Making the Most of Food Bank Food
Updated: Jun 3
These are weird times, hard times, full of viruses, uncertainty, and CHANGE. For many of us, unfortunately, that change has included some loss of income. So, along with many others, we are turning to help from other places. We are very grateful to live somewhere we can find help with food when we need it!
Side note: You don’t have to be desperate to accept help with food. If getting some food for free allows you to pay your rent on time, or buy medications, or pay your utilities, please accept help. Please.
I worked in a mission training campus for several years where I was very involved in the kitchen, and cooking for the entire school. We received a lot of donated food and I learned a lot about how to work with what was given, and I’d love to share that with you.
Working with donated food is different than normal menu-planning, because you can’t just plan out a menu for the week and shop according to that. You have to figure out how to make a menu with the food you’ve been given, and sometimes that can be challenging! So here are my tips.
Menu-planning with unplanned food:
Group together things with similar flavor profiles. Last week I received multiple wedges of some fancy hard Italian cheeses (made with sheep’s milk! What??) , so I looked for other items that could go Italian. I had tomatoes, an “Italian seasoned" chicken breast, a can of white beans, and some kale, so I put together a delicious pasta dish with sautéed chopped chicken, kale, tomatoes and white beans; then I grated fresh cheese over the top!
If you’re not comfortable putting together recipes by yourself, I love supercook.com and the SuperCook app to figure out recipes with ingredients I have in my kitchen. Simply enter the ingredients you have and Superfood will tell you what you can make with those ingredients! The app even let's you enter ingredients using voice commands!
Ramen noodle dishes: It’s easy to chop up a little meat and toss some frozen veggies into boiling water and let them cook before adding your Ramen noodles (or other quick cooking pasta) to make a complete meal. I especially like to do this with Asian flavors, and add a slice or two of ginger, some garlic, and fresh cilantro and top with a hard-boiled egg. This article has even more suggestions.
You also need to make the food last as long as possible. Often donated food is on the very last few days of shelf life, so it's helpful to sort the food groups and see what needs to be used first:
Meat: Often meat donated to food banks is past the sell-by date, but still good, because they freeze the meat before the sell-by date. Think of it as a "freeze-by" date. It’s important that you keep your meat frozen, so put it in the freezer as soon as you get home, then use within 24 hours of thawing. I try to make a list of all the meats for my menu plan, then put them immediately in the freezer.
Fruits: Pre-cut fruit is awesome, but if you’re not going to eat it that day, just drop it in containers or Ziploc bags and freeze it. You can mix a few varieties together in a little bag to make a pre-made smoothie pack, or just separate by type. Whole fruit should be sorted to remove any with bad spots before storing (e.g.,"one bad apple spoils the whole bushel" is actually quite true!) Here’s a great article on freezing fruit!
Veggies: Root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips) usually have a little longer shelf life and will be okay in your pantry for a few days, but other veggies often need to be used very quickly (1-2 days) or frozen immediately. I freeze bags of washed and chopped diced tomatoes, chopped up bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, etc., that I can easily toss into stir-fries, soups or other dishes. If I have a lot of tomatoes, I like to make a simple roasted tomato sauce which I can also freeze for later use.
Lettuce and leafy greens: Salad greens can't be frozen and usually need to be used quickly. I like to plan a large salad meal or two the first or second day. Salads are a great way to use up some of the more “random” donations, like a can of mandarin oranges, a single serving packet of sunflower seeds, or the pre-seasoned meat. Spinach, kale, chard, and other greens that are okay cooked should be frozen if you aren’t going to eat them in the next few days. I use frozen greens in scrambled eggs, rice dishes, and frittatas. (More on freezing vegetables!)
Bread and baked goods: Eat them! If you still have room in your freezer, they’ll be less stale if you can freeze them, but we usually have a celebration with whatever sweets are available before they get stale. Bread usually lasts longer than cookies and cakes, but just check the expiration dates and eat the closest-to-expiration items first. Remember--you’re having a salad for dinner--you can have a slice of cake!
Like I said at the beginning, this is a time of change for us all. I feel like change is especially hard when it affects a need so basic as food for our children. But it doesn’t have to be terrible, and it doesn’t have to be forever. I’m happy for me and I’m happy for you that we can get donated food in a time of need, and I pray that you and your family can be well fed, no matter what changes are happening in your life right now.
(Also, if you’re not in a place where you need food assistance, I encourage you to donate to a food bank if you can, or gift a grocery gift card to a friend who lost income during this pandemic. Foods that are not as frequently donated by grocery stores are non-perishable basics like pasta and rice, flour and sugar. We’re all in this together, moms--don’t let your sisters fight alone!)
Anita grew up in Belize as a missionary kid. She has lived in 3 countries and traveled on 5 continents but can't resist the allure of subzero winters so she now lives in MN with her Egyptian husband and two daughters. She blogs about God, motherhood, disability, and appreciating beauty at anitamatta.com, and pretends to be trendy by posting pictures of coffee as @anitafmatta on Instagram.