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How to Shop for Food and What to Cook During a Pandemic

A chef's tips for updating your grocery list — and recipes to make now

cooked dish of penne, ricotta and asparagus

Theresa Raffetto

En español | It's understandable that when a pandemic hits, our first instinct is to hoard things like white rice, pasta and frozen pizza. And, yes, in general, we want to “stock up” so we don't have to be running to the grocery store much. But that doesn't mean you have to eat only processed foods. Ideally, we should be after fresh or frozen groceries that last for weeks and help us stay as healthy as possible.

So before making that next grocery run looking for potato chips and/or running out for Chinese takeout, consider filling your grocery cart with some of the healthy and relatively long-lasting ingredients mentioned below, then spend some quality time as a family preparing it.

Veggies are, needless to say, essential to keeping your immune system firing. But buying them in cans or jars can mean lots of sodium, which can raise your blood pressure even more during this stressful time. Some canned or jarred veggies also have unwanted preservatives or acids. So opt for fresh veggies that will last, or, if you have the space in your freezer, stock up on frozen ones.

  • Cabbage is an excellent choice as it will last for weeks. I love to make yummy slaws; they're crunchy and a bit salty so they curb the savory cravings with few calories (as long as they're not full of mayo).
  • Kale is hearty and will also last weeks. Chop it up for salads or turn it into chips!
  • Winter squash easily lasts a month and if it was very fresh when you bought it, it will last even longer. I love making “fries’ out of winter squash
  • Dried mushrooms are terrific to rehydrate and make tons of dishes, from soups and pastas to egg scrambles.
  • Sundried tomatoes are another great thing to buy to add flavor to dishes. Just be sure to buy those in a dry packet, not those ones in oil. Just eyeball the sodium; I've found brands with virtually no sodium and others with ridiculous amounts.
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes will last a month. If your grocery store carries them (many do), try light sweet potatoes, which taste closer to white potatoes but have more nutrients. Use them to make baked “fries,” or potato salads, or add them to soups. Be sure to store them in a cool dry place away from onions.
  • Onions will last a month if you store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. And they're a low-calorie way to season anything and everything.
  • Garlic will also last a month, so stock up on a number of heads. You can roast it with a tiny bit of olive oil for a more subtle flavor or sauté to flavor soups, veggies, sauces, etc.
  • Carrots will last a month if you cut the tops off. They also should be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag
  • Cauliflower will last a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. But if you “rice it” (chop it to look like rice in your food processor) and steam it, you can freeze it and then use it for pizza crusts, etc.
  • Bell peppers will last about two weeks if stored in the refrigerator in plastic bags. So stock only enough to eat in that time frame. I love them grilled or “roasted” by broiling them until the skins char and fall off. Then I use them on sandwiches, in salads, etc.
  • Avocados are best purchased in a range of rip to rock hard; store them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag and eat them as they ripen; hard ones will be good for about two weeks.
  • Beans are a great lean protein. Opt for dried that you then rehydrate or “no salt-added” canned versions.
  • Frozen veggies are another great option if you have the space in your freezer, since they'll last for months and have arguably even more nutrients than fresh, depending how long fresh were picked before purchase. Just be sure you're buying frozen veggies with nothing added (such as a butter sauce.)

So many canned fruits are so filled with sugar, they're hardly eating ‘healthy.” Mandarin oranges are one of the few that come in their own juice.

  • Most citrus — lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, etc. — have Vitamin C and last about a month when stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator.
  • Apples are great “to keep the doctor away” and they will last about a month in the refrigerator. If they start to go soft, you can always bake them (just cube them and bake them with just a bit of cinnamon) to eat on their own or add to oatmeal.
  • Common brown coconuts will last about two months. Drink the juice. Eat the “meat” or bake with them.
  • Frozen fruit is great to have on hand for smoothies or oatmeal toppings, among other uses. Be sure to confirm that “sugar” isn't on the ingredient list and you're all set. Berries are one of the lower-sugar fruits; bananas or grapes contain more sugar.
  • Bananas can be peeled and frozen when they head toward “too” ripe. From there, use them in immunity-boosting smoothies.
  • Apple sauce is another great “fruit” to stock during times like these. If you're trying to avoid the grocery store as much as possible right now, apple sauce will definitely come in handy. Just be sure to get a variety with no added sugar.

There are a lot of places to order lean proteins now through the mail if you don't want to buy them at your grocery store.

