The coronavirus has changed the way we live, and our food choices are no exception.
While some people have found more time for home cooking during the coronavirus lockdown, dietitians have warned that many are relying on unhealthy takeaway and delivery meals for convenience and comfort.
Research shows that Australians spend around a third of their weekly food budget on takeaway and delivery meals, which are high in energy (kilojoules), unwanted saturated fat and salt, and can contribute to a range of health issues including heart disease and diabetes.
However, if you aren’t keen on cooking and rely on convenience foods – takeaway, meal kits, and pre-prepared frozen meals – experts say it’s still possible to make healthier choices.
How the pandemic is affecting our food choices
When it comes to food, Australians are broadly responding to the pandemic in two different ways, said Amy Castelli, a dietitian at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne.
“I’m finding a lot of people are finding it a great time to reset some of their nutrition habits. And a lot of people are using it as an opportunity to get back into the kitchen,” Ms Castelli said.
“Then on the flip side, I’m finding that this is a time where a lot of people are relying really heavily on takeaway and delivery meals, meal kits and pre-prepared meals.”
While it’s possible to find healthy convenience food options, “more often than not takeaway and pre-prepared meals are really high in total energy (kilojoules), unwanted saturated fats and salts, and are really quite low in in healthy dietary fibre”, Ms Castelli said.
The trouble with takeaway
Even seemingly healthy takeaway meals can contain “hidden” fats, sugar, and large amounts of salt, Ms Castelli said.
“There’s times where I have clients that think they’re making a healthy choice, but they notice that they’re not able to lose weight or that
they’re having a negative impact on controlling or managing their
blood glucose levels,” she said.
“It’s the hidden fats, and sugar that can come in sauces. It’s also the cooking method.
“But I think we’ve got to remember that for restaurants and cafes, the No.1 priority is serving a delicious meal.”
However, while cooking healthy meals at home may be preferable, not everyone enjoys or is able to do so.
“If this is a stressful time for you and not the right time for you to get into the kitchen, and you want to continue having takeaway and delivery meals, I really encourage you to firstly look at the menu of different restaurants and really study the menus and try to go through options that are vegetable- and protein-based,” Ms Castelli said.
Try to avoid the heavy carbohydrate-based meals and try to choose colourful options where possible.’’
Healthy options include a vegetable-based stir fry with lean protein such as lamb, skinless chicken, tofu, eggs, or grilled fish with a side salad.
Try to base your meals around protein and put vegetables first, which is a really hard thing to do to with takeaway, but it is still possible,’’ Ms Castelli said.
“An option in terms of the cafe meal might be getting a sandwich made up and getting that on a multigrain bread with a nice protein inside.”
Meal kits: Why the way you cook your food matters
When it comes to meal kits, Ms Castelli pointed to a University of Sydney study that found that some contain four times the recommended amount of kilojoules.
What you need to think about is it’s often the sauces that might be contributing to those extra calories,’’ she explained.
“So what we recommend is that you can still get your meal kit delivered, but try to think about the way that you cook the food as well.”
Recommended cooking methods are: Steaming, oven baking, slow cooking, stir frying, grilling and barbecuing.
“These are nice healthy ways to cook,” Ms Castelli said.
Meal kit consumers can also try to stretch their kit out to “last three to four meals”, Ms Castelli said, by creating smaller portions and bulking them up with vegetables.
Meal kits are often “quite low” in vegetables, so adding vegetables (either fresh or frozen, both of which are equally nutritious) will help to increase your vegetable intake “and then spread your meal out over multiple meals”, Ms Castelli said.
Increasing your vegetable intake is an important part of achieving a healthy diet, with less than six per cent of Australians currently eating the recommended daily amount of vegetables.
“We want 50 per cent of your dinner and lunch plate to be colourful vegetables,” Ms Castelli said.