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Being stuck at home may have an upside when it comes to eating: You can take control

Being stuck at home amid the novel coronavirus pandemic presents the opportunity to reset our food environment. (iStock)

It’s official. Last week, I set the land-speed record in sticky bun consumption.

Okay, it was my birthday. But it was also that my husband and I, like everyone else, are housebound and worried. We’re not so worried for ourselves; we’re well isolated and it’s possible we’ve already had the novel coronavirus. I was in Seattle just before we learned the coronavirus was there, and I came down with textbook symptoms five days later. My husband was a few days behind me. But whether that’s what it was or not, our main worries are for our families, our friends, our health-care workers, our community, our world.

Sticky buns seemed like an excellent idea.

I know I’m not the only one quarantine-baking. Nutrition doesn’t bubble to the top of the priority list when you’re worried about who’s going to die. Or whether you’ll be able to pay the bills. Or how you’re going to work from home with three stir-crazy children. Baking is definitely a kind of coping.

People are baking bread like crazy, and now we’re running out of flour and yeast

But there’s another form of coping, and it’s the kind I’m turning to now that the sticky buns are gone. It’s the kind where, in the face of so many scary things I can’t control, I control the things I can. I know I’ll feel better, and stronger, and more ready to face whatever comes, if I cook tasty, nutritious meals, get regular exercise, and maintain my weight or even drop a couple pounds. Taking care of my body helps me regulate my mind. Exerting control helps me face what’s uncontrollable.

Everyone copes differently; I know that baking keeps some people sane. For me, though, sanity comes from not baking, because baking inevitably results in baked goods, and quarantine and cake are not a good combination for me.

It feels odd to write about any upside to this virus. But for those of us who have wanted to eat better, improve cooking skills, lose some weight or all of those, this is actually an opportunity.

Stress-eating for comfort in a time of anxiety? Here’s how experts say you should deal.

There’s not a whole lot that nutrition science folks agree on, but practically all of them are on the same page when it comes to the root cause of the nutrient-challenged, calorie-dense, waist-widening American diet: the radical changes in our food environment. Convenient, cheap food designed to be irresistible is everywhere, and — surprise! — we can’t resist it. Our food environment has morphed into a monster that most of us can’t navigate successfully.

It’s not just that there’s food in front of us every time we turn around (although there is). It’s that we’ve created a new normal. In that new normal, portions are big, calories are dense, everything’s engineered to be delicious, and eating is appropriate any place, any time.

Now we get to press reset. For a while, we have complete control over our food environment: It’s whatever we bring into the house. We get to make our own rules. If you want to change the playing field to make it more conducive to eating healthful foods in quantities consistent with the weight you would like to be, now’s your chance. Here are five suggestions for doing it:

1. Align your pantry with your goals

If you want to limit your consumption of, say, sticky buns, the best way to do it is to keep them out of the house. Ditto potato chips, ice cream and the breakfast cereal that you know is too sugary but you end up eating three bowls of. Stock your house with the things you would like your diet to be built on.

To lose weight, don’t just resist temptation. Remove it.

Note that this does not mean there are no sticky buns in your future (heaven forfend!); it just means that you need a plan. Can you make a half-batch, so everyone in your family gets just one? Can you share the batch, via no-contact doorstep drop, with quarantined neighbors? Can you freeze the leftovers and break them out next week?

All you’re trying to do is make it easier to eat toward your goals, whatever they are. If you come here often, you’ve heard me say it before: Don’t let your pantry undermine your best intentions.

2. Re-normalize portion size

Chances are, if you read about nutrition at all, you know portions have grown and grown and grown over the past few decades. But unless you break out the measuring cups and scale, it’s hard to get a handle on just how big “normal” portions are.

I know! Cups and scales are SO 1990s. But if you’ve never used to them to get a sense of portion sizes, your sense of portion sizes is probably out of whack. Cook three ounces of pasta; it probably won’t look like the Olive Garden portion. Try to recalibrate your idea of a portion so that it’s the Olive Garden plate that looks abnormal.

This is not to say that what’s defined as a portion on a label, or by dietary guidelines, is the amount you should eat. Depending on your goals and priorities, you’ll undoubtedly go with larger portions of some things and smaller portions of others. But you can’t make those choices unless you know what a portion looks like.

3. Plant a garden

Why? Because, of course, vegetables. But there’s another, weirder reason. My husband and I have been growing, catching, raising and hunting a lot of our food for a decade now, and a funny thing has happened. As we got closer to the source of our food, the stuff in the bright boxes and the crinkly bags started to look less foodlike.

The therapeutic value of the garden in trying times

It’s a lot like readjusting your sense of portion; growing something to serve to your family readjusts your sense of what food is. But don’t get me wrong! I think there’s a place for much of what’s in those bright boxes and crinkly bags, and you still can’t leave me alone with a bag of Doritos. Besides, processed, shelf-stable foods are going to help get us through this thing. But our collective diet has clearly turned too far in that direction, to our collective detriment. Now is a perfect time to try to turn back.

4. Of course, cook

Get a new cookbook if it’s in the budget. If it’s not, go online. Absolutely every outlet, including my very own Washington Post, is suggesting recipes to try while we’re quarantined. If paywalls are prohibitive, the best free library of recipes I know is Food Wishes, the YouTube channel of Chef John (Mitzewich). I will vouch for the sticky buns.

5. Enlist the kids

There’s some actual evidence, and anecdotes galore, indicating that getting kids involved in cooking and gardening opens them up, at least a little, to new foods. But besides that, kids are humans. If doing something constructive helps you weather this pandemic, it might do the same for your kids. I think all of us, big and small, thrive on being of use.

When this is all over, many of us will have lost people we love. There will be widespread financial hardship. It’s going to require all the strength we have, so I’m trying to do what makes me feel strong. And, because I’m a world-class optimist, I’m also hoping that just maybe, in some ways, we’ll come out the other end a little bit better. If we’re eating and cooking better, that would be great. But if a common enemy makes us realize how important it is that we be good to one another, that would be even better.

More from Food:

To lose weight, don’t just resist temptation. Remove it.

People are baking bread like crazy, and now we’re running out of flour and yeast

If you suddenly need to learn to cook, these resources will help guide you

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