A dietitian’s tips on flexible meal planning during COVID-19

By Alexia Hall, clinical dietitian at CHOC

Trips to the grocery store, while essential, are not the first thing anyone wants to do right now. Knowing in advance what is in the pantry and using some helpful meal planning tools will make good use of the food ingredients you have on hand, allow for less shopping overall and dramatically decrease food bills.

Stifling to a cook’s creativity is the sometimes-overwhelming amount of clutter in the back of the pantry. Multiples of similar items are often bought on sale to save for a future meal. Also, highly possible are the extra purchases made while caught up in the “fever” of the first few weeks of social distancing. Sometimes a disorganized pantry can be years in the making and may even result in a few science projects hiding in dark corners! In any event, a messy pantry makes it tough to figure out what to cook. The first order of business is to figure out what is there and establish some order. Once that is done, the internet abounds with ideas on what to do with the odd can of beans or the lonely mushrooms and wilting spinach hiding in the back of the fridge!

To help with taking an inventory, some find it easiest to just take everything out and spread it around the kitchen counters. Food with expired dates should be tossed. Products that have “sell by” or “best if used by” dates on them are different from expired dates. According to the USDA, sell by/best by dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety, while expired dates are a safety indicator. Manufacturers use “best if used by” dates to help consumers and retailers decide when the food is of the best quality and whether the taste or texture could be affected if dates are past due. These rules apply unless it is infant formula, which should always be tossed if any of the recommended dates have passed. When in doubt, or when it is unclear what type of date is on the package, err on the side of caution and throw out if past the date.

Here are some examples of commonly used phrases, according to the USDA:

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

After tossing out the old and expired items, combining all like items in single packages will also help to control clutter. If there is large number of any one item, such as a case of beans, consider leaving just two cans with the oldest expiration dates in the pantry and storing the rest in a box in a closet or a garage. Clearing away these extras will help to easily see what is on hand and it will also allow for planning in a more focused way.

Tips for taking a pantry inventory

There are a variety of free or paid smartphone apps, such as Pantry Check or Cooklist, that will keep track of pantry items, as well as organize grocery lists and favorite recipes in a highly functional way. Some of these apps have the ability to use the phone camera as a barcode scanner to drop items into the inventory. There are also a variety of free printable forms online to help you take a pantry inventory. Any method chosen should keep track of the following basics:


  • Baking supplies such as flour or sugar
  • Broth
  • Beverages
  • Canned goods
  • Fresh items such as fruit, bread or tomatoes
  • Grains such as cereals, rice, pasta or quinoa
  • Herbs and spices
  • Oils and vinegars
  • Sauces and mixes


  • Dairy
  • Alternative dairy
  • Cheese
  • Condiments
  • Eggs
  • Fruits
  • Lunch meats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables


  • Desserts
  • Fish
  • Frozen fruit
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Meats — beef or pork
  • Poultry — chicken or turkey
  • Pre-made meals (note the type and date)
  • Bread

Remember to spell out the quantity and type of each item to help give the inventory list the useful information needed. This new completed tool will help to use non-perishable items in an efficient way, limiting grocery store visits to just the produce aisle while efficiently using the items already in your pantry.

Finding recipes for what you have on hand:   

Once everything is out on the counters, it might be easy to look at the ingredients and plan meals around them, finding a use for each one. Alternatively, here are several other sites that allow for an online recipe search that filters for the ingredients on hand:

  • Allrecipes Dinner Spinner — a free mobile phone app for both Android and iPhone that allows filtering ability as well as the ability to create custom collections to organize, store or share recipes
  • — a website that allows you to select a main ingredient and add other popular ingredients according to what you have on hand
  • — offers the ability to search through the recipes in the Cooking Light magazine
  • Supercook — a website and app that allows you to add the main ingredient in the search area and then sort the results listed by the highest-rated recipes or the percentage of users who would make it again
  • — set filters for ingredients, mealtimes and dietary restrictions
  • — recipe recommendations personalized to your tastes, a digital recipe box, a shopping list, and an option for grocery delivery

Making up a recipe on the spot with the ingredients on hand is also an option, depending on the family’s tolerance level of different flavors. Using a few specific tips to modify basic recipe templates can easily work out. Consider these three ideas:


Soups are great because they are an easy way to use up vegetables on hand while pairing them with animal or plant-based proteins for a complete and balanced meal. One of the most important tips to making a good soup is to “sweat” the aromatic vegetables first. Onions, garlic, ginger or celery should be sautéed in a little olive oil before adding the broth, tomatoes or water. This softens them and releases their aromatic flavors. Cooking the more fibrous vegetables in the broth first and then adding the more tender vegetables at the end (such as dark leafy greens that require less cooking times) will help to ensure that all vegetables are finished cooking at the same time. Raw meats and pastas can be added for a long simmer time to cook in the broth or can be added precooked at the end.

Slow cookers

One beautiful thing about slow cooker dinners is the “fix it and forget it” idea. One tip is to brown the meat before adding it to the slow cooker, which can increase the overall flavor of the dish. Just like soups, you can add a variety of vegetables according to what you have. Place the longer cooking, more fibrous vegetables like potatoes, carrots and other roots at the bottom of the slow cooker where they will have the chance to cook faster. Add fresh herbs close to the end of cooking times to keep their flavor fresh. On the other hand, consider cooking large batches of chicken, beef or pork in a slow cooker with just mild flavors like broth, salt and pepper so that they can be easily divided into batches and modified later for more specific flavors.


Why not have breakfasts for dinner? Frittatas are so easy to make and are a perfect use for any fresh or frozen vegetable. It’s a good idea to precook vegetables before adding the eggs, as the raw vegetables will release too much water and won’t cook fast enough before the eggs are done. A good ratio to use is about four eggs to each cup of raw vegetables. Consider sautéing the vegetables in an ovenproof pan and cooking off or draining any excess liquid. Once tender, add your spices and salt and pepper. Add the whisked eggs and then finish cooking in the oven watching closely for the frittata to puff up, being careful not to overcook. Do not add fresh herbs or tender tomatoes until the dish is out of the oven.

A note about making substitutions

You may need to get a little creative if you are trying to use what you have instead of going to the store. Here are a few substitutions to remember:

  • Italian seasoning — substitute with pantry staples such as oregano, basil, parsley, salt and pepper.
  • Buttermilk — mix 1 cup of any regular milk, or nondairy milk, with 1 tablespoon of vinegar or 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and wait 10 minutes for the milk to curdle.
  • Eggs — ¼ cup of applesauce, ½ banana or other fruit puree will do as a substitute for each egg, and so will 1 tablespoon of chia seed soaked in 3 tablespoons of water for five minutes.
  • Olive oil can be substituted for butter in a 1:1 ratio, though flavor considerations are important depending on what you are making.
  • When it comes to spices, experimentation is fine, but you should start with small doses and increase to your taste slowly. You can always add more later, but it is impossible to take it out if you have added too much.

Using up the items in the pantry will help free up space, both physically and mentally. Going through this cleansing process will eventually allow for more creativity and efficiency, and maybe even a little more freedom in the kitchen. Creating a flexible pantry will make a healthy lifestyle just that much easier to maintain and restock once social distancing requirements are lifted.

And finally, consider donations with any extras to a food pantry in your neighborhood, as most are very impacted right now. Making extra food items into gifts for someone less fortunate is another thoughtful way to make good use of these items.

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