Everyone is cooking more at home these days. What choice do we have, really? And even for a cook who’s confident in normal times, the task of producing every meal, every day — particularly if there are children in the house — can seem overwhelming.

Chefs and food writers and bloggers have been great resources for people who need to learn to cook for the first time or for those just trying to figure out what to put on the table. On Instagram tutorials and in Facebook groups, they’re sharing tips on one-pot meals, cheesemaking and sourdough starters. (So. Many. Sourdough starters!)

And while that’s unquestionably inspirational, we thought we would check in with the OGs of thrifty, basic cooking, the (mostly) women who’ve been doling out practical advice more than a century before dalgona coffee became a thing: home economics teachers and experts, many of whom work in schools or in county extension agencies. These days, home ec goes by “family and consumer sciences,” but the idea is still the same.

The skills of cleaning, shopping, cooking (even sewing — those masks aren’t going to make themselves!) seem more essential than ever in a pandemic, when outsourcing often isn’t an option and everyone’s spending a lot of time within their own four walls. And the field’s focus on economy is timely, with many people finding themselves without a paycheck or pinching pennies to shore up their rainy day funds.

“FCS is about living and working well,” says Heather Jones, an FCS teacher at South County Middle School in Lorton, Va. “Being able to teach kids these skill sets them up for success in the future and allows them to take care of their family in times of crisis.”

Even if you didn’t ace (or even take) a class back in middle school, you can still catch up — really — with some time-tested advice from the pros. And if hormonal tweens can master it, you probably can, too.

Plan, plan, plan.

The teachers I spoke to unanimously recommended drawing up a schedule of what you’ll eat and when. That makes shopping easier, of course, and it eliminates the daily “what’s for dinner?” struggle bus. Trying to figure out what to make when you or the people you are cooking for are hungry isn’t ideal. “Nothing is worse than indecision,” says Margaret Viebrock, director of the Chelan and Douglas counties extension office in Washington and a longtime FCS educator.

Getting family involved in the planning means that picky eaters get a chance to weigh in well before mealtime, they say, and when kids feel like they’re part of the meal planning, they’re less likely to complain. “You don’t want to feel like a short-order cook,” Jones says. “If you involve the kids, there’s buy-in.” 

Healthy, not fancy.

Maybe my favorite tip from the teachers? Forget fancy. Your goal isn’t winning Instagram, it’s feeding yourself and your family, for weeks (months?) on end. “This is not a contest,” says Rhea Bentley, an extension agent in Muscogee County in Georgia.

To that end, simple dishes are your friend, they counsel. Viebrock suggests an easy stir fry with whatever vegetables and protein you have on hand. Fried rice is another similarly flexible format, Bentley says, and instead of using a lot of oil, you can saute vegetables with a little extra broth or stock.

Jones says that one of the dishes that is consistently a hit with her students is an omelet, which can incorporate “anything in your fridge.” “I tell them, ‘If I teach you to make an omelet, you can feed yourself for life,’ ” she says. “They absolutely love them.”

Dont be afraid of repeating dishes or menus that your family likes, Bentley says. After all, monotony isnt the worst thing. “You don’t always have to do things that are new or exciting,” she says. “Taste can provide comfort.” Some people have had success repeating the same two-week meal plan, she says, which means you already created the menus and the shopping list.  

Viebrock says that when all else fails, a tired cooks best option might be as simple as breakfast for dinner. Most people can manage at least some pancakes, an egg and fruit, she notes.

And while ease might be our biggest priority right now, all the teachers suggested that cooks keep healthy choices top of mind. The experts all referred to the U.S. Agriculture Departments MyPlate website, which offers simple, budget-friendly recipes and advice all geared to meeting the federal dietary guidelines.

“People’s biggest challenge is trying to eat healthy on a budget,” Bentley says. “Vegetables and fruit and dairy — people think those things have to be expensive, but they’re not.” Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as healthy as fresh, she notes. She likes canned peaches, she says, the kind packed in juice or water. She uses frozen mixed berries in smoothies. And powdered milk is inexpensive and shelf-stable, she notes.

Dont panic. Youve got this. 

Shopping in a pandemic can make people do strange things, like buy in excess (an FCS no-no) or turn to unfamiliar foods that might seem like a good idea. Viebrock says she has been fielding calls from people wondering what to stock up on. “Just like they did around Y2K, people are asking about dried beans,” she says. “I ask them, ‘In your normal life, do you buy dried beans and cook them?’ If not, you’ll never do it now.”

She says experimentation in the kitchen can be fun, but that cooks worried about churning out meal after meal in the midst of a pandemic should stick to the familiar. All the teachers I spoke to mentioned the importance of family mealtimes — thats always a part of their playbook, but its actually easier these days without many of the competing demands on our time.

“The most important thing is taking the time and eat together,” Jones says. “You can use it as a chance to check in, to ask, ‘How are you feeling?’ It is a stressful time, but it presents us with an opportunity we didn’t have before.”

Bentley and the other teachers all offered a bit of cheerleading for all those cooks who are wondering if they can pull this off. “I think people have more skills than they give themselves credit for,” she says. “Youve been taking care of your family for as long as youve had one.”

Mary Beth Albright makes Spaghetti Carbonara — a bacon, egg and cheese sauce that comes together while your pasta is cooking. (The Washington Post)

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