Social Distancing and Mealtime: Advice from a Pitt Nutrition Expert

Various fruits, grains and vegetablesWhile supermarkets have been lined with people hoping to stock their pantries during social distancing measures, some may be wondering how to get the most nutrients during times of staying indoors.

On TV

Watch Passarrello talk with Pittsburgh Live Today about nutrition.

“Stockpiling for a quarantine is just really focused meal planning,” said Caroline Passerrello, a sports medicine and nutrition instructor in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “You really want to think about what you’re getting from your foods and include a variety throughout the day, regardless if your local store is stocked or if you’re working off your current pantry or freezer. To make a balanced meal or snack, aim to include at least three food groups—maybe you want to pair a vegetable with a protein and grain or a dairy with a fruit and grain or any of those combinations.”

She pointed consumers looking for information to balance their food choices on ChooseMyPlate.gov, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA also has MyPlate available for mobile download. The site advises people get their share of a variety of nutrients from fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein foods.

“You don’t want to just plan on eating a whole can of beans one day and then a whole can of veggies the next,” Passerrello said. “Maybe you take half a can of beans and pair that with low-sodium canned veggies and whole wheat noodles, so you get more nutrition and more satisfaction. Immune-boosting food is also a big plus.”

A pantry stocked with containers of whole grains and other ingredientsPasserrello said people should also look for sustainable ways to use all of their food and not create unnecessary waste, as well as having food that people may not eat in moderation.

“Maybe you have fruit that’s packed with juice; drain the juice out and use it in a recipe,” she said. “Maybe you have pieces of carrot peels, tops of peppers or the bottoms of celery; use them to make a vegetable stock. This way, you’re not going out to the store all the time and potentially setting yourself up to get sick.”

Pets should also be included in stockpiling plans. Passerrello said pet owners should have enough food for about a month to start out with. If stores do not have their furry friends’ favorite brands in stock, owners should mix in food they already have with new food to give pets time to adjust.

“You can also make treats for your pets, but you don’t want to overdo it because you don’t want this to be a time for weight gain,” she said.

When cooking with kids, studies have shown that children are more likely to try foods they helped prepare. While each child will vary in their ability, Passerrello said some general guidelines for what kids can do in the kitchen include:

  • 3-5 year-olds: “dump” pre-measured ingredients, mix ingredients together, snap green beans, tear lettuce, “paint” bread, sweet potatoes or corn with olive oil.
  • 6-7 year-olds: Peel raw fruits and veggies, crack eggs, measure ingredients.
  • 8-9 year-olds: Use a can-opener, juice fruits, check food temperatures.
  • 10+ year-olds: Slice and chop veggies, boil potatoes and pasta, microwave foods.

As for people who may be infected with COVID-19, Passerrello said having a balanced meal becomes even more important and that people should address their specific symptoms, such as increasing their intake of liquids if they have a fever.

“Ultimately, if people can meal plan, practice sustainability with their stockpile and be health smart with their food, they can get through a period of quarantining without losing sight of their nutrition goals,” she said.