Food

What’s Cooking During the Pandemic Like for a Chef and Mother of a 6-Year-Old in Ohio?

With no work or income, leftovers have to be stretched and SNAP benefits are essential. But at least the kid is eating healthier than he did at school.

Matzo, a bell pepper, and a carrot.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Due to the “stay-at-home” and quarantine orders necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are finding ourselves cooking more than ever before. In Pandemic Kitchen, we’ll hear from home cooks—experts and newbies, those with plenty of access to food and those with less, the avid and the reluctant—about the culinary struggles, and unexpected joys, of this time of social distancing, for however long it lasts. If you would like to be interviewed for this column, please email humaninterest@slate.com with “Pandemic Kitchen” in the subject line and a brief description of your cooking background and current situation.

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This interview, conducted by Rebecca Onion over email, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Family size and situation: Mother and 6-year-old son, living in a rented duplex.

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Pandemic impact, so far: The mother and father, who are separated, run a food business together. They used to bring their son to the farmers market, where they sell tamales and tacos made with local produce. They agreed that he can’t come to the market anymore, since he’s 6 and can’t effectively stick to the 6-foot rule—which means she can’t come either, so they hired a helper to take her place.

Business is slower at the farmers market, “but more importantly, every spring festival we usually do has been canceled—more than a quarter of our gross yearly sales gone.” The mother also had a part-time chef job at the local university; since the school has closed for the spring semester, and the students are gone, she’s been laid off.

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For safety’s sake, visits between the father, who’s still interfacing with the public, and the son have stopped for the time being. The son is out of school, “probably for the rest of the year.” So far—aside from the son’s brief illness at the beginning of March, with “a fever and cold symptoms”—they have stayed healthy.

At Home, Cooking

Before [Ohio’s stay-at-home order], my son was with his dad half the week. I cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for him three to five times per week, and maybe cooked breakfast for me two times per week , lunch and dinner four to six times per week . Now that he’s with me all the time, I cook both of our meals three times per day, plus two snacks. My hands feel like I’m dishing for my work kitchens. My sponge has never seen this much action!

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We have indulged in takeout four times since Ohio started sheltering in place. We got pizza from [a beloved local pizza shop] one night. We got breakfast from [a local bakery] once when we went to town to ride on the bike path and make necessary phone calls, because I don’t have cell service or a landline where I live. We got prepared baked goods from [a local prepared-food company]. But now that I have no income, I can’t really afford to drive around, much less eat out. And since we’re supposed to be staying at home, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Just Trying to Get Groceries

I went grocery shopping before the stay-at-home order but didn’t really stock up because I didn’t have the money to and didn’t think I’d go through a ton of food. I can make something to eat out of scraps if I need to, and my son will like it! But I also hadn’t planned on him being with me full time, or needing to make both of us food three to five times per week. I didn’t realize how often I stopped for coffee or a bagel or takeout in general.

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I placed a large order for pickup with Kroger last week and picked it up this week. I don’t want to have to do it again while we are sheltering in place, but I probably will. Kroger is my most affordable option with the products I want. They charge $9.95 for delivery [through Instacart], but I can’t justify that cost. Pickup fees have been waived, but in order to get a pickup time that’s a week out, I literally have had to wait until the clock strikes midnight for the time slots to open.

I can’t risk taking my 6-year-old into the store; he’s too young to not touch everything and to give people a 6-foot circumference. It looks like they’re asking for only one person per family to come in at a time now, anyway—and again, I don’t have child care for him. So pickup it is.

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I’ve been spending way more on groceries! My order to Kroger was $300, and they didn’t send a quarter of it. Much of it was frozen and canned food, but there were more expensive fresh things like cream (for my coffee, an indulgence I’ll hold on to for as long as I can!), yogurt, cheese, and butter. Plus, I shop for fresh veggies and meat at the farmers market.

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I have SNAP. I would have loved to have used SNAP on my last grocery order, but Kroger isn’t set up to accept SNAP yet with pickup (even though the state has now mandated it). Also, my benefits didn’t come in until the day after [my pickup slot]. I had no choice—I could either forgo the groceries, which I could have done for a bit longer but not a week, or put it on my credit card. I’m very disappointed about this and worried about how I’m going to pay that credit card bill after this is over.

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I’m grateful that my SNAP benefits have come through and are reflecting my loss of income for now. Those benefits I’ll use at the farmers market. There’s a program matching how many coins I take out. Before the pandemic, I could charge $20 to my card and receive 20 gold coins for purchasing many goods and 20 green coins for produce only. Because of the pandemic, it’s now an unlimited amount of matching.

