eating · Fear · food · overeating

Food Scarcity as a Trigger, with a pot of lentils as an aside

CW: discusses food and eating behaviors, with references to dieting, food restriction and overeating

Do you find perceptions of scarcity triggering? I do. Food scarcity in particular, even the belief that it might become scarce at some point, can lead me to make self-soothing decisions like buying extra “just in case.”

I’m not truly hoarding food, but I’ve definitely got an especially well-stocked pantry at the moment. And chest freezer. And refrigerator.

And I’m settling into old habits like baking bread in batches, so there’s always some fresh sitting on the counter. Last night, when I made rice, I made a double batch. Now, I can freeze half of it just in case. And maybe now my lizard brain knows I will have rice, even though I already knew that, since I have several pounds of dry rice sitting in my pantry. But apparently, that primitive part of my mind needs the reassurance of cooked rice in my freezer right now.

I recognize that this is not a rational response. It is not in response to actual scarcity, but its perception. It’s true that when I go grocery shopping, I don’t have access to quite everything I want. However, suitable replacements are often available. My grocery store has instilled 2-can per purchase limits on precooked beans, and there are no dry beans to be found other than lentils, so I bought a couple pounds of those. My pre-pandemic meal preparations had me consuming 2-4 cans of beans a week. This week, I’m eating lentils. I have enough. But I can feel some uneasiness that I’m using them, like a part of me wants to just keep them on the shelf so I’ll know they’re there. I bought a whole, frozen turkey when there wasn’t any chicken available on one grocery trip. But I don’t want to cook the turkey. I want to keep it in my freezer, so I know I’ll always have a turkey.

This feeling of scarcity has led to some unplanned eating, too. It’s not so very different than the imposed scarcity that chronic dieters put themselves under. When we feel restricted, we tend to lash out and overeat eventually. Sometimes not so eventually. I am NOT restricting what I eat, except to recognize that when I eat something, then it is no longer available to eat! And so I suspect that is sometimes leading to me doing the counter-productive thing of eating ALL THE FOODS. I suppose I’m storing it in my body in preparation for the hard times.

These behaviors have long been a part of me–the uplanned eating and the food storage. Friends and family members have teased me for as long as I’ve been an independent adult for my tendency to can and preserve mass quantities in the summer and fall. I can freeze, dehydrate, can, bake, ferment and pickle with the best of them. For as long as I’ve had the resources to do it, I’ve kept 20-30 pounds of flour in my pantry. I keep bulk nuts in the freezer, and dried apple slices, candied orange rinds, and every kind of jam and jelly you’d ever want on my shelves. Every year, I put up apple and pear sauces and butters, whole seckel pears, pie apples, berries in wine pie filling (amazing!) and whatever else floats my boat. I have the habit of putting something on the grocery list the minute I open up the last back-up, so there’s always an extra bag of sugar or canister of oats. All of this was true right up to before our world was put on hold.

And yet, I still do not feel secure. I can see it in how I’m doing math every time I reach for something in the pantry. If I open this jar of berries, that leaves me only 2 more jars, how long can I stretch those out? Can I make them last until berry season again? Will I even get to go berry picking this year? If I make coq au vin for dinner tonight, that will be the last of the chicken breast in the freezer; will they have more this week, or should I plan on cooking something else so I can keep some chicken in the freezer?

I do not like feeling triggered in this way. I like to feel like I’m in control, and when I’m triggered, my more primal self is in the driver’s seat. And, of course, the fact that there are so many important things out of my control is in its own way triggering. I know, intellectually, that it’s going to be ok, but I wish there was a way to reassure my lizard brain of that fact. For now, I’m going to head down to the pantry and gaze upon my stockpile of homemade applesauce and try to contemplate abundance.

In case you’re eating lentils this week, too, here’s a recipe. It is loosely based upon one for Lentil and Barley Stew from the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook (Jean Hewitt, 1971), which was a staple of mine when I was a vegetarian. Today’s version has ground turkey in it, which you could completely omit and still have a lovely dish of lentils.

Lentil Stew with Turkey

one. In a large, heavy duty stock pot, sauté in a couple tablespoons oil and/or butter:
1 diced onion
4 large carrots, diced
4 stalks celery, sliced
1 tbs dried rosemary
4 cloves minced garlic
1 bay leaf

two. When the onion is soft, add 3 lbs. ground 93% lean turkey. Break it up with a wooden spoon so that it isn’t in big chunks.

three. Once the turkey is fully cooked and no longer pink, add
1 lb. green or brown lentils (not the red or yellow kinds that cook down into mush)
5 cups water, stock, broth, or a combination thereof
2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes, with their juices

four. Bring stew to a simmer. Lower heat, cover, and cook at a low simmer until lentils are fully cooked, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This will be 9 2-cup servings for me, so I plan on portioning it out and setting some aside for my freezer so it’s available when I need a quick lunch, or you know, so I have it just in case.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found making fermented cabbage and using her bodyweight in lieu of picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at .

