Tips for minimizing trips to the grocery store during COVID-19

By Caitlyn Truty, registered dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Now more than ever, it is important to keep your family nourished and healthy. For your safety and the safety of those around you during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also crucial to minimize your time spent grocery shopping and reduce the frequency of your grocery runs. Having a plan and making a strategic grocery list ahead of time will ensure your visits to the store are as quick and efficient as possible, and that you don’t have to make them as often. Use the following tips when planning your next venture to the store:

Take inventory

Before leaving home, take inventory of what you have on hand to know what you do and do not need. This will help prevent the need for multiple grocery trips for missed or forgotten items. Knowing what you already have will also help with meal planning and finalizing your grocery list.

Plan for two weeks

Plan out your family’s meals for about two weeks. Plan to make meals that will yield leftovers that are easy to freeze for later consumption. If you’re using up fresh produce during the first week after a grocery store trip, plan to get creative by using non-perishable foods during the second week to extend the time between your grocery store visits. Use canned or frozen meats, vegetables, and fruits in your home recipes and be sure to keep other nutrient-dense, non-perishables on hand to incorporate into your meals and snacks. Here are some ideas:

  • Add canned fruit to your yogurt or cottage cheese and top oatmeal or salads with dried fruit.
  • Incorporate canned vegetables into your favorite casserole dish or use as toppings for taco bowls.
  • Spread nut butters on toast or add to smoothies. Keep nuts or trail mix around for snacking.
  • Use canned meat such as chicken to fill enchiladas and add canned beans or lentils to soup or salad.
  • Add rice, quinoa, barley or other cooked grains to salads or simply use as a side dish for any meal.

Make a strategic grocery list

Create a complete grocery list before going to the store. Organize your list by matching similar foods and their location in the grocery store. This will prevent you from running back and forth between aisles. ChooseMyPlate.gov has an easy grocery list template to help you organize your list, and ensure you come home with a variety of foods from each food group to support balanced nutrition.

Avoid browsing

Once at the store, stick to your grocery list and avoid unnecessary browsing. Choose one store to shop at to avoid running around town. Also, if able, go grocery shopping by yourself. This will not only help with social distancing but will also eliminate distraction so you can get in and out as quickly as possible.

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A dietitian’s tips on flexible meal planning during COVID-19

By Alexia Hall, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Trips to the grocery store, while essential, are not the first thing anyone wants to do right now. Knowing in advance what is in the pantry and using some helpful meal planning tools will make good use of the food ingredients you have on hand, allow for less shopping overall and dramatically decrease food bills.

Stifling to a cook’s creativity is the sometimes-overwhelming amount of clutter in the back of the pantry. Multiples of similar items are often bought on sale to save for a future meal. Also, highly possible are the extra purchases made while caught up in the “fever” of the first few weeks of social distancing. Sometimes a disorganized pantry can be years in the making and may even result in a few science projects hiding in dark corners! In any event, a messy pantry makes it tough to figure out what to cook. The first order of business is to figure out what is there and establish some order. Once that is done, the internet abounds with ideas on what to do with the odd can of beans or the lonely mushrooms and wilting spinach hiding in the back of the fridge!

To help with taking an inventory, some find it easiest to just take everything out and spread it around the kitchen counters. Food with expired dates should be tossed. Products that have “sell by” or “best if used by” dates on them are different from expired dates. According to the USDA, sell by/best by dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety, while expired dates are a safety indicator. Manufacturers use “best if used by” dates to help consumers and retailers decide when the food is of the best quality and whether the taste or texture could be affected if dates are past due. These rules apply unless it is infant formula, which should always be tossed if any of the recommended dates have passed. When in doubt, or when it is unclear what type of date is on the package, err on the side of caution and throw out if past the date.

Here are some examples of commonly used phrases, according to the USDA:

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

After tossing out the old and expired items, combining all like items in single packages will also help to control clutter. If there is large number of any one item, such as a case of beans, consider leaving just two cans with the oldest expiration dates in the pantry and storing the rest in a box in a closet or a garage. Clearing away these extras will help to easily see what is on hand and it will also allow for planning in a more focused way.

