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How to cook around grocery shortages

What are some strategies to help us cook and meal plan around grocery store shortages and supply chain issues? Here are a few ideas on how to pivot and plan when items are out of stock.

how to cook around shortages at the grocery store, showing empty shelves

Some of you have commented recently about the difficulties you’ve been having in locating some of the ingredients needed for the weekly ALDI meal plans. Trust me: I hear you, and understand the frustration in being unable to find the items you need for a meal you have planned. Unfortunately these shortages and delayed shipments are hitting stores nationwide; it’s not just ALDI.

I’ve making some general modifications to the meal plans to try and alleviate some of this pressure. For instance, I’m not including recipes with whole chickens until we get more back to “normal.” (So many stores haven’t had these in stock, only stock them in twin packs now, or only carry the more expensive organic variety.)

However, it’s impossible to write every weekly meal plan around “what’s in stock,” since that varies so wildly store by store, region by region, and even day by day. My store might get in a shipment of bone-in chicken thighs, where yours might get in a shipment of boneless chicken breast; cream cheese might be impossible to find in one state, yet fully stocked in another; your store might have a full shelf on Tuesday, but an empty one on Thursday.

How to cook around grocery shortages

cooking around grocery shortages

So, I thought it would be useful to talk a bit about my own strategies for cooking around grocery store shortages and supply chain issues. I know that some of these tips involve a bit more effort, or eliminate the convenience of one-stop, one-list shopping — but, these times require us to cultivate flexibility.

The strategies outlined here will help you continue to use my ALDI meal plans as a base to build upon, alleviating your dinnertime dilemmas with as little extra effort as possible. I’d also love to hear any of your own tips for meal planning and cooking around supply chain issues, so please do comment below.

Tip 1: Substitute something else

make your own arrabbiata sauce

When you’re looking at a recipe and can’t find one of the main ingredients, take a moment to think about the function of that ingredient. Here’s a real-world example: A recent meal plan included a recipe for arrabbiata white bean & vegetable soup, on a week when ALDI ads nationwide listed arrabbiata sauce as a special buy. However, many locations didn’t get in their shipments until a couple of weeks later.

arrabbiata vegetable soup

Well, if your store doesn’t have arrabbiata sauce in stock, let’s take a step back and look at what that sauce adds to the soup: You get a tomato-y base, additional liquid, and a bit of a spicy-garlicky kick. To add those qualities to the recipe without using the elusive arrabbiata, you could instead pick up a jar of regular pasta sauce and jazz up the soup with a little minced garlic and crushed red pepper. Your recipe might not be identical, but the end result should still be darn tasty.

In this way, you can often substitute a different variety of the same item. Is the store out of canned corn? Pick up a bag of frozen, or several fresh ears to cook up and use the kernels. Are they out of fresh 80/20 ground beef? Pick up a frozen chub, buy 73% lean, or look at a pack of organic. No black beans in stock for your chili? Try using kidney and/or pinto beans instead.

Common ingredients and their substitutions

plain greek yogurt

Just for starters, here’s a list of a few common dinner ingredients with substitutions that should work well in most recipes:

  • Bread crumbs
    • Crushed crackers, crushed chips, crushed pork rinds — or toast, crush, and make your own from stale bread
  • Canned vegetables
    • Frozen or fresh version of the same vegetable
  • Chickens (whole)
    • Bone-in chicken parts — thighs, drumsticks, breasts, or a combination thereof
  • Garlic cloves
    • Minced garlic or garlic powder
  • Ground beef
    • Ground turkey or ground chicken (just note that these may be a little drier, so you might need to compensate)
  • Ricotta cheese
    • Cottage cheese
  • Smoked sausage
    • Kielbasa, cooked chicken sausage
  • Sour cream
    • Plain Greek yogurt
  • Tortillas
    • Use flour instead of corn (or vice versa), try a pack of sandwich wraps, or use romaine lettuce leaves

If you just don’t know what to substitute in a given recipe, though, sometimes Google will have your answer — or, ask folks in the Almost All ALDI Facebook group for their suggestions.

