocoa mix (expensive but kids love it), lemon juice (such as RealLemon), KoolAid or some other Vitamin-C fortified powdered drink mix, powdered milk (this keeps indefinitely, and while you will probably never drink it, if you NEED to, it will be there), chocolate syrup or Qwik (seems like a splurge, but can make that powdered milk palatable), bottled water
Note about tea — If you like green tea and will drink it, by all means add this to your rotation. Personally, I don’t like it much and I don’t find it has the versatility of black tea, and it’s just another thing to keep track of and store so I haven’t included it here. Also, if you, like me, despise the flimsy boxes herb teas come in, just find a canister or a big empty pickle jar and dump all the tea bags into it. Don’t use up your precious cupboard space with a bunch of disintegrating cardboard boxes.
Note about coffee — Even if you’re not a coffee drinker, enough people do drink it that having a small can on hand typically won’t be wasted. Plus, in a true emergency you may need to stay awake and alert. You don’t need an expensive electric coffeemaker that takes up tons of counter space, either. We use a non-electric, inexpensive gizmo called a French Press, which uses boiling water to make great tasting coffee for way less than Starbucks charges, and can be stored in a cupboard when not in use.
Note about KoolAid, hot cocoa, chocolate syrup, Qwik – These things fall under the category of treats, to be sure, but they’re shelf-stable and relatively affordable. An occasional investment in instant beverages (buying only as they go on sale!) kept sealed and stored at the back of your cupboard, will be there in a pinch. The Vitamin C in KoolAid or similar products could feasibly help keep your needs for this nutrient met in a real emergency if fresh fruit was in short supply – the human body doesn’t store Vitamin C and you need to have some source of it at all times to prevent scurvy. Chocolate syrup is more perishable and expensive than the other products but can be used for other purposes as well, like a topping for desserts.
Note about bottled water — For the most part, this is not a necessity. Even in most everyday emergencies (like job loss or even the coronavirus we’re dealing with right now) the water will stay on. Packages of bottled water are also huge and quite heavy, making them hard to store. But in the case of some emergencies like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes where the water could be off for days or even longer, or situations where you may have to evacuate quickly like forest fires or tsunamis (as blissfully rare as these are for most of us) a few bottles of water could literally save your life. I also like having water bottles on hand to grab in the hottest days of summer if I have to take a trip in the car. After all, if you get thirsty, not having to stop at the convenience store – or more often going through the drive through – for a drink saves money, and also in case of vehicle breakdown. (Since I do this rarely the environmental impact is negligible; if you’re on the go more than I am, you may want to invest in reusable bottles for day to day use.)
10 breakfast go-tos
These will keep for a while if not indefinitely so you can buy them as they go on sale.
Yogurt, Oatmeal, Maple Syrup (while versatile for recipes, real maple syrup costs a fortune, spoils quickly, and most kids like Mrs. Butterworth’s or the cheaper store equivalent better anyway), pancake mix, frozen waffles, frozen sausage like Jimmy Dean, hot cereal like Malt O Meal or Cream of Wheat, English muffins/bagels (buy at discount bread store and freeze), frozen concentrated orange juice, muffin mix
Note about yogurt — My family eats a lot of yogurt. We don’t bother with the small cartons and buy the big economy size ones. If you’re single or don’t eat it often, get the small ones (or none at all!). Plain yogurt can also be used as a kind of stand in for cream cheese and sour cream in a pinch, plus it has its own delicious uses too. I strongly recommend you forgo the sugary cheap yogurts as they have fewer healthy probiotics, and the probiotics are one of the most desirable elements of yogurt.
Note about oatmeal — I like having regular and instant oatmeal on hand – regular oatmeal for breakfast, instant oats for recipes. Others swear by the steel-cut oats which can be cooked in the Instant Pot or slow cooker (they are good, but I haven’t found the time it takes to cook them is justified, and they spoiled before we ate them all up). Follow your bliss.
Note about pancake mix — While it’s certainly possible to make pancakes from scratch, the pancake mixes can be used as a basis for lots of other things – including an impressive number of dinners. Even if you were out of rice, pasta, and potatoes, a box of Bisquick plus a few other ingredients can be turned into a casserole.
Note about frozen sausage and waffles – kinda splurges, but they’re there when you need them. If you hit a sale, grab em and then forget they’re there till you need them. In an emergency, sometimes the first casualty is spare time and having something quick can be sanity-saving.
