The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things: schedules, the amount of time spent at home, stress levels, and — for a lot of people — eating habits. For some, these changes have not been for the better. If you fall into this category, you may be struggling to get back on track. What can you do to rein in a wayward diet?
Rather than aim for a complete dietary revamp, Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recommends focusing on five simple strategies to help you meet your nutritional goals.
- Strive for partial success
Choosing nutritious options isn't always easy. Instead of insisting on perfection, aim to make at least half of what's on your plate healthy. Think a heaping serving of salad with your cheesy slice of pizza, or a healthy portion of roasted vegetables and brown rice with your fried shrimp. If you aim for half or more healthy foods on your plate, it can make a big difference in the overall quality of your diet, and it's more sustainable long-term than trying to be perfect. Obviously the more healthy options you choose the better, but halfway or more is a good starting point.
- Reduce temptation
The urge to mindlessly graze all day is real if you're home more than you used to be or are working in or near your kitchen. A handful of this and a bite of that can quickly turn your daily diet into a disaster. The solution? Remove visual temptation, says Fung. "I think you really have to put your food behind the cabinet door," she says. "Don't leave food on the counter." If you can't see it, you're less likely to grab it on impulse.
In addition, she says, try to avoid using the kitchen as your office. Set up somewhere else, so you have to make a conscious decision to go into the kitchen to eat.
- Be a formula follower
When you're eating at home more often, you may quickly lose inspiration for meal-making. An easy way to build healthy meals without too much mental effort is to think of your meals in three parts, says Fung. These are
- a protein, such as fish, chicken, eggs, or beans
- a vegetable
- a carbohydrate, such as quinoa, rice, or noodles.
Once you pick one item from each category, combine them to make your meal. This formula makes it easy to quickly put together a healthy dish. For example, you might have chicken with brown rice and cauliflower, a noodle bowl that contains shrimp and broccoli with a little soy sauce and sesame oil, or a black bean burrito with grilled peppers and onions.
To make the process even easier, and to give yourself options when you can't get to the grocery store, keep your pantry and freezer stocked. Canned fish, beans, and easy-to-cook grains are some staples you can add to your pantry. For your freezer, try cooked shredded chicken, edamame, and other vegetables, says Fung.
- Let your food entertain you
Rather than eating because you're bored, start cooking to avoid boredom. "I think now that people are not able to do some of their usual activities, they may have more time on their hands, and some time to learn how to cook new things," says Fung. Experiment with new recipes, try new foods, or watch some cooking shows, says Fung. If you're like many people, you've probably realized that your repertoire of meals is relatively narrow. "Most people rotate among 10 to 14 recipes," says Fung. Expanding your options can help you eat more variety and choose healthier foods. Cooking them yourself can also provide a source of entertainment.
- Switch things up
To improve the nutritional quality of your recipes, make some simple substitutions. Baking bread? Try adding some whole-wheat flour instead of white, says Fung. Eating takeout? Instead of your usual full entrée, consider choosing an appetizer or one item off the menu and then adding a salad, vegetable, or other healthy option from home to fill out the meal, she says. By making small substitutions, you can improve the nutritional content of your meals.