6 Healthy Eating Tips While You're Cooped Up at Home

Don't let the coronavirus pandemic wreck your diet

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Chances are that your eating habits have changed a lot in the past few weeks. And if popular hashtags on social media are any indication—#cantstopeating, #quarantine15, and #stressbaking, to name a few—it hasn’t been in a good way.

All this is understandable, and, some might argue, even necessary as we adjust to life under lockdown, coping with worry and boredom, not to mention having access to our kitchens 24/7. But rather than downing chips—chocolate or potato—it is possible to look at this time at home as an opportunity to adopt or even improve healthy eating habits. Before you laugh and reach for the cookies, consider these two very good reasons to keep paying attention to nutrition.

“What you choose to eat can mean the difference between feeling energetic or fatigued and between strengthening or weakening your immune system,” says Amy Keating, R.D., nutritionist at Consumer Reports. “Staying healthy is vital now—it’s a public service, really—and that starts with good nutrition.”

More on Healthy Eating During the pandemic

Plus, the habits you develop now may last long after the pandemic is past. “Doing anything over time—we usually say two weeks—forms habits,” says Joyce A. Corsica, Ph.D., director of outpatient psychotherapy and director of bariatric psychology at Rush University. “At this point, many of us are looking at months of WFH, and I’d hate to be on the other side and have a new habit of emotional or unhealthy eating.”

So as we settle into an extended period of social distancing, we all need to figure out sustainable strategies for eating well. These six can get you started.

Set Up a New-Normal Eating Schedule

Whether you’re WFH or at loose ends, being stuck in the house all day can lead to grazing. That often results in overeating or snacking on foods that aren’t going to supply you with nutrients you need, like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and may contain high levels of things you don’t need, like sodium, sugars, and additives.

Developing a schedule for your meals and snacks can help. “My general recommendation is three meals at minimum, and many benefit from snacks, too,” Corsica says. It’s easier to delay the urge to eat from boredom or anxiety when you know you have a snack planned in 45 minutes, she says. (If making that many meals feels intimidating, work out a few reliable go-tos, advises Keating. “Keep things simple. With breakfast, for instance, identify some healthy foods that you like, such as fruit, yogurt, eggs, and whole wheat toast, and stick to those,” she says.)

Having a set place in your home where you do your eating can also help you maintain boundaries. “It’s classical conditioning,” Corsica says. “If you eat on the sofa or in bed, you wind up pairing those places with the act of eating, and in the future, being in bed or on the sofa may prompt you to want food.”

Don't Forget About Fresh

Sales of fresh, canned and frozen produce in March were up significantly over the same time the previous year, but canned and frozen had a bigger surge. For example, during the last week of March, shelf-stable fruits and vegetables were up 51 percent, frozen by 47 percent, and fresh by 8 percent, according to a report from the Produce Marketing Association and data analytics company IRI.

And though canned and frozen can be as nutritious as fresh, they do have their drawbacks. “Canned goods can contain lots of added sugar and sodium, and if you bought them in a hurry, you may not have bothered to read the labels closely,” says Keating. “The same is true for frozen—ideally, the only ingredient should be the fruit or vegetable, or a mix.” (Rinsing your canned beans and vegetables can help remove up to 40 percent of the sodium.) What’s more, if you’re looking at 12 cans of corn in the cupboard, you’re not getting the array of nutrients your body and immune system needs.

So the next time you order groceries or hit the supermarket, put fresh fruit and vegetables on your list. If you’re concerned about not being able to eat them before they go bad, opt for longer-lasting produce, such as apples, carrots, citrus fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. For more delicate produce, you can eat them first, or keep them from spoiling by blanching and freezing some of them, such as broccoli or spinach. (Check our article on food safety during the pandemic.)

Fill Up on Fiber

Changes to your diet may mean that your fiber intake has dropped, which can lead to digestive problems. The relatively easy answer is to start cooking with all those beans in your cupboard and to emphasize whole grains like quinoa and farro—or even just whole wheat bread and pasta.

Not only will this help you stay regular, but fiber feeds the healthy bacteria that live in your gut. Those bacteria are major players in protecting you against illness—much of your immune system is in your GI tract. “Eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir (a drink similar to yogurt), tempeh (a type of prepared tofu), and kimchi to supply your body with good bacteria, and then support them by eating beans, grains, and fruits and vegetables,” Keating says.

Focus on Healthy Foods You Like

That doesn’t mean that the occasional cake, batch of brownies, or bag of cheese puffs is out of bounds. But for daily indulgences, look to good-for-you treats like guacamole, hummus, cheese, spiced nuts (try our toaster oven recipe), or apple slices with peanut butter, for instance.

When you do go for sweets, try to healthy them up. A few squares of dark chocolate is a good option, as is a small bowl of ice cream heaped with fresh or frozen fruit.

Even when you are baking, you can make some healthy changes to the recipe. For instance, you can often cut the sugar by 10 to 25 percent and replace 25 percent of the all-purpose flour called for with whole wheat flour, Keating says. You can also try our healthy waffle and 130-calorie chocolate pudding recipes.

Carry a Water Bottle Around Your House

While there’s no reason that sheltering in place should keep us from getting the liquids we need, for many of us, hydration was built into our day—filling a water bottle before leaving home, drinking water at the gym, having tea at work. So make it a point to drink up. Good hydration helps your cells function and your body eliminate waste, which enables your immune system to work better. And it prevents headaches and muscle fatigue, aids digestion, and even boosts your mood.

Try Not to Self-Soothe With Booze

The combo of anxiety and being stuck indoors without much outlet for that energy can easily lead people to overindulge. Overall sales of alcohol for home consumption during the last week of March, were 22 percent higher than for the same period last year, according to data from the market research company Nielsen.

But while it may make you feel better temporarily, drinking more than usual is just going to provide a major calorie load as well as a drain on your immune system. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can affect your good gut bacteria and their ability to protect your body from disease and it can interfere with sleep. “I advise people during this time to avoid changing things significantly,” says Corsica. “If you have a glass of wine with dinner normally, it’s fine to keep doing that. Just go out of your way not to increase it.”