Tips for taking a pantry inventory:

There are a variety of free or paid smartphone apps, such as Pantry Check or Cooklist, that will keep track of pantry items, as well as organize grocery lists and favorite recipes in a highly functional way. Some of these apps have the ability to use the phone camera as a barcode scanner to drop items into the inventory. There are also a variety of free printable forms online to help you take a pantry inventory. Any method chosen should keep track of the following basics:

Pantry

  • Baking supplies such as flour or sugar
  • Broth
  • Beverages
  • Canned goods
  • Fresh items such as fruit, bread or tomatoes
  • Grains such as cereals, rice, pasta or quinoa
  • Herbs and spices
  • Oils and vinegars
  • Sauces and mixes

Refrigerator

  • Dairy
  • Alternative dairy
  • Cheese
  • Condiments
  • Eggs
  • Fruits
  • Lunch meats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables

Freezer

  • Desserts
  • Fish
  • Frozen fruit
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Meats — beef or pork
  • Poultry — chicken or turkey
  • Pre-made meals (note the type and date)
  • Bread

Remember to spell out the quantity and type of each item to help give the inventory list the useful information needed. This new completed tool will help to use non-perishable items in an efficient way, limiting grocery store visits to just the produce aisle while efficiently using the items already in your pantry.

Finding recipes for what you have on hand:   

Once everything is out on the counters, it might be easy to look at the ingredients and plan meals around them, finding a use for each one. Alternatively, here are several other sites that allow for an online recipe search that filters for the ingredients on hand:

  • Allrecipes Dinner Spinner — a free mobile phone app for both Android and iPhone that allows filtering ability as well as the ability to create custom collections to organize, store or share recipes
  • Fridgetotable.com — a website that allows you to select a main ingredient and add other popular ingredients according to what you have on hand
  • MyRecipes.com — offers the ability to search through the recipes in the Cooking Light magazine
  • Supercook — a website and app that allows you to add the main ingredient in the search area and then sort the results listed by the highest-rated recipes or the percentage of users who would make it again
  • Tasty.co — set filters for ingredients, mealtimes and dietary restrictions
  • Yummly.com — recipe recommendations personalized to your tastes, a digital recipe box, a shopping list, and an option for grocery delivery

Making up a recipe on the spot with the ingredients on hand is also an option, depending on the family’s tolerance level of different flavors. Using a few specific tips to modify basic recipe templates can easily work out. Consider these three ideas:

 Soups:

Soups are great because they are an easy way to use up vegetables on hand while pairing them with animal or plant-based proteins for a complete and balanced meal. One of the most important tips to making a good soup is to “sweat” the aromatic vegetables first. Onions, garlic, ginger or celery should be sautéed in a little olive oil before adding the broth, tomatoes or water. This softens them and releases their aromatic flavors. Cooking the more fibrous vegetables in the broth first and then adding the more tender vegetables at the end (such as dark leafy greens that require less cooking times) will help to ensure that all vegetables are finished cooking at the same time. Raw meats and pastas can be added for a long simmer time to cook in the broth or can be added precooked at the end.

Slow cookers:

One beautiful thing about slow cooker dinners is the “fix it and forget it” idea. One tip is to brown the meat before adding it to the slow cooker, which can increase the overall flavor of the dish. Just like soups, you can add a variety of vegetables according to what you have. Place the longer cooking, more fibrous vegetables like potatoes, carrots and other roots at the bottom of the slow cooker where they will have the chance to cook faster. Add fresh herbs close to the end of cooking times to keep their flavor fresh. On the other hand, consider cooking large batches of chicken, beef or pork in a slow cooker with just mild flavors like broth, salt and pepper so that they can be easily divided into batches and modified later for more specific flavors.

Frittatas:

Why not have breakfasts for dinner? Frittatas are so easy to make and are a perfect use for any fresh or frozen vegetable. It’s a good idea to precook vegetables before adding the eggs, as the raw vegetables will release too much water and won’t cook fast enough before the eggs are done. A good ratio to use is about four eggs to each cup of raw vegetables. Consider sautéing the vegetables in an ovenproof pan and cooking off or draining any excess liquid. Once tender, add your spices and salt and pepper. Add the whisked eggs and then finish cooking in the oven watching closely for the frittata to puff up, being careful not to overcook. Do not add fresh herbs or tender tomatoes until the dish is out of the oven.

A note about making substitutions:

You may need to get a little creative if you are trying to use what you have instead of going to the store. Here are a few substitutions to remember:

  • Italian seasoning — substitute with pantry staples such as oregano, basil, parsley, salt and pepper.
  • Buttermilk — mix 1 cup of any regular milk, or nondairy milk, with 1 tablespoon of vinegar or 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and wait 10 minutes for the milk to curdle.
  • Eggs — ¼ cup of applesauce, ½ banana or other fruit puree will do as a substitute for each egg, and so will 1 tablespoon of chia seed soaked in 3 tablespoons of water for five minutes.
  • Olive oil can be substituted for butter in a 1:1 ratio, though flavor considerations are important depending on what you are making.
  • When it comes to spices, experimentation is fine, but you should start with small doses and increase to your taste slowly. You can always add more later, but it is impossible to take it out if you have added too much.