  • Frozen seafood can make a quick and amazing meal. I bought “family- sized bags” of wild cod when it looked like we were going to have to isolate. The fish is extremely versatile for tacos or kid-friendly “fish sticks” and can be defrosted in five minutes in cold water
  • Lean frozen chicken or turkey burgers can be great for family grilling or for a “make your own” burger bar. Get creative with toppings.
  • Frozen turkey is another great option. I bought a whole turkey and some turkey breast “roasts.” Both can be made for dinner then sliced the next day for meat that's much fresher, yummier and healthier than deli counter meats that are packed with preservatives and sodium.
  • Frozen chicken breasts. Looking to make a restaurant quality entrée? Check out my recipe for Chicken Pinwheels with Sundried Tomatoes & Goat Cheese below.
  • Pork tenderloin is another really versatile option and is often vacuum packed in the grocery store so it will last for weeks (until you open the package). Just be sure to check the dates on the packages.
  • Lean ground beef is also an option for dishes like chili, burgers or meatloaf and is also often vacuum-sealed so it will last at least a week (I bought one package that is dated three weeks out). Check dates and plan to eat your purchases accordingly.
  • Canned chicken, tuna or salmon with no salt added are excellent options. Though I prefer the taste of “fresh” or even frozen over canned, if you truly want to steer clear of a grocery store for a month (or more), this is a way to go. Look for tuna that is reduced fat, with no salt added.
  • Egg whites (in cartons) and eggs, when purchased fresh, will last for weeks also. Get a few dozen eggs for morning omelets or yummy scrambles, but also to hard boil. Hardboiled eggs or egg whites are so great as a lean snack!
  • * Vegetarian proteins like tofu and tempeh are also great things that last for weeks before being opened.
  • Plain Greek yogurt is a refrigerator staple as far as I'm concerned. Use it to make a parfait for dessert with fresh fruit and high fiber cereal, as a lean alternative to sour cream on a baked potato creation (See my recipe below for South-of-the-Border Loaded Sweet Potato) or to lighten up a mayo-based salad or sauce.
  • Milk and/or nondairy milk can last up to a couple of months before being opened (it will last about a week once opened). Be sure to check expiration dates as you shop.
  • Sliced or shredded cheeses can be great to add here and there. Just be sure not to overdo it, as many cheeses contain high amounts of saturated fats. Opt for reduced-fat or light varieties.
  • Light string cheese is a great snacking option. It contains protein and is filling.
  • Goat cheese adds tons of flavor so you can use just a little bit. Add a bit of fresh or dried tarragon to some eggs and make a goat cheese and herb omelet that is quite delicious. Or try my recipe below for Chicken Pinwheels with Sundried Tomatoes & Goat Cheese.
  • Jarred Parmesan is definitely worth picking up, especially if you can find a natural one. Though the fresh ones in the refrigerator section tend to last a month even after they are open, the jarred ones will last longer.
  • Cottage cheese is great for snacking if you happen to be one who loves it. There's a reason it was on every diet plan in the ‘70s and ‘80s!
  • Ricotta cheese. Get a few small containers, as you're likely to find them dated a couple of months out (once opened, they only last about a week.) If you're a big ricotta fan, check out my recipe for Penne and Asparagus with Ricotta Cheese below. It's a very simple, light, yet comfort food-esque dish.

When it comes to breads and grains, opt for whole grains over white products, as always. And if you're living with diabetes, try not to overdo it on breads or grains. It's best to store any breads or bread products that you won't be using within a few days in your freezer.

  • Sandwich bread. When buying bread for sandwiches, consider opting for a sprouted grain one. If not that, just get a whole wheat one without a lot of preservatives.
  • Tortillas are great for so many dishes and generally freeze very well. I keep corn tortillas on hand (try to find one that has only corn, lime and salt in the ingredient list) for tacos and enchiladas. I also make “thin crust pizza” on things like wheat, spelt, chickpea or almond flour tortillas.
  • Quinoa is a great grain to have on hand; it also has protein.
  • Brown rice is also one that we should consider grabbing over white rice. I prefer short grain brown rice over medium or long grain. It has a nuttier taste and texture, though nutritionally, they're all equal.
  • Rolled oats are great not only for oatmeals and overnight oats but I also use oats in place of bread crumbs in meatballs and meatloafs. They provide the same bulk but with added fiber.


There are so many options these days when it comes to nuts and nut butters. Be sure to purchase nuts that don't have added oils. They put them in there to add weight. Nuts that are “dry roasted” actually taste better. And, especially now when we're all eating more salt than usual, packed into our “convenience” and canned foods, best to get salt-free nuts.

  • Pistachios are my favorite nut to recommend for a couple of reasons: 1. They have more fiber than other nuts. 2. If you buy them in the shells, you have “evidence” of how many you've eaten. Because nuts are so high in calories, you never want to overdo it
  • Almonds and walnuts are both great for adding healthy crunch.
  • Almond butter is healthier than peanut butter. Buy one that has no other ingredient on the label.
  • Sunflower nut butter is another great, healthier alternative to peanut butter.

Obviously we need flavor in our food, especially when we're looking at months of being at home. You want to make sure you have plenty of spices, seasonings, etc. Below are some common ones you might want to consider.

