Category Archives: meal ideas during covid-19 pandemic

Meal Preparation During The COVID Pandemic

Adjusting to life in a pandemic has had its challenging moments. My well-established habits and routines have been tossed aside to accommodate a new way of living. Mask wearing and 20-second handwashes have become standard operating procedures for me, as have been daily checks of COVID morbidity and mortality numbers.

The pandemic has converted our empty nest household into a residence of 5 adults, only one who is working. The reality of our increased population has forced many changes, including the return of a nightly family dinner. Eating dinner with my wife and three of my children has been a joy. However, it has also included the additional stress of making dinner for five regularly.

When our kids were younger, my wife was a stay at home mom and our principal cook. She returned part-time to the paid workforce when the kids were in middle school, and I started to cook some of our family dinners when she was working late. Being a multi-tasker, I decided to teach my kids how to cook and began “Cooking With Dad Thursdays.” Every Thursday, the kids and I planned, purchased, cooked, and ate dinner. Naturally, we also cleaned up our mess. My goal was to make my kids competent in this vital life skill. Little did I know that I would call upon their services in 2020.

Cooking with my kids makes meal prep a lot more fun.

As I noted above, all of us try to eat dinner together. My wife continues to make several meals a week, and we usually order carry-out on Fridays. That leaves 3-4 dinner preparations that I commit to making. When the kids and I did “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” the sky was the limit. Steak with all of the trimmings? No problem. I was working 60 hours a week, and I didn’t flinch with expensive grocery bills. However, things have changed. I am no longer a wage earner, my kids are adults, and grocery prices have escalated. Meal planning and preparation could be an expensive and time-consuming chore. Luckily, I have wonderful and adaptive kids who almost always help me cook. Cooking with them is fun, but meals need to be simple and reasonably priced. I have a secret weapon to accomplish these goals. I grew up in the 60s, and my mom cooked for seven people. She was a great cook, and I have fond memories of the meals that she made. Many of her meals were designed to feed a crowd efficiently and economically.  


Sixties cooking does not comply with the eating standards of 2020. If your family only eats salads, stop reading now.

The secrets of 60s cooking

Using basic ingredients

In the 1960s, most cooks had a larder filled with basic ingredients. Flour, sugar, eggs, and the like. Basic ingredients allow for maximum flexibility when cooking. Cooking from scratch can be nearly as efficient as making prepared foods once you have gained some experience.

Using prepared foods

In the 1960s, packaged foods were also popular. Cake mixes, tubes of crescent rolls, canned condensed soups, and many other items were (and are) relatively inexpensive. Thoughtful use of these foods can ease your cooking burden.  

Don’t want to make a white sauce? Try a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Need to make a quick dessert? A brownie mix is cheap; you don’t have to remember if you have baking chocolate on hand. Want to boost a boring main dish? Crack open a tube of crescent rolls. The options are endless.

Using frozen foods

Some frozen foods, like vegetables, are cheap and good. Take advantage of them. The more “prepared” they are, the more expensive they are. Buying frozen broccoli is dirt cheap, but it is more expensive if it has a “butter sauce.” Forgo the latter and add your own pat of butter to save some money. 

Substitute when needed

In the 60s, it was common to modify a recipe based on what you had on hand. If you didn’t have one ingredient, it was perfectly OK to substitute a similar item. No green onions? Try some finely chopped regular onions. You don’t have a particular spice? Try another one that compliments the meat that you are using. No fresh garlic? Try some of the stuff in a jar or use garlic powder. Don’t have tomato sauce? Try using a can of tomato soup. Your results will vary with the number and types of items that you switch out, but with reasonable care, you will end up with a good dinner. 

Keep it simple

In the 1960s, it was common to eat one-pot meals. Casseroles, soups, stews, and the like were easily augmented with a simple side dish. Combination foods are also cheaper to make as they use less meat.  

Clean as you go

I mentioned that my mom was a great cook. However, she was a messy cook who seemed to use every pot, pan, and bowl to prepare a meal. If you want to ease your cooking stress, clean up as you go.  

By the time that we are ready to sit down for dinner, all of our preparation dishes are washed and put away. When we are done eating, everyone clears the table, one person washes the table, and someone else loads the dishwasher. A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen.

I thought that I would share some of my classic recipes with you. Although I have modified many of them, most were created by other cooks. Thank you to those individuals!

