The Great Quarantine Cooking Show

Like so many other parents-to-be, I went through all the traditional stages of pre-baby worry when I was pregnant with my first child in 2018. Will I be a good mom? Will I be able to afford a baby? Will I be able to provide my kids with a memorable and delicious homemade macaroni and cheese?

Everyone else goes through the macaroni and cheese stage too, right? (Please say yes.)

I have since moved past my macaroni and cheese concerns and traveled on to other fun, panicked stops in the Game of Life. (“Welcome to a global pandemic! Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”) But lately, my cooking anxiety has been creeping back. It isn’t specifically in the form of noodles and cheesy goodness—this recipe made all my cheese dreams come true—cooking just isn’t a skill that comes naturally to me. And there is a lot of cooking in quarantine.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to cook and love to scroll through Pinterest recipes…but it’s taken years of practice for me to move from frozen foods to home-cooked meals. Let’s just say I Instagram-ed every meal I cooked from scratch in college and, to save you a trip to the ‘Gram, there are only two heavily-filtered pasta photos on my profile. I’m pretty quick to give up on skills that don’t come easily to me, but through sheer determination, I can now cook a pork chop without turning it into bad, burnt bacon (yes, I discovered bad bacon—it is possible).

Practice is nothing to be ashamed of, but being kitchen-savvy seems like a skill all moms are just born with.

Wars can begin over whose mom can make the best cookies, restaurants advertise foods “just like Mama used to make,” and we all know choosy moms choose a very specific type of peanut butter for all their nutty confections. Even more shamefully, my family is graced with a long line of home-cooking wizards. My mom opens the pantry, looks at five ingredients, and instantly knows what to make. I open the pantry, look at the same five ingredients, close the pantry, and then order pizza. Clearly, cooking a fantastic dinner is not a genetic gift. What does it take to suddenly be changed into a culinarily-skilled Super Mom? Do I need to be bitten by a radioactive muffin?

Since we’re trying to limit our shopping trips and be faithful to the #StayHomeKC initiative, my meal planning skills have been stretched as far as they’ll go. I usually shop for ingredients with specific recipes in mind, but shortages across the city have made my grocery delivery an anxious surprise. Will I have enough ingredients for Tuesday’s dinner, or will the jambalaya turn into red beans with a celery-leaf garnish? It’s been stressful for an unskilled home chef like myself, but somehow I’ve been keeping us eating more than just PB&J.

For one, I started keeping a spreadsheet in my Google Drive of meals my family likes to eat.

Besides the name of the recipe, I list the main ingredient, cuisine type, suggested sides, and difficulty rating so I can filter based on things like “Was the store out of ground beef?” and “How many episodes of Daniel Tiger will this take to bake?” If you’re into trying this idea, you could also link to your favorite online recipes, list whether the meal is a family favorite, and add any other notes you’d like to make. Want some new ideas to cook? You could also lasso a few of your friends into making a combined Google Sheet of recipes or meal suggestions.

If you also struggle with combining random ingredients together to make an edible meal, fear not.

When I’ve faced a pound of chicken and blanked, I’ve turned to more than just Pinterest. Websites like My Fridge Food and Super Cook can tell you what to make with what’s in your fridge and pantry. I’ve been known to tune into YouTube channels like You Suck at Cooking when I need a little tutorial. If you’re more into listening than watching, Samin Nosrat (of Salt Fat Acid Heat fame) and Hrishikesh Hirway started a podcast specifically around cooking during quarantine aptly named Home Cooking.

Most recently, I’ve joined a couple cooking groups on Facebook (including Parsely, Sage, Rosemary & Crime, which features cooking tips and facts about serial killers—a combo I didn’t know I needed). I’ve thrown a random ingredient at the geniuses in those groups and ended up with 50 different recipes. Crowd source your dinner, my friends. I know Mom said not to talk to strangers, but I think talking to strangers about roast beef might be an exception.

I’ve also been keeping it simple where I can during our lockdown.

My favorite hobby is Competitive Overthinking, so I have a habit of planning complicated dinners. Grocery shortages and limited supply runs have made me scale way back. A protein paired with a salad, breakfast for dinner, big Crockpot meals that last us a few days, and one pot recipes are my new go-to’s. One of my favorite recipes is Shawn Syphus’s stuffed pepper skillet. While normally I’d pick up all the specific ingredients for the recipe, I tweaked it in quarantine to fit the things we had, including frozen peppers from Trader Joes, ground turkey instead of beef, and omitting the tomato sauce. Look at that confidence! That skill! Gordon Ramsey, hire me.

When all else fails, I’m a big fan of the new curbside pickup trend.

Life is stressful enough without having to stare all your personal weaknesses in the face every day. When I’ve thrown in the kitchen towel during our at-home period, we’ve called upon the mighty Boru Ramen, Waldo Pizza, and Dolce Bakery for help. We also had inimitable family-style meal deliveries from Jack Stack and Blue Moose sent by our friends after my mother-in-law passed away (seriously—I am remembering that Jack Stack sampler pack the first time I am happily ambushed by dinner guests post-quarantine).

While I’m glad this strange season of life has pushed my cooking know-how in new directions, I’m ready to not feel like I’m sautéing the day away with endless meals and dirty dishes. I’ll happily sit on a restaurant patio and raise my glass to the service industry when the time comes.

If you’ve had cooking wins or fails during quarantine, I’d love to hear them. And, hey—here’s to you, too. We’ve kept our families from being hangry during coronavirus, even if cooking is hardly a piece of cake during a pandemic. Go us!

Valerie Stark
A firm believer that the Midwest is all that and a tator tot casserole, Valerie moved to KC after graduating from Mizzou in 2013. She’s been married to her husband Josh since 2015, and together they’re raising an adorable, tiny human firework named Finnian (1). Valerie spends her workdays making funny greeting cards while Josh wins at the stay-at-home-dad game by teaching Finn words like “yee-haw” and helping him style his Snapchat filters. When she isn’t tracking down a new place to drag her family to, you can find her blasting showtunes, sharing (very poorly) wine with friends, reading, listening to true crime podcasts, or near cheese. You can’t find her playing kickball, so don’t even try. Valerie, Josh, and Finn shoot for put-together, but settle for put-on-pants—and they love every second of their reasonably-chaotic life.

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