I recently visited my sister on her family’s acreage in Marshall County, and my brother-in-law surprised us with a smoked bacon-wrapped pork loin for lunch.

It was so delicious, I asked him how he cooked it. Turns out, he marinated the pork loin overnight and then cooked it low and slow in his backyard smoker for 2-1/2 hours.

“I’ve been cooking a lot in the smoker lately. I mean, what else is there to do right now?” he said.

I laughed because it’s so true. We’re all cooking at home a lot more this pandemic summer, and we are also grilling more high-quality, protein-rich meats and poultry, according to consumer surveys.

In May, we saw a 7% increase in in-home meal occasions compared to a year earlier, reports the NPD Group National Eating Trends survey. Overall, about 89% of meals are now consumed at home, compared to about 80% before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, retail meat sales are soaring this summer. During the week ending July 26, meat department sales were up 22.2% from a year ago, trade publication Feedstuffs reports. This was the 20th week of double-digit gains since the start of the pandemic in mid-March.

At a time when we’re all focused on our health, Iowans recognize the nutritional benefits of real meat. A recent Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index shows that 90% of Iowa grocery shoppers purchase meat, eggs and dairy at least once a week.

Experts say a healthy diet – including fruits and vegetables, dairy and protein-rich meat and poultry - plays a vital role in helping our immune system work life it should, protecting our bodies from viruses and other germs that can make us sick.

Specifically, animal-based proteins, such as real beef and pork, are good sources of zinc, iron, protein and B vitamins, which support a healthy immune system.

Now that we’re cooking more at home, we’re also searching for recipes, cooking tips and ways to stretch our grocery budget. I’m sharing a few of my favorite helpful tips for those of us who cooking at home more yet looking to save money and time in the kitchen.

  • Look for sales in weekly grocery store ads to help with meal planning, and be sure to make a list before going to the store. This will help you limit the number of trips to the grocery store, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
  • Because of shifts in consumer spending during the pandemic, you might see good deals on new-to-you cuts of meat that normally would have been sold to restaurants. At the meat counter, ask the butcher for advice on the best way to prepare any meat cuts you are unfamiliar with. Or if you buy meat directly from a local farmer, ask if they have any recipes to share.
  • If you’re feeding kids at home, meal prepping and freezer cooking are great ways to save time in the kitchen. University of Nebraska Extension offers online info about meal prepping and freezer cooking.
  • Invest in time-saving cooking tools. Slow cookers and Instant Pots can help prepare healthy meals fast for your family. Good quality storage containers (these are my favorite) can also help you freeze meals to reheat later.

Also, if you’re looking for recipe ideas, here are a few of my favorite food blogs for quick, easy meals at home:

And for more advice on grocery shopping during the pandemic, visit the CDC's website.