Meal options

Breakfast for dinner

Making breakfast food for dinner is quick, cheap, and delicious. Ham and eggs, pancakes with sausage, or waffles, and bacon are some breakfast foods that we sometimes have for dinner.  

Waffles and Bacon

We usually make our bacon on a jelly roll pan lined with aluminum foil. Place the bacon in single slices on the sheet and bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes, or until done.  

You can use Bisquick or a pancake mix for waffles, but I think these scratch ones are easy to make and taste better. If you don’t have a waffle iron, you can probably pick up one cheap from a resale shop (like Goodwill). Ours is over 25 years old, but it still does the trick. Here is my waffle recipe.

Two eggs

2 cups flour

½ cup melted butter

One ¾ cups milk

1 T sugar

4 t baking powder

¼ t salt

Heat the waffle iron and spray with cooking spray. Mix the ingredients into a batter and add enough mixture to the hot waffle iron to fill the cavity (but not so much that you are dripping everywhere). Waffles are done when less steam comes off of the iron. You can keep them hot in a warming oven until serving, or pass them out as they are made. 

Homemade waffles taste so much better than frozen ones.

Simple Spaghetti

I debated about posting this recipe, as it is so simple. However, there may be people out there who have never cooked, and this recipe is easy, filling, and delicious.

Boil spaghetti following the package directions. When done, drain and return to the pot. Add a tablespoon or two of butter to the drained spaghetti to keep the strands separated. 

While you are making the spaghetti, brown about a pound of hamburger (or other ground meat) in a separate pot, drain off the fat while carefully retaining the browned meat in the pot. Add a jar of spaghetti sauce to the ground meat and heat. We tend to go with inexpensive brands like Ragu and Prego. You can be as creative or straightforward with your sauce as you like. Add some parmesan cheese, a little red wine, a bit more oregano, a small can of mushrooms, whatever suits your fancy.  

We dump the sauce into the cooked spaghetti pot and mix it up like a casserole.  

Along with the spaghetti, we will serve a tossed salad and some garlic bread. Commercial garlic bread is good, but it is easy to make some from scratch. Just melt some butter and mix in some chopped garlic (or even garlic powder). Brush the mixture on some decent bread and “toast” the bread butter side up on a cookie sheet in the oven (350F-400F), removing the bread when it is nicely toasted.

Beef Tips in the Instantpot (or any pressure cooker)

Beef tips usually use sirloin, but we go cheap and use stew meat. You can also use cut-up round steak or pot roast.

In a large Ziplock bag add:

3 T flour

2 t steak seasoning (optional)

2 t garlic powder

1 t onion powder

½ t salt

½ t pepper

Add 1-2 pounds of cubed steak and shake to coat the steak in the mixture.

Place the Instantpot in saute mode, add some oil, then brown the steak in batches. Remove the meat.

Add to the hot Instantpot:

1-2 T oil

One chopped onion

Lightly brown the onion

Then add:

Three cloves chopped garlic (or some garlic powder)

⅓ cup red wine (or water)

12 oz beef broth (you can also use low sodium bouillon and water)

1 T Worcestershire sauce

½ t ground thyme (No thyme? Try oregano). 

Return the meat to the pot and cook under high pressure for 35 minutes. Let the pressure come down for 10 minutes after 35 minutes of cooking time. Carefully release the pressure and open the lid. Place the pot back into saute mode and wait until the mixture is bubbling. Take a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch and mix with a couple of tablespoons of water. Stream this mixture into the Instant pot whisking as you go. Cook for a few minutes and then adjust seasonings. I usually have to add more salt, garlic powder, and pepper. A squirt or two of hot sauce doesn’t hurt either.

I often serve this dish with bread/rolls, a vegetable, and a starch. If I’m using rice as my starch, I’ll make a lot more to use it for the next recipe. 

Beef tips made in the InstantPot.

Mike’s “Sort Of” Chinese Fried Rice.

The secret to good fried rice is to use cooked rice that is a few days old. Freshly made rice will result in a sticky mess. I tend to keep leftover rice uncovered in the fridge and use it about 2-3 days later. 

Fried rice is a recipe that you can modify to your heart’s content.

Heat a wok or large frying pan and add some oil. Saute 3-4 sliced green onions and then add chopped ginger root (1t to 1 T), and chopped garlic (3-4 cloves).  