Note about muffin mix — Jiffy muffins are as artificial as a Kardashian, but they’re dirt cheap and relatively edible. And some of the other brands are downright good. Baking mixes are shelf-stable, most of them are sealed and could potentially last for years, and if push came to shove, they could take the place of bread if you were out of it. Remember that Layer Principle – have lots of different ways to fill a particular niche so when you’re out of one thing, you have the next option available to fall back on.
Note about cold cereal: It’s awfully expensive for what you get and you have to have milk on hand to eat it (while you can eat it with reconstituted powdered milk, it’s not great). Boxes of cereal also take up a massive amount of space for the amount of food value they provide. But, a bowl of cereal can be a quick and easy meal/snack and sometimes when time is at a premium, quick and easy rules the day. Cold cereal is also vitamin fortified, which might make a difference to your health if you were eating from your pantry a while. It might be worth having a few boxes tucked away somewhere.
One more thing — if you are often eating breakfast on the run, having something super quick like Pop Tarts, a Lara or granola bar, or a bottled smoothie may be a moneysaver if it prevents you from getting hungry and hitting the drive thru. Health foods? Nah, but remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good-enough here. Be realistic — even in an emergency your life probably won’t change that much. Don’t constantly plan for Armageddon when your everyday reality even in times of crisis is far more likely to be Ordinarylifemageddon. If you have great intentions that all too often end with you at Dunkin Donuts, it will be far better both for your health and your pocketbook if you acknowledge reality and just buy something to fill this need to begin with rather than reaching for the stars and ending up flat on your face.
So if you desire, you may want to add emergency breakfast food of your choosing and cold cereal to your list.
Legendary lunch ingredients??
For the most part, you’ll have bought everything you need to make a wide variety of lunches by following the guidelines of other sections. Sandwiches (which I’ve covered in part, and will continue to cover in the future in my #AmericanSandwichProject) salads, soups, leftovers, the occasional package of lunch meat, cheese and peanut butter — if you’re shopping correctly, lunch just kinda takes care of itself.
That having been said, having a selection of quick and easy canned soup-like-products like Campbells, Progresso, Dinty Moore, Franco-American, and Chef Boyardee are what many people think of when it comes to stocking up. While it’s certainly ok to keep these types of foods on hand for emergency meals or comfort foods, considering the amount of food value in them (not much) and the amount of room they take up in a cupboard per serving (much) they are quite expensive for what you get. They’re also not terribly healthy options, and you can generally do better in every way by making a lunch on your own. Your food storage system should not revolve around things that cost 2-5 dollars per can and take up a large amount of room per serving.
Speaking of soups…
10 souper soup and stew starters
A pot of soup is time-honored survival food and as mothers everywhere know, in times of sickness, it’s practically penicillin. While making your own soup from kitchen scraps is so easy I wrote an article about it: Broth and Stock — Truly Making Something From Nothing, if you find the idea daunting, that’s ok. We can use shelf-stable boxed or canned products as a base for turning our fresh ingredients into liquid gold.
Bouillon and/or broth, Beef Stew mix (in a foil packet), egg noodles or some type of small soup-sized pasta, barley, lentils, split peas, saltine crackers, bay leaf, thyme, Knorr Soup mix
Note about bouillon, broth, beef stew mix — I am a trained soup professional and I still use these now and then. Sometimes you don’t have time to make broth yourself (and again, in an emergency, time is typically the first thing to evaporate) and other times, your finished soup just lacks a little flavor or body that the addition of storebought flavor agents compensates for. Plus, bouillon and broth have many other uses in the kitchen. And as for beef stew mix, I have never managed to get my beef stew quite as yummy without the mix. Better to invest 50 cents in a foil package and end up with a delicious pot of stew, than to save the 50 cents and end up with something no one is really that thrilled about eating, I figure.
Note about Knorr Soup Mix – -I know, I know, I just told you not to get Campbells. But the Knorr Soup mixes take up less space in your cupboard than canned soups and they can be used as a base for more substantial meals if you add your own additional ingredients to them (not only soup, but also casseroles and meat dishes, and of course the world famous Knorr Spinach Dip that so many of us recall from childhood as the only time we voluntarily ate spinach, LOL.) They are expensive, though, so wait till you catch them on sale – usually around holidays. I have also read good things about the Mrs. Grass dry soup mixes but I have not ever tried them.
10 versatile vegetable and salad ingredients
Some folks will find these items a bit “splurgy” and non-essential. But if you’re a vegetarian or vegan and/or eat a lot of salad, it makes a lot more sense to have things on hand that are tailored to you and your tastes rather than loading up on stuff like Spam which you’d never eat in a million years! Please buy ONLY what you will use, nothing more.
