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Sensible eating in trying times

March 27, 2020

The recent unprecedented school, work and restaurant dining closures, as well as (temporary) grocery item shortages have left many people on edge. With all that is going on, planning and eating nutritious meals and snacks right now may seem daunting. We want to encourage you to take a deep breath and know that you can eat healthy, even with the frozen, canned and shelf-stable items you now have on hand.

First, for meal planning, consider balance: Make half your plate vegetables and/or fruit, ¼ of your plate a protein food and the other ¼ of your plate a whole-grain starchy food. For more help with balanced meal planning, download the Start Simple with MyPlate app. Learn more here.

General tips: Buy a variety of fresh, frozen and canned goods. Whether you are shopping online and having it delivered, or making a trip to the grocery store, try to choose items with little or no added salt and sugar. See guidelines for foods below.

Healthier pantry items to consider

Shop for these items:

  • Dry or canned beans/legumes like black beans, chickpeas, pintos, red beans and cannellini beans (rinse canned beans under water before using to lower the sodium content)
  • Canned items containing protein (look for reduced-sodium versions): chicken, salmon, tuna (packed in water) and soup
  • Canned low-salt vegetables (like carrots, corn, green beans, peas, squash and tomatoes) for adding to soup, rice, pasta and sauces
  • Canned and dried fruits like applesauce, dates, oranges, peaches, pineapple, raisins or dried cranberries (look for canned items with no added sugars)
  • Whole-grain pasta – whole wheat or higher protein pasta (lentil or bean), brown rice and other easy whole grains like couscous and quinoa (which is a complete protein)
  • Whole-grain bread and whole-wheat tortillas/flatbread (if you don’t use it daily, store in the freezer)
  • Old-fashioned rolled oats can be made on the stove, or in slow cooker; instant oatmeal (be cautious; can be higher in salt, sugar)
  • Low-sugar, whole-grain cereals
  • Unsalted nuts, seeds and nut butters
  • Whole popcorn for popping (in an air popper or on top of the stove with the right oils*)
  • *Olive or *canola oils; nonstick vegetable oil cooking spray
  • Balsamic vinegar and low-sodium soy sauce for salad dressings and sauces
  • Jars of reduced-salt spaghetti or marinara sauce
  • Low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth for making soup
  • Dried herbs and spices, salt-free seasoning blend, pepper, low-sodium soy sauce

Healthier fridge and freezer items to consider

  • Fresh fruits: Apples and oranges will stay fresh longer in your fridge; put apples in a resealable plastic bag with a dampened paper towel in the crisper drawer; bananas that are overripe can be put in a resealable plastic bag in your freezer and can later be added to smoothies
  • Fresh vegetables will keep longer in the fridge:
    • Layer leafy vegetables like lettuce between reuseable paper towels; seal in a plastic bag
    • Wrap fresh broccoli in a damp paper towel
    • Keep asparagus upright in a pitcher or glass of water in the fridge as well
  • Tofu (good plant-based source of complete protein)
  • Eggs or egg whites
  • Low-fat/non-fat dairy products like milk*, yogurt and cheese

* You can also buy shelf-stable (aseptic) milk on shelves. UHT (ultra-high temperature) milk is made shelf-stable (refrigeration not required for storage) by pasteurizing it at a higher temperature. Once shelf-stable milk is opened, it should be refrigerated.

  • Plant-based milks, such as soy or almond milk, are also a good source of calcium
  • Fresh/refrigerated skinless chicken breasts, extra lean ground turkey or lean beef/pork
  • Frozen plain fish fillets, skinless chicken breasts or lean ground beef patties; frozen shrimp
  • Frozen plant-based burgers or patties; edamame
  • Frozen vegetables without salty sauces (like broccoli, cauliflower, mixed vegetables, spinach and squash) make easy sides and add-ins. Frozen veggie/whole-grain combos are also in the freezer section (nearly a complete meal, just add a little protein)
  • Frozen fruits without added sugars (like berries, mixed fruit, peaches) for cereal, yogurt and smoothies
  • Soft margarine with no trans fat (made with non-hydrogenated vegetable oils, usually in a tub)

Don’t regularly cook?

Consider some of these meal plan ideas:

For breakfast, pair low sugar yogurt with fresh fruit; add a whole grain English muffin. Or, have oatmeal, topped with frozen (thawed) blueberries and a sprinkle of walnuts. Serve with low-fat dairy or plant-based milk to provide some calcium.

For lunch, start with a sandwich made with whole-grain bread or wrap and lean meat, egg or tuna salad or nut butter; pair with low-salt vegetable soup. Serve with carrot/celery sticks and a piece of fresh fruit or serving of no added sugar applesauce or canned fruit.

For dinner, start with a serving of rotisserie chicken from your grocer or a reduced salt, lower fat frozen (microwaved or oven-heated) meal; add a side salad (made with pre-made bagged salad) or an additional frozen microwaved vegetable. Enjoy another fruit serving for dessert.

Plain popcorn, string cheese, edamame, raw veggies with hummus, a handful of unsalted nuts with dried fruit or fruit with nut butter are some healthy snack ideas.

If you cook for your family

Make soup. Soup is a wonderful opportunity to combine vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned) with protein (beans, poultry, meat or fish) to make a nearly complete meal that is freezable.

Use your slow cooker or instant pot to make some simple recipes or check out some one-pot ideas here.

Rosemary Weaver, MPH, RDN, LDN, Clinical Dietitian at the NCH Wellness Center

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