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Experts say ordering takeout is safe — here's how to keep it healthy, too

The coronavirus may have us all eating in, but that doesn’t mean we have to make our meals, too. Here’s what you need to know about ordering takeout these days.
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While many states have mandated people stay at home, a lot of restaurants are still open for takeout and delivery. Ordering food not only infuses cash into local restaurants (which is good for them and our economy), it can help make things easier on you.

Having someone else prepare your food lessens the overall burden of shopping, meal-planning, cooking and cleaning up — and it offers instant variety, which is a big perk these days. It’s also a good option for people who may not be able to cook for themselves. But even if takeout during the lockdown feels like a bigger treat than usual, it’s still important to be mindful about what you order, and keep it healthy — and safe.

For the safety part, we spoke with two experts about the limited risks: Craig W. Hedberg, a professor and the interim division head of the division of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Tamika Sims, who holds a Ph.D. in virology and immunology and is the director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council.

Here’s what you need to know about ordering in while sheltering at home.

It’s safe to order takeout

Both of our experts agree with the general consensus that you’re very unlikely to contract the coronavirus from takeout meals, and they underscore that there’s no known risk of transmitting COVID-19 through food. And while restaurant staff members are already well-trained in safe food-handling measures (including handwashing, cleaning procedures and staying home when sick), Hedberg recommends ordering directly from restaurants that you trust have good food safety protocols in place. The main risk is if you get exposed to someone with COVID-19, so social distancing and contactless pick-up or delivery is recommended.

Wash your hands before and after handling takeout containers

Our experts say the risk of getting COVID-19 from takeout packaging is low; however, it’s still crucial to wash your hands both before and after you touch these materials — and again before you eat. “This will help ensure that if any germs got onto your hands from the outside of the container or the countertop, you’ve decreased your risks.” Additionally, when the food arrives, remove it from the containers, being careful not to let the food touch the outer packaging — and get rid of the containers. (Store any leftovers in your own containers.) Use your own utensils if possible too. Otherwise, wash disposable utensils with soap and water before using, says Sims.

Don’t let your healthy eating habits go by the wayside

It’s natural to try to use food for comfort when things get stressful, but if this becomes a habit, it can take a toll on both your physical and emotional well-being. It’s fine to splurge sometimes, but treating yourself by taking a break from kitchen chores is a healthier form of self care.

Seek out veggie-centric meals

Entrée salads are an excellent choice, but there are many other meals that incorporate lots of veggies. Think stir-fries and veggie-grain bowls, or create your own veggie-rich meal using a combination of side dishes. In general, it’s a good idea to fill up half your plate with produce.

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Opt for whole grains over refined grains

Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and whole wheat are rich in nutrients, such as fiber, magnesium, zinc, antioxidants and other health- and immune-supporting plant compounds. When available, choose these grains over their refined counterparts (like white rice, white bread, and regular pasta), which contain some nutrients that have been added back after processing but don’t offer the full spectrum.

Watch your portions

Restaurant portions tend to be on the large side. It may be tough to get used to, but a single serving of brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat pasta is a half-cup and a serving of whole wheat bread is one slice. Serving sizes depend on your individual nutrition needs, but most people’s grain needs tend to be in the range of 1/2 to 1 1/2 cups, whereas restaurant portions are frequently more than two times the higher amount. If you normally eat large servings of grains, there’s a chance these grains are replacing other healthful foods in your diet, and given the fact that 90% of Americans don’t eat enough servings of veggies each day, this may be an opportunity to get the proportions right.

Make sure you’re ordering a balanced meal

A meal that contains lots of veggies, along with lean protein, healthy fats (preferably plant-based options, like nuts or avocados) and starch (ideally from whole grains or starchy veggies, such as sweet potatoes and butternut squash) ensures you get the nutrients your body needs to thrive. And remember, you can find healthy combinations in any cuisine. Here are some ideas.

  • Mediterranean: Order a platter with grilled veggies, chicken kebabs and a side of brown rice or a whole grain pita dipped in olive oil. At-home hack: Add raisins and sliced almonds to the rice to make it a more filling side.
  • Diner food: Go for a veggie-filled omelet with sliced avocado, a small side of potatoes and extra veggies on the side. At-home hack: Top your omelet with jarred salsa for an extra hit of produce.
  • Mexican: Try a fajita platter with grilled shrimp, fajita veggies and a couple of corn tortillas. Ask for a side of guac. At-home hack: Add some canned, rinsed and drained black beans sprinkled with cumin on the side.
  • Italian: Enjoy a piece of grilled chicken or fish with a side of pasta (or a slice of pizza) and a big side of sautéed greens. At-home hack: Order an entrée size pasta and use leftovers as a side dish for another meal.
  • Comfort food: Have an open-faced burger topped with tomato, onion and lettuce, an order of fries for sharing and a side Caesar salad. At-home hack: Swap the croutons out for nuts or pumpkin seeds.