Battling COVID Cooking Fatigue
A ready-to-eat meal from Roundabout Meal Prep. Photo by Wade Snider

What to do when you just can’t make another meal.

It may be another night of staring blankly into the refrigerator, wishing you didn’t have to cook dinner again. Since the pandemic-driven closures of many restaurants and watering holes began in early 2020, people have morphed into home chefs — not necessarily by choice.

Cooking fatigue has settled in across the country. Once a therapeutic reprieve and source of enjoyment for many, preparing meals has transformed into a necessity, often a chore.

Since the pandemic began, DIY sourdough starters have tested our baking prowess. We’ve become sous chefs, executive chefs, sommeliers, bakers, and front-of-house professionals in our own homes. Our hunting skills are focused on cookbooks and grocery shelves in an ever-present quest to both fulfill our families’ culinary desires and keep them healthy.

It’s been a year, and frankly, we’re exhausted.

What can we do? Fortunately, in the last year, we’ve seen the evolution of many alternatives to pulling out your apron.

With limits on social gatherings plus anxiety over interacting with people who are ill, many catering companies have adopted more extensive safety regulations and shifted toward prepared meals delivered, or to go. Others maintained their course, shifting gently toward more COVID-conscious in-home practices, recognizing people’s domestic comfort and ongoing desire for social interaction and delicious cuisine.

At-home meal prepping for the week helps alleviate the pressures of daily cooking. Personal chefs are invited into homes to provide you with a respite for an evening. Virtual cooking clubs offer social interaction and recipe inspiration. National businesses send meals directly to your door.

But so do local businesses. And right now, it’s more critical than ever to support our area businesses while also finding solace in the freshness found when buying local.

The following are ideas for how to lighten your kitchen load when you’re trying to be a professional, parent, partner, housekeeper, and chef all at once these days.

Healthy on Demand

Reno-area chef Colin Smith and registered dietitian Shanti Wolfe have teamed up for our health’s sake with Roundabout Meal Prep. Together, the two develop recipes they offer as pre-portioned, ready-to-eat meals. Wolfe breaks down macronutrients to ensure the healthiness of each dish.

Roundabout’s GYMRAT plan features gluten-free entrées curated for people looking to adhere to strict calorie counts, with protein, carb, and fat breakdowns. CAVEMAN plans are keto-based, while the PLANTBASED meal plan is for vegetarians. Roundabout also has à la carte items and, combined, provides more than 60 meal options that are never frozen.

A ready-to-eat meal of tri-tip, green beans and mashed cauliflower from Roundabout Meal Prep. Photo by Wade Snider

Programs are subscription-based and can be picked up twice a week, or delivered to within 15 miles of the 89431 zip code.

“We provide ready-made meals to individuals looking for something different from their standard fare, and super healthy as an added bonus,” Wolfe says. “We have such a wide variety of meals that it allows individuals to get in all of the different vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting properties found in foods that they might not be getting otherwise.”

Other entities are focused on assisting with specific health concerns through their meals.

If you have health issues that are dietarily restrictive or require special preparation, Chef Brandy Hackbarth, owner of Dining by Design, may be your savior.

Hackbarth worked in the medical industry as a paramedic and cardiac health care nurse. She helped bring better foods into local schools and developed the culinary program for Reno’s High Desert Montessori School. When her father got cancer, she began cooking for him.

Using her medical background and nutritional knowledge, she began switching ingredients in recipes to healthier alternatives — such as using riced cauliflower versus rice, or buttermilk and soy over dairy — and her passion for cooking was ignited as she reveled in the creativity she was allowed.

Today, in people’s homes, she prepares healthy, organic, balanced meals tailored to individual medical and nutritional needs, leaving clients with frozen or refrigerated dishes to immediately eat or reheat later. She explains that she personally handles every aspect — from recipe planning and shopping to cooking, packaging, and cleanup — and offers healthy, food-based assistance to those with medical concerns.

After completing an assessment interview with a client, Hackbarth creates a nutritional profile along with weekly menus and grocery lists. Often, she takes clients shopping to teach them how to search for foods fitting their specific dietary requirements.

Thanks to Hackbarth, elderly couples can stay at home and avoid COVID risk. Other clients have had ailments alleviated through her cooking.

“I have Type 2 diabetes and I am on medication. Prior to Brandy’s services, I was on a roller coaster of weight management and choosing good food to eat. The organic meals Brandy cooks for me are appropriately chosen for my particular health needs and culinary preferences,” says Anne Stilwill, a Dining by Design client. “My health has greatly improved, which includes lowered blood sugars and improved weight management, even during COVID. It is now so much easier to stay in control of my food intake.”

