As restaurants closed in the beginning of the pandemic, many Americans learned just how much they had come to rely on them.
People had to start finding their way around the kitchen. That was a big task in a country where, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, people on average spend 54% of their food bills in restaurants.
Employees at the Manhattan-based K-State Research and Extension service thought they could help.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, Extension decided to do just a quick needs assessment with our clients,” said Lisa Martin, extension agent for the expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.
The survey asked people what issues were the most important to them at the time — cooking and getting meals on the table hit high on the list.
“We had curriculum that we used with teaching, but we really didn’t have anything in fact sheets, and that’s another thing that they requested: they wanted print materials,” Martin said. “With the stay-at-home orders they had to have food on hand, and then what could they do with the food that they had?”
People who were accustomed to running down to the coffee shop or a restaurant now had to figure out how to prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
Martin started pulling out information she had compiled over the years. There was an essential living skills curriculum with basic food and nutrition information. And she found an old Month of Menus document a dietetics student had put together almost 20 years ago.
“It was on using food you would get at the food pantry or through WIC, but there was a lot of material in there on just basic tips for cooking,” she said.
That was the starting point for her project, which led to the development of a seven-part Cooking Basics series to help new cooks navigate their way around the kitchen. The series is available at the K-State Bookstore online at bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu. Once there, click “Food” and then “Consumer preparation.” The sheets cover how to use measuring tools, basic cooking terms, and reducing a recipe. Here are some other tips:
For people new to home cooking, healthful and great-tasting food preparation can be overwhelming.
The Cooking Basics fact sheets is intended to help people get organized, plan, and prepare nutritious and great-tasting meals. A little planning time can save time, money, and empty calories, Martin said.
“I have some tips on what would be a good meal plan,” she said. “So, using the My Plate and trying to have something from each of the food groups, and I have some information on evaluating recipes. There’s recipes galore out there — look at how many ingredients do you have and the utensils you need.”
The guide recommends choosing recipes based on whether it includes ingredients you and your family eat. More ingredients usually means a more complicated recipe, it says.
The first step in cooking is getting the ingredients. By keeping a few staples stocked in the pantry people can always be ready to put a delicious, nutritious, and economical meal on the table. This sheet is a checklist of canned, jarred and pouched foods; cereals, grains, and pasta; non-refrigerated produce; backing and cooking supplies; and seasonings and spices that people should always have on hand.
In addition to pantry items, a well-stocked kitchen needs to include basics for the refrigerator and freezer.
This part of the series has a checklist for cold and frozen ingredients and suggestions for healthier choices. It includes sections for dairy, meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and meat and seafood.
Whether the foods are in the pantry or the refrigerator, having basics on hand can save trouble and money down the road.
“You never know when, besides a pandemic, we might have a tornado or snow storm or you might be sick or something like that,” she said. “If you’ve got food on hand, instead of running through the drive thru, you can come home and get a meal on the table.”
Making a meal from what’s on hand
Martin said this handout is her favorite because it gives people ideas if they’re not into following recipes. It helps show how to use whatever is available and make a great meal, which is also why having the pantry and refrigerator stocked with staples is important.
It asks: “What do you have for protein, vegetable or starch ingredients? How can you add sauces, liquids, other flavors?” Those answers will help you decide what to make.
“If you have these things on hand you can easily put together a casserole, a skillet meal, a soup, a salad,” she said.