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Foodsmart’s COVID-19 “Ask the Nutrition Experts” FAQS

Shopping with kids during virus outbreak.

If you didn’t have time to tune in to our “COVID-19 Ask the Nutrition Experts” webinars, we’ve synthesized our experts’ opinions to provide straightforward guidance to your most pressing questions. While we’re learning new information about COVID-19 every day–sometimes every hour–these answers address what we know now about reducing the risk of contracting the disease as well as spreading it, navigating the grocery shopping environment, and eating, cooking, and staying healthy during these challenging times. For the most up-to-date information related to health and food safety, follow guidelines from the WHO, CDC, and FDA.


We recommend following these guidelines from Harvard School of Public Health:

“For fresh produce that will not be cooked before eating, wash thoroughly under running water. If desired, use a vegetable scrub brush and scrub the surface vigorously with a small amount of soap and water (be gentle with softer produce). This method is effective at removing pathogens on the surface. Wash the scrub brush with additional soap and water after each use. Other popular rinses such as vinegar are not known to be effective at killing viruses.”

In addition, avoid soaking produce–many types of produce absorb water and doing so facilitates the potential spread of virus into the fruit or vegetable.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after you get home from the grocery store and before washing any produce. You can take additional precautions by steaming, roasting, or braising your vegetables; experts theorize that cooking food above the temperatures required to kill foodborne pathogens can also kill coronavirus.

The best way to sanitize packages is to wipe them off with a solution that’s at least 60-70% alcohol (most sanitary wipes on the market contain this amount). Throw away any disposable packaging the food came in, and recycle any plastic or paper bags you used. For now, skip reusable shopping bags–you could be bringing the virus into the store with you or out of the store and into your home (many stores have individual policies surrounding reusable bags–follow your store’s guidelines). Wash your hands when you’re finished unloading and washing your groceries and–as a practice that we should all be doing anyway!–wash your hands again before you eat.

These same principles apply to any groceries that have been delivered or food you’ve ordered for take-out or delivery. Remove ready-to-eat food from its packaging, discard the packaging, and then wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water.

Interacting with other people at the grocery store, whether it’s other shoppers, cashiers, or those stocking the shelves, remains the biggest risk for contracting COVID-19. When you grocery shop, assume there are others in the store who are infected and that any surfaces you touch–including cart and basket handles and packaged foods–may have been touched or coughed on by someone who is sick. In the same vein, act like you are also an asymptomatic carrier, and limit the number of items you touch; pick up only the foods you intend to buy. Wipe down any shopping carts or baskets you touch before you use them and discard that wipe immediately. Avoid touching your face while you’re out.

When you’re shopping, maintain a distance of at least six feet between all other shoppers and staff. If someone is standing in front of the items you’d like to pick up, wait until they’ve left the area; and don’t be afraid to ask for a little more space if you find that others are not respecting your six feet of space.

Freezing food does not kill COVID-19, so treat any foods you remove from the freezer with the same precautions you would for foods purchased at the grocery store. Luckily, you’ll likely be cooking any food you remove from the freezer, and cooking food at high temperatures does kill the virus.

At this point, there is no clear evidence that supplementing with vitamin C will reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 if you are generally healthy. However, there are several studies that suggest that supplementing with vitamin C may reduce the duration and severity of a cold–but again, that research investigated the effects of vitamin C on the viruses that cause the common cold, not COVID-19. Unless you are deficient in vitamin C (a very rare deficiency among Americans), there is no need to supplement.

If it gives you peace of mind, if you’ve been eating fewer fruits and vegetables than usual due to shortages or taking fewer trips to the grocery store, or if you are immunocompromised or have a pre-existing condition like diabetes or a lung condition, taking standard doses is generally harmless. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as bell peppers, grapefruit, oranges, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and cantaloupe.

As for vitamin D, the same caveat applies–there is no evidence yet that vitamin D can reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. However, some research shows that those with healthy vitamin D levels have better functioning immune systems and are more protected against developing respiratory illnesses. A 2017 meta-analysis published in BMJ found that supplementation with vitamin D was safe and protected against respiratory tract infections; this effect was pronounced in those who are vitamin D deficient.

Vitamin D deficiency is much more prevalent than vitamin C deficiency, and certain groups–the elderly, nursing home patients, hospitalized patients, and obese people–have the highest rates of deficiency. It might not be the best time to get your vitamin D levels checked, but if you have a history of vitamin D deficiency or live in an area with minimal sun exposure (generally higher or lower latitudes, away from the equator), you may benefit from a supplement. You can get vitamin D from a handful of foods, including fatty fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, and herring, cheese, egg yolks, and mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light under controlled conditions. Fortified foods, like milk and milk alternatives, cereal, and orange juice, also provide small amounts of vitamin D.

There is currently no evidence that any food, ingredient or nutrient reduces your risk of contracting COVID-19. We recommend a whole foods, plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean or plant-based proteins.

