Eating healthy in times of a pandemic: Q & A with Varsity Blues nutritionist Katherine Jessop

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

While people have been keeping their social distance during COVID-19, they’ve been less disciplined about staying away from the fridge. We spoke to Katherine Jessop, a sport nutritionist working with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues athletes, about the dos and don’ts of eating in times of a pandemic. Jessop has been doing Q & As about nutrition as part of Sport & Rec’s online weekly bonus events and posting mini cooking videos on Instagram.

We’ve all heard it before, but remind us why healthy eating is so important, especially in time of a pandemic?

Eating is so much more than health.  It’s a time to be social, to break up the day and relieve stress. But healthy eating is also an opportunity to ensure we are getting enough whole, nutrient dense foods that will include all the elements we need to keep our immune system in prime shape. Preparing yourself a simple meal ticks all of these boxes.  

People want to minimize exposure to the virus by going grocery shopping less frequently. Do you have any advice on how we should approach grocery shopping during a pandemic? 

Grocery shopping feels like the twilight zone at the moment: scary with unknown threats. We can choose to shop less often and stock up when we do. If possible, shop at off peak hours like midday on weekdays or after 7 pm.  Typically, I suggest a solid shop weekly with another mini shop to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables. So, if I want to go less often, I need to buy enough to last two weeks.  Stocking up means a bit of planning.  I would be asking myself, what are three meals I can make this week?  I can buy all the ingredients, doubling the recipe of some things I make to ensure I have leftovers or things to freeze. I can reduce reliance on fresh produce by buying frozen and canned fruit or veggies.  Yes, they are just as healthy as fresh.  

Uncertain times have a way of forcing us to be more aware of our finances and spending habits.  What’s your advice on keeping the cost of meals down?

My first advice is to keep your meals simple. Proteins can really add up, so I look to canned or dried chickpeas, beans and lentils as an inexpensive way to anchor my meal. Buying a roasted chicken is often a cheap option and deboning it myself gives me lots of lean meat I can add to things such as soups, wraps, pizza or pasta. I look for sales on meats and shop at Costco when I can, because foods rich in proteins like Greek yogurt, fish or chicken are less expensive there per kg. I also look at the price per 100g, available on every shelf price. This tells me which is the cheapest option in the category. For example, 350g shredded mozzarella for $8 or 450g solid mozzarella - how much cheaper is the solid? The unit price will tell me. 

Carbs can be pretty cheap. Sweet or regular potatoes can go a long way in a meal, as can pasta. Even making Kraft Dinner and adding aforementioned roasted chicken with frozen veggies is a well-rounded meal. We can stretch our food dollars by making soups and stews, which are filling, comforting and take frozen veggies and dried beans easily.  Finally, for a cheap vegetable, look no further than the humble cabbage.  It’s high in calcium and fibre, there are 100 ways to make slaw, you can add it to soups and it lasts a good long time.  

Working from home does not mean having more time to cook, especially for parents who are now overseeing their kids’ online education, while trying to do work themselves. Do you have any recommendations for meals that require little time and even less energy? 

Looking up new recipes is probably not the best idea when you’re starved for time. Make things you know will work and are popular. When you make something, always make double so you can use it again as a lunch, leftover or shapeshift into another meal the following night. And, have some things prepared in the fridge. The aforementioned roasted chicken, boiled eggs, cooked rice, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and mini cucumbers are my staples. There is nothing wrong with eggs and toast for dinner, or a ham steak with peas and microwaved potato. 


Have you noticed people’s diets getting better at the onset of this pandemic? Have they stayed that way or have people reverted to stress eating and, if so, what’s your advice on getting back on the healthy diet wagon?

Stress eating was definitely happening, especially at the beginning, but some polls have described an increase in cooking now that we are further into this thing.  As with any change, starting slow is the key.  Rather than trying ‘to eat healthy’ the idea is to plan and make one more balanced meal with leftovers than you did last week.  

One of the results of this pandemic has been that we are moving less. Should we be adjusting the portions of our meals to make up for decreased activity? Should we be increasing the consumption of some foods while decreasing others? 

Some are exercising more, some less, and yes, we can adjust our plate to reflect this. The adjustment is simple. We change our carb intake to reflect what we are about to do.  If my plan is to wake up and start working, then my focus should be on protein like eggs or Greek yogurt and fruit or vegetables for breakfast. If I have an afternoon workout planned, then I am going to add some carbs like oatmeal to my breakfast and scale back on the fruit. Carbs in the form of grains can be scaled up or down to reflect our level of activity, while we always want to make sure we have some protein and fruit or vegetable on our plate at each meal. Canada’s Food Guide is a great example of this. If I have had a low activity day, I don’t really need the bun with my burger and I will have more salad.  

Is there any way to make eating chips, cookies and ice-cream a guilt-free affair?

Enjoy these pleasures, but make sure you are getting in the more balanced stuff first.  If you are craving these foods, that may be a sign you didn’t eat enough food today and your body is trying to make up for the calorie deficit in these types of foods. I would respond by having a cookie, then starting to prep a balanced meal or snack ASAP. 

Canned foods are neglected foods no longer. Any quick and easy recipes that use canned foods with surprisingly tasty results?

Bean salad: A can of rinsed beans, a can of drained corn, a bell pepper chopped. Add vinaigrette salad dressing and any fresh herbs to taste, with salt and pepper.

Peanut butter yum snack: Add equal amounts of plain Greek yogurt and peanut butter to a bowl.  Stir and dip in sliced apple.   

Any other words of wisdom? 

I find many people know how to prepare all sorts of things, but they need inspiration.  On your next Zoom call, ask around to find out what people are having for dinner or what food adventures they have had during COVID-19. I look at online food pictures and it reminds me of something I like to eat that I already know how to make, and that is my inspiration. Take it where you can get it.  Home cooking fixes a lot of problems, whether it is balancing nutrition, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, making do with a smaller budget, food sensitivities or allergies.  Get to know your kitchen again.  It is there waiting for you.