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Eating Well During Stressful Times

December 2020

Krissy Homoki, Dietetic Intern, Rutgers University
Jennifer Shukaitis, FCHS Educator, Statewide

The COVID-19 pandemic can affect every area of our lives.  Daily stress, lost income, and new schedules and responsibilities can limit time, money, and attention available for purchasing, preparing, and enjoying food.  The tips below can help you prioritize your health during stressful times.

Prevent emotional eatingEmotional eating is misusing food to cope with negative feelings instead of satisfying true physical hunger.  Because eating is a pleasure, it can be easy to eat excessively for a quick relief or distraction.  Furthermore, many comfort foods are high in sugars and/or fats and can leave you feeling sluggish.  When feeling tense, stop and listen to your body’s physical sensations and ask yourself if you are truly hungry.  When it is time to eat, serve yourself with a plate instead of straight from a container to manage portion sizes.

Beware of stress-causing foods:  Avoid caffeine and sugar on hectic days.  Caffeine in tea, coffee, and soda can cause panicked, jittery feelings.  If you prefer to dress up plain water, try herbal tea, diluted juice, or adding slices of fruit.  Sugar causes inflammation and a spike followed by a crash in blood sugar.  Added sugar hides in a surprisingly high number of foods, so check food labels first.

Choose foods for energy: Meals combining fiber, protein, and unsaturated fats help you feel full and power through your day.  Try to eat at least two of the three at each mealtime.  When on the go, bring snacks with at least 5 grams of protein per serving, like one string cheese or serving of nuts, or snacks with at least 3 grams of fiber, like a banana or orange.

Make cooking and mealtime special:  Establishing structure, routines, and time for relationships around food can be a relief from the uncertainty of the outside world.  If possible, plan shopping trips and food preparation ahead of time and eat with family or friends.  If you have spare time, try cooking a new recipe.

Manage time and money spent on food:  If time or money is a challenge when cooking or food shopping, it is still possible to eat well.  Pressure cookers and slow cookers adjust the cooking times to match your schedule.  Some foods like cereal, granola, and yogurt require no preparation.  Look for varieties of these foods that are low in added sugar to keep handy at home.  If you enjoy pre-made frozen meals, choose items with as few food additives as possible.  Canned and jarred foods are affordable, convenient, and can be kept in storage until needed.  Look for fruits such as peaches, pears, and pineapple packed in juice or water and vegetables packed without salt.  Stock your pantry with canned and boxed soup.  Soup is available in many varieties and can be quickly heated for a filling meal. 

Bottom line:  Rising above life’s challenges can be easier when eating wholesome foods.  With careful planning, it is possible to be healthy when working with limited resources.