Texas Tech University

How Can You Eat Healthier and Cook Better Meals at Home During COVID-19?

McKenzi Morris

April 10, 2020

Mindy Diller

Mindy Diller shares how people can stick to their goals and get the nutrients they need while staying home.

Amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the U.S., more cities, counties and states are issuing stay-at-home orders and enforcing social distancing to flatten the curve.

While many restaurants still offer takeout and delivery options during the outbreak, people are looking to prepare and cook more of their meals at home. For some families, this means finding foods that cater to the whole family, including people with special dietary needs and picky eaters.

Mindy Diller, the Texas Tech University Hospitality Services dietitian, shares her insight on how to ensure everyone in the family gets the proper nutrients they need, how to stick to your goals and avoiding stress in the kitchen during the pandemic.

How can people stick to their nutrition goals while in self-quarantine?
During self-quarantine, it is important to create structure with a plan for balanced meals, exercise and to reduce stress. Honestly, these are tips we encourage people to follow daily, yet during quarantine our days may take a little more creative thinking to encourage healthy living.

Balanced meals consist of combining protein from plant or animal sources, carbohydrates in the form of grains or breads, along with fruits, vegetables and dairy. Adding in protein and vegetables can create balance for blood sugars and mood. Instead of a simple bowl of mac and cheese, try mac and cheese with protein (I use tuna, or diced baked ham or chicken) with steamed broccoli, tomatoes and chilies for a fast, spicy fix.

Physical activity improves digestion, circulatory functions in the body, reduces anxiety and stress and can aid in weight maintenance. Schedule your exercise and create fun challenges with friends and family to get more people involved and to stay motivated.

This new situation all of us are dealing with is stressful. During stress, cortisol – the fight or flight hormone – stimulates blood sugar which can increase hunger, irritability, anxiety, alter sleep and cause havoc on our bodies. Building awareness to stress and food triggers and behaviors (how you react to trigger foods) can be helpful when trying to make a better-informed decision for health. Reducing stress can help manage unexpected weight imbalances and other medical disturbances.

How can people best stick to a schedule during this time to better their nutrition?
Set up a schedule for meals and snacks and use it as a guide with some flexibility. Print out meal planners and fill them out to increase organization and planning. Get the household's input. Plan intensive cooking a few days a week, maybe Sunday and Wednesday, leaving lighter meals sprinkled throughout the week for busy workdays. Plan on leftovers, salads and sandwiches for quick meals if your day turns south. A written guide for the week can help create cohesion with meals, staying on track with nutritional goals, and family expectations for mealtimes. This is a favorite resource for any kind of meal plan sheet you could want: https://www.livecrafteat.com/printable-weekly-meal-planner/

Plan for fun foods every now and then, such as sweets or treats. I call these sweet suggestions. Treats can be a fun way to include the family in creating something together. I've never made a cinnamon roll, but it's on my to-do list during quarantine. I think this is exactly how food should be – fun, entertaining, somewhat nourishing and memorable.

What advice would you give to people as they cook more of their own meals at home?
Cooking can be fun and educational, but it does take practice. Think of cooking as a life skill, not a temporary fix. Research says that cooking creates confidence and improves learning skills at any age. Start simple and stick to the basics: bake chicken, boil eggs, steam rice, roast and steam vegetables and learn to properly cut fruits and vegetables to add to any dish – including cold fixes for salads and snacks. If you have a houseful of kids and family, give everyone a job so it doesn't feel overwhelming, including a clean-up crew. Practice food safety by cooking foods to proper temperatures, especially proteins. Washing your hands often and keeping your cooking space clean also is important.

