I recently did a radio interview about food and nutrition during the pandemic. As I prepared for it, I realized I had a lot more that I wanted to say.  The topics we covered during the interview were great; but I felt like there was so much more to say about each one.  Of course, when it comes to the radio, we only have so much time – so I really had to narrow down my key message for each topic, and while it is great to be concise, I felt like the rest of the information needed to be heard.

 

If you’re looking for more about how to stay safe during the pandemic, especially when it comes to grocery shopping and how to make the most out of your shopping experience, look no further.  I’ve also talked about what healthy eating looks like during this crazy time, and discussed a bit about supporting our body and immune system, and some suggestions to help with food cravings. 

 

Safety around Grocery Shopping

 

1) Decide who will do the grocery shopping

    • choose a person in good health to be the main grocery shopper
    • shop only if you feel well and can be reasonably sure that you have not been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 or is showing symptoms

2) You should not go out and shop if you are:

    • sick or living with someone who is sick
    • just home from travelling
    • over 70
    • living with a weakened immune system or chronic health condition

If any of these apply to you ask someone to pick up groceries for you.

3) Plan your shopping list carefully so that you can buy enough food and other supplies to last longer

    • right now, in our house we’re planning our list so that we only need to go to the store every 2 – 2.5 weeks. My husband is the only one who does the shopping, and he is also doing the shopping for our parents and grandparents so that none of them have to go into any stores.  It takes a bit of work to coordinate, but we’re doing our best to keep everyone as safe as possible
    • when planning your shopping list, it helps to arrange the items on your list based on categories so that you can shop most effectively and get in-and-out of the grocery store in less time
        • group canned goods together, breads and other bakery items, frozen foods, produce, meat, dairy, etc.

4) Shop at a less busy time.

5) Be respectful of store employees. They are doing their best in a difficult situation.

 

Keep Clean While Shopping

 

There are a few things we can do to keep our hands, surfaces and objects clean while shopping:

    • bring your own wipes and hand sanitizer; the stores have been trying hard to provide these when people come in, but the supplies are short
    • clean the handle of your cart
    • sanitize your hands when you enter the store and once you get to your car
    • handle only the items you intend to buy, avoid picking things up and putting them back down
    • don’t touch your face

Once you’re home from shopping:

    • wash your hands well before and after handling food packages, after removing food from the packaging, before you prepare food, and before you eat
    • clean counters and other surfaces you’ve touched after you’ve put away the groceries
    • regularly clean surfaces and cooking equipment that may come in contact with food

 Frequent hand-washing is key

 

Our shopping list for 5 households, color coded by house and arranged into categories to make shopping easier

 

 How to Prepare in the Case That You Need to Isolate

 

In the event that you need to quarantine, it’s important to have a plan.

The first step is to look at what you already have. Check your pantry and freezer and look at use-by dates on the foods.  You may be able to free up space by throwing out forgotten foods that may no-longer be safe to consume.

Next, make a list of longer lasting and shelf stable foods to guide you at the grocery store.

Purchase items your household will actually eat and enjoy to prevent future food waste.  Stocking up on non-perishable food items is a smart plan; if you become sick you won’t need to go shopping. But, please avoid panic-buying.

Panic-buying food places more strain on the vulnerable members of our community and increases the risk of food insecurity. It is easier on the food supply chain if people gradually build up their household stores instead of making large-scale purchases all at once. This is pretty simple to do, and it’s what we’ve been doing here at our house too. Instead of buying everything at once, add a few extra items to your grocery cart each time you shop.

Good options for longer lasting, shelf stable foods are:

    • dried pasta and canned sauce
    • oats and whole grain cereals
    • dried grains, like rice, quinoa, barley and millet
    • canned soups
    • canned or frozen vegetables and fruits
    • canned or dried beans and legumes (like chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils)
    • nuts, seeds, and nut butters
    • there are some varieties of fresh produce will that last longer if stored properly as well, these include: apples, citrus fruits, potatoes, onion, carrots, cabbage and winter-varieties of squash

Right now, if you still have the time and ability to cook meals, it is worthwhile to make a extra so you have a few meals prepared and frozen in the freezer. This helps to provide meal variety and — if you were to fall ill, you’ll have nutritious meals on hand.  

If you need more information about some of these shelf stable foods, and how to prepare them you can check out this other post about how to choose canned and dried foods, plus how to save money and extend the shelf life of foods during a pandemic.  

