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No takeout? No worry!

It's hard not being able to order in food whenever you want, but there are ways to make daily meal prep less onerous.

The restaurant industry as we knew it before the pandemic has come to a screeching halt. Gone are the fast and convenient dinner options that many of us relied on to fill our bellies at a minute's notice, or if we just wanted to offload the chore of making dinner because we felt exhausted or lazy. But all of a sudden, it's all on us. We're responsible for preparing every single meal, day in and day out, with little hope of reprieve; and to make matters worse, grocery shopping has become an unpleasant ordeal of its own.

This is the new reality of food preparation during pandemic times, and while I'm living through it just like everyone else, I feel as if I made this transition away from convenience to all-homemade ten years ago when I moved out of Toronto into a small rural town. That is why I consider myself well-positioned to give advice on how to survive the sudden dearth of options.

It came as a shock initially, going from living in College Street's Little Italy neighborhood that is famous for its fabulous and diverse restaurants to… nothing. Well, that's not entirely true. My new town had a McDonald's, a Tim Horton's, a Subway, a handful of restaurants serving pub fare, and two options for finer dining. But gone were the options for everything else that I'd grown to rely on in the city – Thai, Indian, sushi, falafel, European bakeries, great pizza. No matter how badly I craved healthy, delicious takeout, there was no option to do so. I had to make dinner, night after night.

It was a rough transition. There were many nights I felt hungry and dissatisfied with what I'd pulled together, times when I felt like crying because I wanted hot and sour soup or sushi rolls so badly, but it got easier as time passed. Over time, I adjusted and figured out a few things. Perhaps this advice can help you, too. (Fortunately my town has added a few decent options in the decade since I arrived, but they're still all closed on Sunday and Monday nights, which throws me for a loop occasionally.)

1. Don't leave it too late.

Do not wait until 6 p.m. to wonder what you're going to make for dinner. That will usually result in frustration. Think about your dinner plans first thing in the morning, even if it's just for five minutes. I usually do it right after breakfast, pause and ask myself what we're going to have, which gives me time to soak chickpeas or beans, take something out of the freezer to thaw, or add an item to my list to pick up if I'm heading out for an errand at some point in the day.

2. Don't overlook simple food.

I have an annoying tendency to overplan meals. I feel as though I haven't had a decent dinner unless it's got multiple dishes and complex flavors. This is not a good thing on busy weeknights, so I've had to learn to let go. Scrambled eggs on toast are perfectly acceptable for a Wednesday night. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches, cheese quesadillas, or even a can of reheated beans is perfectly fine.

3. Establish your “back pocket” recipes.

These are the easy family favorites that you can pull off in less time than other recipes because you know them so well and they require fewer ingredients. For me, those are dishes like fried rice, coconut-lentil soup, flatbread pizzas, homemade macaroni and cheese, and Spanish tortillas. Read: What to cook when there's (almost) nothing in the house

4. Keep a few prepared ingredients on hand.

I'm not talking about making double or triple amounts of something else and putting it in the freezer, although that's impressive if you can pull it off. (I never can because my family eats whatever is made.) I mean buying pre-made ingredients that can help you pull off a last-minute meal when you have no energy left for cooking. For me, that's frozen meatballs (beef, pork, and veggie), jarred pasta and pesto sauce, gnocchi or tortellini, perogies, canned soup and chili, frozen spanakopita.

5. Make partial restaurant orders.

I rarely feel like ordering in pub fare because it only appeals to me if I'm out for drinks with friends, but I've realized that making partial orders for takeout and pairing with homemade side dishes can be a quick and healthy fix for dinner. For example, we occasionally order a batch of battered fish from a local fish ‘n chips joint and serve at home with salad and rice, rather than the mountain of fries it usually comes with. This is particularly relevant at a time when restaurants are closed to in-house diners and only offering takeout. Always remember you can supplement orders to stretch them further and make them healthier.

6. Focus on the positives.

It took me years to accept this, but there are benefits to not having instant access to delicious takeout. You'll save lots of money. (I cringe now in retrospect when I think how much I spent on last-minute emergency meals.) There are usually more leftovers when you cook from scratch, often covering the next day's lunch for all my family members. There's much less plastic and food packaging waste in general, and I don't have to argue with restaurant owners about why I should be allowed to bring my own containers. And you're probably becoming a better, more versatile cook as time goes on, maybe even learning to make some of the takeout standbys you once relied on restaurants to make.

It's hard not being able to order in food whenever you want, but there are ways to make daily meal prep less onerous.