Croutons (or your fave salad crunchies), blue cheese crumbles and/or feta cheese, sunflower seeds (or chia or pumpkin, whatever you like), sliced/chopped nuts (almonds and walnuts particularly), dried fruit (like cherries or cranberries, whatever you prefer on a salad), artichoke hearts (or similar preserved jarred vegetables like sun dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, pepperoncini), dry Navy or pea beans (I prefer the smallish size white beans, they’re also good in soup), molasses (for baking the dry beans among other uses), chives, onion soup mix
Note about blue cheese and feta cheese — you can find these in sealed plastic containers that last quite a while in the fridge. Blue cheese in particular is great for dressing up otherwise unspectacular canned/frozen veggies, and of course you can make it into salad dressing.
Note about onion soup mix — Necessary?? No. But if you’re staring down the barrel of a sack of potatoes you have no idea how to cook, and you’re out of everything else except vegetable oil, you can make a tasty meal from them + onion soup mix. 3 ingredient pantry cooking – I like it.
You will likely have already purchased salad dressing as one of our have-on-hands but if you skipped it when filling your pantry, now’s the time! Hollandaise sauce packets are another thing you may have skipped when I mentioned it before, but Hollandaise sauce is a great way to make subpar vegetables appealing, particularly if you’re feeding folks who aren’t big veggie fans or you’re stuck eating canned or frozen vegetables for the umpteenth time in a row.
10 fruity-licious ingredients
The unholy no man’s land between salad and dessert is where fruit salad lurks. It’s not quite a salad, it’s not quite dessert, it’s someplace in between. Fruit salad, particularly the kind based around canned fruit, is not something most of us eat that often nowadays but if you’re eating from your pantry, it’s a huge treat. But it doesn’t really rest easily in either category so I kinda stuck fruity stuff all together here in one spot along with ingredients useful for fruit pies and trifles (which is a fruit-cake-pudding melange). I also included some fruit ingredients you may want to have on hand for use in baking which didn’t really fit anywhere else.
Jello, mandarin oranges, canned pears, canned peaches, frozen fruits if available/desired – berries are especially good frozen, dried fruit for baking such as raisins and apricots, canned pie filling, lemon/orange peel (you use these slowly, so it’s possible to buy them once and have them forever), refrigerated and/or frozen pie crust, sweetened condensed milk
Note about Jello — Jello has largely fallen out of favor now, but it is still a versatile ingredient to have on hand – aside from its primary job of being Jello, it can be incorporated into pies and cake frostings, and even that colorful flavored popcorn that costs and arm and a leg at the mall. Kids like Jello, it’s comfort food, and of course it can be beneficial when people are sick. I wouldn’t keep much on hand if you won’t eat it often, but a couple boxes don’t take up much room. Do be aware that Jello, when mixed with many fruits (particularly fresh pineapple and kiwi) won’t set up.
Note about canned fruits — I rarely buy canned fruits because my kids devour them immediately and they’re also fairly expensive for what you get compared to fresh fruit, which I prefer. But if you have more self control than they do, or you are able to can your own, they are a great thing to have on hand. Stores also sell jarred fruits and the plastic single-serving fruit cups – I haven’t played around with these much as they’re prohibitively expensive (you can often buy a 5 lb. sack of fresh grapefruit for the price of one jar). But if you like them, they will keep on the shelf for a while.
Note about canned fruit filling — Could you make a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy? Of course. But in terms of having things on hand, stored in your cupboard for times when you may not want to or be able to get to the grocery store, canned pie filling can be quite handy. I don’t really care for the canned apple filling, but the cherry and blueberry are pretty tasty. You can also use these canned fillings to fill other pastries or in between layers in cakes. They tend to be expensive so wait till they go on sale.
Note about pie crust — you can make your own pie crust, and fairly easily (and I have a foolproof recipe I’ll share with you in another installment of Non-Doomsday Prepping). But rolling out pie crust (even from a box) is time consuming and messy and it’s easy to put off the job. Pie crusts aren’t cheap, but if you end up buying a readymade pie that costs $12 because you passed up a pack of crusts that cost $2.50 it’s false economy. We all often tell ourselves “I’ll make it myself” and then don’t, so just know that going in and plan accordingly.