Using up the items in the pantry will help free up space, both physically and mentally. Going through this cleansing process will eventually allow for more creativity and efficiency, and maybe even a little more freedom in the kitchen. Creating a flexible pantry will make a healthy lifestyle just that much easier to maintain and restock once social distancing requirements are lifted.

And finally, consider donations with any extras to a food pantry in your neighborhood, as most are very impacted right now. Making extra food items into gifts for someone less fortunate is another thoughtful way to make good use of these items.

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Eat right, “bite by bite”

By Alexia Hall, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s

During March, we celebrate National Nutrition Month, an annual celebration promoted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This health observance is a wonderful opportunity to encourage everyone to focus on making positive choices for healthy food and physical activity.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says it best, when conveying the importance of good nutrition:

Good nutrition doesn’t have to be restrictive or overwhelming. Small goals and changes can have a cumulative healthful effect, and every little bit (or bite!) of nutrition is a step in the right direction.”

This year’s theme “Bite by Bite” has several key weekly messages including; eating a variety of nutritious foods, the benefits of planning out meals each week, and identifying resources for learning culinary skills to create healthy food. Everyone can use these tips to become more mindful of what we put in our mouth — dietitians included!

Here are some specific suggestions to help us reach these goals:

Eat a variety of nutritious foods every day: 

  • Try to include healthful foods from all food groups. For example, try to choose dark green leafy vegetables as well as vibrantly colored fruits, especially berries. Strive for filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit at each meal.
  • Choose a variety of both animal and plant-based proteins and try to include heart-healthy fish, like salmon, twice per week.
  • Learn how to properly read the nutrition facts panel to understand the nutrition in your food. Here’s a guide to understanding how to read a food label.
  • Take time to practice mindfulness while enjoying your food each day. Chew your food slowly and focus on the meal, rather than the news on your smartphone. Studies show that when we are mindful, we may eat less and concentrate on more healthful foods.
  • Plan out meals each week:
    • Plan a week’s worth of menus by using inspiration from the web, such as recipes from healthy food magazine sites, or inspiration from your favorite healthy cookbooks. Check out CHOC’s healthy meal prep tips for busy parents.
    • Use a grocery list to shop for healthy foods and take inventory of what you have before leaving home. Here’s a list of tips for healthy grocery shopping.
    • Plan for what you will eat while traveling to school and work by either packing a healthy lunch or scoping out what healthy items you can buy at restaurants or markets near you.
    • Double up on recipes for healthy dinners so you can take leftovers for lunch.
  • Learn culinary skills:
    • YouTube videos abound with cooking techniques. My family learned out to make our favorite steak from watching a YouTube video of our favorite celebrity chef!
    • Most grocery stores or butchers offer tips and suggestions on how to cook specific proteins and other healthy items.
    • Many classes available at local community centers focus on culinary arts for both adults and children.

Consulting with a registered dietitian can help you achieve your nutrition goals. Both dietitians and dietetic technicians are trained in personalizing nutrition advice to meet your specific goals and unique needs.

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A registered dietitian’s tips for a healthy heart

By Carol Peng, a registered dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Increasing healthy lifestyle and awareness is a common theme in New Year’s resolutions. February is American Heart Month, and it’s a great opportunity month to focus on this resolution. Focusing on adopting healthy lifestyles can help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Here are six tips for heart healthy eating:

  1. Watch for portions and serving sizes –Using a smaller plate or bowl during meal or snack time can help limit food intake. Measuring cups and spoons can help us be more precise and intentional about the portions we are consuming.
  2. Increase fruits and vegetable intake –Fruits and vegetable are loaded with antioxidants, essential vitamins and minerals that truly nourish our bodies. They are also full of fiber to prolong the feeling of fullness.  
  3. Choose whole grain for more fiber – Fiber is proven to decrease bad cholesterol and prevent heart disease. If you have not already, perhaps this can be the year to try out some new grains like quinoa, barley, bulgur, farro or couscous. People with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity have to be careful with wheat. Gluten-free products are recommended.
  4. Choose high-quality proteins – Good protein sources include skinless poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts and There are biophysical and environmental benefits to choosing plant-based protein.
  5. Know your fats – Eliminate trans fats from your diet because they are known to increase bad cholesterol and put you at risk for cardiovascular disease. Trans fats are commonly found in fried foods and baked goods. sa Most trans fats come from processed hydrogenated fats, so avoid food products with ingredients such as partially hydrogenated oils. Choose good fats like monounsaturated fats such as olive oil or canola oil, or polyunsaturated fats that are, found in certain fish, avocados, nuts and Be mindful of how much fat is contributing to your daily total calorie intake.
  6. Limit sodium intake – The American Heart Association recommends less than one teaspoon of salt, 2300 mg of sodium in general, and ideally less than 1500 mg of sodium per day for adults. Sodium intake is associated with high blood pressure. To cut down on sodium intake, avoiding canned foods, frozen dinners and processed foods. Cook with fresh or dried herbs as a healthier alternative.

This month, we have the excitement of several events that may call for social gathering and planning. Here are some easy heart healthy snack ideas for your Superbowl Sunday and Oscar viewing parties:

  1. Crackerwiches – For these mini sandwiches with crackers, add a little bit of peanut butter and banana, or mustard with low-sodium canned tuna, on whole grain crackers.
  2. Yogurt sundae – Dress up a cup of low-fat yogurt (without added sugar) by topping it with crushed whole-wheat cereal, blueberries, strawberries or unsalted sunflower seeds.
  3. Dark chocolate duo – Dip half a banana in melted dark chocolate, then cool it in the refrigerator. Dark chocolate covered almonds is another good choice.
  4. Edamame with lemon – They are naturally low in sodium and easy to cook.
  5. Air pop popcorn – Air pop your own popcorn and toss it in honey and cinnamon for a sweet flavor or drizzle a little butter or olive oil and grated parmesan cheese for a savory flavor.
  6. Hummus dip – A plate with different vegetable and hummus.

As we settle into the new year, it is tempting to reach for those heart-shaped chocolates sold everywhere in beautiful bright red boxes around Valentine’s Day. While it does not hurt to indulge and reward ourselves once a while after a long day, it is important to maintain and sustain a healthy lifestyle and diet as we juggle many different responsibilities and roles.

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Organic fruits and vegetables vs. conventionally grown

By Colleen Trupkin, registered dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Many of us start the new year with a goal of eating healthier, but sometimes it’s hard to know what that means. Eating more fruits and vegetables is often a good place to start, but a common question is whether organic fruits and vegetables are a better choice.

For starters, it helps to understand what the label “organic” means in the U.S. For fruits and vegetables to be labeled as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it means that items cannot be genetically-engineered and no man-made fertilizers or pesticides may be used in the growing process. While people often think of organic produce as having no pesticide residue, this may actually not be the case. Organic produce may still have pesticide residue from the environment or processing facilities, but there is no need to panic! The USDA Pesticide Data Program  has been monitoring our food supply since 1991 to ensure safety. While pesticide residue may be found in both traditionally and organically-grown produce, levels are very low — well below the already low threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for pesticide residue.

It is important to remember that whether you choose to buy organic or conventional food items, it is the quality and variety of your diet that is most important. Eating fruits and vegetables is an important part of a healthy diet, but only one in 10 Americans consume the recommended amounts. Eat a rainbow of color and variety of produce to get the most health benefits and aim for at least five servings per day, regardless of whether that produce is organic or traditionally grown. Don’t forget to wash all fresh produce before cooking or eating; it is dirty until washed!

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also recommends several tips for reducing pesticide residues and preventing foodborne illness from any produce:

  • Always wash your hands for 15-20 seconds with soap and warm water before handling produce.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating.
    • It is important to wash items before you peel or cut them to ensure residue from the outside is not transferred to the portion you will be eating.
    • Use a brush for heartier vegetables such as potatoes or carrots, especially if you will be eating the skin.
  • Throw out the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, such as the outer leaves from a head of lettuce.

Whether you choose to buy organic foods is a personal decision. At this time, there is not conclusive scientific evidence that shows that organically grown produce is necessarily healthier. However, if you choose to go that route, consider organic options for items without a protective skin to scrub or peel. Most importantly, kick off the new year with a resolution to get “Five a day” of fruits and vegetables from all colors of the rainbow!

Get important nutrition tips like these sent straight to your inbox

Kids Health, delivered monthly, offers “healthful” information for parents.

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