Illustration: Furze Chan

How to Eat in the New Normal

How to Eat Healthy When You’re Staring at Your Fridge All Day

This story is part of How to Eat in the New Normal, a weeklong series about how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we eat, with expert advice for making food choices that help you stay healthy and happy.

As you sit reading this, you’re quite possibly within sight of your refrigerator. For many of us, staying at home is changing the way we’re eating — whether it means constant snacking, eating more than we’re used to, eating the same things more often, or just eating because we’re bored. (We are all pretty bored.)

This change is to be expected, even as we navigate a pandemic none of us could have expected. “Mealtimes and food are just weird right now,” says Christy Harrison, RD, author of Anti-Diet. (Case in point: Harrison was eating what she called a “mid-morning snack” during our interview, at 2:45 in the afternoon.) “We have to give ourselves grace and room to eat in a way that might be unusual.”

With that in mind, here are some simple strategies to help you grant yourself that grace — whether you’re navigating meals solo or feeding a whole family — to help you stay healthy and keep your fridge from sending you into an anxiety tailspin.

Stop worrying about snacking

If you’re familiar at all with the concept of intuitive eating, you may have seen it boiled down to “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” Harrison, who specializes in intuitive eating, says that particular approach is, well, just not very helpful right now. “I feel like that’s how intuitive eating gets turned into a diet: Honor your hunger when it’s there, but if you’re not hungry, do not eat. But self-care is such an important reason to eat right now,” she says.

If your mind is telling you to eat, even if you aren’t feeling true hunger signals, it’s okay to just embrace that. However, if constant snacking is affecting how you’re feeling physically — for example, if you’re feeling sluggish or experiencing digestive issues like gas or an upset stomach — make a mental note of that (even if that doesn’t mean you actually end up snacking less).

Counterintuitively, you also might not experience hunger signals at all if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety — in some people, anxiety reduces appetite. If your mind and stomach are never telling you to eat, you still need to — food is fuel, and necessary to support our minds and bodies. The discomfort caused by anxiety will only get worse if you’re running on empty.

What if you’re mostly just grazing on snacks and not really sitting down for normal meals? That’s okay too. “You might not feel able to create a lunch that’s satisfying right now, but if it’s a trade-off between not eating at all and eating three random snacks after breakfast, definitely choose the three random snacks. It would make you feel far worse to not have anything,” she says. But if you’ve felt too overwhelmed and busy to make a full meal as you normally would — even though you know sitting down to one would make you feel better — try to prioritize sit-down meals when time allows.

Lean into comfort food if it helps

Another tip that you may have heard is to try and identify what exactly it is you’re feeling when you want to eat but you’re not actually hungry (the HALT method suggests asking yourself if you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired) and trying to redirect your actions to address the emotion instead. But here’s the thing: During quarantine, you just might not be able to handle those feelings the way you usually would. (For example: If you’re lonely, it’s hard to have satisfying social interactions, or if you’re angry, you can’t pop over to the gym and take it out on a punching bag.) “Using the HALT method can be helpful, but you might not have tools other than food to deal with your feelings right now. And that’s okay,” says Willow Jarosh, RD, owner of Willow Jarosh Nutrition. “We only have the tools that we have right now, and it is not necessarily the time to be gaining new tools. We don’t have the bandwidth for that. Maybe you are lonely, but maybe eating is the mentally healthiest way you have of dealing with that right now,” she says.

Eating a snack, after all, is probably more innocuous in the long run than downing a bottle of wine, or picking a fight with your partner, or just stewing alone in your worry and discomfort because you can’t think of anything that will make you feel better. If a cookie helped for a few minutes, it still helped. “That’s a valid thing to be honest with yourself about, without guilt.”

“Mealtimes and food are just weird right now.”

It’s okay to eat the same thing every day

Food is currently the source of a lot of anxiety — going to the grocery store is an intense experience, delivery may be hard to come by, some things are scarce, and some of us are stretched too thin to put a lot of thought into meal planning. If that means you’re eating the same things every day because it’s all you have around, or even because you know you can make toast with peanut butter in three minutes flat, don’t worry. “Nutritionally, if you’re having the same meal every day, it’s totally okay,” says Jarosh.

