Eating healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic has its challenges. With families staying home, it’s tempting to purchase more comfort foods and snack more often, especially when anxiety is on the rise.
With a little planning and creativity, families can sustain healthy eating habits and may even be able to stretch their food budgets, says LeAnne Bolton, a registered dietitian nutritionist who counsels oncology patients at USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute.
“I’ve seen articles and memes about gaining the ‘Quarantine 15’ because everyone is stuck at home,” Bolton said. “Most people are going to gain a few pounds that they didn’t intend to.”
She suggests creating a schedule for meals and snacks in order to avoid constant grazing. “It’s important to establish times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and determine what those snacks will be,” she said. “Don’t wait until you’re hungry and go into the kitchen to pick up a box of crackers or cookies.”
Once you’ve got a schedule, make sure to include a source of protein at every meal, whether it’s meat-based or plant-based. In addition, include a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, she said. Avoid defaulting to all canned or prepackaged items just because they last longer.
“Hurricanes have taught us how to buy shelf-stable food, but COVID-19 quarantining lasts longer than a hurricane,” she said. “If you want to buy dry goods, I would get dried beans, peas and several types of grains. It doesn’t have to be all Spam and chili in a can. We can find that in-between.”
Bolton suggests purchasing a variety of types of foods – fresh, frozen, canned and dried – to limit the number of visits to the grocery store. Cabbage, citrus fruits and apples, for instance, can be purchased fresh and last for weeks in the refrigerator. Berries, which expire more quickly, can be purchased frozen. Other fresh items, such as bread and bananas, can be purchased fresh and frozen later, if needed.
“Be open and willing to go outside your comfort zone,” she said. When you go to the store, it may not have exactly what you’re looking for. People should anticipate that.”
Bolton offers tips for reducing the time spent in the store. “I keep a running list and look at it before I go to the store to see if it’s sufficient,” she said. “If you aren’t able to order online, create your list by department so you can get in and get out quickly.”
Layoffs and furloughs caused by COVID-19 can also pose financial difficulties for families. To stretch grocery dollars, Bolton suggests adding mushrooms or lentils to meat dishes such as spaghetti and saving part of the meat for a later meal. Rather than buying fresh herbs in a container, consider spending a little more money on the front end to get the plant itself. “You can reap the benefits all season long,” she said.
Substitutions can help to make the most of your purchases. Olive oil can take the place of butter and serve as a salad dressing when mixed with vinegar. Plain Greek yogurt can be served with fruit for breakfast and can double as sour cream on savory dishes.
Then there’s popcorn, the sales of which rose 48 percent across the U.S. in a single week in mid-March, according to a report by Bloomberg. “Popcorn is pretty healthy for you if you don’t buy it pre-packaged. It’s a whole grain, but where we go wrong is getting the pre-packaged version that has more sodium and fat,” she said.
A healthier alternative is to buy a bag of popcorn kernels, place a serving the kernels in a brown paper bag, close it tightly and microwave for two minutes. “You can always add flavoring such as parmesan cheese with a teaspoon of olive oil,” Bolton said.
Families spending more time at home can take the opportunity to broaden their cooking skills – starting with learning how to boil an egg. “Now is the time to experiment in the kitchen if there ever was one,” she said.