Priya Hutner of Truckee’s The Seasoned Sage also is focused on healing foods and healthy, organic dishes. Her decades living in an ashram cooking ayurvedically give her a strong platform of vegan and vegetarian cooking, though her culinary skills go far beyond meatless and dairy-free dishes.

She began delivering her healthy meals to clients’ doorsteps long before the pandemic, a pioneer unbeknownst even to herself.

“We’ve become a culture of eating a lot of processed food,” Hutner says. “I believe what you put into your body will help you take care of yourself … it really helps support the systems in our body to eat as healthy as possible.”

She explains she deals with a lot of “no’s” from her clients: no dairy, no gluten, and no meat, to name a few. But her niche is in preparing food for anyone, just the way they want it.

Along with her son, Ganga Das Welch, who came to work with her when business increased upon restaurant closures, Hutner creates vegetable-forward meals, utilizing the rainbow when preparing dishes with healing properties for her clients. She shops locally, often at the Tahoe Food Hub, for the organic, sustainable items she uses.

On Wednesdays, she and Welch tap into their backgrounds in Asian fusion, Japanese, Indian, and other global cuisines to create ethnic dishes for clients, such as Korean barbecued pork and kimchee soup with green vegetables.

Their small team delivers orders to Tahoe-area clients — often moms with full-time jobs and families to tend to — Mondays through Thursdays. Some clients get 21 meals at a time, though she prefers to do two drops a week to maintain meal freshness.

“It’s important to me to take care of people,” Hutner says. “I feel really passionate about serving people who have a hard time with their physical beings and need certain types of food.”

Heartier Fare at Home

With more than 50 heat-and-eat options available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Meal Prep Reno takes care of individuals and families experiencing meal-making fatigue.

A subscription-based business, MPR has both heartier and lighter dishes that they deliver on Sundays and Mondays to people’s homes, for free if five or more meals are ordered. Family-sized meal options, such as the taco bar and lasagna, ensure there’s enough for everybody to eat.

À la carte favorites include wine-braised beef with polenta, jerk chicken, and shrimp and grits. MPR’s bulk, house-made granolas are paleo- and keto-friendly, and its delectable smoothies sate morning hunger pangs. Several dishes accommodate gluten-free, vegetarian, or low-carb dietary restrictions.

Co-owner Josh Deri shares that MPR “got very busy” once the pandemic hit. The company went from delivering about 550 meals each week pre-COVID to between 1,200 and 1,300 weekly in 2020.

Josh and his wife, Whitney, both graduates of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., create recipes with chef Nick Sobiek, who has worked in restaurants around the world. Their in-house nutritionist helps make sure meals are well-balanced and macronutrient breakdowns are accurate.

These days, it’s easy to miss the gourmet delicacies long found at high-end restaurants.

The Flavor Studio fulfills those longings while being COVID-safe. It specializes in sumptuous dinners to go using exceptional, often hard-to-find ingredients that it pairs with proffered wines.

Owner Laurel Pine has long been a lover of cuisine and has worked for years in the luxury foods industry. Once the pandemic hit, she made a quick pivot. Her business, which previously offered curated, experiential food-and-drink events for groups in The Flavor Studio’s private dining room, morphed into one offering the experience of at-home indulgence.

Beef Short Rib Tacos with Seared Foie Gras and Pickled Onions on a homemade corn tortilla from The Flavor Studio. Photo by Wade Snider

Fondue for two? Indeed, offered daily. For cheese enthusiasts, Pine partnered with local “Queen Brie” Laura Conrow, formerly of Wedge Cheese Truck, for Fromage Friday offerings, paired with proper libations.

The Flavor Studio’s chef, Araceli Barrera, always has decadent meals planned, such as the upcoming Iberico de Bellota Solomillo with Spinach Español and Patatas Bravas, paired with a 2010 Bodega Ontanon Reserva from Rioja, Spain.

For Cinco de Mayo, Barrera is serving a themed menu boasting tequila prawns with tequila cream sauce and roasted pasilla peppers, plus beef short rib tacos with pickled onions and house-made corn tortillas. A tequila tasting can be purchased as well for another $19.99.

These are just a representative handful of the decadent daily offerings that can be ordered in advance Monday through Friday from The Flavor Studio. When buyers purchase the suggested pairing, they get 10 percent off that wine or spirit.

Everything is made to order, so dishes are fresh and hot to take away, restaurant-style, with pickup times staggered for safety.

Meal Prep at Home

Two of the ladies behind Reno Moms Blog, best friends who coincidentally share a surname, Danielle Sanford and Lindsey Sanford, were accustomed to meal prepping at home weekly for their families. Once the pandemic hit, prepping became not just a helpful social release, but a relief as well.

From left, Lindsey Sanford and Danielle Sanford meal prep together. Photo by Candice Vivien

Each Sunday, the two friends, along with one other, get together with their children and partners to cook and package a week’s worth of meals. They trade off planning and shopping on Saturdays, getting ready for what they dub “Hot Sundays.”