Add some meat (½ to 1 lb), cut into small pieces. I like using chicken. Cook in small batches while you continuously stir and flip the meat using a wide utensil. Make sure you don’t overcook the meat. Remove the meat from the pan.

Add more oil if needed, and then add your cooked rice. How much? Around 4-6 cups are about right. Keep the rice in motion until it is heated.

Push the rice to the pan’s sides and add a couple of scrambled uncooked eggs in the center of the pan. Cook the eggs until they are almost done and then mix them with the rice mixture.

Take a bag of frozen vegetables (peas/carrots, stir-fry mix, etc.), and heat in the microwave for about ½ of their cooking time. Add the vegetables to the rice mixture and stir to distribute. Return the chicken and heat a bit more. Mix in some soy sauce until the rice is the color that you like.

Add salt and possibly pepper to taste. Personally, I also like to add a shot or two of hot sauce.

Fried Rice.

Super Easy Quiche

One large pie crust

Six large eggs

3/4 cup milk 

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup cooked ham cut into small cubes

1 1/2 cups shredded cheese divided (any meltable cheese, but not mozzarella) 

Four tablespoons chopped green onions

Mix liquids and seasoning together. Put green onions, ham, and 1 C of the cheese into the pie crust. Pour the liquid mixture into the pie crust and top with remaining ½ C of cheese. Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let rest at least 10 minutes before cutting. I like to serve this quiche with homemade bran muffins and a green vegetable.

Super easy quiche.

Bran Muffins

1/2 cup oil

1 cup of sugar

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk (or 2 T vinegar into a scant 2 C milk-let it sit for a few minutes before adding to the dry ingredients)

4 cups Raisin Bran cereal

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

Mix ingredients and let the mixture stand for at least 45 minutes. Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake at 400 F for 12-15 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the muffin’s center). Cool for at least 10 minutes before removing muffins from the tin. 

Easy to make and delicious bran muffins.

I hope that these ideas reduce some of your cooking stress and turn the drudgery of cooking into a fun activity.



Our Easter During A Shelter-In-Place COVID-19 Pandemic.

I have celebrated Easter Sunday in the same way for decades. The morning starts with a candy hunt by the kids, followed by a light brunch. We then attend a late morning church service. I rush home from church to make my “signature” cheesy chivy potatoes, which is my contribution to our family’s Easter party. We then pile into our car and drive off to my sister’s house in a nearby suburb. Along the way, I pick up flowers for my two godchildren.

For Easter, my sister and brother-in-law supply their house and a lot of the food. However, most of us are assigned a dish-to-pass. We typically are given the same dish to make year after year, which is how cheesy chivy potatoes became my signature dish. You may think that the recipe sounds disgusting, but many family members have told me that they look forward to it every Easter. Chessy Chivy Potatoes are not haute cuisine. 

Mike’s Recipe for Cheesy Chivy Potatoes

  1. Make a whole bunch of mashed potatoes.
  2. Stir in a lot of cheese. This can be any combination of meltable cheeses. Over the years, I have used sharp cheddar, American slices, and even Velveta. 
  3. Add chives to taste. I’ll sometimes saute fresh chives, but I have also used the dried bottled stuff. They both taste the same.

I bring a large pan of the potatoes, and I’ll often leave the party with an empty scrapped casserole dish. Our Easter meal is Midwestern… ham, potatoes, jello molds, rolls/butter, sweet potatoes, Easter lamb pound cake… you get the picture. We do have a few vegetarians in our group, so there are also some vegetarian-friendly foods added to the menu.

My sister’s Easter party is always a highlight for me. Everyone is eager to mingle and chat, the weather is typically beautiful enough for a walk, and the food is comforting. By 8 PM, I’m ready to head home. Easter Sunday concludes quietly, often by watching one of those classic Easter movies. However, all that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, as many weeks ago, my sister canceled the event due to the virus.

As a family, we decided to do something for Easter, but we weren’t sure what that “something” would be. Our plans slowly formed as the day approached.

Julie made a brunch style egg dish, the kind where you mix bread, eggs, ham, and cheese and let the combination sit overnight in the fridge. It puffs up into a delicious souffle style casserole when you bake it the next day. Also, she proved some Rhodes cinnamon rolls. These start as frozen pucks that you place in a 9 x 13 pan overnight. By morning they are doubled in size and ready for the oven. There is nothing like the smell of baking cinnamony bread to wake you up in the morning. Add some strong hot coffee for a perfect start to the holiday.

