To download a summary of the guidance below to your mobile or other electronic device, click here.
Hi, healthcare heroes! How’s it going taking care of you?
Here at The Whole U, we want you to know: We hear you. We see you. Calling a Code Lavender (i.e. taking time for self-care) isn’t easy when you’re being stretched to the limit physically, mentally, and emotionally. We hope you found our last post on enhancing mental and physical strength to be helpful during this time.
Today, we’re going to be talking about an important physiological necessity – FOOD. More specifically, we’re going to provide some grocery guidance that will help you simplify and take the stress out of meal planning and preparation. We’ve tried to tailor this guidance specifically to your situation and this unprecedented time. Sound like your jam? Read on!
First Things, First
This guidance is written for University of Washington healthcare workers who have increased demands at work and at home, and may be pressed for time to the extent that they can only grocery shop every few weeks. This is meant to provide you with some tools and strategies to de-stress your meal planning/preparation experience and to make it more efficient.
This is NOT meant to encourage individuals who have a choice to disregard public health officials who discourage buying more than you need and stocking pantries for more than 1-2 weeks. Show you care by leaving some to spare.
The premise of this post also assumes a certain level of financial privilege, which must be acknowledged. Many individuals and families in our community are seriously struggling with food insecurity right now. If that is you, we see you. And this post may not be all that helpful for you right now. If you are struggling with food insecurity, please talk with your manager and consider utilizing our local emergency food system — e.g. UW Food Pantry, Seattle-area emergency food resources, and other food supports from the City of Seattle.
Last disclosure: these are just ideas. Take what serves you and leave the rest. If you have other ideas to share, leave a helpful comment from which others can benefit. This is only a starting point.
Do I Have to Meal Plan?
Confession: I hate meal planning. I hate the process of making mental Venn diagrams to find the intersection between what sounds good to me and what others in my household will eat. This is not an easy feat. My stomach is in knots just thinking about it. However—I recognize the value of meal planning. It can save time in the long-run. You can save money by sticking to your list and avoiding impulse buys. You can also stress less during the week (or whatever your “work week” looks like) because you’ve done all of the heavy lifting in advance. Sound appealing right now? It does to me, too.
Step 1: Take Stock of What You Have
Before you decide what you need, you should briefly consider what you already have. A well-stocked pantry may include items such as the following:
For a well-stocked freezer, consider frozen versions from the main food groups: fruit (unsweetened), vegetables (plain), whole grain products (e.g. bread dough, waffles), and lean sources of protein (chicken, seafood, beef, etc). Baked or packaged breads can also be readily frozen for later use.
If your pantry and freezer have covered the basics and you want to upgrade them to the “expert” level, the New York Times has some great suggestions (here).
That said, the basics are plenty to get you through the pandemic, so we’ll focus there for now.
The goal is to stock your pantry and freezer with items from each of the main food groups and to also have seasonings and fats to enhance flavor at the ready. These should also be foods that you and your family enjoy eating. In a pinch, you can mix & match these items to build a quick, balanced meal including all of the main food groups.
If you’re missing any of the above, consider starting your shopping list with the addition of those items.
Step 2: Come Up with 1-2 Weeks-worth of Meals
In selecting meals to prepare for the week(s) ahead, you need to think about when you prefer to do the PLANNING and when you prefer to do the PREPARING. In other words, meal planning is not a one-size, fits-all proposition.
Step 2.1 Find Inspiration Based on How You Plan & Prepare
Approach 1: Plan Once, Prepare as Few Times as Possible
If this sounds like you, your goal is the minimize the amount of time that you are both planning and preparing meals each week. You’re busy, and perhaps overwhelmed, and while you may care about food and nutrition, it’s currently not your biggest priority. We hear you. This is totally normal.
Here are some strategies and inspiration:
Prepare large batch recipes, so you have leftovers for lunch and dinner
A twist on the above: prepare large batch recipes that you can prepare now and freeze for later
Approach 2: Plan Once, Prepare Daily/Semi-Daily
If this is more your speed, you want to minimize your time spent planning every week, but you are willing to make a bigger time investment to physically prepare meals — but not too much of a time investment. We’re in a pandemic after all.
Some approaches and inspiration:
Make meals comprised of 5 ingredients or fewer
Make meals using readily available pantry staples
Step 2.2 Keep in Mind Some Simple Strategies
Let technology work for you
From apps to slow cookers, technology can help you save time. While it may require some initial set-up time, using a mobile grocery list app, such as the Cozi Family Organizer, can help streamline your meal planning and grocery shopping experience, as well as allow others in your household to collaborate (app roundup here).
Additionally, while slow cooking and enhanced productivity may initially sound like oxymorons, allowing slow cookers or Instapots to do the heavy lifting during meal preparation can free up time for you and others in your household to do other things (recipe inspiration here and here).
Be open to fresh, frozen, canned and dried options
Using foods with a variety of preservation methods enhances the longevity of your food and the diversity of your diet. Consider freezing excess fresh produce for use in the future. Frozen fruits and vegetables, whether homemade or store bought, retain their micro- and macronutrient composition, so they are equally nutritious to fresh produce.
While canned fruits and vegetables lose some of their water-soluble vitamin and micronutrient content, they retain most of their other nutritional qualities, making canned options a perfectly acceptable substitute, especially during this time. Just make sure to look for canned fruits and vegetables that are packed in water or their own juices, without added sugar or sodium. Dried foods, such as beans and grains, also have long shelf lives and can help round out a complete meal.
Net/net: think about incorporating fresh foods when possible and feel good about when you need to switch to frozen, canned or dried. There’s no shame in anyone’s pantry game here.
