Restaurants are beginning to open again, but the pandemic – which is nowhere near over – has fundamentally changed how what, and where we eat. As we have struggled with stay-at-home orders, job layoffs, and just the frustration of not being able to socialize, there is little left to keep us from quarantine depression, and so we turn to comfort foods. Macaroni and cheese in a box. Cupcakes with frosting from the can. Or frosting from a can without the cupcakes.
By now, you may have discovered that you have resorted to unhealthy eating habits, maybe have put on weight, and just don’t feel your best. Fortunately, there are better ways to sit out the pandemic other than eating your way through it.
I asked some of the most prominent educators, chefs, trainers, and experts what they’ve been doing to keep up their healthy eating habits while staying at home, and they’ve given me some great ideas! I’m especially anxious to try out some of Chef Farhana’s incredible-looking healthy South Asian dishes.
Chef Farhana Sahibzada
Chef Farhana Sahibzada teaches classes at some of LA’s most prestigious cooking schools, turning age-old South Asian cuisine into quick, healthy and satisfying meals for every American household. Her classes are often listed as a “top event” in LA Weekly’s “Best of LA” section, she was a Semi-Finalist on the ABC TV “Grill Star” contest, and her book, Flavorful Shortcuts to Indian and Pakistani Cooking, won the 2014 Beverly Hills Book Award as the Best International Cookbook.
Chef Farhana says, “These uncertain times have put us all in a mode to stockpile and stash food and other survival supplies – some of it with some thought behind it and perhaps some of it stemming out of sheer impulse.”
“We suddenly feel a need to conserve, stretch the budget and at the same time have a good supply of essentials, but our freezer space has its limits and the barren supermarkets have wiped out of many essentials. Indian foods present a delicious alternative and with a little planning and organization, you can design delicious options for some flavorful meals even on the most restricted budgets.
“Stock up on items with a strong shelf-life, staples like rice, flour, lentils, chickpeas, beans, potatoes, carrots, brown onions, garlic, and ginger are all very healthy and have an excellent shelf life. Followed by a collection of Indian spices that lift and invigorate any basic meal, such as cumin seeds, stick cinnamon, black peppercorns, black cardamom, crushed red pepper, coriander powder, turmeric.
“Daal is one excellent Indian food often called the ‘poor man’s’ protein in South Asia – it’s made with a variety of lentils, peas, and beans and made as a stew or soup, consumed with rice it makes a complete and satisfying meal that can be frozen for several months after preparation.
“Eating a delicious, healthy well-balanced meal does not have to be at an expense of straining your budget, now is a time to experiment and having a supply of some ready to use frozen vegetables including peas, frozen chopped spinach, and mixed vegetables can come in quite handy for many recipes.”
Shelli Johnson, author of Start Where You Are Weight Loss
Shelli Johnson, who was featured on the cover of PEOPLE magazine’s “Half Their Size” edition in January (having gone from 304 pounds to her current and very glamorous 130), says “I don’t believe in healthy versus unhealthy food. What I will say is that I’ve had a much harder time eating only when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m comfortably full because I’m in a high-alert state. It’s been a challenge not to eat simply because I’m anxious, frustrated, bored, feeling a lack of control, and on the list goes.” Shelli’s book, Start Where You Are Weight Loss, talks about how she was able to lose weight naturally and keep it off (yes, even during quarantine!).
“The question I’m getting the most emails about is how to stop overeating/bingeing during the quarantine. The answer to that is:
- Question why you want to eat before you start eating anything (are you hungry or is there some other reason you want to eat)
- Decide what the actual problem is if you’re not hungry.
- Take action to solve the actual problem.”
Dr. Barry Sears, author of the Zone Diet series
Dr. Barry Sears, a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition and author of the Zone Diet book series, says “One should think of the time in lockdown as dietary spring training to get ready for the real season once you begin to re-enter the world. There are no vaccines and no anti-viral drugs to address infection with the coronavirus once society reopens. However, you can be optimizing your internal immunological defense systems to give you a better chance to hand any coronavirus infection in the future. This means treating the food you are eating under quarantine like a drug to strengthen your immune responses because the coronavirus is simply waiting for you to reappear. The most effective way is eating mostly vegetables and some fruits (about ten servings per day) with adequate low-fat protein at each meal (about the size of the palm of your hand) with the least amount of fat. Not only will you be better able to handle the coronavirus once you if infected, but also you will lose excess body fat as a bonus.”
Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, advisor at Fitter Living
Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, a member of the Board of Advisors at Fitter Living, gave us some outstanding common-sense advice that won’t take too much time out of my schedule. Her advice:
“I think the biggest challenge people are facing now versus before is that there is major routine disruption and perhaps major anxiety and stress. This can upset all of our routines and motivation. However, there are plenty of things you can do to stay healthy at home:
“COOK MORE AT HOME: When we cook at home, we tend to make healthier meals than what we get from fast food or restaurants, but make sure you do it the right way. Your grandma’s old casserole recipe that uses butter, sour cream, red meat and the like won’t necessarily be all too healthy and you can end up making meals that are very calorie-dense. Make healthy meals by using lots of veggies, whole grains (i.e. brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta), lean proteins (i.e. legumes, skinless poultry, seafood) and small amounts of healthy fats. Try to make half of your plate fresh fruits and vegetables since these items are low in calories, high in fiber (to keep you full), and have tons of nutrition. When we go out to eat, it is very hard to find meals that are 50% fruits and/or veggies, so use this time at home to work on upping the produce intake.
