Working from home is no picnic—or at least, it isn’t supposed to be.
But for many newly remote employees, working steps away from a (now) fully stocked kitchen looks a lot like an all-day buffet. Social distancing could keep many of us indoors for weeks with larders full of bread, pasta and frozen pizza. Now is the time to establish healthy habits and avoid unhealthy ones. We asked top nutritionists and chefs for suggestions on how to cook, shop and snack smarter in the weeks ahead.
Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director, Duke Diet & Fitness Center
One of the biggest pitfalls of working from home is grazing, or “eating mindlessly as you work,” says Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. She strongly suggests establishing a meal schedule.
“Make mealtimes very clear, so everybody knows there is a time to eat and time to not eat,” she says.
Recent clients improved their eating habits by agreeing they would only eat if they laid down a tablecloth, for example. Table linens may be a little fussy for some, so Ms. Politi suggests alternatives: deciding that food may only be eaten over a place mat, or while sitting at the kitchen table.
“Create a change of scenery, so you realize it’s a different moment,” she says.
During the recent weeks of frenzied shopping, she noticed that fresh produce went largely untouched. “I think people are afraid of buying fresh fruits and vegetables, but some are much less perishable,” Ms. Politi says. Her list of hearty produce includes: bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, bananas, apples and citrus fruit. Try infusing water with a squeeze of fresh lemon or grapefruit to boost vitamin C and encourage hydration.
For those trying to maintain a low-carbohydrate diet, Ms. Politi recommends low-carb snacks such as turkey jerky, sugar-free Jell-O, pork rinds or Parmesan crisps. “Grate some Parmesan cheese onto a baking sheet, bake in the oven and they’ll pop,” she says.
Pro Tip: It is important to integrate a favorite treat into your daily routine, she says, especially in times of stress. Be selective. Decide what you want to have and where you want to be when you have it. Whether it’s a cookie or a piece of chocolate, apportion the treat ahead of time, she says. “Then ask yourself, at what time of day do I feel most vulnerable, when I would really enjoy eating this?”
Alex Guarnaschelli, celebrity chef, Food Network star and cookbook author
In uncertain times, people often turn to Italian-American food, says New York City-based chef Alex Guarnaschelli.
“Cooking is a way of coping,” she says. “I think we never tire of those belly-warming dishes made from some cheese, pasta and canned tomatoes.”
There is nothing wrong with using boxed noodles and jarred sauce, says the Food Network star, as long as you up the nutrition content. “The trick is to be clever about inserting protein. My mother used to make tomato sauce and stir in canned tuna,” she says. Other protein-rich add-ins include anchovies, canned chickpeas, minestrone or chicken meatball soup, and cooked lentils or quinoa.
“I found it curious that there were boxes of lasagna at every supermarket I’ve been to,” she says. Add sauce, canned tomatoes and a protein to make a casserole that will last several meals. But Ms. Guarnashelli admits that even pasta has its limits. “Don’t eat pasta too many days in a row or you’ll get tired of it,” she says. Alternate dishes with a mixed-bean chili or a hearty lentil soup with bacon.
Pro Tip: Instead of looking for items that everyone is stockpiling, Ms. Guarnaschelli says focus on the ingredients still on grocery shelves. “Aisles have no strawberry jam, but they are brimming with frozen okra, fresh parsnips and dried beans,” she says. Try different combinations with pantry ingredients on hand; “it can be an amusing way to play ‘Chopped’ at home,” says Ms. Guarnaschelli, a frequent judge on the Food Network show.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, dietitian, Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute
The total disruption of routines is an opportunity to set new ones, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
“Now is a great time to try out some periodic fasting techniques,” she says. Also called time-restricted eating, the practice involves limiting food consumption to an eight- to 12-hour daytime window. Ms. Kirkpatrick doesn’t eat breakfast until 11 a.m., and finishes family dinner by 7 p.m., she says. Someone else may feel more comfortable with a 10-hour food window, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Such changes can lower the appetite, she says, and studies show that people tend to consume fewer calories when they have fewer eating hours in the day. She cautions that periodic fasting should only be considered by healthy adults, and isn’t appropriate for anyone who is diabetic, pregnant or has a history of disordered eating.
For snacking, Ms. Kirkpatrick is very anti-pretzel. If you’re craving crunchy, go for nuts or chopped veggies, she says. Their higher nutrient density makes them more filling. “Most pretzels, all you’re getting is white flour and sodium—not a great combo,” she says, suggesting popcorn instead. “At least with popcorn you’re getting a grain.”
Whole-grain bread is always better, but white bread isn’t the end of the world, she says. For sandwiches, choose baked or grilled chicken rather than processed deli meat. Natural or low-sugar peanut butter is also a great staple. Always be thinking of multiple uses: Fresh berries can be frozen and used in smoothies. So can spinach. Bananas can become banana bread. “And eggs are the perfect food. A great source of protein,” she says.
Pro Tip: For those leery of fruit with high-carb content, Ms. Kirkpatrick suggests stone fruits, apples and berries, which are lower on the glycemic index. A bowl of frozen dark cherries makes a sweet dessert. “I defrost them a little in the microwave and cut them in half,” she says. “Kids love them.”
Dr. Mark Hyman, medical director, the UltraWellness Center, food author
“The trap I see people falling into right now is, ‘the end of the world is coming so let’s just eat crap,’” says Mark Hyman, medical director and founder of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass. A better exercise, he says, is thinking about which foods can help us fight infection. “We know that sugar and starch worsen your immune function,” he said.
Dr. Hyman would prefer people to stock up on beans and whole grains and hold off on all that pasta and processed bread. “Keep the pasta in the pantry. If the world ends, you’ll want it,” he says. “But while you’re able to, cook real, whole food.”
He recommends eating some form of protein with every meal, citing protein deficiency as a risk factor for infections. Nuts, seeds and protein powders can do the trick, but he also recommends canned salmon or sardines, and frozen chicken, fish or beef. In the deli section, Dr. Hyman suggests only salami or cured meats.
“It’s time for people to check in with their cookbooks,” he says. “That’s the silver lining in all this: We’re going to reclaim the kitchen.”
Pro Tip: “People tend to forget about spices, and many of them have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral qualities,” Dr. Hyman says, putting garlic, onions, turmeric, ginger and oregano on his must-have list. He also recommends probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, miso and keffir, a fermented yogurt.
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