A Nutritionist’s Advice on What to Buy (and What to Avoid) When Stocking up on Groceries for Quarantine

updated Mar 14, 2020
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As the coronavirus continues to spread, people all over the country are stocking up on staple pantry items and food in expectation of staying home for the long haul. But what to buy? We’re all trying to avoid panic-buying and then realizing later we have nothing but an industrial case of Oreos and way too many black beans. We spoke to a nutritionist to get a little bit of advice on what to stock up on and how to make sure we stay well-nourished.

Are you stocking up? We are.

The great stock-up of March 2020, of course, began as a contingency recommendation from the CDC, who strongly recommended that every household have a COVID-19 action plan, including food on hand should you or your household be quarantined for two weeks after an exposure to COVID-19. But this has rapidly evolved into a much more immediate need: social distancing and voluntarily staying at home, regardless of whether you are sick or well, in a hope to slow the virus’ spread and preserve precious medical resources. (All of us here at Kitchn are staying home for the foreseeable future, barring quick trips out for essentials like groceries.)

But stocking up for this long may be new to you. If you aren’t a hardcore meal planner, you may not have had to consider what to actually have in your home. What foods are best? Which ones might you want to avoid if you are sick? And what can you get now in preparation? 

“Since many people are used to grocery shopping at least once per week with a special trip or two to stock up on an essential they’ve run out of, it’s helpful to have direction with what you can keep on hand that will last at least two weeks while providing you with all you need for balanced meals,” says the nutritionist we spoke with: Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.

On top of that, keeping foods that are good sources of immuno-supportive nutrients will be helpful should you or someone in your home need it, she says. “If all goes well and no one is infected with COVID-19, you’ll still have a pantry and freezer stocked with nutritious, budget-friendly options for the weeks that you don’t have time for a big grocery trip,” she adds.

Here’s what she recommended. If you have yet to head out to the grocery store, also read our quick guide to grocery store etiquette right now.

What to Buy at the Grocery Store Right Now

“It’s crucial to consider all of the food groups and components that you need to build balanced meals, while also having snack options on hand. You might think that your body won’t need as much energy if you’re stuck at home laying around for two weeks, but the immune system requires energy and nutrients to work overtime at fighting off any illness,” says Jones.

For balanced meals, you want to have enough proteins, starches, fruits, vegetables, and fats on hand. If your household consumes milk or milk alternatives regularly, those should also be considered and on hand in a shelf-stable form. On top of pantry-stable and freezer-friendly whole foods in each category, some healthy freezer meals, teas, and research-backed immune boosting supplements are great to grab, too, Jones adds. 

Yes, you can (and should!) buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

“There are many fresh items that won’t spoil quickly and are easy to cook or eat without preparation. Apples and citrus both have a long shelf life, for example,” Jones says. “I recommend having lemons on hand to add to tea to help soothe the throat and vitamin C rich oranges and grapefruit to add to breakfast or have as a snack,” she adds.

Orange juice is also a good option if you are the type to lose your appetite while sick. That way you don’t need to chew but get in nutrition. “Bananas may turn brown more quickly, but you can easily freeze ripe ones and make yourself some one-ingredient banana ice cream in a blender so you have a sweet treat around,” Jones adds. 

Winter squash is another nutrient and antioxidant-rich option, so get those for easy stir-fry, salad, soup, or sides. “Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and selenium and stay fresh for weeks in a cool, dark place,” Jones says, so those are good picks too. Yet, “since you probably won’t want to spend much time cooking or waiting for potatoes to bake while sick, I love these Microwave Ready Kits with fresh creamer potatoes. They come in a sealed ready to heat tray that you cook in just five minutes, before adding the seasoning pack and some olive oil,” she adds. 

We would also add green cabbage and kale which can both keep for over a month in a cool dry place or the refrigerator. (Just strip any outer shriveled or yellow leaves off the cabbage). Carrots and celery are key ingredients for soup and broths and also last well.

Finally, onions and garlic keep for a long time and have great antibacterial properties. So, use those for good seasoning and, we hope! side health benefits as well.

For dairy, cultured probiotic yogurts can last a couple of weeks, too. Think yogurt, cottage cheese.

Healthy pantry items go beyond beans.

There are so many great pantry items to keep on hand for every single food group. “Quick cook whole grains are key when you don’t feel energized enough to cook. And stock up on microwavable quinoa cups and rice pouches,” says Jones. 

You can also go with pasta. Whole wheat and bean-based pastas are a quick and easy dinner option, too, which can provide leftovers for lunch the following day. No-sugar added oatmeal packets are also a great base for breakfast or a snack and whole-grain, low-sugar cereals make breakfast and snacks easy, too. Lastly, rice cakes and whole grain crackers can be a nutritious option for snacks.

