Making the Most of Emergency Food Boxes or Food Banks

Reader Contribution by Mary Moss-Sprague
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Shelves At A Food Pantry; Photo by Maryhere on Morguefile

Many people who’ve never sought food donations are doing so now in these difficult economic and problematic food-supply-chain times. In order to put food on the table, there may be little choice but to seek assistance from local food pantries.

It can be emotionally upsetting to accept a “dole.” And, knowing how to make the most of emergency groceries can be an even bigger challenge. Many people simply aren’t used to planning meals for several days at a time. Some aren’t used to cooking “from scratch.” Thus, that odd collection of foodstuffs you receive in an emergency food box, or pick from the shelf at a food bank, can be confusing and bewildering.

This post will give you suggestions for creating delicious, nutritious meals without adding more stress to your life. Just think positive: you’ve got food, much better than the alternative. You’ll make it.

What Food Will I Get at a Food Bank?

Let’s get started. What food will you receive? A typical food pantry will usually have in stock some or all of the following items, and food box contents will be similar:

  • Canned vegetables and legumes: green beans, peas, corn, beets, tomatoes, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, navy beans, etc.
  • Canned tomato/pasta sauce
  • Dry oatmeal or other dry cereals
  • Cooking oil
  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Dry spaghetti and other pastas
  • Rice
  • Canned tuna or other fish products
  • Soups and broths
  • Beef stew
  • Canned chicken or other meats
  • Mayonnaise
  • Bread (or voucher for bread)
  • Corn meal
  • Biscuit mix
  • Milk, margarine, cheese, and other dairy products (or vouchers for these)
  • Eggs
  • Dry beans, split peas
  • Fresh or frozen meat (or vouchers for these)
  • Peanut butter

Communal Cooking Big Stainless Pots; Photo by VerticalStripe on Morguefile

Tips for In-Person Food Bank Shopping

Food banks themselves often have supplies of fresh vegetables and fruits, too. It all depends on what’s in season and what the food bank has received in donations from local supermarkets and farms. Some food banks may offer limited amounts of plant-based foods, including tofu, grains, garden-style burgers, or items made from textured vegetable protein.

If you prefer a plant-based diet, you should be able to find items that work for you, although the choices may be limited. Either way, a bag of russet, gold, or red potatoes and 2 or 3 pounds of onions will be very helpful, so try to score some of them. Never turn down a can of potatoes, sweet or white; these can be chopped and fried like hash browns, or cut up and added to stews and soups. They store well for long periods of time, too.

Use the above list to help you select items best for your dietary and nutritional needs. Also, bring your own list of what you need, and jot down other special items you’d like to have if available.

Example: If mustard and ketchup are “musts” in your diet, and the food bank doesn’t have them, they are usually cheap enough to buy at dollar or discount outlet stores. Ditto with baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper, spices, and dried herbs, which are often sold for just a dollar each.

Using a Food Box Donation

If you can’t go to a food bank and must work with what’s in a donation box, check out the contents and make a list of them to help with planning meals, finding recipes, etc. (Enlist other family members to help with this if you don’t live alone.) Think about how much food you typically purchase and consume in a week. Do you usually buy pre-packaged fresh or frozen convenience foods and microwavable items to consume? What’s in the food box that can be used to create similar recipes?

Don’t be overwhelmed or discouraged at the sight of those cans and bulk food items. With a bit of imagination and creativity, you can stretch that food out enough to feed you (and others) in your household for several days. Try not to overeat because of stress–that goes for everyone in your household. Think flavor and taste rather than huge portions!

Spend some time figuring out how to eat as normally as possible while being flexible and cooking everything yourself. Example: are there ingredients to whip up a pot of chili, soup, or stew? What about pancakes and muffins? Of course, don’t be afraid to turn to others for help. Reach out to others by phone or e-mail; ask for cooking tips and recipes for food preparation and cooking.

Complete meal plans and recipes are also at your fingertips online. A simple Internet search will lead to millions of recipes and instructions on exactly how to cook anything — and, I mean anything!

