Because of COVID-19, experts recommend leaving your home as little as possible during this pandemic, which means taking as few trips to the grocery store as you can. It’s important to take this precaution to keep your household safe, but for people on a plant-based diet, this can prove difficult because they typically rely more on perishable food like fresh fruits and vegetables.

It’s important to remember that during a health crisis like this (and always!), you need to eat what feels right to you and what is economically possible. If that means not eating as plant-based as usual, that is completely okay. But maintaining healthy eating habits can keep stress at bay and help you feel as normal as possible, so there are lots of benefits to staying on track by eating whole foods during this time. 

Here are some easy, doable suggestions that will help you stick to plant-based eating, even during a health crisis.

1. Buy Grains and Legumes In Bulk

One of the easiest ways to make a plant-based diet heartier is to add grains and legumes to meals. Luckily, while everyone is out stockpiling pasta, these two types of food are often left behind on the shelves. Gabby Tierney, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, shared why grains and legumes are important during this time, saying “High-quality protein containing all 9 essential amino acids is necessary in everyone's diet, especially if being quarantined has compromised your typical activity level. A big misconception is that animal-based sources are the only way to incorporate high-quality protein in the diet. A half a cup of lentils provides 9 grams of protein and is packed with heart-healthy nutrients such as fiber and antioxidants called phytochemicals.” 

When it comes to grains, most people know to stock up on rice and oats, but if those are sold out at your local store, try searching for the lesser-known farro, spelt, quinoa, couscous, millet, amaranth, or barley. These grains taste great substituted for rice or pasta in most dishes, and often add more flavor. You can serve grains on their own for a full side dish, or add to other dishes to bulk them up, such as salads, roasted veggies, or on top of soups. 

For legumes, either dry or canned work, and easy go-to’s are chickpeas, beans, and lentils. Beans are an easy favorite because you can buy them in bulk and add them to so many meals. If you are just beginning to lean into a plant-based diet and want to eat less meat, try using half meat and half beans for your next taco dish - beans can stretch meat and make it go further for less money. Dried beans are cheaper than canned, so buying a large bag of dried beans and soaking them overnight, cooking in a slow cooker, or on the stove is a great addition to many dishes. 

Tierney suggests mixing grains and legumes for the best results. “Try to mix cooked lentils with amaranth or quinoa, grains that are complete proteins with all nine essential amino acids. Not only do these plant-based foods maintain and promote muscle growth, they help fight common diseases in Americans such as cancer and heart disease.”

2. Freezing Produce 

One side effect of going to the grocery store less is that fresh produce runs out fast. A way to combat this problem and stretch your produce over a few weeks is buying enough to freeze and keep for later. 

To freeze fruit, cut it and put onto a baking sheet in the freezer until fully frozen, then place into containers and keep for up to a year. Vegetables need an additional step before going into the freezer called blanching. Blanching vegetables is necessary to keep their flavor and can be done by boiling them in salted water until tender, then putting them directly into ice water. After dipping in ice water, dry the vegetables well, then freeze like fruit on a baking sheet before transferring into a container and keeping for up to a year. Produce that freezes especially well includes berries, broccoli, onions, Brussel sprouts, spinach, and asparagus. 

The longer produce is frozen, the quality and taste may go down, especially due to freezer burn. But for the purpose of freezing for a few months during the pandemic, this is a great option to ensure your household has enough produce to last. 

3. Try New Recipes and Substitutions

One positive of physical isolation is having more time for hobbies, such as cooking! We all have recipes bookmarked that we never get to try, and now is the perfect time to give them a go. Cooking and baking are therapeutic, and if you have kids running around with extra time, letting them help in the kitchen can burn off some of their energy, give you extra helping hands, and make them more inclined to taste new recipes since they worked hard making the dish.

Since you’ll likely have different ingredients on hand than usual, this can also be a great time to try a new twist on your classic favorites. Don’t worry about sticking to a recipe exactly, but instead use what you have in your pantry at the moment. The change might turn out to be your new family favorite, and will definitely switch up the recipes you’ve gotten used to. 

You can also use this time to take out and experiment with tools you usually store away, such as a spiralizer, crockpot, or KitchenAid. That spiralizer collecting dust can be great for spiralizing vegetables as a substitute for noodles, and there are so many recipes out there, you don’t have to stick to just zucchini noodles. Instead, try eggplant in place of lasagna noodles or other unique twists.

4. Give Extra Thought To Your Storage Habits

Many of us are used to going to the grocery store weekly, so we don’t give a lot of thought to how we store our food. Since you’ll be buying more produce to last, storing it properly gives it a longer shelf life and makes sure your food is good for weeks to come.

Some foods store well in the fridge or on the counter, and if you’re eating them right away, it just comes down to personal choice. For example, most stone fruit and citrus fruits taste better when left at room temperature, but last longer in the fridge. During a temporary situation like this, you’ll want to keep these foods in the fridge to have it later on, even if you normally keep them on the counter. Many fruits and vegetables are like this, so be sure to look into which ones last longer in the fridge rather than assuming they need to store on the counter.

If you’re looking for a way to store vegetables that were already cut, consider floating them in water in the fridge, especially produce like potatoes, carrots, and celery. Some produce, such as asparagus, stay good longer after being cut and placed stem-down in a glass of water, so be sure to do this right after purchasing, no matter when you plan to cook it. 

Once you’ve considered what should be stored together and where, don’t forget to think about what benefits from storing apart, such as onions and potatoes. Though they are both produce that enjoy residing in cool, dark places, their gases feed off of each other and ripen too quickly. Apples, pears, bananas, avocadoes, melons, and peaches speed up ripening and decay of other produce as well, so be sure to separate them from other produce, especially vegetables. 

5. Buy Vegetables With A Long Shelf Life

Though we’re usually focused on buying our favorites, for the time being, it is important to buy produce that keeps the best. To save storage space, consider buying vegetables that don't need to be refrigerated or frozen, such as root vegetables. There are so many root vegetables to choose from, such as potatoes, onions, beets, turnips, carrots, yuca, celery, radishes, parsnips, snd squash.

This is also a time to try and include as many vegetables as possible into your plant-based diet to get as many nutrients as you can, so don’t hesitate to buy canned or frozen vegetables for longevity. Tierney said, “Canned vegetables are a great way to increase vegetable and nutrient intake affordably. Canned vegetables are picked at peak freshness and preserved to retain flavor in nutrient quality. Because canning requires heat treatment to kill harmful bacteria, heat-sensitive vitamins like C and B can be lost. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are less affected by heat treatment and minerals are unaffected.” You’ll still be getting more important vitamins than if you have no vegetables at all, so canned and frozen vegetables are a great solution in the current situation. 

As for which canned and frozen vegetables to turn to, Tierney said you don’t have to stick to the basics like peas and corn. “Get creative with canned pumpkin and tomatoes which contain disease-fighting antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene. Experiment with beets and artichokes loaded with minerals including folate, magnesium, potassium, and iron which are all important in the body's metabolic processes.”

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