In 2020, pandemic panic-buying has made us all re-evaluate what's in our pantries. If like me, you found yourself scrounging in the back of the larder at dinner time only to unearth an out-of-date tin of asparagus spears and a pack of quinoa flakes you don't remember buying, you're overdue for a pantry plan.
Amy Castelli is an accredited practising dietitian who works at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. She says that social isolation has changed the eating habits of many people. "Some people have found it to be the perfect time to reset their nutrition habits…and use it as an opportunity to cook more at home," she says. "On the flip side, some find they are ordering food in a lot more…using meal kits, using pre-prepared frozen meals and getting takeaway and delivery."
If you belong to the latter group, but would like to join the former, quarantine is an advantageous time to do it. It's accessibility – not willpower – that is the key to eating well, says Castelli. "One of the first steps is to set your pantry up for success. The people who struggle might not have the best options ready to go."
"This is a really good time to get the whole family involved."
Do a pantry stocktake, advises Castelli. Look at use-by dates and then make a grocery list of long-lasting and shelf-stable foods using the five food groups – cereals and grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy, and meat and protein alternatives – as a guide. 'You need to include something from each of those food groups," she says.
Grains and cereals such as long-grain rice, rolled oats, quinoa and flour-based products like bread and pasta are among the most underrated pantry items, says Castelli. "All of these foods are long-lasting, shelf-stable foods that get a bad rap, but dietitians understand they're important. They're high in dietary fibre, which helps to keep blood sugar levels stable, and they're really good at keeping people feeling full for a long period of time."
Castelli also recommends prioritising protein foods such as canned fish, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, nut butters and milk.
Frozen, fresh or canned?
"We know that frozen fruit and vegetables are equally – sometimes even more – nutritious as fresh options," says Castelli. "They're snap frozen when they're freshly picked."
Canned food can be slightly less nutritious due to increased sodium content and the potential loss of micronutrients that leach into the fluid. Still, Castelli says they shouldn't be left off the shopping list altogether. "They're still a good option in for convenience, they're budget-friendly, and they keep for a long time," she says. "If you do choose canned options, look for words like reduced salt or reduced sugar on the labelling."
The next step is to rearrange your pantry. "The foods at the front when you open the pantry need to be smart nutrition choices – things you should be eating more of," says Castelli. Put "less desirable options like chips and chocolate…up high or at the back, so they're out of view."
Time to eat
Follow some simple rules to make your homemade meals as healthy as possible. Make sure half your plate features colourful, non-starchy vegetables like spinach, carrots or tomato. Eat the rainbow, advises Castelli. "Look down and see colour on your plate. I don't recommend looking down and just seeing a beige-coloured plate, because you're missing micronutrients."
One-quarter of your plate should be a protein such as fish, skinless chicken, lean red meat, lentils, eggs, or tofu. Protein can come from shelf-stable products like canned fish or lentils, and salt-reduced baked beans. The final quarter should be a low GI carbohydrate such as sweet potato or long grain rice.
Castelli has more healthy tips for home-cooking: Season food with herbs and spices before you reach for salt or sugar, experiment with cooking methods – try grilling, barbecuing, stir-frying, slow cooking, poaching, cooking in foil parcels, or steaming – and get the kids in the kitchen. "This is a really good time to get the whole family involved."
She also recommends cooking in bulk. "My mentality is cook once and eat twice," she says. "If you're going to cook dinner, cook an extra portion for tomorrow night's dinner, so you don’t have to be cooking every single meal."
A final word of warning: Beware of baking. "This period has led to a huge increase in baking, and it can be a great activity, but I want you to consider who is going to be eating it all," Castelli says. If you whip up a batch of brownies, share the love. "Leave them on a friend's doorstep if you're out for a walk."