A Guide to Cooking and Eating During a Pandemic
What to buy, what to cook, and what not to worry about in the age of COVID-19
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
While the rest of the country was hoarding toilet paper, I was stocking up on chocolate chips. My second-favorite hobby is stress baking. My first-favorite hobby is stress eating. I plan to do both with reckless abandon in the coming weeks.
However, you probably shouldn’t live on chocolate chips and coffee while self-isolating at home. (No judgment if you do, we’re all just trying to do our best.) And while there’s a ton we don’t know about the coronavirus and how long we all might be confined to our homes, stocking up now so you can eat healthy is a never a bad idea. Eating healthy may also help your body mount a better response should you get infected, says Ashley Reaver, the lead nutrition scientist and sports dietitian for the blood-testing company InsideTracker. As a bonus: you won’t feel like a lump after weeks of teleworking and grazing on nothing but shelf-stable Cheez Whiz.
The good news is that, for most food-secure Americans, a few weeks of food is likely already in your pantry, says Reaver. But things might get weird the longer we’re isolated at home. To avoid eating lasagna noodles steeped in coconut milk and seasoned with za’atar in the final days, “dig into interesting sauces and boxed meals,” and build out a meal plan now, she suggests. And don’t wait too terribly long to do that, both because you never know how long you might be stuck at home and because, in general, we should all be practicing smart social distancing.
Stock Up on These
Load up on frozen fruits and veggies. “People think that frozen veggies are less nutritious, and that’s just not true,” says Eve Persak, a registered dietitian who splits her time between Los Angeles, Bali, and Singapore. They are good for you. The antioxidants in frozen foods are just as potent, sometimes even more so since they’re often frozen within hours of picking, she explains. (Here’s a study on frozen broccoli and another on green beans that shows they retain their nutrition during freezing, and here’s one showing that frozen produce is generally equal to fresh and better than “fresh stored,” or produce that’s been hanging around the store for a while.)
Are frozen veggies a little mushy? Sure. But they’ll work well in dishes where they would have gotten soft anyway, like soups, stews, curries, and grain bowls.
Here’s the other reason to grab a few bags: if you front-load your quarantine eating so your first week is all healthy salads (which is smart, since greens don’t keep well) and your second week is nothing but chips, well, “the benefits don’t shift from week one to week two. Those water-soluble vitamins need to be consumed every day,” says Reaver.
It might also be wise to grab a shelf-stable version of the milk of your choice, be it plant based or dairy. And don’t forget about proteins, says Reaver. Dried beans keep forever, and tofu will last at least a month in your fridge. Eggs are a smart staple to grab, too, since they’ll easily last in the fridge for two weeks or longer.
Finally, think about your favorite things. For Manhattan-based registered dietitian nutritionist Cara Anselmo, that meant stocking up on New York bagels, which she presliced and put in the freezer. She also bought some extra cheese—and then she and her boyfriend had a serious conversation about how they were going to ration that cheese to make it last two weeks.
Aim for These Nutrients
Reaver is trying to incorporate plenty of vitamins A, C, and E in her diet. All three are potent antioxidants, which help combat inflammation, she explains. You want to get these from food, not supplements. In part that’s because the supplement industry is really loosely regulated, and it’s hard to know what exactly is in the pills. Also, it’s possible to ingest too much vitamin A and vitamin E. Both are fat-soluble, so any extra you ingest gets stored in your body fat. There is evidence that overly high doses can be harmful, so supplements may provide literally too much of a good thing.
For vitamin A, look to red, yellow, and orange foods. Reaver suggests buying a bag of sweet potatoes, which are a terrific source of vitamin A, which supports immune-system function and cellular growth. They also keep forever without refrigeration—they’ll last months in a cool, dark place. Frozen red and yellow peppers thrown into a curry are another great option, she says.
Foods with vitamin E, which may help prevent cellular damage, can be a bit trickier to find. Reaver’s main source is sunflower butter, which she subs in wherever she’d use almond or peanut butter. “It’s an easy swap that tastes a little different but is very, very good,” she says.
Vitamin C, which supports other antioxidants and immune function, is water-soluble, so you’ll just pee out the extra, Reaver says. So don’t stress about taking in too much. You can find it in citrus fruits, but it’s also present in leafy greens and broccoli. However, she says, “The longer you cook foods, the more vitamin C they lose in the process.” When reheating frozen broccoli or greens, heat them just until warm.
Take a Deep Breath and Chill Out
This is not the time to go keto, or get to race weight, or do a juice cleanse. For one thing, juice cleanses are dumb. And there’s likely no race to make race weight for anyway. Finally, it’s going to be a stressful few weeks. Being kind to yourself isn’t so much a suggestion as a necessity. Even more important? Being kind to the people stuck in quarantine around you. For their sake, please do not get hangry because you’re dieting.
It’s OK if your anxiety makes you extra snacky. It would be great if you used those snack cravings to eat more fruits and veggies, of course, but if you don’t, it will be fine. “Have some grace with yourself,” Reaver adds.
Make a Plan
Milk, fresh greens, mushrooms, berries, and fresh herbs all need to be used in the first week. Think carefully about how you’ll employ these ingredients, because it’s going to suck to throw them out when they’re rotten and you can’t get more. Consider making big salads and maybe a stir-fry or two. Toward the end of the first week, cook whatever greens you have left before they go south and have to be tossed. Persak suggests throwing them into a big pot of soup. Soup helps with hydration, and if you make a large enough batch, it can get you through several days if your health starts feeling iffy.
Assuming you’re feeling well, the first week should be pretty easy. (Except for the part where you have to ration your snacks.) The second week will take a little more planning. Pivot from salads to grain bowls, which you can still pack veggies into—but they’ll mostly be from your frozen stash. Persak has plans to make a rice pilaf studded with frozen edamame, corn, and some dried spices.
If you’ve run out of fresh fruit, it’s time to make smoothies. Again, these are hydrating. Plus, you can pack them full of frozen kale, berries, and those browning bananas you didn’t get to in week one. For an extra kick of vitamin E, Reaver suggests adding a dash of wheat germ.
See the Silver Lining
If you’re stuck at home, what better time to make those involved meals you’ve always wanted to get to but never seem to have time for? Personally, I may try some of Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian dishes, which, while always showstoppers, are too complicated for real life. Might I also suggest self soothing by cooking what reminds you of better times? This adult version of mac and cheese from Alison Roman reminds me of the mac and cheese my mother made on sick days, which, of course, I ate while watching The Price is Right. Or perhaps I’ll make this moussaka, which is nothing more than a plate full of nostalgia from a long-ago trip to Greece. And yes, I will stress-bake.
Look One More Time at Your Pantry
Do you have more than enough? Probably. If you do, consider taking some of it to your local food pantry. There are 11 million food-insecure children in this country. School closures will likely be very hard on these kids. If you have extra—or, even better, money to spare—please send it to your nearest hunger-abatement organization.
Are you healthy and in need of a bike ride or a walk? Offer to pedal down to the store to fill your elderly neighbor’s cabinets. Food is comfort. Food is love. But, most important, food is security. We can’t ensure everyone going to make it through this public-health crisis. However, we can do our part to make sure our community members have enough to eat. Let’s all work together to bring as much comfort, love, and food security to those in need as we possibly can.