Note about sweetened condensed milk — this may seem a bit out of place here, but sweetened condensed milk is commonly used in fruit salads and pies, not to mention other baked goods. It’s also a staple food in many cultures, where it’s caramelized and used on toast in lieu of jelly or on pancakes instead of syrup (you may recognize this as dulce de leche, which has become a popular flavor recently, but might not have known it comes from sweetened condensed milk.) Versatility, y’all! There’s also a pre-caramelized form of dulce de leche available in many Hispanic grocery stores or on Amazon.com. It is a bit expensive so wait till it goes on sale, usually around the holidays.
A word about fruit cocktail — some people put fruit cocktail into their fruit salads. I personally have never had a fruit cocktail that didn’t remind me of a terrible school hot lunch, and I don’t recommend buying it. But if you like it, of course, include fruit cocktail on this list.
10 divine dessert ingredients
Dessert is one of those things people imagine that they won’t NEED. In a crisis, chocolate is the last thing on a person’s mind…right?
Welll…as many of us have found out to our surprise the past few weeks, crises come in a lot of different forms. They don’t always, or even usually, manifest themselves as an urgent need to take action or do anything dramatic, they often amount to a lot of people sitting around with time on their hands to worry about things that are completely out of their control. And that, my dudes and dudettes, was what chocolate was invented for.
Plus, remember the primary goal of our non-doomsday prepping program is to enable families to cook at home more easily for less money and less need to shop (since every trip to the store is a chance to overspend) and if we skip dessert entirely, you’re just gonna find yourself buying expensive sweet goodies anyway whenever you have a hankering for them.
Jello Pudding, Dream Whip, tapioca, brownie mix, coconut flakes, marshmallows, chocolate chips, cream of tartar, vanilla (if you plan on baking with it, get the fake stuff as the real vanilla will evaporate leaving nothing but a memory), corn syrup
Note about Jello pudding mix — they have an array of Jello pudding, some instant, some cook-and-serve. Get a variety when they go on sale. I personally like chocolate, vanilla, and lemon cook-and-serve (lemon meringue pie made with Jello cook-and-serve lemon pudding is great and easy), and oreo, pistachio, and banana instant (old fashioned Nilla Wafer pudding with banana instant pudding, yum), but your mileage may vary.
Note about Dream Whip – this is a sort of dry, even more chemically version of Cool Whip that you reconstitute at home. But it has the advantage of being shelf-stable, taking up little storage space, no need to refrigerate it, and you can use it as an ingredient in lots of desserts — pies, cake frosting, even homemade popsicles.
Note about tapioca – you can find tapioca in bags and boxes near the Jello section. While most of us are familiar with tapioca pudding, it’s handy for other things too, like thickening fruit fillings or even savory dishes like soup. It comes in several kinds and some of them take much longer to cook than others. If you’re looking for something that cooks quickly you’ll want to get the “instant” or Minute Tapioca. But that having been said, once I got the wrong type of tapioca, had to soak and then cook it for several hours, and made the best darn tapioca pudding ever. Whichever kind you get, just be sure you follow the proper directions for the specific product or it will end in disaster.
Note about brownie mix — I’ll be honest, I’ve never made great homemade brownies using baker’s chocolate (and it’s WAY expensive). Cocoa-based brownies, while possible, have been just “meh” for me. I generally stick with the mixes which are quicker and easier anyway, and you can buy a mix for a fraction of the price of a bar of baker’s chocolate. Brownie mix lasts in the cupboard longer than you will be able to resist it.
Note about cream of tartar — WTH is this? It’s an acid derived from grapes that works with baking soda to make baked goods rise, and it’s also useful by itself for lots of things like making meringue, candy, frosting, and its most important application – snickerdoodle cookies. It’s cheap and lasts forever, so a large container will last probably the rest of your cooking lifetime unless you do a lot of baking. Even a small one will supply you with snickerdoodles for a good long while.
Optional — nuts. I mentioned sliced and chopped nuts in the salad section as they’re a great source of protein for vegetarians and vegans, but if you didn’t buy them for your salad, they’re also fantastic in desserts. If you enjoy adding nuts to your desserts, add them to this list. Personally, I am a nut fanatic and I definitely have them in my pantry as often as I can afford them. They’re also a great snack and very healthy – I often will eat a serving of nuts with a cup of tea for a quick breakfast. But a whole lot of people don’t care for them, and as they are somewhat perishable I consider them more of a not-for-everyone thing. So feel free to add nuts if you like them and will eat them up before they spoil.
Wait — I think we may have missed a step! Where’s dinner?
Stay tuned for the next installment of Non-Doomsday Prepping where we’ll tackle the behemoth that is suppertime.