 

What Does Healthy Eating During the Pandemic Look Like?

 

The most important thing about healthy eating right now is not to get swept up in the idea that there is any one right way to do this.  We’re all doing our best. 

If you’re scrolling through social media and see people post about fancy meals, or all the fresh bread they’re  baking – don’t let that make you feel like you’re not doing a good enough job at this.  Some people like to cook and bake and have the time to do it, but you don’t have to.

There are a lot of messages about eating healthy or how a certain diet will help you to manage stress or prevent illness.  I’ll talk a bit more about healthy eating in a minute, but I want to be clear that it does not mean eating only certain foods. It means feeding yourself regularly with what you have.  

Do not let certain messages add more stress to this already stressful time.

When it comes to food, we should always be washing our hands and practicing safe food handling, but just take the time to eat regularly, and choose foods that fit into your current situation.  Do what works for you and your family.

If you like to plan meals, that is great. Plan. If you don’t, then don’t.  If you have time to cook, awesome – have fun, and if you have kids involve them too. Teach them a family recipe, enjoy making and eating meals together. 

Maybe your short on time because you’re still working outside of the home (thank you, by the way!) or you don’t want to put in a lot of effort? Try using a slow cooker or instant pot or buy packaged, pre-cut foods, or take out if that is what works best for you right now.

Remember, the most important thing is getting fed. With that I also want to highlight that during normal times there are many people who experience food insecurity, and some of those people are facing food insecurity even moreright now.  If it is something you are able to do, consider donating to one of the Food Programs in your community. 

If access to food is something you are struggling with, your local public health authority can provide a list of Community Food Programs in your area.  The pandemic might affect how they’re operating right now, but you can find a list specific to your community within Northwestern Ontario, on the Northwestern Health Unit website.

taking the extra precautions to clean food packages and surfaces after grocery shopping

 

How to Support Your Immune System

 

First, I want to be clear that eating one particular food or taking a certain supplement will not prevent you from getting COVID. 

The key is balance and making healthy choices as often as you can.  Our bodies and immune systems need a variety of nutrients in order to function at their best, so that means that by eating a variety of nutritious foods we’re fueling ourselves as best as we can. 

A healthy diet is one that is rich in fruit and vegetables, has adequate protein (plant and/or animal sources) and whole grains. These all support the body and the immune system, especially when combined with other healthy lifestyle habits.There are many nutrients that are involved with the normal functioning of the immune system.  Eating a variety of nutrient rich, healthy foods will help to support immune function.  With that being said, there are a few things I’d like to highlight:

1) Fiber

    • we get most of our fiber from grains, cereals, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes
    • aim for a variety of grains, such as brown or wild rice, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, millet, regular and sweet potatoes, whole grain breads with added seeds, oats and whole grain cereals
    • if you want to take it a bit further you can add things like ground flax or chia seeds and eat the peel on certain foods if you normally peel them (apples, pears, etc)
    • fiber doesn’t just help us to feel full, it plays many important roles in the body from helping to maintain good bowel movements to managing blood sugar levels and improving gut health
    • many people think of fiber as just one entity but it’s actually a large group of compounds that all have different physiological effects and health benefits
      • one of the lesser known of these is resistant starch, which ferments in the gut (this is a good thing!)and contributes to gut health. We consider resistant starch a “prebiotic” that can help to contribute to healthy immune function by its action in the gut as it is fermented
          • if you want to eat more resistant starch try eating more white beans, peas and lentils
          • other sources include whole grains, like oats and barley
          • rice that has been cooked, then cooled (you can still reheat it later) is also a source of resistant starch.

 

2) Reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods

    • these are the foods that contain artificial flavors, added sugars, stabilizers, and preservatives
        • to help avoid this I like to tell people to look at the ingredients list, if you don’t know what most of the ingredients are or you can’t pronounce them? Then it might not be a healthy choice to include in your diet regularly
        • these foods contain “empty calories” – meaning that they usually contain little nutritional value and are typically high in added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium

 

3) Hydration

    • getting enough fluids is important because it:
        • assists in digestion
        • carries nutrients around the body
        • helps get rid of waste and keep bowels regular
    • water, coffee, tea, and juice count towards daily intake
    • we also get some of our fluids from foods like fruits, vegetables and soups
    • try to choose water instead of drinks that have added sugars; like many juices, carbonated flavoured waters and pop

