Shopping Smart and Eating Healthy During a Pandemic

by Ellie Kelsey, RD, LD, CNSC
April 2, 2020

One way we can try to keep a sense of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic is to create well-balanced meals for ourselves and our loved ones. But how?

Dispelling Dietary Myths

Before I share healthy eating tips, I’d like to dispel two dietary myths.

First, eating a balanced diet involves getting nutrients like vitamins A, C, and D, zinc and selenium—all really important for your immune system. But it’s important to know that no amount of fruits, vegetables, vitamins, or other healthy foods will protect or prevent you from getting this virus.

A second myth involves mega-dosing vitamins or any type of food. This will not help your body because you can’t absorb thousands of milligrams of anything in a single day. In fact, your body can only absorb 250 to 300 milligrams of vitamin C at one time.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, I recommend following the CDC guidelines about social distancing and hand hygiene.

Shopping Tips

Here are three tips to keep in mind to help you buy items you need for well-balanced meals:

Have a Plan: Take a few extra minutes to create a list and plan meals you’ll actually eat, so you can eat well without overstocking and overspending.

Don’t Panic: Yes, empty shelves can be unnerving, but anxiety could lead you to buy things you think you need but actually don’t.

Be Kind, Don’t Buy Out the Store: Current recommendations are to stock enough food for 14 days of quarantine. Many shoppers are buying far more than they need for a two-week stint. As a result, neighbors may be in the heartbreaking situation of not having food or supplies for their families.

One more thing: If you use reusable grocery bags when you shop for food, consider disinfecting them after every trip to the store.

What If You Must Shelter in Place?

Here’s what to have on hand:

Lean proteins: Skinless, boneless chicken or lean, ground turkey/beef, and Beyond®/ImpossibleTM meat items. You can freeze these and save them for future meals.

Vegetarians, be aware: although plant-based meats don’t have saturated fat, they’re still highly processed foods with a lot of chemicals. If you want protein, you can find it in other sources.

Frozen fruits and vegetables:  A great alternative to fresh produce. Frozen veggies often have much lower sodium content than canned varieties. Just as important, frozen fruits and veggies have a similar nutrient profile to fresh fruits and veggies, so they are ideal alternatives during periods of social distancing.

  • Fruits with longer shelf lives: Make sure you wash fresh fruits and other produce before eating them. And as a general rule, be aware that anything that comes in a plastic container tends to go bad faster than fruits sold in their own skin
    • Try apples. Keep them in the fridge so they’ll last a little bit longer
    • Berries (raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries) have the shortest shelf life of any fruits
    • If you prefer bananas, buy them as green as you can find them. They’ll last a little longer
    • Grapefruits and mangoes last a little longer if refrigerated
    • Buy avocados just before they get ripe. They’ll last about a week in the fridge
  • Dried fruit: These have a similar nutrient content to fresh fruits, but with the water removed. You’ll feel less full from eating them and get more sugar per serving
Frozen fruits and veggies have a similar nutrient profile to fresh fruits and veggies, so they are ideal alternatives during periods of social distancing. https://bit.ly/2xt38yG via @MedStarWHC
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Whole grains: Whole wheat pastas, brown rice, and quinoa are all shelf-stable. They offer more fiber and nutrients than their “paler” counterparts. Consider trying pasta made from chickpeas or legumes to add more protein and fiber to your diet while in quarantine. Buy whole wheat bread and keep it in the freezer. Whole grains and chickpeas are also a good source of zinc, which supports your immune system.

Eggs: Raw eggs kept in the fridge can last for weeks. Add eggs to rice dishes, serve with veggies, or eat them plain to add lean protein to your diet. If you have certain heart conditions, don’t exceed three egg yolks per week. But you can have egg whites, which is the primary source of protein.

Other dry goods: Try beans; unsalted snacks; raisins; unsalted nuts; and unsalted, no-sugar-added nut butters.

Lean (less than 2% fat) dairy: Greek yogurt is low in fat, high in protein, and can last a few weeks in the fridge. Eat it plain, use it as a condiment, or use it to make something creamy.

Look for dairy fortified with vitamin D (most Greek yogurt is not). Vitamin D supports your immune system and bone health. It’s hard to meet all your vitamin D needs when you’re indoors without much access to sunlight, our primary source of vitamin D.

Treats and snacks: Let’s face it, comfort food is real. As you did before COVID-19, don’t avoid all treats. Get a few treats you enjoy and eat them in small portions to avoid overeating them—or eating them all in one sitting!

Eating Healthy Together

Research shows that it’s good for families, quarantined or not, to enjoy structured, social meals together. Here’s a sample menu that you and your family can enjoy:

  • Breakfast: Toast a piece of whole wheat bread and add an egg or egg white. Maybe also add some spinach or sliced fruit. A good way to add veggies into your breakfast is to mix them in with your eggs for additional nutrients
  • Lunch: Start with some lean protein such as eggs, chicken, fish, or beans. Add a starch—maybe rice or pasta—then mix in frozen vegetables and perhaps a sauce with olive oil or wasabi vinegar
  • Dinner: How about a nice chickpea pasta with a lean meat in a tomato sauce? Choose a tomato sauce with the lowest amount of sodium, and top with a little bit of parmesan cheese

Moving Forward Well Prepared

The humbling thing about COVID-19 is that it can affect anyone, regardless of health or socioeconomic status. Cooking well-balanced meals doesn’t mean you won’t get sick. But eating a wide and colorful variety of fruits and vegetables will make sure that you get the nutrients your immune system needs to function at its best during this pandemic.

Category: Healthy Living, In the News     Tags: covid-19dex-1zdietary mythsinfectious-diseasespandemicwell balanced meals