All three meal preppers own the same cookbooks and have created a spreadsheet with tried-and-true recipes their families love. Recipes are doubled due to the size of the group they’re feeding.

Saturday planning is rotated among the three friends to prevent fatigue. Recipes are decided upon, online grocery orders are made, and a grocery store run is done by the person in charge that week.

Ingredients for a Thai chicken wrap recipe the Sanfords prepare for their families. Photo by Candice Vivien

On Sundays, ingredient preparation begins before the group arrives. When cooking, they never use the same method at once. For example, they prepare one slow-cooker meal, one stovetop dish, another entrée in the oven, and, at times, the dads work the grill outside.

It can be a huge endeavor and stressor to prepare meals daily for the family.

“The sanity is the best part,” Danielle explains. “Life is nonstop right now; this really helps with cooking fatigue.”

Lindsey knows how difficult it can be to please picky little eaters.

“If you get your kids involved, they’re more likely to eat it,” Lindsey says.

Once the cooking is complete, meals are packaged to take home for the week, and the entire group dines together. They play trivia or games. The weekly cooking event is not just beneficial for the families; they also get a bit of safe social interaction as well.

Chefs to You

Chef Grog Verbeck has been cooking for celebrities for years. Together, Grog and wife, Heidi, started Hey Chef!, a business that places culinary professionals in clients’ homes to cook for gatherings, or to prepare and serve specialty menus for individuals or groups.

The duo decided not to morph their business into one offering to-go items once the pandemic hit, as many did, instead staying true to what they do well: placing skilled chefs in homes.

Holly and Grog Verbeck with Hey Chef. Photo by Wade Snider

Food lovers have long sought out skilled chefs to create indulgent, memorable restaurant experiences in non-restaurant settings. However, the Verbecks understand that, financially or due to the pandemic, people can’t eat out all the time, especially families.

Instead, the Verbecks orchestrate a personalized culinary experience in clients’ homes to offset that current, unfulfilled longing to dine at a chef-driven establishment.

Holly is the maestro. Today, their well-vetted and trained talent pool comprises more than 70 professionals who help make people feel like guests at their own parties. Holly used her human resources and risk-management background to create a copyrighted process to train each person on the team “to take their personalities and heart into someone’s home.”

With an existing platform of regulations for working in people’s abodes, once COVID hit, the Verbecks created a guide and checklist to safeguard both clients and their team members, using stringent social-distancing practices to maintain health and safety.

Their training and orientation program creates consistency for clients and crew.

“Being a personal chef or private chef isn’t for everyone. No matter the home, menu, venue, or number of guests, we can exceed expectations every time because we use a training process that [incorporates] the four parts of service,” Holly says, explaining that this entails greetings and information upon arrival, meal prep and ambience, service, and cleanup. “So you get an exceptional experience … and create memories where they matter, in your home.”

Go Virtual

Since the pandemic hit, many people haven’t been able to physically connect with family and friends who are far away … or even nearby.

One option to create togetherness is to use Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or another preferred videoconferencing program to get together virtually with loved ones to recreate childhood meals, or perhaps great-grandma’s beloved sauce.

Also, with travel opportunities limited by the pandemic, another way to beat cooking fatigue and tap into different cuisines and culinary cultures is by creating a virtual cooking club.

Find a videoconferencing platform satisfactory to all involved and invite guests to join at a specific date and time. In advance of the event, decide on the recipe(s) you’ll be preparing so everyone can acquire the ingredients.

This is a superb way to share meal ideas, inspire each other, demonstrate techniques, try new ideas, and have some social interaction that is not limited by distance. Choose recipes with ingredients that can be easily found no matter the participant’s location, or you can — if available — use national online companies such as Amazon to get more elusive components to guests before the big day.

Our palates and schedules have certainly suffered during the pandemic. But fear not: A multitude of options exists to help alleviate the exhaustion and rediscover the joy of a home-cooked meal.

Freelance writer Natasha Bourlin is a self-proclaimed sourdough failure and is thrilled to have discovered ways to beat cooking fatigue and avoid processed foods.

RESOURCES

Dining by Design

775-338-2202 • Chefbrandy.com

Hey Chef!

530-582-4882 • Heychef.com

Meal Prep Reno

775-571-2480 • Mealprepreno.com

Roundabout Catering Meal Prep

775-747-2090 • Roundaboutcatering.com/meal-prep

The Flavor Studio

775-525-5898 • Theflavorstudio.com

The Seasoned Sage

772-913-0008 • Theseasonedsage.com

Natasha Bourlin, founder of Passport & Plume, loves nothing more than to convey inspirational stories and travel the globe. Reach out to her, and reach your readers. Dog lover.

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