Jarred marinara sauce (or jarred tomatoes). Opt for lower or no sodium tomatoes and look at the labels of marinara sauce. Some have an exorbitant amount of sodium.

Jarred salsas. I love to have a few salsas on hand. Consider buying a fresh red one from the refrigerated section that will last a couple of weeks and then get a smoky one or tomatillo one in a jar. If you're a lover of Mexican fare, shop for the salsas according to the instructions in my “South-of-the-Border Sweet Potato” recipe below.

Jarred tapenade. My 2-year-old and I eat this on everything. From omelets to chicken breasts, we love it. Just be careful to read labels. We get one with roasted red peppers and vinegar in addition to the olives and olive oil so it's not insanely dense in calories.

Pesto sauce tends to be high in fat so I use just a little and add balsamic vinegar to it. It still makes a great pasta sauce that way and is easy to transform into a salad dressing or dipping sauce.

Hot sauces are great for some. If you love them, now is a good time to stock up.

Nacho cheese sauce can be such a wonderful enhancer if you find a natural one that is relatively low in calories .

Wing sauce. Look for a natural one that isn't crazy high in sodium. I love Wing Time.

BBQ sauce tends to have a lot of sugar, most of which is added. Be sure to read labels.

Low sodium or no sodium broths are great for making soups.


Light mayo

Olive oils

Vinegars. I'm a huge fan of stocking plenty of flavored vinegars to make my own salad dressings.

Sesame oil

Spices are, needless to say, the best way to add flavor to dishes without adding a significant amount of calories. In addition to your favorite dried spices, I love to stock salt-free spice blends.

Dried chiles are also great to add flavor. I have numerous types at any given time

Frozen spices like basil and oregano can often be found in the freezer section of grocery stores. They're great at times like these when fresh basil won't last long enough and dried just doesn't quite give the same fresh taste to your Italian favorites.

Light salad dressings (if you don't want to make your own). I really like the yogurt-based dressings found in the refrigerator section these days. You should be able to find at least one that will last for two months.

While it's much better to snack on veggies (maybe with a super lean dip) and berries, green juices, etc, we all have cravings. I like to tuck my snacks in a high cabinet where it requires a bit of effort for me to get them. Some items you might consider (in addition to nuts, as listed above) to eat in moderation:

  • Dark chocolate is best for you when it has a high chocolate concentration; 80 percent dark is a great choice.
  • Popcorn is filling and has fiber, so it's a healthy pick as long as it doesn't have too much butter or salt.
  • Cacao or cocoa powder is perfect for those who love chocolate as much as I do. I add it to oatmeal/overnight oats, to coffee drinks that are way healthier than the iced ones at coffee shops and to protein smoothies.
  • Brown rice cakes are great topped with almond butter and banana slices.
  • Whole grain crackers can be great if eaten with cottage cheese or tuna as a snack.
  • Flavored teas often keep me from overeating. I drink fruity tea during the day.
  • Zero calorie sweetener. I have a big sweet tooth, so I always stock a zero calorie natural sweetener (such as stevia or monk fruit sweetener) to add to iced tea, iced coffee drinks and sometimes fruit-based desserts.
  • Protein powder helps if you're having trouble finding enough lean protein or are accustomed to consuming it to support your workouts.

Penne and Asparagus With Ricotta Cheese

If you prefer, you can always substitute a brown rice, or whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta for the fiber-enriched variety. I get a lot of letters and emails from home cooks saying they are able to make my recipes for the whole family even though their spouses and children won't generally eat healthy food, because my recipes actually taste fattening. To keep with that tradition, I opt for the fiber-enriched pasta since it adds needed fiber to our diets while still tasting more like traditional pasta.

  • 1 (14 1/2-ounce) box of fiber-enriched penne pasta
  • 1 pound trimmed asparagus, cut into 2-inch diagonal pieces
  • 2 teaspoons freshly minced garlic
  • 1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste, optional

Cook the pasta according to package directions, omitting any oil or butter. Two to four minutes before the pasta is done, add the asparagus to the water (2 minutes for thin spears, 4 minutes for thick). Before draining, reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water in a small bowl. Drain the pasta.

Meanwhile, add the garlic, ricotta and olive oil to a large serving bowl. As soon as the pasta is drained, mix in 1/3 cup of the reserved pasta water.

