Creative Eating During Social Isolation, or ‘I Didn’t Know I Had That’

Kathy Knight

So, you are doing the right thing and staying home to socially isolate yourself, which means frequent trips to the grocery store or eating in restaurants are out for the foreseeable future. Probably one of the most compelling questions in your thoughts – or out of your kid’s mouths – is, “What is there to eat?”

At first, this isn’t too bad. We all have our go-tos – those great recipes that are so easy we can make them without thinking. But as we go forth, three squares per day for two weeks turns into 42 meals plus innumerable snacks.

And when you add this food prep to the possible responsibilities of working from home and/or supervising online learning, it can be pretty daunting and expensive!

Feeding yourself well during these crazy times is certainly an important form of self-care, and if you have a family, of self-preservation. (Right now you may be wondering how these people can eat so much!)

So here is some advice for eating well while preserving your sanity:

  1. Go through your refrigerator, freezer and pantry shelves to see what you already have. Yes, I know, this is not fun. But you have to know what you have so you don’t end up with 27 jars of jelly or having to put ketchup on your pancakes. Throw out anything that is unidentifiable, out of date or that looks like a science experiment. Bonus points if you clean the surfaces as you go.
  2. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and draw a grid with two rows so that you have 14 boxes. In each box, write “Lunch” and “Dinner.” We are not going to think about breakfast right now, because usually that is cereal, eggs or pancakes and is repeated from day to day. However, if breakfast is an important meal for your family, include it. (I just can’t face my people that early in the morning!)
  3. Start filling in what you are going to have for each meal. Try to use things you already have in hand to cut down on your grocery bill, but don’t get too fancy right now. One of our favorite lunches is tomato soup and crackers. That is OK. You are not Julia Child. If cooking brings you joy and the angels who you are feeding have open minds and mouths, then by all means, get creative, but most of us are just trying to survive as graciously as possible.
  4. Here is what you can include per person to make sure that no one comes out of this malnourished:
    • Meat or other protein: Adults need only about 6 ounces per day and kids need less than that, so don’t break the bank here. Casseroles and stews are a great way to stretch the budget, and who doesn’t love spaghetti or meatloaf?
    • Grains: 4 to 6 ounces is a serving. Example: a slice of bread, six crackers or 1/2 cup of pasta or rice is about an ounce. Most adults need between 6-11 servings per day.
    • Vegetables: About 2 cups. This is a great time to use up all those canned or frozen vegetables that you have stashed away. You can also put them in a soup.
    • Fruit: 2 pieces of fruit or 1 to 2 cups of fruit or juice. Watch the fruit juice; it’s calorie-dense, but keep fresh fruit in a bowl for snacks or to eat with yogurt or cereal. Also, as a mom of two picky eaters, I sometimes cheated and used fruit in place of a vegetable. The point here is just to prevent scurvy!
    • Dairy: About 2 cups of fluid milk or yogurt or 4 ounces of cheese. (Survival tip: If getting to the store on a regular basis is a problem, pick up a box of nonfat dry milk, which can be reconstituted by the pitcher to put on cereal and in recipes.
  5. Try something new for a couple of these meals. It will give you a sense of accomplishment, and who knows, you may get a new family favorite!
  6. Finally, make out your grocery list, adding the ingredients that you need. Don’t forget cleaning supplies and, oh yes, toilet paper!

I have left snacks for last because I am still scarred from my days at home with my kids. Friends who survived this period with their sanity intact say that you should keep no more than three snack choices at any one time, and that at least two of these should be something other than sweets or chips. Fruit, pretzels, yogurt, PB&J or popcorn are all good choices and are relatively inexpensive.

Designating certain time periods for snacking will cut down on little people rummaging through your cabinets. Ask yourself – and your children, if any – are you really hungry, or just bored? This will cut down on grazing, and create a whole other set of needs – but that is for another article.

And last, but certainly not least – exercise! This is so important to improve immune function and mental health, and again … to keep people out of your clean kitchen. Walk, break out the Wii or find an online workout – a lot of celebrities are creating them because they are bored, too.

You and your family will get through this, but remember, it is not a contest. We all have our own level of cooking skills and tolerance for kitchen activity, but hopefully we will all emerge with a renewed appreciation of eating well, alone or together.

Kathy Knight is a professor of nutrition and hospitality management in the University of Mississippi School of Applied Sciences, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a certified weight management specialist.