For pantry protein options, stock up on canned beans, salmon jerky, and canned salmon and tuna. “Roasted edamame also packs in a lot of protein for snacks. Like salmon and tuna, nuts, seeds, and nut butters provide healthy sources of fat, which are important for proper inflammatory and immune system responses,” says Jones.

“For fruits, purchase dried fruit free of added sulfites, which can cause immune reactions in some individuals. You can also stock up on unsweetened applesauce and fruit cups packed with water or juice,” she says. 

Don’t forget drinks!

“If you are a coffee drinker, there’s a good chance you’ll want an energy boost, but hot coffee tends to be acidic, which may irritate your throat if you’ve been coughing a lot from the virus,” says Jones. “Cold brew coffee has a lower acid content and Califia Farms has a new shelf-stable concentrate that has a smooth but still full-bodied coffee taste. Since it’s a concentrate, it won’t take up much space in your pantry or fridge while you’re stocked up on other essentials,” she recommends.

If you aren’t a coffee drinker, or gravitate towards tea when you’re sick, be sure you have your favorite tea on hand. “While ginger and turmeric are immuno-supportive and available in tea, it may be best to keep Throat Coat and Breathe Easy varieties from Traditional Medicinals on hand since a cough and shortness of breath are likely when infected,” she says. 

No matter what tea you choose adding honey is a great idea. “Research shows honey to have a positive impact on immune health and studies have shown it to be as effective as cough syrup in suppressing coughs and soothing the throat,” she says. If you won’t be getting up much, these single serve honey packets from Nature Nates are great to have at your bedside whether you add them to tea or just have on their own when coughing, she recommends.

Are any supplements worth it?

When it comes to supplements, elderberry syrup should be a pantry staple. “Taking 1 serving per day has been shown to help reduce the chances of getting sick. Taking it four times daily at the onset of symptoms of cold and flu has been shown to reduce severity and duration of illness as well,” says Jones. 

What should go in the freezer?

Your freezer is such an asset when it comes to keeping healthy foods like fruits and vegetables on hand for extended periods. “I recommend having a variety of frozen vegetables that can be steamed in the microwave or roasted in the oven for ease of use,” says Jones. 

Frozen fruits can be added to oatmeal and also bring a quick nutrient-dense smoothie together for breakfast or a snack. You might also want to keep lower-sodium freezer meals like burritos, grain bowls, and pizzas on hand. “Just check the ingredient lists to ensure you’re getting whole grains, some vegetables, and no artificial additives. You can find great options at Trader Joe’s, but Amy’s and Sweet Earth are top brand recommendations,” says Jones. Finally, grab sprouted grain bread that packs in more protein, fiber and potentially better-absorbed nutrients and keep a loaf or two in the freezer.

Nutrition on a budget: some tips.

If the above options are feeling costly, focus on swapping some items, like dried beans for canned beans and tuna instead of salmon. 

“Choosing store brands is almost always more economical to have a similar quality of food and if you’re able, buy some items from the bulk section of your grocery store. Also skip some of the shortcut items like oatmeal packets for a tub of quick oats, and rice pouches for dry rice,” says Jones. 

What’s more, in general, “canned and frozen goods are likely the best bang for your buck. They are inexpensive and last a long time in your pantry and freezer,” says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD

“Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh because they are picked and flash frozen at the peak of freshness and will last months vs. days. There’s plenty of great fruit and vegetable combos that you can use for smoothies, stir-fries and more,” Michalczyk says. 

Canned salmon and tuna are also great cost effective protein options that can be used in different ways, she says, as well as canned soup. “Some are high in sodium which would be the only thing to look out for,” says Michalczyk.

And finally, avoid these foods.

While your immune system is working hard, it’s best to follow recommendations for those who are immunocompromised. “I recommend avoiding any raw fish such as sashimi, ceviche or oysters. It’s also a good idea to avoid smoked seafood such as lox,” says Jones. 

Avoiding unpasteurized (or raw) milks, juices, and apple cider vinegar is also smart. “While there are claims it boosts immune health, avoiding kombucha may even be a good idea at this time,” she adds. Along these same lines, soft cheeses may also carry bacteria. 

And if you’re used to runny yolks, seared fish, and medium rare meats, this is also a time to ensure your meat, fish, poultry and eggs are thoroughly cooked, and even avoid deli meats due to the risk of listeria, she adds. 

Have you stocked up yet on your groceries for the next couple of weeks? We’d love to hear about the foods you bought and the meals you’re planning.