Coping With Bare Shelves: A Beginner’s Guide

Pretty much everyone in the US has been affected to some degree by the bare shelves in grocery stores across the nation. Dairy products, eggs, fresh meat and fresh produce are limited in quantity and variety, if you have any in your shops at all. Sometimes a shipment will come in, and sometimes it won’t. Things will only get worse as prices rise – not just for the consumer in the grocery store, but for the producers as well – and if producers go out of business, even less of it will get to the stores.

So, what to do?

The first thing to do (in the wise words of Douglas Adams) is Don’t Panic. People have lived through hard times before, and we will again. The key here is that we need to learn different ways to ride out the shortages.

There are lots of ways to grow or provide your own food. I’ve talked about a few of them before and I’m sure I will talk about many more later on, but that’s not the point of this article. I’d like to give you a few pointers on what to do right now, when you’ve just come home from the grocery store without half the things on your list, or better yet, when you’re on the way to the grocery store  – so you can shop with an open mind.

Cook with what you have access to. For some of you, this will be a learning experience – and that is NOT a bad thing. Instead of focusing on that lack of (for instance) white flour on the shelves, take a few steps down the aisle and see what type of grain you do have available. When our family participated in the Alaska Food Challenge, we could only eat what grew in Alaska. Wheat does not grow well enough here to be commercially available, but barley does. I learned how to make a lot of things with barley. Cornmeal is versatile and filling. Oats are good for you, too. A little bit of internet searching will provide you with dozens of delicious, easy recipes. So the next time you’re standing in front of an empty shelf, take a few steps further down and see what opportunities await you.

It’s time to try out different cuts of meat. One of the most important lessons I could teach anyone about buying meat is this one thing: Luxury cuts like steak make up only about 10% of an animal. For every package of prime cuts you buy, buy ten packages of less-popular cuts. Not only does this respect the life of the animal that provided the meat by wasting less of it, this practice also teaches you to use and appreciate the cheaper cuts of meat. If you’re not in that habit already, this is a great time to learn. Experiment with new cooking techniques like braising or stewing or using an instant pot to cook tender, delicious dishes. When you are looking for one particular cut of meat or one type of animal, and that cut or animal isn’t available, just look around and see what is. You might find a new favorite!

Find a Depression-era or WW2-era cookbook. Reproductions are available online and in some libraries. They are excellent sources of ideas and recipes. Remember, they were written to help people deal with shortages and rationing. Let’s not forget that important resource.

Don’t throw away food. Eat up your leftovers! Americans tend to be wasteful when it comes to food. Let’s change that habit. For example, we always eat supper’s leftovers for the next day’s lunches. If the leftovers are in sufficient quantity after three or four days (yes, properly-stored leftovers are fine for that long!), they go into a stew or pot pie. Pot pie can be made by simply chopping up the leftover meat and veggies, adding a can of cream soup or a homemade white sauce, and topping with a pie crust, puff pastry sheet, “drop” biscuit dough or even a can of refrigerated biscuits if you have them. Bake in a 350° oven until the crust is browned and the filling is bubbly. In no time, you have a lovely meal that cost almost nothing. Leftovers can also be used to make fried rice. If you don’t have leftover meat, add a scrambled egg to the fried rice for protein.

If for some reason you have leftovers that you won’t eat or produce languishing in the crisper drawer, feed some to your chickens (you have chickens, right?) or compost the plant matter. Vermiculture (composting with worms) and countertop composting will turn those food scraps into lovely soil that you can use to grow veggies in your backyard or windowsill gardens.

Use more of what you buy. Those nice bones aren’t just for dogs, you know. Pressure cookers or instant pots make quick work of bone stock, which is very nutritious and delicious. Even if you don’t have a pressure cooker, bone stock is not difficult to make and can be made from whatever type of animal bone you like. Peels from some fruits and vegetables are useful, too – peach peel jelly is one favorite that comes to mind. Potato skins make tasty crisp appetizers and watermelon rind makes lovely pickles. Trimmings from carrots, onions, celery and more can be cooked down into vegetable broth, which can be strained and frozen until needed. Think before throwing it away!

Try sprouting. Sprouts are easily grown from seed in about 5 or 6 days. Find sprouting seeds and sprouting trays at your local health food store, and supplement your fresh veggie intake with nutrition-packed tasty sprouts. My favorites are radish sprouts but there are others you can try. Start now and have crisp yummy sprouts on your sandwiches in a week or less.

Fresh > frozen > canned. Usually. But if you can’t get what you want fresh, don’t forget that there is almost certainly an equivalent or substitute in the frozen food cases. If you can’t find it frozen, check the canned goods aisle. Don’t forget to check the freeze dried or dehydrated foods sections too, although those tend to be more expensive options. Let’s take raspberries as an example. My daughter loves raspberries. They’re highly seasonal though, and when I run out of home-grown ones, I can check the stores for fresh. If there are none fresh, I can check the frozen fruit section. If there are none frozen, I’m unlikely to find a can of raspberries in the canned goods aisle, but I might find some raspberry pie filling and almost certainly will find raspberry jam or jelly. Think about different areas in the store that you might not browse often, and check those areas too. Ethnic food sections are great places to find new favorites. One good example is my husband’s favorite coffee. The regular coffee aisle carries his favorite brand, but only the Hispanic food aisle has his favorite flavor of that coffee.

Supplement your diet with vitamins and minerals. Processed foods such as canned goods don’t have the nutritional punch that fresh foods have, so be sure to stay healthy by taking vitamin supplements. Vitamins C and D are especially important.

Peasant food is GOOD food. Meals don’t have to be modern and trendy to be delicious and filling. If we take a minute to think about staple foods that sustained cultures for decades if not centuries, we can come up with lots of examples. Chicken soup. Irish soda bread. Oxtails and ham hocks. Red beans and rice. Black-eyed peas and cornbread.

And one last thought… Make friends with the people in your neighborhood who grow their own food. People who are already producing for themselves know the value of those foods, and are hesitant to waste any of it. They know the best ways to prepare and store those foods. And most of them will be happy to share their knowledge with you. Who knows? They might even be open to bartering or selling some of their bounty to you.