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Homebound? Advice from nutrition experts

Graduate students in UNCG’s Department of Nutrition prepare vegetables and experiment with varied ingredients and their effects on taste and texture with assistant professor B. Burgin Ross.

Social distancing doesn’t mean our health and wellness should be compromised. As we prepare for extended time indoors, how can we ensure good nutrition? And what cost-effective strategies should we keep in mind?

We asked two graduate student experts from the UNCG Department of Nutrition – Sydney McCune, a PhD student in human/clinical nutrition, and Elisabeth Mueller, a master’s nutrition student and dietetic intern – and here’s what they had to say:

Plan Ahead

Before you go to the grocery store, sit down with those in your household and plan meals that all will enjoy to aid in reducing food waste. Check stock of items that you have, expiration dates, and note what you have versus what you need to buy. Keep in mind the space you have to store goods. Be realistic and buy what you like and need – don’t forget snacks, sauces, flavoring agents (spices, herbs, salsa, prepackaged seasonings, citrus, etc) based on meals planned. Have ideas for substitutions and try to be creative in case the store is out of an item on your list.

Meal plan and write a list of ingredients, then write them on a calendar. This takes the headache out of figuring/remembering what you had planned for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.

Meal plan with the equipment you have and store extras. Try not to wait on freezing items before they “go bad.” Some equipment that may come in handy for meal planning: InstaPot, crockpot, freezer containers/bags, blender, food processor, baking sheets, casserole dishes.

What about frozen meals?

Although convenient, pre-made frozen meals often cost more and give you less, when compared to making them yourself. Consider buying frozen meats, fish, poultry, vegetables, and grains to create meals that give you variety, save money, and are more nutritious! Some grocery stores also sell frozen herbs – consider these if fresh is not an option for you.

Take advantage of the extra time to pre-make and freeze meals for later – this can alleviate stress and worry, plus you’ll be ahead of the game!

If planning to freeze items, don’t forget to purchase freezer-safe bags/containers!

Practice good hygiene

Make sure you are washing your fruits and vegetables. To ensure your produce is clean, consider buying a “veggie and fruit wash” (about $3) or use water with 2 tablespoons of vinegar and give them a good rub down. Soaking or letting water run over produce doesn’t cut it. In order to remove bacteria and dirt, it requires friction.

Variety

Try to make sure you are having at least a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. It helps to keep you and those in your household interested in meals and helps provide abundant nutrition! Variety is the key for good nutrition. Think of different colors, textures, flavors and toppings to change it up.

Think of ways you can use and cook foods differently:

  • Experiment with different cuisines: Make burrito bowls, Thai chicken with rice, BBQ shredded chicken with sweet potatoes
  • Use your crockpot to make meals simple and easy
  • Beans are great mashed for refried beans, in a bean salad, blended into flours to boost nutrition of baked goods, as a side or in soups
  • Rice can be made sweet with coconut milk/condensed milk with sugar and cinnamon or savory by cooking with broth and adding in herbs and spices – Bonus: Add some peas or other veggies to your rice for added nutrition and flavor!
  • Soups or stews: See what veggies you can cut up or blend up in a soup or stew to change it up
  • Use pasta for your spaghetti, but also make pasta salads or pasta bakes
  • Frozen fruit and veggies are often cheaper than fresh. Try them in a smoothie for something sweet while also boosting your immune system with vitamins and minerals. Bonus: Cut cauliflower or greens (kale, spinach, etc) can be and stored in the freezer and added to smoothies- you can’t taste them!
  • Freeze fresh herbs in freezer baggies → pull them out when you need them

Try to make sure you are having at least one fruit or vegetable with each meal, a serving of whole grains or starches (potatoes/sweet potatoes), protein, and healthy fat. Some ideas:

  • Grains (opt for whole grain, if possible) and starches: Cereals, oatmeal, grits, bread, pasta, quinoa, rice, and ramen; sweet potatoes, potatoes, beans
  • Vegetables: Broccoli, spinach, squash, tomatoes, onions, lettuce
  • Fruits: Apples, ranges, pineapple, mango, strawberries
  • Healthy Fats: Avocado, nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters, flaxseeds, chia seeds, canola or sunflower oil (safe for high heat cooking), olive oil (do not use as a high heat cooking oil), fatty fish (sardines, salmon, trout)
  • Proteins: Chicken, beef, seafood, beans, quinoa, tofu, edamame, tempeh, deli meat, dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt), and eggs

There’s nothing wrong with buying easy and ready-made products like Uncle Ben’s – just know that these items usually cost more than buying plain rice and adding your own spices.

