Prepare and Carry On: How to Stock Your Pantry for a Pandemic

A conversation with Kate Rowinski, author of 'The Prepper's Pantry Handbook'
March 13, 2020 Updated: March 13, 2020
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As the new coronavirus continues to spread, and more people are being asked to—or choosing to—self-quarantine at home, it’s important not to panic, but to prepare.

Naturally, that involves the issue of food. Experts have long stressed the importance of keeping a well-stocked pantry ready for emergencies; for a pandemic, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends having a two-week supply of food and water at home. But where to start?

I asked Kate Rowinski, author of the recently published “The Prepper’s Pantry Handbook: How to Plan and Cook Nutritional Emergency Meals,” for advice.

The Epoch Times: How should we approach preparing our pantries for the coronavirus outbreak?

Kate Rowinski: Few of us have unlimited financial resources to build an emergency pantry overnight, so start out practically. Plan on having two weeks of food in the house.

Many of us may have that much, so before you shop, take an inventory of what you already have and make sure they can go together in a cohesive way. Lots of rice but no soy sauce? Plenty of pasta but no tomatoes? Am I out of vegetable oil or a favorite sauce? Plan your list thoughtfully. Clean out old food and make extra servings of freezable meals, if you can. 

Planning for coronavirus is easier than planning for general emergencies because it is likely you will have the luxury of knowing that your cooking source and refrigeration will keep going!

The Epoch Times: What should our shopping strategy be? What are the best foods to stock up on?

Ms. Rowinski: Keep that “two weeks of meals” at the top of your mind and resist the temptation to fill your cart with mountains of canned goods and a year’s worth of toilet paper.

For two weeks, just try to have a balanced assortment of food. It is easy to stock up on shelf-stable carbs, but consider how you will provide protein and other food groups. 

Consider what shelf-stable foods your family enjoys. Don’t waste your money on food that seems like a sensible choice but that your family is unlikely to eat! There is no point in buying beans and rice if everyone hates it, but pasta and oatmeal might be practical choices. Protein comes in many forms; figure out which your family likes. My family isn’t touching canned meat or tuna, but is happy with eggs and a range of dried beans. Canned fruits and soups can be helpful options, especially if someone is not feeling well.

Fresh fruits and vegetables may become your biggest challenge after a week or two at home, so choose accordingly and don’t overdo it. Apples and oranges will keep; likewise, potatoes, squash, and carrots will stay fresh. After the first week, frozen vegetables are a great alternative.

Cheeses and yogurts may be stable enough for two weeks or more, but look at the expirations dates on milk before you buy. I do keep dried milk in my pantry, especially for cooking.

Consider simplicity and convenience. If you get sick, you won’t want to do a lot of prep. Years ago, during a bout of flu, I literally stood in front of my pantry and wailed, “There is nothing to eat!” because everything seemed like too much trouble. Since then, I have made sure to have a small supply of things like pre-cooked rice and ramen noodles for those moments when everything else seems too difficult. Don’t rely too heavily on prepared foods, though; they tend to contain too much sodium!

Don’t forget treats. Avoid buying a bunch of junk food, but think about ways to satisfy the occasional snack craving. Nuts, popcorn, dried fruit, jerky, and dark chocolate are our favorites.

Supplies of water and Pedialyte are important right now. Staying hydrated is crucial during illness and it’s the one time I feel O.K. about individual bottles of water.

The Epoch Times: Are there any foods we tend to overlook or forget about that would be helpful to have on hand?

Ms. Rowinski: Make sure you have the complementary items you need to actually cook things. My pantry always has the oils, herbs, sauces, and basic cooking items I will need to pull together a recipe. People tend to forget the little things that turn food into a meal!

Don’t forget about your pets! If you are not going out for a couple of weeks, their supply needs to be fully stocked, too.

The Epoch Times: What are some key safe food storage guidelines to know?

Ms. Rowinski: Get rid of expired items and check expiration dates on the items you buy. Rotate your food and practice “First in, first out.”  

Take meat and dairy expiration dates seriously, but you can be practical with cupboard items. Always discard dented or leaking cans. As for cereals and grains, if they look and taste O.K., they likely are. Use your common sense.  

Practice smart refrigeration. Don’t leave prepared food out for longer than two hours.

The Epoch Times: What are your favorite tips and tricks for making delicious, exciting meals out of these pantry staples?

Ms. Rowinski: Learn to make bread. Dutch oven bread is so easy and satisfying, it makes every meal special.

Embrace the art of making soup out of pantry items. The possibilities are endless, and the outcomes are usually pretty tasty. 

I also like variations on pasta dishes. Penne with tomatoes, a can of white beans, and a handful of dried spinach is great. Adding canned olives and artichokes makes it even better. Crushed red pepper is essential in our house.

The Epoch Times: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ms. Rowinski: The coronavirus has been a real wake-up call. If you have never had an emergency pantry before, consider creating one. It’s much more economical to build up your resources a little at a time, and then to happily stay home before the next emergency while other people storm Costco! Take care of yourselves, and each other.

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.