Eat Well During COVID-19: A 7-Step Plan for Older Adults

Don’t let the pandemic derail your diet. Here’s how to make the most of your next grocery run

vegetables on a cutting board

You’re signed up for contactless delivery, can disinfect your countertops like a boss, and are happily scheduling FaceTime calls with friends. But what about your nutritional needs?

Chances are, being housebound has drawn you toward some less-than-stellar eating habits. Casseroles, chips, and cake are delicious, of course, but maybe not the best things to be eating right now (or ever).

People are out of their routines and, understandably, the reasons for eating right in some ways have vanished, says nutrition expert Monica Reinagel, MS, LAD/N, CNS, host of The Nutrition Diva podcast. 

But this time can actually be an opportunity to embrace healthy home cooking and good-for-you foods that support your overall health now and into the future. 

“You’ll come out of this situation closer to your health goals or farther away,” says Reinagel. “You get to decide.” 

Ready to get back on track? Follow these steps for eating well without leaving home.

Step #1: Lock Down Meal Times
Times of stress have a way of sending routines out the window. But the predictability of eating at set times is actually a good way to help you cope with this new normal.

“Some older adults experience a loss of appetite when they are feeling stressed or sad,” says Reinagel. She suggests creating a mealtime schedule and sticking to it. Eat something at those times whether you feel like it or not. 

“Choose foods that are both calorie- and nutrient-dense, like avocados, nuts, and nut butters,” she says. That way, if you only have a few bites you’ll get more nutrition than you would from something less calorie-dense, like a broth-based soup.

Step #2: Plan Like a Chef
Even if you’re a wing-it kind of cook, now’s the time to plot out a menu. Having a loose idea of what you’re going to be eating for the next week or two will allow you to make fewer trips to the grocery store—something health experts want all of us, but especially older adults, to do right now in an effort to cut exposure to the coronavirus.

“During the current situation, it’s important to plan ahead as much as possible to protect yourself,” says Kristen Smith, MS, RDN, LD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Meal planning has a few other plusses going for it: It can help you eat more vegetables and fiber, save money, and eliminate the age-old stress of wondering what’s for dinner.

Start by sketching out a rough rotation of meals—meatless Monday, taco Tuesday, pizza night, stir-fry night, and so on. Next, take stock of what’s already in your fridge and pantry. Finally, make a list of specific ingredients you’ll need to pick up at the store to make the meal magic happen.

Smith also suggests looking for opportunities to use the same foods in different ways. “For example, if you plan to have a grilled chicken breast with spinach one night,” she says, “use that same chicken and spinach to make quesadillas the next night.”

After taking inventory of what you have and planning to use perishable items first, you’ll need to do some math. 

“Especially if you’re used to eating out a lot, you may not realize how many vegetables it takes to hit five servings a day,” Reinagel says. “That one bag of salad and a single head of broccoli isn’t going to cut it.”

Step #3: But Have Backup Ideas Ready to Go
There’s a very good chance your neighborhood grocery store won’t have everything on your list. In recent weeks, eggs, flour, pasta, rice, and meat have all been in high demand and hit-or-miss supply. 

If that’s the scenario facing you when you get to these familiar aisles, don’t panic. Instead, think on your feet. The store may not have fresh ground beef or ground turkey, for example, but a bag of frozen turkey or beef meatballs is a good substitute. You can skewer the meatballs with sliced vegetables and place them on the grill, or add them to a grain bowl.

Speaking of grains, if the rice shelf is bare, quinoa makes a great stand in for brown rice in just about every grain dish. Plus, quinoa is a good source of protein, which is a nutrient older adults need more of in order to hold on to muscle mass. Win-win!

Find a few more clever substitution ideas here

Step #4: Choose Long-Lasting Fresh Foods
When you’re making a grocery list, add fresh foods that have a longer shelf. 

“Apples, oranges, potatoes, and carrots can last more than a month in the refrigerator,” says Smith. Pro tip: Full-sized carrots last longer than baby carrots. But if baby carrots are on sale, place a dry paper towel inside the bag when you get home. It will absorb the moisture to extend the shelf life. 

For the same reason, Reinagel suggests adding winter squash, cabbage, broccoli, bell peppers, and Brussels sprouts to your list. All of the above stay fresher longer than head lettuce or zucchini, for example. 

Not only will these foods round out your meal planning, they also have a role to play in helping to dampen any angst you might be feeling during the pandemic. Fruits and vegetables are chock-full of nutrients that have been tied to good mental health. Things like carotenoids, fiber, polyphenols, and potassium help turn on your body’s feel-good response system.

Case in point: A new study published in the journal Environmental Research and Public Health shows a significant relationship between a low daily intake of produce and anxiety. Researchers studied 27,000 middle-aged and older adults, and found that those who ate fewer than three servings of fruits and vegetables a day had a 24 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Step #5: Load Up on Pantry Favorites
At a time like this, a well-stocked pantry is your best friend. “Canned tomatoes, beans, and pasta have great versatility if you have to eat them again and again,” says Reinagel. 

Smith likes to keep quinoa on hand. It’s nutrient dense and “lasts for ages” in a sealed container on your pantry shelf. Other versatile whole grains include brown rice, bulgur, and whole wheat couscous. All of these are packed with fiber, which promotes both digestive health and heart health.

Canned or pouched fish, such as tuna, salmon, and sardines, are terrific shelf-stable proteins you can stock up on as well. Along with protein, these fish varieties are good sources of omega-3 fats. These healthy fats help suppress inflammation in the body, which in turn helps lower levels of anxiety during stressful periods, according to researchers at Ohio State University.

Eggs are another high quality, inexpensive source of protein that lasts a long time in the fridge and can be cooked several different ways to avoid boredom, notes Reinagel. 

Step #6: Take a Second Look at the Freezer Section
“Frozen vegetables are in many ways a better alternative to fresh. They help eliminate food waste and make it easier to add variety to your diet,” says Reinagel. 

In addition to the usual broccoli and peas, pick up frozen collard greens or artichokes for a change of pace. And don’t think your only cooking option is to nuke them in the microwave. Roasted frozen Brussels sprouts are just as delicious as fresh. 

Consider, too, freezing things that you ordinarily wouldn’t. For example, Smith notes the freezer is ideal for long-term bread storage. And hard cheese, such as cheddar, freezes well. 

“Instead of letting milk go bad, freeze it,” says Reinagel. “Later, you can use it to make homemade yogurt, pancake batter, or baked goods.” 

Step #7: Build in a Comfort Food Cheat Day
Challenging times call for a food splurge every so often. Pick a day to give yourself a weekly treat. A bowl of ice cream, an extra big serving of lasagna, a gooey grilled cheese sandwich—whatever craving is calling you, allow yourself this time to answer.

Study after study shows that forbidding certain foods in the name of healthy eating almost always backfires, say Reinagel and Smith. The depravation leads to a fixation on the cravings and, ultimately, stuffing your face.

On the other hand, a planned splurge helps you stay in control and on track. Just be sure to slow down and actually savor every bite. Mindful-eating advocates say that taking the time to enjoy your food helps you avoid over-eating and feel more satisfied.
 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDCWHO, and their local public health department.