Might Enforced Eating at Home Mean Healthier Eating?

New ingredient combinations can rev up a pre-quarantine meal.

Posted May 19, 2020

One of the almost inescapable effects of sheltering at home, often with members of the family who normally do not spend 24/7 in the house, is the necessity to make meals. Add to this obtaining the food, a difficult situation if we want to avoid supermarkets as much as possible, and then the seemingly endless planning of what to cook. As someone texted me, “It’s as if we are reverting to a Leave it to Beaver household.”

She was referring to a popular television series in the late '50s and early '60s, in which the four-member household (two parents and two kids) ate dinner together every day. The Beaver household meals were not from local take-out restaurants, or partially prepared semi-gourmet dishes delivered weekly in cartons, nor were their snacks grabbed on the way to a late afternoon practice or evening meeting. Although the series did not usually specify what was being eaten, the viewers could assume that, as in their own households, the meal would have consisted of an entrée, usually beef or chicken, a starch, and a vegetable.  

Pre-COVID, many of us in the nutrition field continuously lamented the absence of family dining any day of the week, and indeed, the absence of home-prepared meals in general. Eating away from home seemed to be the norm, whether in a sit-down restaurant or carrying a meal back to the office, getting it from a food truck at a construction site, or cobbling together a meal from a vending machine. We may have complained about high school cafeteria food, what passed for meals on an airplane, or a tasteless catered lunch at a conference, but eat it we did, because we were not home.

Now, even though there is the possibility of ordering food as take-out from some neighborhood restaurants, and some restaurants have opened for in-house dining (on a very limited basis), most of our meals will still be prepared at home.

Preparing meals at home means control over what goes into a dish, and the ability to control the types of foods served at a meal. The result may be healthier eating. 

Recently, boredom with our own meals, healthy but dull and repetitious, drove us to watch a Food Channel program featuring meals served at small neighborhood restaurants around the country (“Diners and Dive-Ins and Dives”). Some of the dishes featured made our mouths water and stomachs grumble, but we also gasped at the gigantic serving sizes and the variety of high-fat ingredients.

Some of the sandwiches had seemingly incompatible ingredients like short ribs, goat cheese, pickled onions, and a topping of fried cheese served with a small bowl of clam chowder. Or the food came in gargantuan sizes like a burrito made with two pounds of chopped beef and a pound of grated cheese (at least it looked like a pound of cheese), and then deep-fried. That type of eating seems like a relic from the past.

The weight-gaining potential of restaurant meals, due to their often too big portion sizes and dependence on high-fat ingredients such as oil, butter, heavy cream, cheese, and bacon to enhance the taste (and in some cases, keep foods moist) is well known.  And although the trend towards elaborate salads as lunch meals for the office crowd, or the choice of vegetarian or vegan restaurants did begin to compensate for the absence of vegetables in fast-food meals and traditional restaurants, it was easy to avoid eating this food group if most of the meals were eaten outside the home.  Moreover, if you were concerned about whether others in the household were eating healthily, there was little you could do.  Your children could throw away the carrot sticks and cut-up fruit you gave them for lunch, and your spouse might eat a doughnut for breakfast at her desk, a Diet Coke and pretzels for lunch, and pizza brought in for a dinner meeting.

Now, as most of our meals are made at home, the components of the meals can, and probably do, meet dietary standards better than when eaten away from home. There is no need to drench broiled fish with olive oil or melt a hunk of butter on steak to keep the food juicy and moist. Salads can be a component of at least one meal a day and need not be limited to a bag of greens and bottled salad dressing. Ingredients we might never have thought of adding now become a way out of another boring salad: shaved asparagus, chickpeas, leftover cold chicken, rice, or quinoa.  Slow cooking is replacing the “…have to get a meal on the table in 20 minutes” goal when we arrived home late from work or picked up the kids at an after-school activity.

This means that meal components such as beans, lentils, lean stew meat, baked (rather than microwaved) potatoes and squash, brown rice, long-cooking tomato sauce, and soups can be made because someone is always home to check on the stove.  Many of the foods that require long cooking are high in fiber, and/or other nutrients and are often missing from meals served outside the home.  Moreover, we often try to delay the time we have to go to the supermarket or order food to be delivered, by making meals that contain less protein and more vegetables and starch like pasta, rice or potatoes, thus increasing the number of food groups on the plate.

Of course, the downside to this quarantine effort is that we also have time to bake: bread, cookies, pies, and cakes, and it is hard to socially distance ourselves from these temptations. On the other hand, the snack foods so easily available pre-COVID-19 in a convenience store, fast-food restaurant, doughnut shop, vending machine, and lunch counter are not at our fingertips anymore. Kids aren’t buying a soft drink and fries for lunch, and the lure of a freshly baked doughnut for breakfast on the way to work is a distant memory. Coffee shops like Starbucks, with their incredibly fattening syrupy, whipped cream topped coffee drinks, are closed (although some are opening). Thus we may emerge from the prolonged period of eating/sheltering at home, healthier and with a new habit: eating meals together.