Chef Sarah Stegner
Photo: Courtesy of Prairie Grass Café

So you’ve done your shopping, you’ve filled your pantry (and fridge, and freezer) and you’re ready to practice some serious social distancing. Now it’s time to actually cook all of those ingredients you’ve purchased – for three meals a day, for potentially weeks on end. What exactly do you do?

Sarah Stegner is coming to the rescue. The chef at Northbrook’s Prairie Grass Café and Green City Market founder has opened a home cooking hotline so people can get answers to basic cooking questions during the pandemic.

“I feel like I can contribute something meaningful,” she says. “People could use good direction on what to buy and how to prepare it.”

The hotline is open from 2 to 4 p.m. every day (call 847-920-8437) but to save you a little bit of time, I talked to Stegner about her top five tips for cooking in a time of crisis.

Buy Smart, Buy Healthy

Based on anecdotal evidence from the grocery stores, shoppers seem to be buying a ton of dry goods. However, many fresh vegetables have a long shelf life if you take care of them correctly. “Beets, rutabaga, potatoes, things like that — they’ll hold for a long time,” Stegner says. Cabbages, celery root, onions, and carrots are all things you can stock up on and keep in the bottom drawer of your fridge.

Clean and Plan

The first thing Stegner did when things started to look a little dicey? Clean and organize her pantry. (I’d add your freezer to the list, especially if you have a large one.) Once you know what you have, write a menu. “The reason you want to write a menu is so you know that you have enough food to get through and exactly how you’re going to use it,” she says. “Pace it out, think about it.”

Be Smart with Storage

All those storage tips you learned from years of cooking shows? Now’s the time to put them into action. Buy fresh herbs to add flavor to food, wrap them in damp paper towels, and store them in Ziploc bags. It’s the same with your salad greens: If you wash and bag them, they’ll keep for a long time. Break your meat into portion-sized bags and freeze them, so you aren’t freezing and thawing the same giant container over and over again.

Watch Your Balance

Stegner is concerned that people are going to eat all the dry food they’ve stockpiled at once when their systems aren't quite ready for it. “I’m not a nutritionist, but when all of a sudden you introduce a lot of starch into your diet, you don’t need large portions,” she explains. If you’re used to high-volume fresh meals (e.g. large lunch salads at work), keep an eye on how much you’re eating if you’ve changed your diet to focus on roots and grains.

Keep It Interesting

The shelves are picked over, so what should you buy that’s 1) still there and 2) interesting? Stegner is a huge proponent of nuts and dried fruit. (“Dried fruit is much better than candy,” she says.) Stock up on intensely flavored spices like fennel seed and red chili peppers. Buy lots of onions, so you can add caramelized onions to everything. Frozen fruit may be picked over, so now’s a good time to buy things you may have never cooked with before — like jackfruit, which, due to its texture, is a common vegan meat substitute. “Don’t be afraid to try new things. They will make your cooking interesting,” Stegner says.