Eating well in uncertain times: What and how to eat when you are stuck at home

There is a lot we cannot control these days.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, communities have closed bars and restaurants, effected shelter-in-place orders, and mandated travel only be made for essential purposes.

But amidst the panic, one thing we can control is our nutritional status, said Anne-Marie Davee, M.S., RDN, LD, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Nutrition within the University of New England’s Westbrook College of Health Professions.

“There are so many variables that are outside of our control right now, but your nutritional status directly affects your overall health, the strength of your immune system, and your overall wellbeing,” Davee said. “It can also impact your mental and social wellbeing because food serves many purposes in our lives.”

There are many nutrient-dense foods that can support and boost nutritional status and immune health, and Davee took the time to make recommendations for what to buy, store, cook, and do in the kitchen during these unprecedented times.

What to Buy at the store

Starting in the produce section, Davee suggests people choose the most colorful vegetables they can find. That includes deep yellow and orange vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, as well as dark leafy greens, like kale and broccoli, whenever they are available. “As a bonus, root vegetables like carrots not only last a long time, but they are also excellent sources of antioxidants,” Davee said.

If these vegetables are not available fresh, check the freezer section – Davee said frozen spinach is an excellent alternative to fresh, and most of the same colorful vegetables are available in frozen varieties.

For protein, Davee recommends mixing up animal proteins with plant proteins, and she advises that people opt for sources containing vitamin D, which is found in fatty fish, eggs, milk, tofu, and mushrooms.

“Protein helps to build your body’s nutritional status and overall immune system,” she said. “Choose a wide variety of high-protein foods including meats, poultry, seafood, and legumes.”

Davee also recommends legumes such as dried beans, lentils, and split peas for additional plant-based protein sources. Canned beans are also great, she said, as is jarred peanut butter. “Both will last long in the pantry,” she said.

Canned tuna is another good option for an animal protein, and will last in the pantry for long periods of time. If you buy fresh protein, such as beef, chicken, or pork, Davee recommends using them or freezing them within three days of purchasing.

Keeping the kitchen safe

“That three-day rule is really important in preventing foodborne illness,” Davee said.

As people are now starting to stockpile ingredients and prepare meals in advance, leftovers are inevitable. These should also be consumed within three days of preparation because they will spoil over time. If the foods are in larger pieces – for example, large pieces of meat – Davee said they can last up to five days in the refrigerator, but smaller pieces, such as sliced meats, should be eaten in three days.

“I’m highly encouraging people to buy foods that are shelf-stable or pantry stable that can be stored for long periods of time, and then using their freezers as much as possible,” she said.

Another important topic in food safety is sanitation, which can be a daunting task during a pandemic. Davee said that now than ever it is important that people wash fruits and vegetables immediately after purchasing and that they wash their hands after touching food packages.

“We have always said wash, wash, wash your produce. Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly,” she advised. “The most important thing people can do after they’ve touched a package and opened it is to make sure they’re washing their hands and cleaning their food contact surfaces. Sanitize all countertops and cutting boards, and then wash your hands after you touch anything.”

These are not new principles, and they are ones Davee said are important to remember as society works to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infection.

“This is a really important time for people to take control of things that can really help them from becoming ill, and those things are choosing nutrient-dense foods that are full of good nutrition and then washing – hand washing and sanitizing all of their food contact surfaces,” she said.

Maintaining mental health

Davee said right now is a critical time to stay active. While it is also important to practice good social distancing, she recommended that people be outdoors as much as possible to support their mental health.

“This is the time to be focusing on strengthening your body, which is really important,” Davee said. “Be strong, be sanitary, and be safe.”

Cooking can boost mental health, Davee said, and time spent at home is the perfect time to try new things. She recommended looking for new recipes, experimenting with never-before-tried foods, and getting creative with unused spices.

“Another way to really add to your eating experience, as well as your social and mental wellbeing, is to experiment with new recipes. If you’re trying to do more with beans, lentils, split peas, or tofu that you’ve not used before, you can look up some new recipes and try them,” she said. “Have fun with it!”

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