I grew up in a humble household in the Richmond District of San Francisco. My brother and I had zero extracurricular activities growing up. Our family rarely went on vacation, and when we did, it was just to places locally around California, as far as Orange County. But one thing that we were never lacking in was food. Our fridge, freezer, and pantry were always extremely well stocked, full of ready-to-eat food like frozen dumplings or burritos, canned vegetables and fruit, as well as fresh food such as fresh vegetables, meat, and noodles. Because I grew up like this, I just thought this was normal. If my mom wanted to make something quickly for dinner with the raw ingredients on hand, she always had plenty of garlic, onions, tomatoes, or carrots already in the fridge, ready to go. If she wanted to make us a quick pasta sauce, she’d just thaw out ground turkey or beef from the freezer and make it. Chicken cutlets? No problem – she always had chicken breasts on hand that she’d quickly pound, along with bread crumbs to coat the chicken pieces in. There were never too many eggs at home. We had all the usual condiments like mustard, ketchup, maple syrup, soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, etc., to make dishes from Western cuisines or different Asian cuisines. In many ways when I look back, our kitchen was like the land of plenty.
That’s why it was strange to me when I started making friends, and I’d go to their houses and see them open the fridge, and there would barely be a bottle of ketchup or water in there. Their freezers would be empty, except for maybe a box of popsicles or a bag of Hot Pockets. When the question of “what are we going to eat for dinner?” came up, the parents would scramble and get takeout, or just have everyone eat something like Kraft macaroni and cheese. I wasn’t sure if it was a money problem or a “preparedness” issue, but either way, it seemed depressing to me even back then.
I suppose I took that with me as an adult living on my own. When I started building out my pantry and kitchen staples, I’d buy more than what I’d need immediately and get more things for future uses. If I was at a Chinese grocery store, I’d buy the fresh noodles I’d make that night and also add a few more packs to my shopping basket to store in my freezer for future noodle dishes. For spice staples like cumin or turmeric, I’d get enough so that it would last me indefinitely. For frozen vegetables, well, you can never have enough of these, so I’d always get several pounds. For canned goods like tomatoes and coconut milk, these are forever on my shelf, and I get a bit uncomfortable when there’s only one more can left. This way, on the fly, I could make what I wanted to make and not worry about having to rush out to the store just to pick up one or two things for dinner. I could have a ready made meal on the table out of “pantry staples” in just 30-60 minutes.
I realize not everyone has the ability to buy enough to have a fully stocked pantry at any one time because not everyone is as lucky as I am to have the money to do this. Some people live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to “stock up.” But for those of us who can, it definitely pays off in the long run, in terms of sanity, preparation, and your stomach, to do this. Most of my friends, as I’m learning during this pandemic, have very little “staples” at home, and instead use their freezers completely as storage for ready-to-eat things like dumplings, enchiladas, etc., that they may not want to eat every single day during the shelter-in-place orders. They get bored. They want variety. And there’s nothing wrong with that — we should be eating varied diets regardless of whether we’re in a pandemic or not. Their pantries are mostly snacks like chips, pretzels, cookies. There’s not enough raw ingredients to do any real cooking with.
We’re well stocked because that’s all I’ve ever been fortunate enough to know and experience. I’d like to think that this pandemic would force people to be smarter and more prepared in terms of ensuring household and kitchen staples are plentiful if they can afford it and have the space. It’s annoying to have to run out to the store just for one or two ingredients, and it’s especially annoying during this time when we should be limiting our time outside our homes to keep ourselves and others safe. But wouldn’t that be annoying, too, even not in a pandemic?