Convenient food options have historically been the unhealthiest options, from fast food drive-thrus and TV dinners to the often sodium- and butter-saturated meals at a sit-down restaurant. When COVID-19 struck, food ordering, pickup and delivery got even more convenient, with increased usage of apps like Grubhub and DoorDash, and online grocery shopping. While the potential is there for even more unhealthy choices, there are also plenty of ways to still make healthy ones.
Emily Newhard, clinical dietician at Geisinger, said in 2020 restaurant and grocery delivery and pickup services have grown exponentially among both young and old customers. She said a recent report showed an eight-year growth spurt in the grocery sector in just one month.
“People who have never utilized online shopping … all of a sudden they have to,” she said, adding that there are pros and cons to such convenience.
“It’s kind of dangerous if we can get French fries delivered to our house, whenever we want them, with our massive restaurant meal,” she said. “But I see a ton of pros as well. In my opinion, being able to premeditate everything we’re choosing, whether it’s a restaurant meal or groceries — you have so much opportunity to plan and make good decisions. You’re not just in the moment, choosing something off of shelves or the menu.”
Online shopping, she said, “makes it easier to stick to a list, budget and meal plan.”
“People are telling me that grocery store pickup inspires them to plan meals and make healthier choices,” echoed Kimberly Criswell, dietitian-nutritionist at Evangelical Community Hospital. “They also tend to skip some impulse buys of sweet and salty snack foods they would normally pick up when walking through the store and seeing items on display.”
Not only does online food or grocery ordering limit your exposure to highly populated places, Criswell added, there are other associated benefits.
“Saving time on cooking or shopping could allow more time for other healthy habits, like exercise, spending quality time with family, and making time for self-care practicing activities that bring relaxation.”
Increased use of online grocery shopping options, specifically, has led to an encouraging trend: families cooking at home together.
“I think we as a nation have seen a huge renaissance of people cooking at home,” Newhard said, especially beginning in March and April, with news of COVID reaching American soil. At that time, yeast and canning goods sold out. Gardening supplies also sold out, she said, which indicates that “They’re homesteading. They want to try new recipes.”
In addition, “We’re seeing trends with more shelf-stable plant-based proteins like beans. I think that’s fantastic. Everybody has gotten a lot more creative in the kitchen.”
And minimal pickup and delivery fees are worth it, Newhard said, “if that gets me cooking.”
Not only do you know what’s in your food when making something from scratch, it has even farther-reaching benefits, according to Madeline Waters, dietitian at UPMC Williamsport.
“The more you’re in the kitchen, the more comfortable you’re going to be in the kitchen, and the more comfortable you’ll be making healthier meals,” she said, adding, “Getting kids involved, seeing how to prepare foods — it’s a lifelong skill that’s important. The more you can do that, the better.”
Newhard agrees. She said it’s been well documented that when all generations are involved in cooking, “You’re passing on good habits and practical life skills that your kids will know and be able to sustain themselves.
“It’s very important for kids to be involved in meal planning and cooking together, and being in the kitchen,” she added. Teaching them where their food comes from, and growing an interest in food and healthy eating, she said, will help them to not be dependent on convenience foods, and they will put more thought into what they are eating.
Criswell said choosing recipes and cooking and eating together as a family usually means everyone is eating healthier.
"Children are more likely to try a new food if they helped to choose and prepare it," she said, adding, "Cultures around the world with the best longevity tend to have close family bonds forged while dining together, because of the enjoyment of socializing and the purpose in life gained from making loved ones happy by cooking for them."
Criswell has put thought and planning into her own routine.
“In my house, I plan a weekly menu, gather the recipes, check the pantry for ingredients we already have, and put everything else on the grocery list,” she said, adding that she plans for three to four main dishes each week so leftovers are available for lunch and dinner. She also sets aside time each week to roast or grill a large batch of vegetables – “to make cooking through the week much faster.”
Cooking at home isn’t always possible, however, and that’s understandable. There are still ways to take advantage of convenience without sacrificing health.
“I think it’s important to be realistic,” Criswell said. “If you know you don’t have the time to wash and chop produce, why not buy the prepared fresh or frozen options? You’ll be eating healthier food in the long run and hopefully there will be less food waste.”
She said the healthiest choices are based on whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and lean proteins — “without much added fat, sugar or sodium”.
But even if you get takeout from a restaurant now and then, there’s no need to feel guilty.
“It’s ok to indulge, now and again,” said Waters, as long as you stay mindful and aware of the nutritional content of what you are eating, as well as your individual nutritional needs.
Fast food and sit-down restaurants, she said, tend to have meals that are higher in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. In many cases, however, before ordering you can read the menu and look for certain terminology that can help you make the best choice available. For example, Waters said, avoid items that are “crispy, battered, breaded, creamy or cheesy”, as these words indicate higher fat, sodium and calories. The healthier items will use words such as “baked, roasted, steamed and grilled.” Beware also of food that is drenched in sauces, condiments and salad dressings, as well as drinks that can have hidden calories and sugars.
Newhard suggests drinking water, instead of soda, and to skip dessert “if you’re already getting an indulgent meal.”
Also, Waters said, “be mindful of the amount you are eating” and how often you are eating certain items that might not be so healthy. She suggests, if you are ordering food via an app and have food delivered, to avoid eating out of the to-go container. Instead, use a plate to determine a healthier portion or serving, and save the rest for later. At fast-food restaurants, choose the smallest size as this will give you the fewest calories.
There are even some healthier choices at fast-food restaurants these days. According to Criswell, “Some meals are baked or grilled or include lean meats, legumes, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They will frequently advertise these healthy options on their web site. It all comes down to looking at a menu and choosing the healthier options that are available.”
Another option for those looking for convenient food shopping and preparation is starting a subscription to a meal kit program, such as Hello Fresh or Blue Apron. Newhard said you can often personalize them and choose how many times a week you receive them. It’s not cheap, as you’re paying for convenience, but, she said, “You have a little bit of control over the ingredients to a degree, versus a restaurant meal that already comes with butter and salt added to it.”
As convenient food ordering and shopping increases, staying healthy is really just a matter of being mindful of what you’re putting into your body on a regular basis.
“We’re all busy, and we all need to eat,” Newhard said. Just beware of eating too many restaurant meals, which “taste really good for a reason … They don’t have your health in mind when they’re cooking. You do.”
So, looking at takeout meals as more of a treat for special occasions, or even once a week, is preferable. And when you do eat out, “We don’t need to gorge ourselves,” Newhand reminds. “Give yourself permission to eat out, enjoy the food, and stop when you’re satisfied.”
Waters also advises that planning ahead of time and making sure you’re eating regularly throughout the day, will help you to “avoid a ravenous decision”, or spur-of-the-moment hunger pull, when you are likely to choose something higher in calories.