Overcoming pandemic food stress with mindful choices — and big helping of joy

From flour and yeast shortages at the grocery store to concerns from the nation’s top doctor about the changing food and beverage habits of Canadians, there is ample evidence of how the pandemic is affecting our relationship with food.

Food is fuel. But it is also community, love and connection, says Edmonton dietitian

Getting a variety of foods and colours on your plate is a good path to a healthy diet, says Edmonton dietitian Emily Mardell. (Atstock Productions/Shutterstock)

From flour and yeast shortages at the grocery store to concerns from the nation's top doctor about the changing food and beverage habits of Canadians, there is ample evidence of how the pandemic is affecting our relationship with food.

The good news is that a few mindful practices can ensure the relationship is fulfilling, in every sense of the word, says an Edmonton dietitian and nutrition consultant.

"Food is not just macronutrients. It's not just calories. Food is community, food is love, food is heritage, food is connection. Food is how we count our blessings and court lovers and all those sort of beautiful things," said Emily Mardell.

"We need to make sure that we are infusing compassion into our eating right now. Because it is normal and OK to be embracing food, kind of as a part of your stress management routine."

COVID-19 has elevated stress levels on many fronts, including around food, said Mardell, who specializes in sport and pediatric nutrition at her Food First counselling practice and is the force behind Get Joyfull, an online platform celebrating food and family. 

Mardell is a registered dietitian whose Edmonton company Food First offers a variety of nutrition consulting services. (www.choosefoodfirst.com)

Economic impacts have people worried about stretching their food dollars. Physical distancing worries have created stress around the shopping experience. And work-from-home parents juggling the needs of school-from-home children has ignited some "structure and sanity" issues in the home kitchen, she said.

"Food stress is at an all-time high," Mardell said during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session this week with CBC Edmonton.

"And it starts to feel like food is in control of us versus us being a little bit more in control of our food," she said.

Here are some highlights from that conversation about about healthy eating habits during COVID-19 and beyond.

Eating our emotions

Even without a pandemic, food has long been a source of comfort, no matter what part of the body — or soul — is feeling hungry.

What's important, Mardell said, is to normalize emotional eating but to also take time to understand we are hungry for.

"We almost really ridicule ourselves and get down on ourselves when we are indulging in food from an emotional or from a comfort standpoint, when in fact that is probably the most human thing to do," she said.

For those feeling sad and lonely —  "heart hungry," as Mardell called it — it's important to be sure that food isn't the only way you address it, as that in turn might create new stresses around body weight or body image.

"We need to have some self-care," she said. "Just being able to tap into the things that fill us up — not just your food but your soul food."

Being organized

Want to know what's at the top of Mardell's list when it comes to eating better, reducing food stress and saving money? 

Make a list. Or two.

"I just believe wholeheartedly, in my bones, that food and nutrition should be a priority, and being able to set aside an hour or two each week to get ahead on some meal prep or snack prepping or even maybe a little bit of meal-planning before hitting the grocery store," she said. 

"These are all ways that you can create time and not feel so overwhelmed."

This means knowing what you currently have in your fridge, freezer and pantry, as well as getting a good idea of what you want to cook n the coming week. 

To save money, consider stocking up on seasonal, well-priced fruits and vegetables and freezing or preserving them to enjoy later, she said.

Making things from scratch is another good way to stretch food dollars. Her own family likes oatmeal raisin cookies and now, Mardell said with a laugh, she has supplies to make cookies for the next three years.

Choosing your fuels

There is an increased curiosity about boosting immune systems to fend off COVID-19, but Mardell said good nutrition practices are applicable for a lifetime of healthy eating.

"Colour on your plate and lots of variety is going to give a good collection of nutrients that are going to work together to support your immune system," she said.

Vitamin C (sourced from fruits and vegetables) and zinc (plentiful in protein sources ranging from meats, beans and lentils to chickpeas and pumpkin seeds) are both important for good health, she said.

When it comes to the nutrient value of fruits and vegetables, Mardell said there is little difference in fresh versus frozen or organic versus not. 

"You would not believe the amount of frozen fruits and vegetables that go in and out of my freezer from month to month," she said. 

"We're all trying to not only stretch food dollars, but save time in the kitchen, boost convenience and reduce food waste. There's no better way to do that then something that is already prepared, chopped and good to go."

Tricks your kids will eat up

Clean your plate or you can't have dessert.

Most of us heard that as a child, or possibly even say that as parents, but Mardell said that kind of well-intentioned action can lead to a competition between foods — at least in the eyes of the youngsters.

Mardell shared a few tips to help your kids appreciate all foods equally while building up their bravery around trying new things.

Mardell uses various techniques to keep her own children curious about new foods. (Mcimage/Shutterstock)

Time-shifting: "Family meal time [is] the only time we come together during the day so we don't want to spend that arguing about 'Eat three more bites of broccoli,'" Mardell said. For that reason, vegetables are sometimes "time-shifted" to another part of the day, such as afternoon snack. 

Everybody wins: Mardell avoids a competition of fruits and vegetables by serving them together. One day, the snack plate was all orange foods: bell peppers, carrots and oranges. "They were able to sit down and enjoy it and there was nothing competing on the plate."

The "icky napkin": Make it safe for your children to try new things at meal-time by making it easy for them to spit out, she said. "If it's not their thing, they can politely put it in their napkin and we don't even talk about it. Having an out for them is a way to make it feel a little bit safer and make them feel a little bit braver, too."

Dessert with dinner: Sometimes, Mardell will plop a scoop of ice cream beside the meatballs, broccoli and pasta on her four-year-old's plate. "Sometimes he eats all the ice cream first. Sometimes he eats ice cream followed by a meatball, which is kind of disgusting," she said with a laugh. But more importantly, the technique helps "take dessert off a pedestal."

Shifting power, finding joy

Dessert and sweets do indeed have a special power over us, but adopting a more mindful approach to food can help shift the power of any food and put control back in our hands, she said.

"I don't like to put food into good and bad categories too often," she said. "Anytime you put morality and food together, what tends to happen is that anytime you eat that food, you feel that you're good. Or you feel you're bad. And that just totally degrades the food relationship."

A sign outside of Chartier restaurant in Beaumont, Alta., encapsulates much of Mardell's message. (Therese Kehler/CBC News)

For example, some people feel strongly about organic foods and sustainable farming practices, but those choices might cause other others to feel financial stress, she said. 

Mardell loves how Edmonton markets, grocery stores and restaurants offer such a wide range of local food and worldly cuisines, which will go a long way to help people individualize their own ideas of what a healthy plate looks like for them.

"I think that's really what is the foundation for a sustainable eating plan, or eating pattern, or a healthy relationship with food," she said. 

"It's to put food rules aside and find out what brings you food joy, what fills you up, what gives you energy … whatever it is that kind of brings you closer to the food on your plate.

"It's really building in some sense of mindfulness in your eating."