Culinary Chaos: the housesitter’s guide to survival

As loyal readers of Culinary Chaos know, the column has been in limbo ever since our beloved Swifty failed to make good on his payment to the Yakuza and mysteriously vanished. We think he’s probably fine, but there is simply no way to be sure.

This week, the fork was passed to me to tell you what to eat. Now I’m no chef, and have never claimed to be. I can make scrambled eggs and a mean spaghetti sauce. About 58% of the time, I can also follow cooking directions on the package.

That said, I have worked as a house and pet sitter around town for the past few years and since I hop in and out of living alone, I have learned how to survive on my own in different environments.

I highly recommend housesitting to any college student who lives at home. It’s easy money, and you can get out of the house and hang out with people’s pets. I have so many critters around town I get to babysit.

There is a food process I always follow when beginning a housesitting job, and I hope it helps some beginning housesitters out there.

1. Collect the details.

Every time I am about to start a new job, I schedule a time to meet the owners, meet the pets and see the house. Most of the time, the owners will propose this and help you set it up.

The purpose of the meeting, along with understanding the pet’s needs and the house itself, is to be clear on what food is available to you. Some people will have full pantries, and some won’t. Some will offer to stock food for you, and if you feel comfortable accepting, great. I always ask for staples:

  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Milk (I go for oat milk)
  • Fruits and vegetables ( I typically want bananas, apples and a salad mix)
  • Another basic protein (Peanut butter, etc.)

If there’s anything fun I want, like snacks, I find those myself.

See if there’s any food they don’t want you to take. I have never encountered this, but it’s always good to ask.

Unrelated tip: when they are showing you around, always ask about first aid and cleaning supplies. I learned this the hard way.

2. Get the lay of the land.

The family is gone, and you’ve just arrived at the house. Get familiar. Open the fridge, open the pantry, see what you have available. Frozen protein and pantry staples like rice are your friends. If you don’t necessarily have the exact foods you want, make a list (you’ll use it in step three), but first make sure you won’t starve if there’s a brutal snowstorm and you can’t make it to the store. Check if there’s a freezer in the garage, and ask if you can use what’s in it.

Also, figure out the cookware. I always look for a nonstick pot first – that’s useful for everything. How do they wash dishes? Do they have lots of fancy dishes? Another thing to be aware of is when it’s time to leave, you’ll need to clean up whatever you use (you should always be doing this while housesitting) so be cognizant when pulling out dishes.

See what food sources are near you. Are there restaurants, and are they expensive? If I’m in an area near a restaurant I like, I typically set aside an evening during the job to treat myself, budget permitting. Is there a grocery store nearby?

3. Go shopping.

Now that you know what you need, you can go get stocked. My schedule means I tend to be a microwaved meals girlie, so I recommend Trader Joe’s. For ideas on what to look for, see Livi’s article on Trader Joe’s staples.

Look for foods that you won’t waste. Go as healthy as you can, but don’t buy things that will sit in the fridge. Again, I like bagged salads – you can put them together with a fun meal and they’re easy to find and assemble.

I also look for foods where most of the work is already done. One of my absolute favorites is Trader Joe’s frozen beef and broccoli. Lots of protein, and it always lasts a couple days.

I always get myself a little treat, too, and then I dedicate one night of the job to some me-time, when I can just enjoy a nice house with my favorite food. Once my cousin and I were at a house with a hot tub we were allowed to use, so we bought some gelato for $3 and pirated a movie on her computer. It was the most luxurious I have ever felt for the cheapest price.

4. Get cooking.

Once you have gone shopping and stocked up your space, do your absolute best not to spend much more money. Don’t blow the whole payment for the job on food while you’re there. (I speak from experience.) Raid the pantry and make whatever is available. Pick at least two meals a day that will be consistent for your whole stay, and do your best to stick to it.

Think simple but filling. You aren’t as familiar with all the resources here, so play it safe with other people’s food and equipment. If it seems off-limits, assume it is unless specified otherwise. If you’re not sure what it does, don’t use it. Also look a little bit harder for a can opener before you cut your hand trying to use a knife, Ellie.

I have learned everything here from over 20 houses around town, and enjoyed every experience I’ve had. Consider housesitting if you can – for just a moment, you don’t have to pay to live, you get paid to live. It’s intoxicating – as long as you respect their space.

Graphic by Neako Hallisey.