Food Storage

Proper storage is key to our health – we have no time for food-borne illness; it also ensures that foods are staying fresher for longer. When looking at your refrigerator and freezer, make sure you are putting foods in the right area in case anything leaks:. Prepared foods on the top shelf, then veggies and fruits, followed by beef, fish, and poultry on the lower shelves.

Also, check temperatures. The refrigerator should be below 40 degrees fahrenheit, and your freezer should be below 32 degrees fahrenheit to reduce becoming ill.

Frozen meat

To unthaw meat safely, let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator (place on a dish or in a pan to catch any drippings) or place it in the sink with cold water continuously running over until thawed.
Do not let the meat temperature reach above 40 degrees fahrenheit.

Frozen produce

Opt for plain fruits and vegetables, any fruits or veggies can be frozen – add flavor to it yourself!

Fresh produce

Look for longer lasting fruits and vegetables and store properly to prolong their shelf life. For example, know what fruits and vegetables to keep in cool, dry, and ventilated areas (such as on the kitchen counter) versus the refrigerator. Know what to store together or apart.

Stored at room temperature

Bananas, basil, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, grapefruit, green beans, lemons, limes, onions, oranges, potatoes, summer squash, sweet potatoes, watermelon, winter squash, zucchini.

Store these on your counter, then move to the refrigerator when ripe

Apricots, avocados, kiwifruit, mangoes, melons, nectarines, papayas, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums.

Store in the refrigerator

Apples, asparagus, blueberries, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, cilantro, corn (whole ears in the husk), dark leafy greens, grapes, leeks, lettuce, parsley, peas, pomegranate, raspberries, strawberries.

Eggs are a great source of protein and can last up to two months in the refrigerator. Another option is liquid eggs- just be mindful that once opened, they must be used within a week or so- these can also be frozen. Buy up to two times as much as you think you will use.

Cost-saving tips

  • Staying on budget may be difficult when trying to buy for an extended period of time – consider purchasing frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. These are not only shelf stable, but cheaper.
  • Buy store brands when possible – these are most often the same product but are significantly cheaper compared to name brands.
  • When meal-planning, prepare to be flexible in order to buy what is on sale and available; consider looking at the grocery store weekly ad/circular before going to the store.
  • Buying whole cuts of meats or large/family size packs of meats is often less expensive. Most meats can be easily frozen, so you can freeze any excess.
  • Stretch ground meat by adding in rice or lentils, which also aids in reducing cost. Lentils closely mimic the texture of ground meat. If you lack the freezer space or are on a budget, lentils are a great ground meat alternative.
  • Only buy the amount of fresh produce you know you’ll eat in about a week, unless you plan to prep and freeze some of those items.

Keep it healthy

  • Ensure you’re eating a variety of fruits and vegetables everyday. Fruits (berries, citrus), whole grains, and green veggies are always great options to provide the body with beneficial vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
    • Add some ginger to dishes or try green tea
    • Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that can be added to smoothies, soups/broths, or cooked veggie dishes
  • Smoothies are an easy and great way to get lots of good nutrients – consider purchasing your favorite frozen fruits and a low-fat (plain) greek yogurt and adding handful of spinach
  • Protein plays a crucial role in the body’s immune system for healing and recovery. Try to incorporate a source with each meal or snack (beans, nuts and seeds, cheese, yogurt, milk, fish, chicken, jerky, etc.)
  • Hydrate with water (add some citrus and herbs to boost flavor) and non-caffeinated teas with honey (raw and local if possible, especially with it being allergen season)
  • Sleep is critical for our bodies to regenerate and heal. Even with looser hours and schedules in this time, try to stay on track with your morning and bedtime routines. Inadequate sleep lowers the body’s immune system. Try some sleep-promoting foods:
    • Tart cherry juice, kiwi, milk, high glycemic index carbs (peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich), herbal non-caffeinated teas with honey
    • Limit caffeine intake
  • Supplements: Food is always better than supplements, however, there is some research showing the benefits of echinacea purpurea, antioxidants (vitamins A,C,E), zinc, and probiotics (yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, or in pill form).

Article by Elizabeth L. Harrison, UNCG School of Health & Human Sciences
Photography by UNCG University Communications

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