Image description: A large pot of lentils, ground turkey, and vegetables. Maybe not very pretty, but it tastes delicious!

9 thoughts on “Food Scarcity as a Trigger, with a pot of lentils as an aside

  1. I will quarter the recipe and add some spices, but thanks for the recipe! Our freezer is the size of a small chest of drawers, so not a lot of room for freezing leftovers.

    1. Yeah, I cook in large quantities, even when life isn’t upside down! In college I lived, and ate with, 20 other students for a couple years. We rotated dinner duty, so about once a month, I was cooking for 21. Learned to make BEEG batches. 🙂

      Enjoy your lentils!

  2. I am also usually prepared, and the isolation also triggered me. Yep. First week, I victoriously found sales and treats to get and proceeded to eat them within 3 days. Got a few more things and inhaled them too. So much fixating on the items I thought I might be short of, for me…
    Thank you for your soup picture and idea. It’s very much along the lines of what I make, and gives me a new idea that is tasty.
    I see you listed canning as one of your usual storage methods. I’ve done freezing of my soup for years, and about a year ago switched to an invention of quick-canning, and discovered how much I like it better than thawing out stuff. So, here it is, just to participate in sharing:
    Bring soup to a boil, and have clean jars and lids ready by filling them with running HOT tap water (let stand a few minutes so jar heats up). Empty hot water out of one jar-at-a-time, put funnel in (or free-flow if you’re feeling lucky), and fill (leave 1cm from top). Make sure rim of jar is clear of soup, add lid and ring. Put in fridge. You should hear the lid pop / seal shortly thereafter.
    * I check lids next day, and monitor, in case seal didn’t happen, and eat those ones first. Also, check them over every week, in case seal changed. Also, sometimes I end up combining canned things, so I bring the remainder to boil and quick-can it again. I feel like the queen of fast-food-fixes. lol.

    1. Hello noescape–I agree that isolation can be triggering, too! I am very grateful that I am not entirely alone, as I live with my husband, but there were many years when I did not! I’m an introvert and can happily spend 4-5 days doing my own thing before I think about company, but this is such a different situation! Not going out for work and fewer trips out to stores and other diversions. I hope you are finding ways to connect with people that feel meaningful right now. Hang in there!

      Thank you for the canning suggestion, although I would be concerned about treating any low acid foods that way. From what I understand, botulism can withstand even a 15-minute boiling water processing, and that is why so many soups, meats and such are pressure canned to ensure that they are truly free of concern. Higher acid foods (fruits, berries, many tomatoes, etc), are probably lower risk. And of course, sugar and salt both help!

  3. I, too, have been stockpiling more food than I normally would. Not hoarding! But having many more food/backup food options than I normally would, and wondering anxiously if I should have certain staples in greater quantities than normal (like having four weeks’ worth of breakfast cereal when I plan to go to the store every two weeks, or always having an unopened bag of rice in addition to the one my partner and I are cooking from).

    I think that for me, a lot of the nervousness stems from the idea that my partner and I could get sick and then we won’t be able to go to the store for a few weeks, minimum. (I know that delivery services exist, and that we have local friends who would be willing to help us if we needed it, but somehow those facts don’t stop me from wanting to have extra supplies, just in case.) Lack of control is hard, even though I have much more control and stability in these uncertain times than many other people I know.

    Your stew looks tasty! Maybe I’ll keep it in mind as a recipe for the next time we venture to the grocery store (especially since I’m planning my meals a lot further in advance, these days).

    1. I hear you, Emily! Anything to feel like you’re planned ahead a bit and have a little more control! There is so much uncertainty now. Hang in there and take care of yourself!

      1. I finally got around to making this – yum! I used a little bit of chorizo that I had leftover from another recipe in lieu of the turkey, but otherwise didn’t change much. This strikes me as a good pandemic food (flexible ingredients, easy to cook, and tasty), definitely something I will consider making again.

  4. My concern is access to reasonably priced fresh veggies and fruits. So this summer might be different than all other summers. But hopefully not too drastically different prices.

    1. Yes, it will be interesting to see how agriculture and distribution will be impacted. In Oregon where I live, we are usually exceptionally fortunate to have an abundance of fresh, local food. I feel confident that we will have enough, but that doesn’t stop me from buying extra apples, carrots and squash because I know they’ll last a while in my kitchen!

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