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Can’t get to the store? Try emergency food substitutions

Whether you're facing store closings or lack of availability due to COVID-19, or you just don't want to have to stop what you're doing in the middle of making a recipe to run to town for something you're missing, knowing how to make substitutions is a valuable skill.

Nutrition and wellness state specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach say there are ways to prevent making a special trip to the grocery store. Ruth Litchfield and Sarah Francis suggest the following emergency substitutions for some common recipe ingredients in the pantry:

  • If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baking powder, replace it with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda plus 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar. OR replace it with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda plus 1/2 cup sour milk (and reduce the liquid in recipe by 1/2 cup).
  • For baking, replace 1 cup butter, margarine or vegetable shortening with 1 cup oil; OR  3/4 cup applesauce, apple butter, or avocado plus 1/4 cup solid fat; OR 1 cup ripened/mashed bananas.
  • Replace 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate with 3 tablespoons cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon butter, margarine or vegetable shortening; OR with 1 ounce semi-sweet chocolate minus 1 tablespoon sugar.
  • Replace 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of flour OR 2 tablespoons tapioca pearls.
  • Replace 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar plus 1 cup milk (let this solution sit for 10 minutes before using it). OR use 2/3 cup plain yogurt plus 1/3 cup milk.
  • Replace 1 cup milk with 1/2 cup evaporated milk plus 1/2 cup water OR with 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk plus 7/8 cup water.
  • Replace 1 tablespoon coffee creamer with 1 tablespoon instant dry milk plus 1 tablespoon water.
  • Replace 1 cup brown sugar with 1 cup granulated sugar plus 2 tablespoons molasses.
  • Replace 1 cup granulated sugar with 1 cup light brown sugar OR 1 3/4 cup powdered sugar.

For more emergency substitutions see "Recipe Basics -- Measure Accurately, Substitute Wisely, Adjust Carefully" on the Extension Store.

Avoid emergencies, plan ahead

To prevent additional trips to the grocery store and these emergency substitutions in the future, Litchfield and Francis suggest setting aside 20-30 minutes to plan your menus for the week. This planning can help decrease time spent in the kitchen and improve menu variety and nutrition, as well as save money. Here’s how to get started:

  • Check what you have on hand. There’s no time like the present to take inventory of food in your cupboards, freezer and refrigerator that need to be used.
  • Think of meal and snack ideas that can use up items you have on hand. Write these ideas down. You may need to buy additional items for these ideas; write them on the grocery list. Consider using an app to help you identify how to use various food items you may have on hand.
  • Check grocery specials. Use the weekly flyer or grocery store app to find the sale items for the week. Write down ideas for using sale items in meals or snacks.
  • Plan for leftovers. Cooking a roast early in the week can provide leftovers to incorporate into a stew or stir-fry later in the week.
  • Review your meals to check if each of the food groups are in most of your meals.

For ideas, look at these sample menu plans from ISU Extension and Outreach and from

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