What are some simple tips people can follow to ensure they are getting the proper nutrients they need?
Use the my plate method for building your plate and meals – make half your plate vegetables and fruit with one-fourth grains and one-fourth lean meats/protein. All fruits and vegetables count, no matter if they are fresh, frozen or canned. We enjoy frozen varieties for fast fixes. Using canned goods may not be something everyone is used to but can be helpful during times like these. Maybe don't start with canned asparagus, it's very soft. Instead, try something that holds its texture, such as green beans (Italian cut green beans is my go to), beets (if you like them), potatoes, corn, tomatoes etc. For canned goods, choose fruits in their own juices or low-sodium vegetables to reduce added salt. You can always add more salt, if needed, during or after cooking.

Try a new food once or twice a week because eating the same foods every day limits nutrients. Instead, reach for different colors and textures. Textures are not often thought of during meal planning. Crunch increases the likeability of food, so top off your dishes with a crunchy element.

What advice would you give to people with special dietary needs for making meals at home?
Keep your kitchen clean with a small, separate space that you designate as a preparation area for allergies/dietary foods. When cooking for people with food allergies, bleach equipment before and after use. Once I've bleached my special equipment that I use for allergy-free baking, I wrap it in cling wrap and store it in a different area away from general pots, pans and mixers. It keeps it from being used by others in the home that wouldn't know the difference, especially if it's a little harder to find.

Our staff, cooks and servers who are the superstars on the front lines use the acronym "HUGS" to serve students and to increase food safety with allergies. It can be used at home as well. It means, make sure you have clean Hands, clean Utensils, clean Gloves and clean Surfaces!

Choose adaptable meals that cover the needs of the family instead of making several options and turning your kitchen into a short-order grill. Choose common foods to cook that don't have allergy concerns. Grilled chicken, roasted broccoli and diced sweet potatoes or rice would serve any one with an allergen to the big nine (wheat, dairy, egg, soy, peanuts/tree nuts, fish/shellfish and sesame) and could be easily adapted for vegetarians, too.

What are some grocery staples people should have for making meals at home?
I take a well-stocked pantry seriously, it's kind of my thing and always has been. My first thought is beans, tuna, nuts, seeds, frozen vegetables, oats, eggs, milk, non-shredded cheese and canned fruits in their own juices. When money is tight or social distancing is a major concern, stretch your resources. Reach for dried and canned beans, make tuna salad, boil eggs, and add peanut butter and low-cost grains such as oatmeal to your menu.

Store a few foods that you can prepare in 10 minutes from frozen/refrigerated or shelf-stable items – freeze taco meat for tacos, have turkey sausage and whole grain tortillas stored in the freezer for sausage wraps and frozen tortellini with your favorite marinara. Pick a few pre-made salad kits, soups and sandwich items for fast go-to option. Scratch cooking is great and at times a luxury we may not always have the pleasure to participate in, like if you are suddenly homeschooling. Keep a few simple items for balance and convenience.

What should people do to avoid snacking numerous times throughout the day while in self-quarantine?
Snacking can be a fearful topic for those who try to reduce intake from high-calorie snacks on a daily basis, and distance away from home is often how it is often navigated/avoided. While at home, evaluate your hunger first. Are you wanting a snack because you didn't eat enough protein or fiber, which will keep you fuller longer, or is it boredom? Evaluate common behaviors, as well, while at home that you fall into during the workday such as eating in front of a screen. Be purposeful with your snacks – plate them up to avoid distracted mindless eating.

Plan snacks to keep on track if you should need them, and pair foods with a protein source (plant or non-plant varieties) and a carbohydrate to balance it and keep you feeling fuller longer.

Snacking can be helpful for people who need more food throughout the day for many reasons. Some situations due to medical conditions or body types often require increased and frequent intake. Those who may need more calories due to their body's high metabolism, and people trying to gain weight, those trying to reduce binge restrict behaviors or having to take medicines frequently, high fitness levels and medical conditions to improve health.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
For those who need more information on nutritional topics such as these, we have our blog for the Texas Tech community for those on and off campus. Helpful resources on how to cook, medical nutrition therapy tips, affordable protein suggestions, tips to reduce stress, what hunger tells you, snacking and more are some of the topics we cover.