What Are the Healthiest Foods to Stock Up on During the Pandemic?

Drop the chips and pick up some better options
coronavirus, easy meals, meal prep, quarantine, snack ideas, social distancing, sweet potatoes, black beans, fruit, meal tips

You’re stuck at home from now until humanity gets its act together … le sigh.

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So, what’s been on the menu?

  • Bowls of ice cream.
  • PB&Js.
  • Chips, chips, chips!
  • Veggies here and there.
  • Whatever the daily special is at your favorite takeout place.

While many things are beyond our control right now, the way we eat really isn’t. Sure, we want comfort food during this somewhat stressful time, but well-balanced meals should also be part of the equation.

If you’ve been ordering out every night, give your wallet and dialing finger a rest by creating some taste sensations in your kitchen. You don’t need a hair net or kitchen staff. All you need is your creativity and some items that have been hanging out in your pantry.

Cook like a “Chopped” chef would

(Cue dramatic music.)

In your cabinet, you have:

  • Beans…in every size and color.
  • Saltine crackers…that have been in there forever.
  • Cans and cans of tuna.
  • Boxes of microwave popcorn.
  • Spray cheese.
  • And an assortment of sweet and salty snacks for those times of crisis.

Now, we’re not suggesting that you make an entree in 30 minutes or a dessert out of beans and spray cheese. What we are saying is that you can create delicious and filling meals with some of those kitchen cabinet staples.

“There are countless pantry options that are unhealthy,” says registered dietitian Anna Kippen, MS, RDN, LD. “It’s ok to pick up a few indulgences, as long as we don’t start overindulging. The key is balance and remembering the most important component of our plates, vegetables!”

The options are endless

If you’ve been eating tuna noodle casserole for five days straight, you’re going to be underwhelmed by what you have at home — and those takeout menus will start calling your name. But necessity truly is the mother of invention. Right now is a great time to be creative and adventurous in the kitchen. And by doing so, you can stay off of the casserole or sad sandwich train.

If you need some inspiration for using those pantry staples, here are some helpful suggestions.

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Canned beans

“Canned beans are so versatile. They’re a kitchen staple that I recommend to most of my patients,” says Kippen. “Canned beans are high in fiber, which means they’re very filling, but also rich in vitamins and minerals. That makes them a very healthy source of protein.”

Here are some ways you can incorporate canned beans into meals:

  • Top a sweet potato with black beans and salsa, onions and peppers.
  • Add some pesto to white beans and pair them with sautéed vegetables and whole-grain pasta.
  • Make a triple bean salad with tomatoes, peppers, onions and olives. Top it with a light vinaigrette
  • Try making a Buddha Bowl with beans and your favorite greens, roasted veggies and healthy grains.
  • Take some ground turkey and sauté it with mashed chickpeas. Use it to make tacos.  

Tuna or salmon

Most of us think about tuna fish sandwiches when we see a can of tuna. But tuna, and even salmon, offers so much more when you think outside of the can. Kippen says, “Canned wild salmon is an inexpensive form of good quality salmon.” She suggests keeping canned tuna or wild boneless, skinless salmon to toss on salads for quick meals that are filling.

Here are some tasty ways to serve up canned tuna and salmon:

  • Try swapping the mayo with plain non-fat Greek yogurt when making tuna salad.
  • Make tuna patties or salmon burgers. Season them with your favorite herbs and spices. You can even add onions, peppers and celery to the mix.
  • Make lettuce wraps with tuna or salmon. For a special touch, you can create your own dipping sauce.
  • Create a flavorful Cobb salad with avocado and your favorite fresh vegetables.
  • Top a baked potato with tuna or salmon and sautéed veggies.

Smart snack hacks

Stressful or boring times can lead to endless snacking sessions. We’re not implying that snacking is a no-no, but if your snacks fall in the sugary, greasy or super-salty category, it’s time to revamp your routine.

“If we choose to make healthier substitutions when purchasing our staples, we’ll have healthy options available for when we need a quick snack,” says Kippen. What are her top picks for snacks?

Air-popped popcorn

“Popcorn is a delicious, healthy and crunchy whole-grain snack! Microwave popcorn is not a great option because it’s loaded with chemicals, sodium, fat, and trans fats,” Kippen explains. A great alternative is to buy popcorn kernels and an inexpensive popcorn popper. You can even find air poppers for the microwave.

And your popcorn doesn’t have to be bland. Try adding a salt-free seasoning blend or tossing in some dark chocolate chips and peanuts for a crunchy treat.


“I always suggest my patients keep unsalted nuts around — and I do the same too,” says Kippen. “For those that have trouble keeping their portions in check, I recommend keeping a ¼ cup measuring cup in your container of nuts so you can use it as a ladle. That way, every portion you take out is a perfect serving!”

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Tuna packets

Yes, we’re talking about tuna again! Tuna packets are great in a pinch and you can pair them with a serving of fresh veggies or fruit. Don’t like plain tuna? Add a dash of hot sauce or some herbs to kick up the flavor.

Single-serve hummus

“Hummus, which is full of fiber, is filling and healthy,” says Kippen. Single-serve hummus is a great snack option. But instead of reaching for the pita bread, pair it with fresh vegetables for a quick and satisfying snack.

If your eating has been off the rails, here’s how to get back on track

You’ve been finding comfort in cookie dough or love in layers of lasagna. We’re not judging you. But if you had a good thing going before the coronavirus came to town, Kippen has some great advice to get you back on track.

“When faced with suddenly being at home all day, the biggest thing we lose is our routine. The first thing I recommend is establishing a meal schedule. Setting up a meal schedule can help to decrease boredom and emotional eating because it provides a structure that eliminates mindless eating.”

She suggests following a meal schedule similar to the one you had during a regular workday.

Another tip — make sure your meals have a source of protein and fiber. This will keep you full longer and prevent you from overeating later in the day.

Kippen’s biggest tip is to keep lots of fresh, chopped vegetables in clear containers at eye-level in the fridge. Don’t leave them in the crisper drawers. By keeping your veggies front and center, you’ll increase the likelihood of reaching for nutrient-rich, low-calorie vegetables rather than those guilty pleasure snacks.

Still grocery shopping? Here’s what you should add to your list

To prevent stress eating, don’t shop on the fly. Have your grocery list written out and stick to it. For a better idea of what should and shouldn’t make the cut, here are Kippen’s suggestions:

Things to limit/avoid:

  • Frozen pizza.
  • Frozen meals.
  • White flour pasta.
  • White flour tortillas.
  • White rice.
  • Juice.
  • Soda.
  • Candy.
  • Pastries.

Stock up on:

  • Canned beans.
  • Canned tuna or wild salmon.
  • Frozen chicken.
  • Frozen ground turkey.
  • Frozen vegetables (plain – no sauces or additives).
  • Frozen berries.
  • Brown rice.
  • Oatmeal.
  • Wild rice.
  • Sweet potatoes.
  • Onions and garlic.
  • Spices.
  • Lentils.
  • Carrots.
  • Frozen bean burgers.
  • Unsalted nuts.
  • Tomato sauce.
  • Olive oil.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Apples.
  • Bananas.
  • Canned diced tomatoes.


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