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Food for thought: 8 tips on meal planning for a balanced diet during the coronavirus pandemic

Written by Penny Vlachou (Registered Dietitian)

It is fair to say that in just a few weeks, everyone’s lives have been turned upside down. Even if your work or personal life has not been significantly impacted, you may still feel stressed, overwhelmed, unsettled, or a bit bored at times. This is all quite understandable, if we consider that the whole world is trying to contain a pandemic.

I have been asked a lot about diet tips during this unusual period, and how to best manage a good nutritional intake without sacrificing our personal needs and lifestyle goals. Here is a list of the most frequently asked questions and most common scenarios that impact on managing a good diet during the lock down period.

1.How can I boost my immunity through diet?

To be clear from the start, there is no specific food or nutrients which has been shown to prevent or reduce symptoms from COVID-19. Good hygiene is the optimal way to avoid infection. I know it sounds like a cliché but repeat after me: ‘A regularly consumed varied and balanced diet can support our health and immunity’. Following the regular healthy eating guidelines is therefore going to support your physical health and immunity.

Micronutrients including B12, B6, C, D vitamins, folic acid, selenium, copper, zinc all play a role in our immune system and they can improve our physical health by consuming them as part of a varied and balanced diet. One exception is Vitamin D which is mainly absorbed by sunlight exposure and by consuming foods such as oily fish, egg yolk, meat, milk, fortified margarine, cereal and yogurts. A large percentage of the UK population has been found to be deficient in Vitamin D, due to lack of sun exposure especially during the winter months. We are now in spring, so you may be able to get more sun exposure by spending some time in your balcony or garden. However, if you do not have these facilities and you are currently self-isolating, you would benefit from an over the counter supplement of 10ug of Vitamin D every day. Avoid higher dose supplements (unless prescribed by your doctor due to significant deficiency), as Vitamin D can be stored in your body, resulting in toxicity if taken in excess.

2. How do I make my mushroom risotto without the mushrooms?

Ok, so you found a great online recipe for a risotto, completed your shopping list, but the shop has run out of mushrooms. Don’t panic and try to be resourceful instead; this is good practice for making meals on a normal weekday, when you are running low in food and need to prepare something easy and fast. Most recipes are usually adaptable and vegetables can easily be changed. In this scenario, you could add any other vegetables for the risotto; broccoli, carrots, zucchini, aubergine are just a few examples. Aim for seasonal vegetables and your wallet will thank you too!

3. I cannot get fresh fruit and veg...

Frozen and tinned fruits and vegetables are absolutely fine to use; opt for no salt /oil added, and fruit tinned in fruit juice rather than syrup. Frozen vegetables can sometimes be more nutrient dense than fresh vegetables which have been in our fridge for several days.

4. What do I do with all this cupboard food?

Think about the three main food groups you want to include in your plate: carbohydrates, proteins and vegetables/salad.

· Rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat, pasta can be used for your carbohydrate portion; opt for wholegrain options whenever possible. You can freeze wholemeal bread, and defrost in smaller portions. Cook potatoes with skin on. You can still buy the readymade versions for rice or grains (microwavable sachets), if you want to save time, nothing wrong with that if you want to spend less time in cooking.

· Tinned beans, legumes (lentils, chickpeas etc), tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines are your protein sources from cupboard food. If you are buying baked beans opt for the no added sugar and salt version. Opt for fish tinned in brine, as this will be lower in energy, and you can add your own better quality oil if you wish for the meal. Foods such as cheese (feta cheese, low fat cheddar) and tofu they can last for a few weeks in the fridge, so no need to use them straight away. Plant based eating has lots of health benefits, so this is a good opportunity to use these food options in pasta, rice dishes, or with vegetables. You could use up your fish/meat/egg stock in the first few days after going to the shops and then switch to legume based recipes for the rest of the week.

· As mentioned above you can use a range of fresh, frozen or tinned vegetables, for your third main food group component!

Finally don’t forget that you can flavour your meals with herbs and spices, lemon and other dressings (balsamic vinegar, mustard, reduced salt soy sauce etc).

5. But I just feel like a restaurant meal!

Visits to restaurants and ordering takeaway food has been dramatically reduced for most people, it is normal to crave some of these foods from time to time. Why not try to make some similar meals at home, which can be a quite opportunity for opening those old recipe books, or try the online recipe you have been meaning to cook. You could also make a small ‘event’ out of this, by getting with your partner, flatmate or family on board. Or why not create a small online contest with your friends or family if you are alone, and you all experiment with the same recipe.

At the same time, don't beat yourself up for having some convenience foods despite being mostly at home. Allow treat foods sometimes, and when you are opting for less balanced meals, you could always have a healthy side (for example pizza with side salad, or added vegetables).

6. I am not master chef and I don’t want to become one.

Fair enough. If you are used to ready-made meals or ingredients for preparing meals, you can still use these foods and still maintain a balanced diet. Here are some ideas that take 5-10 minutes to prepare:

- Precooked mixed grains with lentils (heated in the microwave) and feta cheese cubes, a bit of pesto sauce and side salad.

-Jacket potato (7-10 in in the microwave) with tinned tuna mixed with lemon and low fat mayo, side salad

-Stew with pre-chopped mixed veg, tin of chickpeas, 1 can of chopped tomatoes, herbs+ spices (oregano, black pepper, cumin)

Remember that being in isolation is not about evolving and improving in all lifestyle areas; it will however be beneficial to maintain good physical and mental health, while you are focusing on adapting your working environment, protecting yourself and others from illness and for some people, caring for other family members or friends.

7. I am running low on money, as I have temporarily lost my job. What do I do?

This is such an unfortunate situation for many people at the moment, and it can understandably increase stress levels, leaving less energy and motivation to think about food, let alone the financial stressors of ensuring a balanced diet. Try to select supermarket own brands, frozen and tinned products and fruit and veg which are in season, as they may be cheaper. Some plant based foods may also be cheaper and longer lasting (quorn mince or veggie sausages). Finally, ensuring adequate energy intake is going to be your main priority and this may mean that optimal nutritional balance becomes a secondary priority.

8. I keep throwing away food!

Minimising food waste will be good practice long term, even after the lockdown; for financial and environmental reasons. Try to plan meals ahead and complete your food shopping based on what you need for the meals and snacks, rather than buying a bit of everything. Avoid panic buying and stock piling, as it can put vulnerable individuals at risk of food shortages and malnutrition. Another useful shopping practice is to check expiry dates, as well as to buy a mixture of ripe and less ripe fruit and veg, do avoid throwing them away.

Finally, take time to portion foods more accurately; we often cook much more pasta or rice than what we need; one to two handfuls of dry pasta is enough for one portion. Check for more ideas around food waste.

We all have our ‘standard’, mental shopping list every week, so the reduced frequency of food shopping can challenge even the most organised consumers when they are trying to plan their food shopping. This may be a good opportunity to invest some time on meal planning, incorporating balance in the food groups and learning to cook simple meals from scratch.

I hope that the tips above were a useful guide for some of the nutrition related issues you can face while needing to stay at home. Remember to enjoy your food, eat mindfully and don’t beat yourself up if your day is not going as planned; perfect diet does not exist, aim for balanced eating instead. Don’t forget about your mental health, by increasing self-care activities, sleeping well, avoiding excessive exposure to social media and maintain contact with your loved ones.

If you are concerned about risk of malnutrition for yourself or someone you know, or if you suffer from other health conditions, please do not hesitate do seek advice from a registered dietitian. Plenty of options for online sessions and this is an important reason for getting individualised advice and ensuring have all the appropriate guidance, as there is lots of conflicting information out there.

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