 

4) Eat the Rainbow – and no, I don’t mean skittles

    • eating a variety of brightly colored foods is a way to eat a nutrient-rich diet
        • colourful vegetables and fruits provide a variety of antioxidants such as vitamin C, selenium and carotenoids
        • whole grains (whole grain bread, pasta and brown rice, whole oats, barley and quinoa) provide fibre, and other important nutrients like iron, niacin and folic acid
        • protein, like legumes (cooked dried beans, peas and lentils), nuts and seeds, eggs, lower fat dairy products, fish, chicken and meat provide more than just protein. We also get nutrients like iron and zinc along with calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins from dairy products

 

5) “Junk” food

    • we already discussed those ultra-processed foods, but when I refer to “junk” food I’m talking about the foods we typically have cravings for: chips, candy, cookies and ice cream
    • my biggest tip for these foods is not to buy them “for later”. Don’t keep them on hand. If you’re struggling right now and find that you’re eating out of boredom or you are an “emotional eater”, having those junk foods readily available won’t make it easier
      • ideas to try instead of chips:
          • air popped popcorn with a small amount of olive oil and seasoning
          • veggies (if it is the “crunch” you’re craving) and hummus
      • ideas to satisfy a sweet tooth:
          • baked apples (drizzled with a tiny bit of cinnamon, peanut butter and slivered almonds)
          • frozen grapes
    • Another tool to try if you find you have a lot of food cravings is to learn a about mindful eating and try some of those strategies. I’ll talk more on that a little later.

 

7) Physical activity

    • you don’t have to create a fancy home gym; just move your body and be active as you’re able to
        • make it fun and have a dance party in your living room
    • being active can help your immune system stay strong and ready to fight certain illnesses if they occur

 

8) Adequate sleep

    • aim for 7 to 8 hours each night

 

9) Reduce stress

    • if you have a lot of stress, it can weaken your immune system. There are many resources available for free right now to help people cope with stress and if it is something you are not coping with, reach out to a medical professional

 

What Is Mindful Eating and How Can it Help with Overeating and Cravings

 

Mindfulness can be defined as an “approach that increases awareness and facilitates a skillful response to destructive behaviour and psychological pain.”

The goal of mindful eating (sometimes referred to as intuitive eating), is to help us shift our focus from our external thoughts about food, and begin to explore the experience of actually eating food.  This includes responding to hunger and fullness cues, not just the experience of eating.  The goal is to achieve a balanced, healthy, respectful, and joyful relationship with food and eating. 

Instead of feeling guilt or shame after eating a piece of chocolate, for example, mindful eating can help remove those reactive thoughts and lead us to make healthier food choices.  To practice mindful eating, we pay attention to the entire experience of eating, using all of our senses.

Benefits of mindful eating include:

    • connecting to our built-in wisdom about hunger and satiety (fullness)
    • it can help free us from responsive patterns around food and eating
    • it can help us make healthier choices, unlike dieting, which can lead to feelings of deprivation

The way it works is by using general mindfulness strategies, with the focus centered on food and the experience of eating.  It means that we pay attention to the entire experience of eating, using all of our senses: what we see, taste, smell, hear and what we’re feeling.  When we pay attention to these five things while we eat, we try to do it without judgement.  That means we are witness to it and not attaching to the emotional and physical response that takes place before, during and after. 

There is often a belief that our problems with food are caused by, 1) what foods we eat, and 2) how much we eat.  Although these are important, they don’t paint a full picture.  What many of us don’t realize is that both what we’re eating and how much of it are actually affected by why we’re eating in the first place.

    • It might be appropriate to stop and ask yourself:
        • am I worried?
        • am I stressed?
        • am I tired?
        • am I thirsty?

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic you can check out The Center for Mindful Eating.  There are also health care professionals, including many dietitians who have taken extra training in this area that can help people who’re looking for more information.

I hope this has given you some ideas about how to stay healthy during the pandemic, as well as to dispel some of the stressful or overwhelming messages you’ve heard about food right now.  Remember, we’re all doing our best in this uncharted territory.  If you’re looking for some recipe ideas that use shelf stable and longer lasting foods you can check out my other blog post about how to eat during a pandemic with healthy, shelf stable meal solutions. 

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