“BUY HEALTHY FROZEN FOODS: To help cook healthy meals, stock up on food that will last the long haul. Here are some food-buying hacks: – Buy plain frozen fruit and plain frozen veggies: Frozen produce retains most if not all of the nutrition as fresh produce, and what’s even better is that frozen produce tends to be cheaper and lasts way longer than fresh produce. I always keep these plain, frozen fruits/veggies in the freezer: corn, broccoli, stir fry mix, green beans, blueberries, spinach.- Buy plain frozen shrimp: Shrimp is a great way to get protein without a lot of calories. Plus a big bag of frozen shrimp lasts a long time. I like buying frozen shrimp that is already shelled, deveined but uncooked. I add frozen shrimp to stir-fries, mac and cheese, pasta dishes.
“BUY HEALTHY PANTRY ITEMS: Pantry foods are great because they are relatively cheap and can last a long time in your pantry. Here are some pantry items that can help you ace the quarantine game:- Buy unflavored canned beans (or dried beans): Beans are not only great plant-based nutrition, but they are pretty low in calories compared to meat options. Make sure you buy beans that are unflavored and have the least amount of sodium you can find. Beans are great for weight loss and holding off hunger because they have both protein and fiber to keep you full, which can prevent early snacking before your next meal. – Buy canned tuna/salmon/chicken or tuna/salmon/chicken in pouches: Tuna, salmon, or chicken in pouches are the best! I love these because you don’t have to drain a smelly tuna can and you can just open the pouch and grab a fork. Starkist and other brands make so many yummy flavors. Nutritionally, I love them because they are packed with protein and are often less than 100 calories per pouch. Canned tuna/salmon/chicken works too, but make sure you get these proteins “in the water” rather than “in oil.” Oil adds calories.
“HEALTHY SNACKS AT HOME: No vending machines, so you can have healthy snacks at home! If you’re often tempted by vending machines at work, you don’t have to worry about unhealthy snacks and sodas at home. First, avoid buying those tempting unhealthy snacks so that they are simply not available in your home. And instead, buy healthy snacks that are conducive to weight loss:- Examples of great fresh produce snacks: bananas, apples, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, orange, sliced bell pepper. – Plain popcorn: Plain popcorn is great for when you are hungry in between your meals. Popcorn is very low in calories and it can fill you up very quickly. Some plain popcorn only has 30 calories per cup popped! Popcorn fills you up because it has lots of fiber.
“DO SOME FREE WORKOUT VIDEOS: If you’re like me, the gym is closed, so engage in online workout videos. All you have to do is type in a keyword on YouTube like cardio, calorie-burn, strength training, abs, arm workout, etc. There are some workout videos where you can burn 600 calories in an hour! I did one and I was sore for several days… Also, since you now may have extra time at home since you don’t have to commute to work/school, use those minutes to do extra workouts. If you’re at home but still feel like you don’t have time, split up your workouts/exercise in 60 minutes, 30 minute or even 10-minute increments.
“CHORES CAN BE YOUR CALORIE BURN: We burn calories when we do everyday activities like cleaning, gardening, vacuuming, organizing our closets/kitchens. More Americans should be exercising more or engaging in activities that require you to get moving. Use household chores as bonus calorie burn sessions, but they should not be your ONLY calorie burn sessions. I like to play upbeat music while I’m cleaning to put an extra pep in my step. You can even walk around with ankle weights or a weighted vest for extra resistance.
“KIDS AND PETS CAN BE YOUR CALORIE BURN: Chances are your kids are even more stir crazy than you. Plus, I’m sure your dog would LOVE going on extra walks. Keep your whole family active by doing active family activities: walks, hiking, yard work, family sports games.”
ChihYu Smith, founder of I Heart Umami
ChihYu Smith, founder of I Heart Umami and author of the cookbook Asian Paleo, has a few ideas I will definitely be trying out this week. She tells us, “I noticed that my readers and clients were more relaxed in their dietary regimen during the quarantine time, especially the first few weeks between mid-March to mid-April. My audience prefers gluten-free, paleo, or low carb diets.
“People were looking for pantry made dishes that can either last for a long time or recipes that are freezer friendly. Search terms like pasta, bean stews, no yeast bread recipes…etc were popular.
“However, after a month or so, as some states and countries are easing up the restrictions and people make adjustments to the new lifestyle, healthier terms like barbeque dishes, summer drinks, and salad recipes are coming back to the market.
“Even during the first few weeks of the quarantine, most of my readers still eat a gluten-free diet even if they can’t go completely low carb. People still try their best to eat a balanced diet for example gluten-free pasta with canned tuna or ground beef meat sauce with frozen vegetables.
“Look for recipes that are balanced with protein, vegetables, no added sugar, and good carbohydrate items like sweet potatoes and avoid dishes that are loaded with carbs and not much fiber are a good way to stay healthy while staying at home.”
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.