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How to Feed Your Family (and Yourself) in Self-Isolation

By Registered Nutritionist, Nishta Saxena

With so many families together in their homes for days and weeks, these are unprecedented times. There are definite benefits to this togetherness, but the lack of routine can also come with a clash of how to manage meals and snacks 24-7.

Here are some simple ways to feed your family, and maintain connection, without extra stress:

Stick to a schedule

During chaotic times it can be easy to slip into a situation where everyone starts doing their own thing with food, but it’s best to plan meal and snack times. To keep children nourished and reduce hunger tantrums, offer food at regular intervals. It’s also important to maintain our body’s cues for hunger and fullness and regular meals let us know when we may be eating for physiological reasons versus emotional ones.

Eating on a schedule can go a long way to help reduce unwanted stress-eating!

Keep it simple

Now that you’re home all the time you may feel that you should be making more elaborate recipes. If your inner Julia Child is calling, please answer, but do not feel obligated to make meals more complex. Use this time to create more structure. Have regular mealtimes where there is homemade food available but keep it simple. Sandwiches, omelets, burritos, pasta dishes, and casseroles are all acceptable, nutritious options for the family. Making these foods at home instead of going for take-out is a positive step because you’ll have more control over unwanted fats, salt, and sugars.

Unplug at mealtimes

We’re all in survival mode and there will naturally be more use of screens in most homes. When families unplug and sit together at a table, they reap the benefits of communal eating, which are huge. Emotions can be overwhelming right now but there’s evidence to show that sitting together during meals can help teens and kids process how they are feeling and lower stress and anxiety, even if they aren’t saying much. Family meals are also known to help lower high-risk behaviors in children and teens. Adults also benefit from slowing down and connecting more to the process of eating. You’ll chew slower and avoid over-eating.

Keep favorite meals on repeat

When faced with stressors, we usually go for our favorite foods; this is especially true of children. Comfort foods and your family’s favorites maybe your go-to choices right now, even if they aren’t always fiber-packed or nutrient-dense That is okay! Alfredo sauces, fried pakoras, mac’n’cheese, grilled cheese, dumplings, pasta, chicken fingers, and pizza are favorites for a reason. While you sort out a new routine, favorite dishes can make mealtime a lot more satisfying – and less stressful – for all.

Try something new together

The lifespan of the pandemic, on the other hand, may make trying new recipes and foods an appealing idea. When you have extra time for food prep, adding a new dish into the rotation now can reduce the stress later when meals get squeezed between commuting and activities. This time can be a great opportunity as a family to come together and try new things. Experiment with an ingredient you have always wanted to try or a regional cuisine. Or, what about whipping up a classic dish your mother made to continue tradition? Planning out a time to dip your toe into unknown culinary waters can be a great learning and skill experience for kids.

Batch cook as much as you can

Now is the perfect time to drag out that slow cooker that’s been collecting dust in the basement! Whether you regularly batch cook or the one-pot meal idea is new to you, this is a great opportunity to make a lot of food at once using all three food groups. With the popularity of Instant Pots, easy one-pot meal recipes are rampant online and being stuck at home is a great time to learn to leverage this bulk cooking method. Soups, stews, curries, and pulled meats can all be made in large quantities and frozen.

All hands on-deck

The family that cooks together, has fun! Now is a fantastic time to get all family members involved in the cooking process. You have the added advantage of less time pressure, so leverage this. For parents, this can certainly lighten the load, and for children it is a fantastic, integrated learning experience they’ll love. Cooking together is both quality time and skill development, which is a win-win. Be with your child in the kitchen to connect but allow some independence.

Here’s how to divide jobs based on the ages and stages of members of your family:

Young children 2 to 5 years old: Little kids can wash fruits and vegetables in the sink, mix ingredients in bowls, tear and snap the ends off beans, and create shapes with cookie cutters in rolled dough.

School-aged children 6 to 8 years old: Older kids can use more implements to peel raw fruits and vegetables, add ingredients to skewers, crack eggs into bowls, and practice measuring wet and dry ingredients.

Tweens ages 8 to 10 years old: They can open cans and packages and portions foods, blend smoothies with a blender or mixer, read and dictate recipes, check the temperature of foods with a thermometer, beat eggs, and prepare or tenderize raw meats on a cutting board with proper food-handling skills.

Children ages 10 and up: This cohort can read and prepare most of a basic recipe, slice or chop vegetables with knives, roast vegetables and create sheet-pan meals, boil or steam vegetables such as broccoli or potatoes, microwave foods, create many baked goods bake foods in the oven, and simmer ingredients on the stove. They’re also the right age to choose their own recipes to try!

Put the F-U-N in mealtimes

Allowing children and teens to pick food themes for meals can be a great way to give them control over something during COVID-19. Food or cultural themes can be a great way to learn about a culture and its foods. Has your child ever wanted to camp out in the backyard or living room? Or have a picnic? Now is a great time to engage in fun ideas like pitching a pup tent in the middle of the living room or spreading a picnic blanket in the middle of your floor to eat in unorthodox ways. It can relieve stress and bring you closer as a team.

This is a stressful time emotionally, physically, and financially for many families. Don’t make food part of the stress, make it part of the solution. Stay calm and carry on feeding yourself and your family; despite this difficult time, you will be making great memories along the way!

Nishta Saxena a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, founder of Vibrant Nutrition, and busy mother of two kids. Her expertise is focused in paediatric and family nutrition and chronic disease prevention including heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, as well as weight and cholesterol management. She has helped thousands of families throughout the life cycle experience the powerful health effects of optimal nutrition. She is also a well-known “nutrition myth buster”, promoting evidence-based nutrition. Nishta divides her time between her private practice in Toronto and academic work. She is also a national media expert in food and nutrition, appearing regularly on Your Morning, The Marilyn Denis Show, The Social, CBC, Today’s Parent, and Best Health. Her favorite food is chickpeas.