Your Meal Planning and Cooking

What are your usual eating habits — two meals a day, or three? Snacks or not? Do you prefer a light breakfast, or a hearty one? Do you usually skip lunch and cut to the chase with dinner? If you’re stuck at home all day, you will likely rethink your options and may change your eating habits in the process.

Okay, let’s think dinner, what to make? Hint: rather than serving whole potatoes and thick slices of meat at a meal, think “small pieces” — chopped, diced, and shredded proteins, fruits, cheese, and vegetables. Countless people survived the Great Depression and WWII by creating tasty casseroles, stratas, soups, and stews. These one-dish meals offer enough variety and nutrition to keep both hunger and boredom at bay. If you eat them, eggs, cheese, and milk are great sources of protein and can be used in a huge variety of ways. Plant proteins and egg substitutes can be similarly used.

Search online or plunder older cookbooks for economizing meals such as this one for an egg souffle strata. Start with 12 to 15 slices of bread, torn into smallish pieces and placed in a greased casserole dish. A mixture of milk, eggs, seasoning, a bit of chopped ham or  cooked sausage or plant protein, chopped onion, chopped vegetable (broccoli or peas work well and the photo below even makes use of Brussels’ sprouts, which store for weeks), and a bit of shredded cheese, is poured over the bread. The dish is baked for about 40 minutes (at 350 degrees Fahrenheit), depending on the dish size. This is a great, filling breakfast or dinner meal, and will serve four hungry people or more, especially when served with a green salad.

Egg And Brussels Sprouts Casserole; Photo by Lebensmittelfotos on Pixabay.

What about making soup or stew from scratch? Think broth. Chicken, beef, and vegetable broths are usually available for 50 to 60 cents per can at the supermarket, if the food bank or donation box doesn’t have any. Broths add flavor as well as volume when used in soups and stews. To make homemade soup or stew, start with a pot of fresh water and a can of broth, and start gently boiling a mixture of cut-up vegetables (canned or fresh). Add precooked meat scraps of chicken, pork, turkey, or beef if you like. Never put raw meat into the pot; instead, raw meat scraps can quickly be cooked in a fry pan or nuked in the microwave. Then toss them into the pot with the rest of the stuff.

Hint: meat and veggie scraps can also be used to make your own broth first; simply add them to boiling water and simmer for about an hour. Strain off any fat before using. Add preferred seasonings.

A can of commercially-prepared stew can be stretched to make a hearty meal to feed more people by simply adding water, broth, more vegetables, beans, and meat scraps. The same thing is true with canned chili. Add a can or two of kidney beans, tomato sauce, garlic, onion, and maybe some ground meat (beef, turkey, chicken, or soy/vegetable protein if available). Hot dogs or sausages such as bratwurst can also be added. Try sprinkling chopped onion and/or small shreds of cheese on top of the chili when serving it for visual appeal and more flavor.

What about something to go with the soup or stew? If you have corn meal, flour, soda, baking powder, two eggs, and some milk, delicious corn bread is just a few minutes away. A boxed mix will serve, too. Biscuits, crackers, or bread will also round out these one-dish meals. Suddenly, that one meager can of chili or stew fills a big pot and everyone’s tummy! Bonus: leftover corn bread is great for breakfast, too.

Be Creative

Add “wilting” fresh vegetables (celery, cabbage, carrots, broccoli, etc.) to canned or frozen vegetables, or add them to rice or noodles for stir-fry meals. Lunches and dinners can also be soups, salads, sandwiches, or pancakes–really, whatever you have the ingredients for that sounds good.

When cold cuts and sliced cheese aren’t available, chopped meats or fish or hardboiled eggs mixed with mayonnaise and a bit of chopped onion or pickle can be stretched even further by adding chopped celery or shredded carrot. Plop these fillings between bread or serve on lettuce or other greens for a healthy, tasty salad. Don’t stint on the seasonings! Fresh or canned fruit can flesh out the meal, and maybe add a homemade cookie or other treat if you have some.

Don’t be afraid to stretch your taste buds and can-do attitude in the kitchen. Here’s to better times, and Bon Appetit meanwhile!

Mary Moss-Sprague is a certified Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver in Corvallis, Ore., and author of Stand Up and Garden: The No-digging, No-tilling, No-stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs. Read all of Mary’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.


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