“Another four dollar meal,” the husband says most nights after dinner.

While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, we probably do spend less on meals compared to many people.

Before the pandemic, Americans ate out an average of six times per week, according to the Business Insider. In a state-by-state analysis, the magazine’s data team found that Virginians spent an average of $2,788 per year on dining out. The average cost of a restaurant meal was $10.23.

Of course, with the COVID lockdown mandates, that all changed. People had no choice but to make meals at home. Some took advantage of restaurants that offered deliveries and curbside pickup.

The lockdown changed the way most of us cook and eat.

We’ve always cooked our meals from scratch. But during the work week (pre-pandemic), after arriving home from a day at the office, I rarely had any interest in making anything that required more than a few minutes to prepare.

When I began working from home in March 2020, I was able to defrost meats ahead of time, start a crockpot of stew or make a pot of soup. During work breaks, I looked up recipes and scanned the fridge and cabinets for ingredients. The husband, also a good cook, was doing his meal prep throughout the day too.

Our weeknight meals improved. With little else to look forward to, dinnertime was the highlight of our days.

As for restaurant ordering, after 30 years of rural living (and being away from New York), we finally have a great pizza place right “down the road.” And they deliver! So we took (take) advantage of that regularly.

Lots of people kept their favorite restaurants going by picking up meals one or two nights a week.

Apparently many Americans were like us, upping their meal prep game, or even learning to cook. An actor I know in Los Angeles who lives alone began making cooking videos to post on Instagram.

He titled his cooking show "Quarantine Classics." Most were single guy meals with a twist, like a double cheeseburger with jalapenos, nachos with curly fries topped with a bechamel sauce and a Mexican chicken noodle soup with zucchinis, jalapenos and cilantro.

CNN online did a photo story in March about people around the country expanding their cooking horizons. One of them was Eric Cox of Tucson, Ariz., showing off a rib-eye steak he’d grilled with an espresso dry rub, topping it with garlic, crispy sage, rosemary and garlic chive butter.

“As a full-time artist, this pandemic has drastically impacted how I'm creating,” Cox said. “When the economy is struggling and society is worried, there is a huge decline in art sales. I've been a fan of creating in the kitchen for a handful of years, but those creative juices have been flowing more during this struggle.”

As for our $4 dinners, the husband may not be that far off. We raised our own hogs last year, so we have lots of great hams, sirloin and sausage, and the husband cured and smoked bacon. We buy our amazing beef from a neighbor at a fraction of supermarket cost. In the summer, we eat mostly vegetables from the garden.

Our grocery shopping at a discount store is quite an adventure, because you never know what you’re going to find there. From flavored seltzer water, kombucha and real Irish tea to frozen mussels, bean sprouts and dark chocolate — all cheap! — we enjoy so many of our finds.

Have you acquired new cooking skills during the pandemic? Experimented with new dishes? I’d love to hear about it.

Bon appetit!

Luanne Austin lives in Mount Sidney.

Contact her at RuralPen@aol.com,

facebook.com/ruralpen or care of the DN-R.

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