Tip 2: Visit another store

I love my ALDI, really I do. Lately, however, I find myself having to visit other grocery stores more often in order to round out my shopping list. Different stores get shipments in at different times, so when your ALDI is out of cream cheese, or tortillas, or boneless chicken, your local grocery store might instead be out of orange juice, eggs, or 2% milk. Of course you don’t want to waste gas running all over town, but you might want to plan your shopping trips to encompass a couple of nearby stores whenever possible.

philadelphia cream cheese

When the cream cheese shelf at my ALDI was empty for several weeks in a row, for instance, I picked up a six pack of name-brand at Costco to see me through for a while (at just a bit more per block than the regular ALDI price). On that same Costco trip, I also grabbed a few other often out-of-stock items, such as juice pouches for school lunch boxes.

Tip 3: Switch recipes

search recipes on this site

I know, I know: Switching recipes kind of defeats the purpose of having a meal plan written out for you. But, sometimes you’ll have better luck finding what you need if you shift over to a recipe using similar, yet not identical, ingredients.

Use the recipe search on this site (or widen out your search to other sites) and/or browse through older meal plans for inspiration. Think about what you have on hand already, in addition to what’s in stock at your local store.

Let’s say that you’re looking at a recipe that requires bone-in chicken thighs, potatoes, and mushrooms. If you can find the thighs & some kind of potato at your store, but not the mushrooms, you could see if a different chicken thigh recipe will work for your meal plan. You could, for instance, try making chile-lime chicken & potatoes instead.

If you can find the potatoes and mushrooms, but not the bone-in thighs, then look for a recipe that uses potatoes & mushrooms plus another protein that your store has in stock. You could, for instance, try this sheet pan chicken & veggies with boneless skinless thighs instead.

Tip 4: Stock up while the stocking is good

family packs boneless skinless chicken breast

This one requires a bit more planning ahead, but: As budget allows, buy a little extra when you do find major commonly-used ingredients on the shelf. My nearest ALDI, for instance, had been out of the cheaper family packs of chicken breast for a bit — but then one day I went in and found that they’d stocked packs of chicken as far as the eye could see.

empty shelf where chicken breast was

When this happens at your store, think about buying an extra pack or two to portion out for the freezer. This helps you save time & money in the long run: You’ll have that meat on hand for future recipes, and won’t need to buy the more expensive packs, change your plans, or waste time later hunting down a common ingredient that tends to bop in and out of stock. (When I went back the next week to find the shelf empty again, I was glad for that extra pack in my freezer!)

Tip 5: Plan ahead

vegetable broth ready to freeze in a bag

In addition to stocking up on meat and other staples plan ahead to avoid future roadblocks as you start to see what items your store is often short on. For instance, if they tend often to be out of broth, start making and freezing your own — or buy a jar of bouillon so that you can scratch together a quick substitute at any time. If they tend to be out of fresh garlic, grab a jar of minced to keep in your refrigerator. If they tend to be out of canned black beans, grab a bag of dried and cook them up when you have some time on a weekend.

How are you adapting?

cannellini beans shelf tag with no cans

How have you been adapting to our new normal? What other tips do you have for cooking (or meal planning) around grocery shortages and intermittently empty shelves?


Thursday 10th of March 2022

You can make your own tortillas and cream cheese. Try growing your own garlic. Save all veggie scraps and the bones from any chicken you use, keep in the freezer and make broth when you have a freezer bag full.


Wednesday 9th of March 2022

Last week I got a pack of pork chops instead of the swai (not because they were out but because I don't like seafood) and made BBQ potato chip baked pork chops instead. Veggies are easy enough to substitute, so usually that's not an issue. Thanks for all the meal planning you do to save me time and money! Even if I have to figure out a substitution it still saves me time and money!!!