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Simple Ways to Encourage Healthy Eating During the Pandemic

Encourage healthy eating without turning into the pantry police

Malia Jacobson
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Published on: November 05, 2020

masked mother and child at grocery store

Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Seattle Children's Hospital.

Along with reducing kids’ physical activity, the ongoing pandemic is affecting what, when and how much kids eat. Children are eating fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, consuming more high-calorie, nutrient poor food and eating mindlessly throughout the day, says Phuong V. Truong, RDN, a clinical dietitian with the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic at Seattle Children’s.

The negative health impacts caused by these dietary diversions could take years to reverse, particularly for children in lower-income households, those with one caregiver at home or those already struggling to put food on the table before COVID-19, says Truong. “At this time, the direst need is access to food.”

While local school districts have made school lunches available during remote schooling, many families can’t get to the pickup location at the right time. “Families who rely on public or shared transportation aren’t going to be able to get to the school or pickup location, which puts an added strain on the food supply at home,” she notes.

With kids home from school and eating around the clock, families are going through groceries at a record pace. “Kids are eating out of stress and boredom, so families tell me that food that used to last a week is gone in a day or two,” says Truong. “And food costs are rising, so their dollars don’t stretch as far as they used to.”

Just getting to the grocery store with multiple kids in tow is hard for families coping with school closures. For families with kids learning at home, finding time to shop for fresh foods is a problem, especially if parents also need to work while they supervise remote schooling. “Either parents need to find child care just to go shopping for food, take young kids to the store or pay extra for grocery delivery, which can be costly,” says Truong.

As winter nears and local gardens reduce their yields, access to nutritious food probably won’t improve over the next few months. “I’m seeing kids with health conditions like obesity and fatty liver disease worsening, with less physical activity and no change in sight,” Truong says. “It really scares me, because we’re still in survival mode at this point. We haven’t had time to evaluate what’s going on, let alone intervene, so this isn’t even being addressed.”

Create meal patterns

You can’t control the global food supply, but you can protect your own stash. Keep kids from devouring an entire weeks’ worth of groceries in a sitting by setting up boundaries: Stick to regular meal and snack times, with only water offered in between. Schooling at home should not mean children have unrestricted access to food throughout the day, notes Truong. Constantly hitting the cabinet or fridge for snacks racks up unneeded calories and strains the family’s food supply.

Establish non-food comforts, rewards and “fidgets”

Lots of kids tend to overeat out of stress, boredom or to pass the time during long remote learning sessions, says Truong. Break out of these budget-busting ruts with non-food alternatives. Rewards could include a family drive or walk, a movie or an at-home mani-pedi night; a bath, music or playtime with a pet can relieve stress; fidget spinners or a sketch pad and pencil can keep hands busy instead of snacking during Zoom meetings.

Stretch food dollars further

Food costs may be rising, but seasonal fresh produce and bulk foods are still budget-friendly bets for families, says Truong. Shop the perimeter of the store first to fill your cart with low-cost foods such as fruits and vegetables, then skim the aisles for healthy packaged items such as popcorn, oatmeal, canned fruit packed in water, frozen vegetables, beans and pasta.

In the kitchen, use low-cost convenience foods such as salsa and salad dressings as cooking aids: half a cup of salsa adds flavor to a pot of black bean soup, a dash of your family’s favorite salad dressing turns boiled diced potatoes into a hearty, healthy side dish. Use the last few shreds of chicken on tomorrow’s salad or that last bit of spaghetti sauce as a base for homemade pizza.

Enlist older kids in food prep or baking to keep grocery runs and takeout orders to a minimum. You don’t need a vigorous sourdough base, a bread machine or even a talent for baking to make simple, low-cost bread for sandwiches or toast. Buy active dry yeast in bulk and stock up on flour to bake up toasty home-baked loaves that will keep kids full and happy — for a few hours, anyway. (Consult Seattle Children’s Saving Dollars on Food tip-sheet for more cost-saving meal planning and shopping strategies.)

How to connect with support

Times are tough, but federal and local programs are available to help: The federal government is funding hunger prevention through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Basic Food, Washington state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides food support for those who meet income qualifications.

Seattle offers emergency food programs, including drive-through grocery banks, food pantries and more. The state’s Family Health Hotline provides help locating and applying for food assistance and resources, while the Washington State Farmers Market Association’s online directory connects families with local markets for year-round access to the state’s bounty of fresh, seasonal food.

Resources for Washington families

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