Consider foods with longer shelf-lives
In addition to the pantry staples already mentioned, also consider having on-hand hardier fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g. apples, oranges, broccoli, potatoes), eggs, and cheese. When you’re making meals, try to use the foods that will perish soonest, first, and hold onto longer lasting foods until you’ve depleted your fresh and frozen foods).
Be willing to make ingredient substitutions
Given the recent uptick in grocery purchases, it seems like most people have experienced some form of shortage (beyond just toilet paper) at their local retailer. If this is your lot, try to stay flexible and be creative about substitutions you can make within each food group. The New York Times has a great guide on substitutions that can be made for dairy, oils/fats, stock, produce, herbs, spices, meat and seafood (here). The Spruce Eats also published an ingredient substitutions chart that fills in some gaps not addressed by the Times, e.g. flour (here).
Include your family in the process
This can be a win-win. Have your kids complete a pantry inventory (#math), help pick out what recipes to make each week (#reading #science), or write out your shopping list (#spelling). Depending on their abilities, you can also get them involved during mealtime by setting the table or making parts of the meal (with appropriate supervision). If you have the time, there are also tons of recipes that are great for doing with kids (such as here from the New York Times). Families have united over meals for generations, and this may be important now, more than ever, as we practice physical distancing.
Step 2.3 Don’t Forget Your Faves
Putting this out there: YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO EAT. Always, but now especially.
Now is not the time to diet or overhaul your lifestyle. Now is the time to take care of yourself and be gentle with yourself. You never really need permission to eat, but if you need that permission now, consider this the go-ahead.
When you’re planning out your meals for the week, don’t forget to think about your or your family’s favorite snacks and foods that bring you pleasure or comfort. These foods should be added to your grocery list. Remember: food is food, and food means so many things to so many people. Food is not just fuel. There are no good or bad foods. All foods can fit in a balanced dietary pattern. So, go ahead, add those faves to your list.
Step 3: Make List, Check Twice
Once you’ve taken stock of your pantry, thought about breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week(s), and considered food faves and snacks, now is the time to finalize your grocery list. Whether you’re writing it all out with pen & paper, or using a mobile app like Cozi, it will help to organize your list based on the sections of your grocery store. Hint: an app may do this for you automatically. Make sure to include the quantities you need for each item and also denote items you may prefer to purchase from farmer’s markets or specialty stores.
Step 4: Ready, Set… Shop!
If you have the opportunity to use curbside pick-up or delivery for your groceries, take advantage of this option. MyNorthwest.com recently published a round-up of local grocery retailers with online ordering and delivery (here). This is especially important if you are feeling sick.
If you need to head to the store to shop in person, the Washington State Department of Health recommends the following:
- Wash your hands before you leave home
- Wear a cloth face covering
- Use hand sanitizer or wipes to clean grocery cart handles
- Keep 6 feet away from other people, including in the checkout line
- Don’t purchase more than you need
- Don’t touch your face, and DO cover your coughs and sneezes
- Wash your hands once you get home
- Wash fresh produce as you normally would – do not disinfect your groceries (note: the FDA says you can wipe down your groceries as an extra precaution if you so choose)
Once at the store, pay attention to any in-store signage, directing the traffic flow to maintain social distancing. If there are in-store directional signs, follow directions! If there aren’t any signs, be cautious about maintaining 6 feet of distance from all other shoppers and store employees while shopping.
Your goal is to get in and out of the grocery store as efficiently as possible to minimize your exposure to others. There are (at least) two schools of thought on how to most efficiently shop at the grocery store:
This approach entails shopping the perimeter of the store before heading to the center aisles. While this may help tip the balance of your purchases towards fresh and frozen foods and away from pre-packaged impulse buys, your perishable foods will also lack temperature regulation for a longer period of time and may suffer damage from haphazardly placed purchases from the center aisle.
This approach involves shopping the center aisles first and then heading to the perimeter. While this may help with temperature control and mitigate the risk of damage to fragile, perishable items, it may be more tempting to fill your cart with goods from the center aisle before you shop the perimeter.
If you’ve written a list and stick to the list, the shopping approach you take will probably matter very little. What’s most important is to comply with how the store would like you to shop, and if this has not been established, your personal preference on shopping approach will be a-okay.
For more information on food safety, including what to do once you get home from the grocery store, read our recent RD Blog post with Iwona Steplewska, MS, RD and Megan Nordlund, MS, RD.
But, I just can’t cook. Any. More.
We hear you. Sometimes your kitchen creativity is zapped. Sometimes you just can’t eat another legume, tomato product, rice/pasta, or [enter your go-to ingredient here]. And sometimes, you and/or your family just need a break.
City of Seattle to the rescue! Check out this interactive map listing local restaurants offering takeout and/or delivery (here). The local restaurant industry will thank you.
In order to stay safe when ordering takeout or delivery, the CDC recommends the following:
- Pay online or over the phone when possible
- Avoid person-to-person contact when accepting deliveries and maintain 6 feet of distance from the delivery person
- Wash your hands after accepting your food delivery
Now it’s your turn!
Where are you finding meal inspiration right now? What are your go-to ingredients and dishes? Favorite local restaurants to order for take-out? Tell us in the comment section below.
- Breakfast toasts handout
- Mix & match salads handout
- Power Bowls article
- Salad dressings handout
- Spice blends handout
Merideth Murray is a graduate student in the UW Nutritional Sciences Program, a nutrition intern at The Whole U, and a dietetic intern at the University of Washington. Merideth will be graduating with an MS in Nutritional Sciences in August 2020. Merideth’s approach to nutrition is informed by philosophies including Intuitive Eating, Eating Competence and Health at Every Size. Merideth believes in the goodness and enjoyment of all foods and hopes to promote positive relationships with both food and body.