Immediately add the pasta and asparagus and gently toss until the pasta and asparagus are coated with the cheese mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Gently toss again. If the mixture seems too dry, add more reserved pasta water, about 1/4 cup at a time, until no longer dry. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the pasta and sprinkle with the red pepper flakes, if desired. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings. Each (about 2-cup) serving has 318 calories, 15g protein, 60g carbohydrates, 7g fat, 2g saturated fat, 18mg cholesterol, 9g fiber, 183mg sodium

Photo of chef Devin Alexander in her kitchen

Courtesy Devin Alexander

Chicken Pinwheels With Sundried Tomatoes & Goat Cheese

  • 1 ounce dried sundried tomatoes (not oil packed)
  • 1 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
  • 4 (4-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, visible fat removed
  • 1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon sea salt, divided
  • 1 1/2 ounces (about 5 tablespoons) crumbled light goat cheese
  • 1/4 cup finely slivered fresh basil leaves (aka basil chiffonade)
  • Olive oil spray
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a baking sheet with nonstick foil.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the sundried tomatoes and boil them for approximately 1 minute, or until rehydrated and tender. Drain the tomatoes, then pat them dry with a lint-free towel or paper towels.

Add the tomatoes along with the garlic to the bowl of a mini food processor fitted with a chopping blade. Process them until the ingredients are very finely chopped (you can do this by hand if you don't have a mini food processor).

Lay the chicken breasts, smooth sides up, on a cutting board or flat work surface. Cover them with waxed paper or plastic wrap. Using the flat end of a meat mallet and starting in the center of the breasts, working outward, pound them to 1/4 inch thickness.

Flip the breasts so the smooth sides (tops of the breasts) are face down and arrange them so that the pointy ends (tip of the breasts) are closest to you. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of the salt evenly over all 4 chicken breasts. Spread 1/4 of the tomato mixture (about 1 heaping tablespoon) evenly over each chicken breast, leaving about 1/2 inch at the thicker end (the end farthest from you) bare. Then sprinkle 1/4 (about 1 heaping tablespoon) of the cheese and 1/4 of the basil (about 1 tablespoon) evenly over the tomato mixture on each breast.

Starting at the end of the chicken breast that is closest to you, carefully roll each chicken breast into a tight roll, being sure to keep the filling inside. Lightly mist the outsides of the breasts with spray, rotating them to mist them all over. Season them evenly all over with the remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt and the pepper.

Place a medium nonstick frying pan over medium high heat. When it's hot, remove the pan just long enough to mist it with spray. Carefully place the chicken breasts with the seam sides down in the pan. Cook them until they are a light golden brown and then, using tongs, gently rotate them to lightly brown the entire outsides, about 1 minute per face.

Transfer the breasts to the prepared baking sheet and bake them until they are no longer pink inside or until a meat thermometer inserted into chicken reaches 175°F, about 12 to 18 minutes. (The timing will depend on how much you browned them). Remove them from the oven and tent them with foil for 3 minutes. Cut each into thirds to create 3 pinwheels. Enjoy immediately.

Makes 4 servings. Each (1 stuffed chicken breast) serving has 180 calories, 6g fat, 2.4g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 75mg cholesterol, 420mg sodium, 450mg potassium, 5g carbohydrate, 1g fiber, 3g sugars, 27g protein, 230mg phosphorus

Recipes taken from I Can't Believe It's Not Fattening by Devin Alexander. Copyright c 2010 by Devin Alexander. Published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House Inc.

Loaded sweet potato dish from Devin Alexander

Courtesy Devin Alexander

South-of-the-border loaded sweet potato

When I'm cooking for myself, I prepare this potato with medium salsa, and it has a nice kick. Feel free to use mild or hot. Note that the toppings won't fit inside the potato — they will spill out over the top, making it even more decadent to eat!

  • 1 (8-ounce) sweet potato
  • 4 ounces extra-lean ground turkey
  • 3/4 teaspoon all-natural salt-free fajita or Southwest seasoning
  • Olive oil spray (propellant free)
  • 1/3 cup fresh salsa, drained
  • 2 tablespoons jarred all-natural roasted green salsa
  • 2 tablespoons fat-free Greek yogurt

Using a fork, poke the potato 5 times on all sides and place it in a microwave-safe bowl or dish. Cover the dish loosely with a paper towel. Microwave it on high for 3 minutes. Carefully flip the potato (it will be very hot) and continue microwaving for 2 to 4 minutes longer, or until cooked and tender.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the turkey and seasoning.

Place a small nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, lightly mist it with the olive oil spray. Cook the turkey for 3 to 4 minutes, or until no longer pink, breaking it into bite-size chunks as you do.

Cut an opening in the potato that stretches 1 inch from each end of the potato and deep enough to open the potato completely without cutting it in half. Put it in a medium shallow bowl. Stuff the potato with the fresh salsa, then the turkey, then the green salsa. Top it with the yogurt. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 serving: 342 calories, 35g protein, 47g carbohydrates (13g sugar), 2g fat, trace saturated fat, 45mg cholesterol, 8g fiber, 304mg sodium

Reprinted from The Biggest Loser Quick and Easy Cookbook by Devin Alexander (c) 2011 by Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. The Biggest Loser (TM) and NBC Studios Inc. and Reveille LLC. Permission granted by Rodale Inc. Available wherever books are sold.