Even if you're stuck at home, you don't have to live on soup and rice, according to Caroline West Passerrello, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A little advance planning can keep you and your family eating well for weeks.
"It's meal prepping, but with limited resources," she said.
Here's what Passerrello and two other nutritionists recommend so you can keep eating healthy during a quarantine.
Before a quarantine, clear out old food, stock up on essentials, and make extra meal servings
When planning for an emergency, a good rule is to store up to two weeks of food supplies, according to Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and author of "Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table."
"People should not make themselves feel nervous that they have to go out and spend hundreds of dollars on food," Taub-Dix told Insider. "But it might give them peace of mind to know they have some things prepared."
If you're concerned about a possible quarantine, an easy first step is to assess what you already have in stock, and get rid of things you don't need, advised Brigitte Zeitlin, a registered dietitian and owner of BZ Nutrition.
"First do a quick scan of your pantry and freezer and throw out anything past its expiration date. It's just taking up space that we need for good stuff," she said.
A basic list should include major food groups and macronutrients, including: protein sources like canned fish and beans; canned and frozen vegetables and fruits, as well as tomatoes or sauce; whole grains including bread, rice, quinoa, and whole wheat (or chickpea) pasta; and healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and nut butters.
While you're taking stock, also note some favourite recipes and, if they store well in the freezer, consider making extra servings during your weekly meal prep to stockpile, Zeitlin said.
Preparing large batches of foods like chilli, pasta sauce, meatballs, and similar freezer-friendly items to store can round out the meals you can make from pantry items.
"When you're not quarantined and have access to all the food shopping you can handle, prepping some things to put in the freezer will add some diversity, which you'll need if you're eating the same stuff for 2 weeks," Zeitlin said.
Use up fresh foods first
Zeitlin and other nutritionists recommended using fresh foods before turning to reserves of frozen and shelf-stable foods.
"Use up what you have first, you don't want anything to go to waste. This means as many fruits and vegetables and colourful foods as you can – this would be a great time to cook with garlic and onions," Passerrello said, since those foods can promote a healthy immune system.
There's no evidence, however, that any specific foods can prevent or cure disease, despite internet myths.
Fresh foods with the best longevity include root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions, but also citrus fruits like lemons and lemons, according to Zeitlin.
You can prolong the shelf life of other fresh foods (cheese, other dairy) by being strategic and planning to use items as quickly as possible after opening.
"The more frequently you're opening it, the more air that's going in, and the closer to the expiration date you'll have to throw it out," Zeitlin said.
When it comes to expiration dates, read carefully and assess whether the food is safe to eat, Taub-Dix said. Check food for visible signs of spoilage, smell it, and taste a small amount. If you have any doubts, throw it away.
Also keep in mind that many products are edible after the printed expiration date, although they may not be at peak flavour and freshness.
"We get a little paranoid about expiration dates. You can still eat it because some of those are meant to be sell-by dates," she said. "So a box of cereal, it may not be as crunchy or as fresh, but won't be bad for you."
The exception is canned goods that are damaged, dented, or hiss when you open them. Those items should be discarded right away, she said.
Avoid too much sodium, and rely on other spices for flavour
Watch out for your sodium (salt) intake when on a diet based on shelf-stable food. It's used to preserve food and add flavour, and is often added to canned foods to extend shelf life.
Too much salt can be dehydrating, which can cause fatigue, dizziness, and other unpleasant symptoms that you don't want in an emergency situation, Zeitlin said.
Look for low-sodium options when stocking up. If you do have canned goods high in salt, you can rinse items like beans and veggies before using them.
For flavour, consider salt alternatives such as dried herbs like oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary; spices like pepper, chilli powder, turmeric and paprika; or salt-free seasoning blends, including curry powder. Zeitlin's salt-free pick is Trader Joe's "Everything but the Bagel" blend.
Don't forget water and electrolytes
Don't forget to drink plenty of water. Most experts recommend having a gallon of clean water per day for every person (and pet) in your household.
Taub-Dix also recommends stockpiling Pedialyte or sports drinks as a source of calories and electrolytes if you get sick and lose your appetite.
Although it's unlikely a quarantine would disrupt the water supply, a serious emergency could limit access to clean water, making it even more important to cut back on sodium and conserve your water resources, Passerrello said.
This means planning ahead to use up every part of your food reserves, including the liquid in canned beans and fish, and the juice in canned fruit.
Prioritise what you (and your family) will actually eat
When stocking up, focus on things that you and your household enjoy eating, and recipes you'll have the time and energy to prepare, Passerrello said. Storing ingredients for complex recipes won't be helpful if you do feel sick and don't have the energy to cook, so also consider ready-made items like microwavable rice (a few cans of soup are fine, too).
"Knowing my preferences and space I'd prioritise so I'm not wasting space," Passerrello said.
Finally, don't forget kitchen tools, like can openers, that you'll need to access and prepare your food.
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