On Nutrition

With social distancing, staying at home and sometimes self-quarantining constituting the new “normal,” there are a lot of questions about how to handle grocery shopping and stocking your pantry. Here are some answers.

How do canned and frozen foods stack up to fresh ones?

Nutritionally speaking, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are comparable to fresh ones, because they are usually canned or frozen within hours of picking, when they are at peak freshness. The high-heat canning process does partially degrade some nutrients, but it actually boosts levels of others, such as the antioxidant phytochemical lycopene in tomatoes. Remember that nutrients in fresh produce also start to degrade as they are transported and stored.

Choose fruit canned in water, its own juices or, at least, 100% fruit juice. Choose canned vegetables labeled “no salt added,” or drain and rinse “low sodium” and regular canned vegetables and beans to reduce their sodium content. When shopping for frozen produce, choose plain vegetables and unsweetened fruit. Dried fruit is another less-perishable option, just keep in mind that the portion size for dried fruit is smaller than it is for fresh fruit. It’s not always possible to find dried fruit without added sugar, but if you are allergic to sulfites, be sure to avoid dried fruits that add sulfites as a preservative.

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What’s a reasonable amount of food to store?

“Reasonable” depends partly on how much space you have and how long will it take you to use what you buy.

For example, if you have a small freezer, you’ll need to rely more on canned and dry goods. Make sure you stock up on food you actually like and will be happy to eat once we’re back to normal. Whatever you usually keep extras of — pasta, tuna, oats — keep a little bit more, maybe enough to last a month or so, but refrain from buying whatever you can get your hands on. When we create shortages by buying more of something than we will realistically use, we harm those who could use it right now.

If you are cooking more than usual and don’t intend to maintain that habit post-pandemic, be prepared to donate any excess still-good pantry goods to your local food bank. (Want to safely help Seattle-area food banks right now during this time of increased need? Visit NorthwestHarvest.org and EmergencyFeeding.org for details.)

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Canned foods have a shelf life of one to five years — but this is based on quality, not safety. Frozen food stored at a constant temperature below 0 degrees stays safe indefinitely, although some foods start to decline in quality after a month in the freezer, and others foods don’t freeze well at all, from a quality standpoint. Recommended time limits for home-refrigerated foods take spoilage into account, so exceeding the recommended time could be dangerous. For detailed information, check out the “Cold Food Storage” chart on foodsafety.gov. For more answers on the pantry, refrigerator and freezer shelf lives of virtually any food you can think of, visit StillTasty.com.

How often should I shop for groceries?

Even if you haven’t been infected and aren’t at high risk of complications, it’s a good idea to should shop as infrequently as possible. Assume that you could be sick but asymptomatic, and so could anyone you come into contact with. My advice is similar to what it always is for anyone who prefers to spend minimal time in the grocery store. Keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer, then shop once a week — or even less often — for perishable items.

Use your fresh and perishable foods first, then lean on canned, dried, frozen and nonperishable foods for the rest of the days before your next grocery trip. This might mean using any fresh and delicate produce (leafy greens, peppers, broccoli, berries, stone fruits) first, then turning to sturdier fresh produce such as cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, apples and citrus — apples and cabbage heads last up to two months in the refrigerator — and finally to canned and frozen produce for variety.

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Raw eggs in their shells keep for three to five weeks in the refrigerator. Milk lasts for three to five days after the sell-by date, and that date will vary based on whether the milk was pasteurized, or ultra-pasteurized. Maximize its quality life by not storing it in the door of the refrigerator, which experiences more fluctuations in temperature. You can also freeze milk, but once thawed, the texture is suited better to cooking or baking than to adding to your morning coffee.

I don’t really cook. What are some simple recipes?

People who know their way around the kitchen are having an easier time right now. If that’s not you, and you don’t want to rely on frozen meals, think in terms of transforming foods from raw to cooked — a chicken breast, a fish fillet, broccoli, a sweet potato — rather than following a recipe.

You can take almost any vegetable, toss it in olive oil, salt and pepper, roast it at 400-450 degrees, checking it every 10 minutes until roasted to your liking. You can cook a pot of whole grains and throw them on green salads or mix them with diced raw veggies and drained and rinsed canned beans for a simple grain bowl. (Tip: Have more cooked grains than you can use in a few days? Freeze them!) You can find both recipes and simple whole-grain cooking instructions at wholegrainscouncil.org.

Sandwiches, salads and wraps are all no-cook options. Or, spread canned refried beans, heated up, on tortillas and top with shredded cheese and cabbage, plus salsa. Scrambled eggs are an easy vehicle for sautéed or leftover roasted vegetables. My favorite pantry staple recipe: 1 can tuna + 1 can drained, rinsed white beans + 2 tablespoons capers or chopped Kalamata olives + drizzle of olive oil + salt and pepper to taste. Serve on leafy greens, if available. You can also add chopped, jarred roasted red peppers.

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