Hot Cinnamon Rolls and Overnight Egg Dish

We didn’t buy any Easter candy; I didn’t think that this was a big deal as our kids are adults. I was wrong. This was rectified by Grace and Kathryn, who took a quick trip to Walgreen’s candy aisle the day before.  

Enough Easter candy to make anyone sick.

Later Sunday morning, we went to church…online. Our church had started a streaming ministry to lock-ins, and so they were ready to broadcast when Illinois’ shelter-in-place order came through. I cued up the stream on a Macbook and “Cast” it to our family room TV. The overall production quality was excellent, and they wove in video clips and remote music into the sermon. At communion time, we ate Ritz crackers and had a small sip of box wine. Watching church on a TV is not as engaging as participating in person, but the overall impact made it a worthwhile experience.

An online sermon cast to our family room TV.
Multiple musical collaborators turned our family room into a church concert.

Our early afternoon was carved out for connecting with others. At 2 PM, we all huddled around a computer and logged into a Zoom call to Julie’s family. The group represented members from 4 states and one foreign country. Her family follows rules well; everyone waited to talk, and the conversation rolled along smoothly.  

Huddling around a computer on a Zoom call to the Nelsons.

At 3 PM, I connected to my side’s Zoom call. Kunas are very exuberant, and most have little experience with conference calls. The resulting connection consisted of conversational chaos. It was fantastic to see everyone, but after about 10 minutes I decided that it was time to leave the meeting. Lastly, I was able to connect with my oldest daughter, Anne, via FaceTime. By 4 PM, I had touched base with more people then I would have if I had followed my usual Easter routine. This surprised me.

Reaching out with Zoom to the Kuna side of the family.
A good ol’ FaceTime call to daughter, Anne.

For dinner, Julie made some chicken legs that I bought during a pandemic grocery trip along with some stuffed shells and fresh asparagus. This was not our traditional Easter dinner, but delicious and celebratory none-the-less.

A non-traditional but delicious dinner.

After dinner, I discover new neighborhoods on a walk with my daughter Grace. Our evening ended with a family viewing of episode 8 of “The Tiger King.” We, too, have succumbed to this national phenomenon. I have to say that episode 8 seemed more like click-bait than a real episode, but it still managed to occupy 60 minutes of our evening.

I discovered this cool mid-century home when we decided to go in a different direction on a walk.

There you have it, our Easter during the pandemic. We didn’t go to church or have traditional Easter baskets. I didn’t make cheesy chivy potatoes or go to my sister’s house for a party. However, we managed to incorporate all of the essential elements of our typical Easter into last Sunday. We ate special food, and the kids had their fill of hollow chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs. We attentively attended an online church service. We caught up with loved ones, and we did family-centered activities. We didn’t give up Easter; we just modified it. It was a good day.

We may need to change other behaviors during (and after) this crisis time, but that doesn’t mean that we need to give up on life or traditions.  

I’m sure that there are activities or connections that you are missing since you have had to socially isolate. I would ask you to distill the essence of what you are losing into its characteristic elements. Be creative and see how you can reproduce those elements differently so you can transform your situation from one of loss to one of discovery.


Cooking During The Pandemic

I grew up at a time when it was OK for parents to be uninvolved with their kids.  Yes, some dads and moms liked to spend time with their children, but a lack of such interest was not frowned on. If I wanted to spend time with my parents, I had to do this on their terms.  This was nearly impossible with my father but more workable with my mom.

My mother was a brilliant person who spent her adult life as a homemaker. Just about anything that she did, she did well.  One of her jobs was that of the household cook. We had seven people in our family, and we never went to restaurants. The vast majority of the food that we ate was made at home, and my mother made most of it. 

I can recall watching her cook as I ran the logic of her decisions through my mind. She was an effortless cook who knew her craft so well that she rarely had to consult a cookbook or use a measuring spoon. Despite her expertise, my mother loved watching cooking shows, and by far, her favorite one was Julia Child’s “French Chief.”  I would watch the show with her, and this is a fond memory. I loved the precision and focus of Julia Child. She treated cooking as a science, and I liked science.

I believe that all of that cooking exposure left me with kitchen confidence.  Making food was not a mystery to me; it was just a series of logical steps. Once I understood the stages of one process, I could translate that information to another. 

