Here’s a list of foods that are in heavy rotation at my house these days: banana bread, Instant Pot cheesecakes, scalloped potatoes, white rice, pizza, burgers, fries and Cheezies, which were introduced to me by a Canadian friend who I’ll never forgive.
I’m not the only one whose quarantine eating habits have changed. Lose It! compared the foods people tracked in the last two weeks of February to the last two weeks of March and found big increases in pretzels, bread, brownies, noodles and rice.
America’s Test Kitchen reports similar trends. Topping their recipe search list are banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, sloppy joes, pizza dough, bread and sourdough starter. “This list feels like old-school, classic, all-American food,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive editorial director for America’s Test Kitchen. “It harkens back to what we were seeing 10 or 20 years ago.”
She says pre-pandemic, their recipe searches were much more diverse, with a wider range of flavors, ethnicities, ingredients, spices and cuisines. “People wanted to try new things,” Collin Davison says.
Now, we’re keeping it simple. “Accessibility, shelf stability, and price are major factors,” says Marysa Cardwell, nutrition therapist and contributing dietitian to Lose It!
We’re getting creative, too. “We’re looking at these shelf-stable ingredients and saying, ‘I’m not going to the supermarket. What can I do?’” says dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of Plant Powered for Life.
Here’s what dietitians think about some of our popular pandemic foods:
“Banana bread is one of those foods with a lot of nostalgia. Everybody remembers a family recipe, or a favorite relative making it,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, a nutrition and weight-loss expert based in New York City. “I totally understand the nostalgia and sentiment, but if you search online you can find very healthy recipes you can enjoy as a snack or as part of breakfast.”
To make your version healthier, reduce or eliminate added sugar and use white whole-wheat flour or almond flour in place of white flour.
To make whipped coffee, or dalgona coffee, you whisk together instant coffee, sugar and boiling water for several minutes until it’s frothy, then serve it on top of milk.
“I saw my son making it and it looked so cool,” Cassetty says. “When I asked him how he made it he told me it has two tablespoons of sugar —that’s a dessert’s worth of sugar.” She puts whipped coffee in the “occasional treat” category. “It’s not an everyday food,” she says.
For people who want foam without all the added sugar, she recommends frothing milk or plant-based milk.
Baking bread is a popular pandemic pastime, and with stores selling out of yeast, sourdough is filling in for traditional breads.
Cassetty points out that natural, whey-fermented sourdough breads offer some probiotics. “It’s lower than yogurt but still better than packaged white bread,” she says. “And if you’re baking your own bread, that’s emotionally satisfying.”
Chocolate chip cookies
“If you want to bake cookies with your family, that’s OK,” Palmer says.
With chocolate chip cookies, Cassetty recommends practicing mindfulness, which helps with portion control. “Make it a memorable experience. Sit down, take a bite and make a few mental notes about what that bite tastes like,” she says. “It enhances the enjoyment when you’re treating yourself with love. It’s not about scarfing down these indulgences, it’s about creating more enjoyment out of them and not having them with any guilt or judgment.”
There are lots of ways we can create healthier versions of pizza. “Think through what you’re craving,” Cassetty says. If it’s the sauce, cheese or toppings, you can swap in whole-grain pitas or brown rice tortillas for the crust. And if it’s the crust that you love, have your pizza with some protein and veggies on the side to round out your meal.
White Claw slushies
White Claw slushies are a mix of White Claw hard seltzer, vodka and frozen fruit, combined in a blender.
Cassetty points out that it’s considered above the healthy range for women to have more than one drink a day or for men to have more than two. “Alcohol can interfere with proper sleep and also can interfere with optimal immune function. If this is your drink of choice that’s fine, just stay within the healthy limits,” she says.
Don’t feel bad about craving comfort foods
It’s not surprising that we turn to food in times of stress and uncertainty. “Food has always been comforting, throughout human history,” Palmer says. “This is not the time to be hard on yourself. But when you’re in an overeating cycle, that can make you feel worse. It’s about being in balance and kind to yourself when it comes to food choices.”