Shopping for Healthy Food during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic

By: Dr. J. Timothy Katzen


With orders to shelter in place, grocery shopping has become a challenge. People are venturing out as little as possible to practice physical distancing. Store hours have been restricted, food supplies limited, and long lines have formed to access the stores. Non-perishable foods have become a commodity, while perishable items such as fruits and vegetables are plentiful. The following is a grocery list of health food choices while sheltering in place.

Meat, fish, poultry, and legumes

  1. Choose family packs of meat and poultry. These are not only a lower cost per pound, but can be separated into smaller portions and frozen for later use.
  2. Buy fish that has been frozen into individual filets so that only the portions you need will be taken from the freezer.
  3. When buying canned fish, choose light tuna instead of white tuna, and pink salmon instead of sockeye as these tend to be less expensive, but are just as nutritious.
  4. Legumes such as lentils and chickpeas are an inexpensive, but a nutritious source of protein. Dry legumes are less costly and lower in sodium (salt) than canned ones; except for lentils, be sure to soak the legumes in water overnight, then discard the water and use fresh water to cook. Add it to soups, stews, or casseroles.
  5. Nuts and seeds are a good choice for a snack, as are their butter counterparts, such as peanut butter or sunflower seed butter.
  6. Choose luncheon meats that have been less processed such as roasted turkey or beef. These can be purchased in large portions, then divided and frozen.
  7. Tofu can be an inexpensive and nutritious way to increase the protein content of a meal. As it doesn’t have much flavor, it can be added to lasagna, stir fry or soups without compromising the flavor of the dish.
  8. Fresh eggs can be stored in the refrigerator for one month. They are a great source of protein and are very versatile. If cholesterol is an issue, cartons of egg whites can be purchased instead, or choose eggs with a high omega-3 content. Eggs can be eaten alone, or added to foods such as fried rice, soups, casseroles, or ground meat.
  9. There are many vegan choices that taste like meat such as the Beyond and Impossible brands. These tend to be somewhat pricey, but may be purchased on sale, divided into smaller portions and frozen for later use.

Milk and milk products

  1. Non-fat (skim) milk may be frozen for later use. Milk that contains fat does not freeze well as the fat will separate from the liquid when thawed.
  2. Milk that has been treated with ultra high temperatures (UHT) has a long shelf life and does not need refrigeration until opened.
  3. Grated cheese such as cheddar, mozzarella, and parmesan may be frozen until ready to use. These can be added to eggs, pasta, chili, soups, and sauces for added protein, vitamins and minerals.
  4. Greek yogurt is a great source of nutrients including protein, calcium, vitamin D, and folic acid. Plain Greek yogurt can be used in place of sour cream for nachos or dips. Buying larger containers will be less expensive per ounce, but as with most foods, the shelf life will decrease once opened. If yogurt is not consumed regularly, it may be more prudent to purchase individual portions to prolong shelf life in the refrigerator.
  5. Soft cheeses such as Brie and blue cheese do not freeze well and tend to not be as nutrient dense as the hard cheeses.
  6. Cottage cheese, like yogurt, is a nutritious food, but if not eaten on a regular basis, smaller portioned containers may be a better choice. It can be used in pasta dishes, mixed with fruit, or added to salads.
  7. When buying hard cheeses such as cheddar or Swiss, purchase them in brick form as opposed to slices as these will be less pricey. Hard cheese can be frozen for later use.

Fruits and Vegetables

  1. When choosing fresh produce, try to choose those that have a longer shelf life such as roots and tubers. These include potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, artichokes, jicama, cassava, taro and yams. These can be refrigerated to extend shelf life.
  2. Winter squash such as acorn, spaghetti squash, butternut, and pumpkin can last 1-2 weeks at room temperature before cooking.
  3. Apples, and citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, cuties, lemons and limes tend to last longer than other fruits at room temperature.
  4. Although berries have a high mold count, they may be frozen for later use.
  5. Buy bananas and avocados at variable stages of ripeness; eat them as they ripen.
  6. When choosing leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach, buy these in uncut bunches as opposed to the cut pieces in the bags as cutting will promote browning of the edges.
  7. If choosing between frozen or canned produce, try choosing frozen unless freezer space is limited. Frozen produce tends to be lower in sodium and sugar. Fresh produce such as green beans can be blanched and frozen.
  8. When choosing canned produce, choose reduced sodium vegetables and fruit canned in water with no added sugar.

Grains, Bread, Rice, and Pasta

  1. Choose whole grains when possible. Loaves of sliced bread, bagels, tortillas, and English muffins may be frozen for later use.
  2. Flour may also be frozen to extend shelf life. This will also destroy any insects that may be residing in the flour.
  3. Store rice in a cool, dry place. Moisture will cause mold and rot.
  4. Brown rice and wild rice are more nutrient dense than white rice. If white rice is your choice, then choose the least expensive one if you are on a budget. Rice is also a good gluten free choice for a starch.
  5. There are many choices of pasta. Depending on your food intolerances or preference, choices include high protein, whole grain or gluten free. The dried packaged versions have a much longer shelf life than fresh pasta and will be less costly.
  6. Healthy alternatives to pasta and rice include quinoa, farro, and cauliflower rice (although cauliflower rice is perishable).
  7. Dried noodles such as ramen or saimin have a long shelf life, but the seasonings tend to be high in sodium. To decrease the sodium content, use less seasoning or dilute with more water, taking care not to consume all the broth. As many a college student knows, a meal made of ramen, eggs, and spinach can be a satisfying meal on a strict budget.

Fats and Oils

  1. Butter and margarine may be bought in bulks, separated into smaller portions, and frozen.
  2. If you are trying to watch your caloric intake, use a vegetable spray to coat your cooking pan or use a nonstick pan.
  3. Cream cheese has very little nutritional value, and so use sparingly.
  4. Instead of using “light” versions of butter, margarine, or cream cheese, choose to use a smaller portion of the regular version. Light versions tend to be higher in water, and so you are paying for water. The higher water content also makes them less suitable for cooking as you will end up steaming your food instead of frying.
  5. Choose oils high in monounsaturated fat such as olive, avocado, canola, sunflower or safflower oil.

These are just a few tips to maximize your choice of healthy items when you make that trip to the grocery store. Stay tuned for the next blog which will focus on food choices on a budget. Please stay safe and shelter in place.

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.