Starting Wednesday, Tarrant County restaurants moved to exclusively curb-side and drive-thru service, and as COVID-19 continues to spread across Texas, more people are looking to dine at home.

Now might be a good time to learn how to cook. Partly for your wallet and partly for your health.

Thao Ho, finance and economics junior, said she tries to cook often, but her busy student schedule didn’t always allow time in the kitchen. Now that she’s spending so much time at home and classes have moved online, she said she has more time to cook.

Cooking at home has helped her save money. Although she’s spending more than usual on groceries, it saves her from dining out.

She mostly cooks Vietnamese food, she said, and recently stocked up on rice and noodles, which she uses in various soups. She said she spices up her meals by cooking lots of seafood and vegetables.

Experiential learning librarian Milaun Murry said students and others learning to cook at home should focus on recipes that implement common staples like rice and pasta. In the case of a student living alone or with one other roommate, a single package of rice or pasta can easily be enough for three or more different meals.

A lot of people don’t realize the variety of dishes they can create with such common staples and whatever else they have on hand, Murry said. You don’t have to run to the grocery store and stock up on new ingredients.

“Take stock of what you have, and be creative,” she said.

“Trash can pasta” is a great example of creative cooking, she said. Start by choosing whatever base pasta you have available, and then toss in whatever’s in the pantry to complete the dish.

“I’ve done it before where it’s just some olive oil, maybe some crushed tomatoes, and then add a little bit of sausage,” she said. “And then I had this random tomato-sausage pasta dish that came out really well, but it wasn’t something I was planning to make. It was something that I was putting together with what I had available.”

Seasonings are also a great tool for variety, Murry said, and most kitchens have a cupboard stocked full of them. Don’t be afraid to go with canned or frozen vegetables. Although they aren’t as fresh or tasty, they’re still a valuable source of fiber, Murry said.

With social distancing and isolation now in effect, a healthy diet is just as important as ever because foods can affect your mood, said registered dietician nutritionist Stacie Ellis.

Diets rich with whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, or fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha can help improve your mood by cultivating good gut bacteria, Ellis said. Meanwhile, sugary foods and foods low or devoid of fiber decrease good gut bacteria and can lower your mood.

Frozen dinners and instant ramen are popular commodities right now. However, both meals are high in sodium and low in fiber, Ellis said. She recommended pairing a bowl of ramen with a serving of vegetables and picking the healthier frozen dinners that come with vegetables.

Still, it’s better to cook than to make a frozen or instant meal, she said.

Cooking doesn’t have to be a full meal either, Murry said. People can experiment by making their own snacks, instead of relying on chips and other common snacks. She recommended trying hummus as an easy, inexpensive, three-ingredient snack.

Cooking specific portions can be a challenge for many, she said. Most people don’t cook just the right amount for the people they’re feeding.

People shouldn’t be afraid of that, though. Murry said it’s actually better to cook more than necessary if possible, and then freeze it for later. That way, the food stays fairly fresh and ready to go, and you don’t have to cook every day. This is especially helpful for meats like chicken and beef, because once you cook and freeze the meat, it’s easy to thaw it and incorporate it into a dish, she said.

However, Ellis cautioned against using food as an outlet for stress because during this high-stress period, many people take to stress eating or comfort food. It won’t make you feel better, and could lead to unhealthy weight gain, she said.

“During the time that you’re eating you’ll feel good,” she said. “But right when you’re done eating, you’re going to feel stressed again. You’re going to feel whatever symptoms you felt before, and that’s because food in itself does not make you feel better.”

For people who need a snack or something to munch on while studying or working, Ellis said eating crunchy vegetables like carrots and celery can help people concentrate.

With a healthy mindfulness, cooking can become a fun pastime now that people have more time for it, Ellis said.

“Try new recipes,” she said. “Take advantage of the time.”

Ho said she watches YouTube tutorials and consults friends before trying new recipes. For her, learning how to cook wasn’t that hard or time-consuming but something she learned to enjoy.

Now that she has more time, she hopes to try some harder Vietnamese recipes and branch into baking.

For beginner cooks who might be intimidated by bigger, fancier recipes, Murry suggested trying any recipe that uses the same base regardless of its modifications — like chili, spaghetti or stew.

Murry said when she was a student at UTA, she often used myfoodfridge.com, a website that tailors you a list of different recipes based on what you already have in the pantry.

@CecilLenzen

features-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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