Community, Coronavirus, Features

Staying at home leaves room to improve diets

As going out to eat is no longer an option in Massachusetts after Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory, those who have a kitchen at home have started to stock up on groceries. Now, cooking has shifted to more than just a survival skill, it is also a daily activity worth taking pleasure in.

Nutrition experts recommend people plan their grocery shopping lists ahead of time and stock up on nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to bolster their immune systems amidst the coronavirus. CHLOE GRINBERG/ DFP FILE

Megan Elias, director and associate professor of gastronomy at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, said that throughout human history, cooking is a way for people to create bonds with one another as food is an entity that keeps us in touch with our culture and emotionally, not just physically.

“Connecting with really simple foods has been a way for humans to feel as if they’ve got a sense of normalcy, which is really important,” Elias said. “It could be really important to think about what you love, and what makes you feel comfortable, and try to recreate some of that as much as you can.”

Josephine Moriarty, a junior in the College of Communication, said she has started appreciating her mother’s home-cooked meals since coming home to Holyoke, Mass. after realizing cooking can be a challenge.

“I think you kind of take it for granted when you’re not the one doing it,” Moriarty said. “But since I’ve been doing it more now that I’m home, I really realized that it takes a lot of work. And if you can do it well, it actually is a really impressive skill to have.”

As the university switches to remote learning for the remainder of the Spring semester, Elias said students now have more time to explore “the history of the food” they are often eating, and at the same time, explore the cultural aspects of the food.

“I think this is also a really good time for learning about food,” Elias said. “You can do a little bit of traveling across places. None of us can leave our houses, but we can make our meal or somewhere else in the world.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Elias said she suggests people make “hands-on” food, from bread and sauerkraut to noodles and dumplings, and to “enjoy the humor” when a dish turns out to be a failure. When people have to think about food in a crisis, she said they tend to engage with their senses differently.

“Earlier crises like the second World War, the first World War, there were real limits on what people were supposed to have and cook with, [which] led to a whole cooking of substitution,” Elias said. “This is going to be, I think, sort of the opposite, where people are going more elaborate [as people are] spending more time making recipes because it’s a really good distraction.”

Moriarty is doing the same. She said she did not cook often during regular semesters because she did not have access to a kitchen when living in South Campus. However, Moriarty is now cooking meals with her family to keep herself busy and has tried following recipes, such as Chrissy Teigen’s banana bread.

“It’s just a lot of experimenting because, well, what are you going to do?” Moriarty said. “Now’s the time to try.”

Most BU classes are now held over the video conferencing platform Zoom, but it’s not only used for academics. People all over the world with access to the Internet have since taken advantage of using video calls to connect with others through food, Elias said.

“This is a phenomenon where people are trying to hold on to what we call the shared table without having that shared table,” Elias said. “[They’re] making the same thing in two different kitchens and just virtually sharing it.”

Social media can also act as a platform of influence on cooking. Certified holistic nutritionist and Instagram influencer Jennifer Hanway said she has been sharing various healthy, nutritious breakfast recipes daily through Instagram stories as a way to educate her followers on the benefits of the ingredients she uses.

“I’m really going by what we can get hold of what we have in the fridge,” Hanway said. “And then we’ll do something we normally wouldn’t do. Normally, I wouldn’t make a homemade pizza crust and make it from scratch, but that’s what [my husband and I] are going to do tomorrow night. So it’s almost like using cooking as a form of entertainment at the moment as well.”

An advocate of using food as a way to improve health, Hanway said food can have more perks than simply nourishing the body.

“I do believe that food is medicine,” Hanway said. “But I believe right now that food is bringing us together by being in our own homes, but also bringing us together as a society. It’s something that we have, it’s something we can control and it’s something that’s spreading a lot of joy.”

Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at BU, said people are now more likely not to be as active as they used to be. She said she suggests to plan meals according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s My Plate initiative that consists of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy, and provides ample vitamins and nutrients for a strong immune system.

“If they’re looking at having their meals resemble My Plate, they might end up being more healthy then they would have pre-quarantine because you’re cooking more, you’re eating out less,” Blake said. “We know that when people eat out, the portion sizes are bigger [and] research tells us that when people cook at home, they tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than when they dine out.”

When it comes to stocking up the pantry, canned, boxed and frozen fruits and vegetables are as nutritious as fresh ones, as well as affordable, Blake said. It is helpful to have a plan when grocery shopping, she said, and to have a balance of both preserved and fresh food.

“Say if you go food shopping on a Monday, what may be fresh may be gone by Wednesday, but then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, you can go into the freezer, and you can pull up the frozen vegetables, pull out stir-fries, pull out of the box of pasta,” Blake said. “So in other words, to plan for the week, eat the fresh stuff first and once that’s all gone, you can eat [preserved food] later in the week.”

Blake hosts the podcast Spot On! giving food and nutrition-related advice for college students.

As for snacking, Blake said she recommends eating small portions of fruits and vegetables as healthy snacks.

“You want to have a cut of vegetables and hummus or pieces of fruit or a nice smoothie where you can take a carton of yogurt and put it frozen berries and a splash of milk and whip that baby right up,” Blake said.

Moriarty said she found that the biggest change in her diet since returning home is snacking more, with rice cakes being her favorite.

“I think the main thing is that I have so much more free time now, and I find myself getting bored, which just leads to needless snacking,” Moriarty said. “Whereas when I’m at school, I have so many things to keep me occupied. I have other activities besides just classes.”

However, Blake said that this is the time when people can start putting their words into action.

“This is an unbelievable time for people, since they’re hunkering down, to start cooking and thinking about this,” Blake said. “You’re not busy anymore, so use this time to start implementing what you want to do … This way, when we break out of this quarantine, we’re going to feel so good about stuff and be so healthy.”

2 Comments

  1. Amazing write up. 👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻

  2. Doug Huntington

    Great article!