Shortages and Substitutions

I’m not really sure that any items are hard to find in our area; you just have to be prepared to look in many places. In my Kroger order, I asked for things that weren’t delivered—things like matzo and gefilte fish for Passover. I know they were in stock; friends without kids went directly there after I received my order and picked those things up for me. It made me wonder … was that person [filling my order] completely clueless about where items in the store were? Were they not paying attention? Do they have something against ethnic foods?

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I also can’t order toilet paper [from Kroger, which isn’t allowing such purchases for pickup], which really pisses me off. I didn’t stockpile it before because I’ve always used it conservatively. In fact, on March 9, I had six rolls in my house. A month later, I have one and a half left. I have washable wipes I’ll resort to for pee if I have to!

In the Kitchen, Saving Everything

We’ve baked bread because we ran out of [local bakery] bread and baked cookies when we wanted something sweet in the house. I combined the last spoonfuls of marinara with sun-dried tomatoes, a can of diced tomatoes, and a bunch of dried herbs to make a sauce for our pizza (with homemade crust), after waiting a few days for a neighbor to bring us a block of cheese. I’ve subbed olive oil for grapeseed oil. As a chef, I have specific tastes for specific foods, so using olive oil in a recipe not designed for it makes the flavor stand out strangely to me!

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Cereal isn’t a good breakfast in my opinion, but I let my son have it for the few days we didn’t have eggs. We had a lot of meals featuring bell peppers and carrots as the veggies, because that’s all I had. But I’m also really conscious of food waste, so whenever I make something and we have leftovers, it gets stretched and improvised into the next two or three meals.

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I save my bread heels for breadcrumbs. I roast a whole head of cauliflower or cook more pasta than usual and use it for the next two meals in different ways. I trim and cut up celery and put it in water to keep it from getting floppy before I use it. I keep all cut up veggies I have in containers on the same shelf in the fridge. All leftovers go on a different shelf to use first. I use water instead of milk to make hot cereals unless the milk is getting old. I serve us smaller portions so that we can have seconds (also small) and leftovers for lunch the next day. This helps us psychologically feel fuller! I also make my son’s snacks smaller, especially when they’re things he doesn’t love, like apples and peanut butter. This way, he eats what I gave him and none is wasted. When he is “full” (bored with my cooking), he knows now to put his plate in the fridge, and he can get it out when he’s feeling “hungry” (bored in a different way) again.

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I left my partner situation less than a year ago and have struggled to learn how to shop for just myself and a small person half the time. It’s hard not to waste food while learning, but I’m determined to make small amounts of food and anything we have leftover goes in the freezer for another time if we won’t eat it immediately.

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I have a lot of time on my hands now to experiment with dishes I want to execute at my chef job if I ever get it back, but it’s so hard to do on a tiny scale; I’m cooking for two people instead of 30 to 50, and I also don’t have ample amounts of expensive meat to experiment with. A lot of the time [before the pandemic], I begrudgingly cooked at home because it’s what I do for work. I’m happy to make spaghetti. But in order to keep things balanced for our health, now I have to get creative.

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Right now, it’s Passover, so I’m excited to make stuff I don’t usually make, like spinach-matzo pie, or to experiment with more beef dishes if I can get my hands on some meat!

A Little Bright Side

If anything has changed with my kid’s eating, it’s that my kindergartner is eating BETTER. Before going to school, we were doing great, but it’s terrible what [kids are given to eat at school]. We have gotten a couple of food packages from his school, but they are filled with terrible food—high-sugar, high-calorie, low-fat, chemical-laden foods. I feel bad for thinking this way when so many have no other choice, but they certainly deserve a better choice. Even though his teacher is great about not allowing him [added] sugar (per my instructions), there are plenty of bad ingredients in the rest of the breakfasts, snacks, and lunches he gets at school. At my house, I try to make sure each meal and snack is balanced—a protein, a carb, a fat, a veggie, and a fruit, and it’s mostly whole foods. I don’t buy a lot of processed foods. It doesn’t always happen, and sometimes the combos are a little strange (tuna salad with butternut-quinoa griddle cakes was my latest odd combo of stretched meals).

There Will Be Enough

Food is a dangerous vice for me, and since I can’t have my other vices now due to solo parenting my kid (a daily, solid hour of cardio at the gym, a night alone or out with friends, a random cigarette), food is next in line. I keep the anxiety at bay, though, knowing that food security in my community is actually quite good, and I have neighbors and friends who will help if I ever need it (and in some ways, already have, like getting us Passover groceries, helping us build a garden, or trading plant starts). I know many food producers in the area as well, having worked in food here for nearly 20 years. I remember to feed my kid first, and that I know how to make something good out of the weirdest ingredients. We will be OK. If we’re not, then no one is.

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