As a single man, I put my cooking knowledge to good use, especially during my residency.  At that point, I was divorced with a child, and I was penniless. I could stretch a can of tuna into two meals or turn two chicken legs into dinner one night and lunch the next day.

I finished my residency and started to make more money as a practicing physician.  My new economic status shifted me from cooking at home to buying food in the hospital cafeteria or (worse yet) buying fast food burgers. Eventually, I remarried, and my wife Julie took over most of the cooking jobs.

I transitioned back to meal prep when Julie returned to the paid workforce, and in that process, I taught my kids how to cook as we planned and made meals together. We would decide what we wanted to eat and go to the store to buy it.  There was never a worry about cost or shortages. 

When my kids went off to college, I traded off cooking meals with Julie, and our overall needs changed.  I could make a pot of soup that would last us four days, or grill a single steak that we would split. I tried to be less wasteful during this time, as I was now retired and ever more aware of both the sin of wastefulness and my fixed retirement income. I had no idea that this frugality would further benefit me during the pandemic of 2020.

We were flying back from New Mexico when I got a text message that my daughter Grace’s college had closed down; then, I found out that my son’s in-person classes were suspended.  A short time later, I discovered that my daughter Kathryn was flying back from her Peace Corps job in Africa. We had just adjusted to being empty nesters, but in short order, our household was going from two to five adults.  As soon as I returned to Naperville, I went to Walmart to buy food and discovered that the shelves were bare. A quiet panic hit me.

Something strange happens when I panic.  I calm on the surface, and I instantly start to plan solutions in my head.  This is not a doctor thing; it is a survival thing that I have done my entire life. I quickly went down each aisle to find those things that I could make meals out of.  I moved my mind from what I wanted to what was available. A can of chicken, two cans of crushed tomatoes, some weirdly shaped pasta that no one else wanted… The purchases went on. Years of watching my mother make meals from what was on hand flashed in my brain.  I recalled my residency years of making a can of tuna fish stretch. I remembered the summers of making simple meals when I camped and hiked. I knew I could make it work, but would my family eat what I made? In the past, we made food that everyone liked, and when someone didn’t like a meal-offering, they would eat something else.  That could no longer happen with food shortages and a limited larder.

I was surprised at how exhausting cooking meals had become for me during the crisis.  I’m sure that managing my stress had zapped most of my psychological energy. I decided to involve my kids; we would cook together.  It is more enjoyable to prepare with them, and I also wanted to teach them this “new” way of cooking. The waste-not-want-not way.

Our current meals go back to my poor roots.  I try to make enough food without excess, and when we do have leftovers, I reuse them or incorporate them into other meals.  I now have a better understanding of my mother’s choices when cooking and the economic benefit of the casserole. 

We have made everything from enchilada soup to a giant frittata baked in our 12” cast-iron skillet. The kids have been happy to help me cook, and they don’t complain about the results. They have been real troopers. 

Before I went to bed last night, I made an enormous pot of rice.  For dinner today, I’ll fry it with some leftover pork, some frozen vegetables, eggs, as well as scallions pinched from my friend Tom’s garden.  Add to this a little garlic and ginger, plus a splash of soy sauce and dinner will be served. Simple and filling.

There isn’t a shortage of food; there is a shortage of some types of food. Perhaps I can’t get a kind of potatoes, but I can likely find a different variety.  The cold cereal may be off the shelves, but I might be able to find some pancake mix. I don’t worry about the type of olive that a dish requires, I wonder if I have a random can of olives in the pantry.  It is about being flexible and creative.

I’m going to try to limit my grocery trips during the next two weeks, which means that we will mostly eat from our in-house supplies.  It may get a bit dicey as our options become more limited. However, we will not starve; life will go on.

As I have said in the past most things in life are neither bad nor good, they just are.  We are the ones who add a positive or negative valence to life events. It is a good thing that our home is returning to a less wasteful cooking style.  It is good that my kids are seeing the benefit of being flexible and adaptive. It is good to be grateful to have food on the table.  

Life is more comfortable when you train yourself to see the positive in things.  Our family will get through this, one economical meal at a time.

Boiling some potatoes that will be shredded and added to a frittata.
Involving the kids in meal prep. (note the spray bottle of homemade surface disinfectant next to William).
Cornbread and enchilada soup (made from leftovers).