Parents may feel guilty if they’re not able to offer their children as diverse of an array of options as they usually would. “Your child is seeing what reality is,” says Megan McNamee, RD, co-founder of Feeding Littles, a feeding resource for parents of young children. “They’re learning about flexibility around food, whether that’s the fact that we don’t always have our favorite stuff available, or that we’ve had nuggets four times this week and we don’t normally do that, but it’s not a big deal.” And now isn’t the time to worry that repetitive eating will reinforce picky eating, either. “Picky eating is so much less of an issue than not eating at all,” says McNamee. “If they’re being fed and growing, parents should breathe a little easier.”

Just because every day is the same doesn’t mean every meal has to be

You don’t have to eat the same things every day, though, even if your pantry is pretty bare. If you’re bored with eating the same foods all the time or constant leftovers (or your kids are), trying little ways to mix up what you’re serving will go a long way toward making meals feel different and more interesting. “If all you have is pasta, be creative! What could you put in that pasta: cannellini beans? Cut-up olives?” suggests Judy Delaware, an occupational feeding therapist and the other co-founder of Feeding Littles. Think about the setting, too, she says: “Could you do a carpet picnic and eat on the floor? Do you have tongs or chopsticks you could eat with? You can make it so much more fun by changing how and where you eat. And maybe you light a candle, or do a toast [before the meal].”

Be flexible with your kids

Is it okay to let all your normal structure around food go for your kids, too? Within reason. “In general, we want our kids to know they will have access to food at regular intervals, but we don’t want all the access, where they end up in a mindless eating pattern where they’re not really hungry but not really full,” says McNamee. It’s slightly more important to stick to a loose healthy eating structure with kids than it is if it’s just you, because we’re teaching them long-term habits, but there needs to be wiggle room for the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. “There’s a way to find a balance in between right now. Some days, you’re all gonna be eating snacks all day and no one will be hungry at dinner. It’s normal. It’s gonna happen. You can try again tomorrow,” she says.

One suggestion is to give your kids some power: Involve them in the cooking or meal planning process, or remind them at a meal they don’t seem excited about: “You don’t have to eat that if you don’t want to.” This gives them some feelings of control, says McNamee, which they may be majorly lacking right now. (Aren’t we all?) And if they just had a snack, but you have one 45 minutes later and you hear, “Hey Mommy, can I have some?” Give them a little bit, says McNamee. “It’s about having flexibility, not rigidity.”

Don’t forget about water

“In general, you just feel better when you’re hydrated,” says Jarosh. “Every system works better, including digestion.” (In other words, if you’re experiencing constipation issues because of an influx of snack foods, staying hydrated can help keep things moving! It can also help you stay focused and clear-headed, and prevent unpleasant dehydration side effects like headaches.) For some reason it can be hard to drink enough when you’re home all day (Harrison and Jarosh have both noticed this!) so try some water “tricks” if that makes it easier to drink — like using a giant container, or adding sliced fruit or veggies for flavor.

Two water-related myths that the experts want busted, though: You don’t need to be guzzling eight glasses of water a day, and if you feel thirsty it doesn’t mean you’re already dehydrated. “Following thirst cues is a great way to stay hydrated for your body,” says Harrison. “When you’re working, you can even set an alarm to remember to check in with yourself to see if you notice thirst, hunger, or the desire to stretch,” says Harrison. “It’s not about forcing yourself to do [these things], but honoring your needs.”

Avoid Zoom-scarfing if you can

Lastly, if you feel like you’re mindlessly eating too often, a simple fix is to put some effort into making meals and snacks less, well, mindless. “If you have a Zoom call coming up and you want a snack, can you carve out some time before or after to really enjoy it?” says Jarosh. “I like checking in with the senses as a way to hone in on being present during eating — what does the food look like? Smell like? What does the room you’re in sound like? What does the food feel like in your mouth? Those kinds of thoughts snap you back into experiencing what you’re eating while you’re eating it, and can help keep the anxiety we’re all feeling from pulling you out of the moment. Asking yourself these questions tends to make the whole eating experience a little more satisfying.”

If you can, consider making a donation to Feeding America to support those facing hunger, or to Frontline Foods to help local restaurants send meals to health care workers.

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