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Glass jars full of grains and pulses

How to eat healthily during the coronavirus outbreak

How do you maintain a nutritious diet when you have a limited supply of fresh fruit and veg? We asked Healthspan nutritionist Rob Hobson for his advice.

Self-isolation has become a key weapon to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This essential measure in the battle to curb the virus can impact people’s ability to access fresh food, such as fruit and vegetables. But there are plenty of store-cupboard ingredients that can provide essential vitamins and minerals and help you maintain a healthy, balanced diet.

The importance of diet

A nutritious diet is vital to keep your immune system in top condition – something that is particularly important right now. Fresh foods such as fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products offer an abundance of nutrients, but just because these foods may more difficult to get at the moment, doesn’t mean your diet has to be lacking.

Just a note here: there is absolutely no need to stockpile food. The UK has an abundant supply of produce and many vulnerable members of society, as well as front-line health workers, are finding themselves faced with empty shelves.

Store cupboard essentials

While you may still be able to access some fresh foods from your local supermarket, these other essentials can be used to create simple dishes to help keep you well-nourished during periods of self-isolation.

Grains, pasta and noodles

These foods are key essentials as they form the base and accompaniment to many dishes. One-pan dishes using rice – such as simple egg-fried rice with frozen peas and canned sweetcorn - can be quick, cheap and nourishing. Choose wholemeal/brown versions of staples such as pasta and rice, which are high in fibre, or why not experiment with different types of grains, such as quinoa, polenta, bulgur wheat or amaranth.

Beans and pulses

Beans (kidney, black, cannellini) and other pulses (chickpeas, lentils) are packed full of protein, iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium and can be used as a replacement for meat in many home-cooked meals such as bolognese sauce, chilli and shepherd’s pie. You can also add these foods to canned or fresh soups or make simple nutrient-rich meals, such as beans with canned tuna, chopped peppers, olive oil and lemon juice.

Canned fish

There are many varieties of canned fish, including tuna, salmon, sardines and mackerel. All these foods offer a good source of protein and can be used as a topping on toast and jacket potatoes or added to pasta and rice dishes.

Frozen fruits and vegetables

The nutritional content of these foods is not too dissimilar to their fresh counterparts, and in fact the vitamin C content is often higher because they are frozen quickly after picking. Frozen peas are very versatile and can be added to many dishes straight from the freezer, while frozen berries are also great to keep as they are perfect for making nourishing smoothies.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts such as almonds, cashews and walnuts, and seeds including chia, flax, sunflower, pumpkin and hemp, are fantastic store-cupboard staples, as they are rich in omega-3 fats, magnesium and zinc, as well as being a good source of fibre and protein.

Frozen Quorn

This is a great meat substitute that offers plenty of protein, as well as zinc which helps to support the immune system. Quorn pieces work well in stir fries, while the mince is great for bolognese or chilli.

Eggs

These are the ultimate nourishing food as they contain a source of nearly every nutrient required for good health. Eggs are hugely versatile and also have a long shelf life of four to five weeks.

Cook-in sauces

Having these in your cupboard means you can whip up a quick simple meal by adding a source of protein (meat, beans, Quorn) and vegetables (fresh or frozen). Cooking one-pan meals made with these sauces also means you can batch-cook and freeze servings for later.

What else can I do to protect my health?

Supplementing your diet with a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement is a cost-effective way to safeguard your nutrient intake. These supplements also contain vitamin D: essential if you are going to be housebound for a prolonged period of time, as it is obtained mostly from the sun and difficult to get from diet alone.

Foods that you might not know can be frozen

Avocados: cut them in half, squeeze with lemon juice and store in Ziploc bags

Cheese: best to grate or buy ready-grated to use straight from the bag

Yoghurt: choose full-fat, thicker products

Nuts: these keep for longer in the freezer, as the oils do not go rancid

Ripe bananas: peel first, store in Ziploc bags and keep for smoothies or healthy puddings

Butter: make the most of deals or two-for-one offers by freezing a pack

Eggs: crack them open into a small silicone muffin tray, then just squeeze them out when needed. You can throw them straight into a pan frozen to make omelettes

Rob Hobson MSc RNutr is a Registered Nutritionist who has worked with some of the UK’s largest food and health companies and performs training in the public health sector (including government agencies and the NHS). Rob contributes regularly to UK press publications and has a monthly column in Women's Health magazine.

Find out more at Rob Hobson's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Always follow the Government's guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing – see gov.uk/coronavirus for more information and the latest updates.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.