How to Make Sure Your Pantry Is Crisis-Ready

Don’t panic, but stock up on these staples

By the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. “inevitable” in late February, I’d already strolled through the aisles at Costco, imagining the sort of things I’d want to have on hand in the event of a quarantine.

Cards on the table: I have prepper tendencies. Even under normal circumstances, I always have dozens of pounds of dried beans in my basement pantry. But I’m also a fact-checker, so I try to stick to evidence-based panic. I’m not hoarding masks or toilet paper or canned goods, but I made sure I had enough provisions to get through a few weeks at home.

I have prepper tendencies. Even under normal circumstances, I always have dozens of pounds of dried beans in my basement pantry. But I’m also a fact-checker, so I try to stick to evidence-based panic.

There’s no shortage of advice on how to prepare for a pandemic, from news explainers to fact sheets from state and federal governments and the World Health Organization. But they all say more or less the same thing: Wash your hands (seriously, dudes, wash your hands); stay home, especially if you’re sick; and if you do go out, wear a mask or other face-covering and stay six feet apart.

Most point out that a 30-day supply of food staples and prescription medications is appropriate. Yes, you could buy a few cases of ramen noodles and call it a day. But there are better (and healthier) ways to sustain yourself during a quarantine. Look no further than photos tagged #cookupinlockdown on Instagram — amid limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, home cooks in areas of China under lockdown have had to rely on pantry staples and get creative to eat well.

The situation continues to evolve, but if you want to ensure your shelves are stocked with what you need to get yourself (and your family) through long stretches at home, here’s what to pick up the next time you leave your house.

Staples

I hope this kind of goes without saying: Things like dried beans, rice, pasta, and nuts will keep for months, and you’ll almost inevitably eat them, so you don’t run the risk of food waste even if you buy more than you usually would. There are things worth buying in bulk if you have the option, and you can split big orders with friends. (I almost always go halfsies on 25-pound bags of beans with my BFF, Mallory, hence all the dried beans in the larder.) But only do this if you’ll actually cook beans from scratch; otherwise, opt for cans. (Although I would argue that a quarantine is the perfect time to make a big ol’ pot of beans. I picked up a pound of Greek gigante beans that I am very excited about.)

If you have the freezer space, frozen fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood aren’t a bad idea, but don’t go crazy — pick up a variety of frozen items over, say, a whole cow.

Butter and cooking oils are a given, and if you can snag shelf-stable dairy, it’s not a bad idea. I got some boxes of whole milk because I have a 2-year-old, and I always have boxes of heavy cream in the pantry for desserts and creamy pasta sauces.

Coffee and/or tea, obviously. Booze, if that’s your jam.

Alliums

For me, dinners almost always begin with some combination of onions, garlic, and/or shallots. Fortunately, most alliums will keep for around 30 days in a cool, dark place, and they’re also inexpensive. If your onions start to sprout, make stock. If your shallots get a little sad, make a ton of Alison Roman’s caramelized shallot pasta sauce, which you can surely freeze and definitely use on more than pasta. Which brings us to …

Canned fish

We’re big canned fish fans here at Heated, and these teeny fish are excellent sources of calcium and protein and, perhaps most importantly from a food-stockpiling standpoint, shelf-stable. If you’re still a little weirded out about anchovies, I implore you to make Roman’s shallot sauce. I admit I was skeptical about dumping a whole tin of anchovies into my Dutch oven, but it really is a great starter dish if you just can’t get over the tiny bones (they dissolve!).

Citrus

Opt for frozen over fresh for things like berries, peaches, and bananas, but citrus fruits are a little hardier and will keep in the fridge for a few weeks. Use up lemons and limes before you reach for vinegar, and keep oranges and tangerines in the crisper for snacks.

Flavor bombs

I’d argue this is the most important category, and the items here should be pretty easy to procure. Skip standing in line with harried moms and their carts full of toilet paper and dry goods at big-box stores and head to small markets for sauces, oils, and spices. I went to Pittsburgh’s Strip District and got chile oil, shallots, and spices for DIY chai at an Asian market; a big hunk of Parmesan Reggiano, double-concentrated tomato paste, anchovies, and a jug of olive oil at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.; and garlic and a few tubes of harissa at a Greek market.

If we’re going to have to cook during a quarantine, the least we can do is ensure it’ll be flavorful.

Annie Siebert is a Pittsburgh-based writer, editor, and researcher.

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