The general recommendation is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week–that would break down to 30 minutes of moderate exercise for five days of the week. While you can’t go to the gym, many gyms and fitness studios have started streaming their workouts online (many for free!), and there are also lots of apps that are offering their classes for free as well. Now is a great time to explore other ways to exercise, especially if you’re limited by space–you can try yoga, pilates, HIIT classes, barre classes, or strength training/resistance training workouts. If you don’t have weights at home, try using items from around your house like water bottles or bags of flour.

If you’re motivated by other people, set up a Zoom or google hangouts session with a few friends and do a workout routine that’s posted online. And if walking outside is an option, walking is still a great form of exercise–just make sure you’re staying at least 6 feet from anyone else. If you’re walking or running directly behind someone, try to change your path such that you’re staggered and not directly behind them, as recent research has found that droplets can be spread more than six feet if you’re walking, biking, or cycling. Aim to maintain a distance of at least 15-20 feet, if possible. And don’t forget to wear a mask!


Start by making sure that you’re still making time for three meals–otherwise you might just end up snacking all day. To make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need right now without overeating, load your plate up with vegetables. We usually recommend trying to fill at least half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, like leafy greens, bell peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts. Because they’re packed with fiber and water but have fewer calories, they’ll fill you up without adding tons of calories to your diet. Fill the other quarter of your plate with a lean or plant-based protein like fish, tofu, beans, lentils, or poultry; and fill the other quarter with lower glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains, more beans, or starchy vegetables like sweet potato or peas. The goal is to fill up on lean protein, vegetables, and lower glycemic index carbohydrates—in addition to adding valuable nutrients into your diet, these foods tend to be more filling and won’t cause a sugar spike at the end of your meal, which often leads you right back to the kitchen.

In terms of snacking behavior, try to set a routine that mimics what you would have at work so that you’re making time for mealtimes and so that you’re not just snacking all day. Don’t jump on the computer right when you wake up and start working; make time for a healthy breakfast before you start your day, and then block off time on your calendar to sit down to lunch. Give yourself permission to have one snack each between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner. Beyond that, if you find yourself heading back into the kitchen, distract yourself with a walk or a quick call to a friend.

Not all canned goods will have a ton of sodium and preservatives–if you stick to canned goods containing whole foods like beans or vegetables, they rarely have preservatives (sometimes they’ll have ascorbic acid, which is just vitamin C)! As far as sodium goes, many canned foods offer lower sodium versions.

If you’d like to avoid canned goods, frozen foods are a great option. Most frozen vegetables and fruits have no additional ingredients; the same applies for meat and seafood as well. Many stores seem to have plenty of produce right now; even if you’re minimizing trips to the grocery store, buy whatever produce you normally buy and eat fruits and vegetables that spoil fastest (berries, leafy greens, mushrooms, avocados) before those that have a longer shelf life (citrus fruits, beets, apples, cruciferous veggies, potatoes, and onions). Since you might have found yourself with extra time on your hands, you can also buy fresh produce and meat and cook a few freezer-friendly meals (scale the recipe up as much as you need) to store for later.

Depending on how widely available produce is in your area, it might be a good time to start a garden–whether that’s some windowsill herbs or planting some veggies like kale, lettuce, and tomatoes.

Further Reading: Pro Tips for Stocking Your Pantry

You’re definitely not alone — a lot of people find themselves stress-eating right now more than ever. Start by recognizing your triggers for emotional eating: is it seeing a particularly worrisome news headline or worrying about financial struggles or just boredom? Becoming aware of your triggers makes it possible to develop a plan for how you’ll deal with them. If scrolling through your Twitter feed at night sends you straight to the kitchen, either limit yourself to five minutes of Twitter per night, and sip on tea while you do so, or try to check your feed in the morning. Remind yourself that it’s okay to set limits for your daily news consumption right now.

Then, try to make conscious choices around your eating behaviors and avoid triggers if possible. Choose when you’ll eat your three meals as well as any snacks, and stick to those times (this will also provide necessary breaks for work). As far as specific foods go, you don’t necessarily need to deny yourself your favorite comfort foods, but planning when and how much you’ll eat of them will give you back control. If there are certain foods that you truly can’t control yourself around–a tub of ice cream, a box of peanut butter cups–it might be best to keep those snacks out of the house altogether so that every day isn’t a losing battle in self-control.

If boredom is your problem, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry. If you’re not, head out for a walk, do a quick 15 minute workout, or call a friend. If you are hungry, make a rule that you have to prepare your snack yourself–instead of reaching for an endless bag of chips or cookies, you have to air pop your own popcorn, or cut up apple slices, or spread a few celery sticks with peanut butter.

While no food or ingredient itself is a superfood, eating a balanced and varied diet of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and plant-based and lean proteins, can improve overall health and nutritional status, which can help your body fight off disease. Our Immunity Boosters recipe category has recipes that are packed with whole foods, vitamins, and minerals, with an emphasis on vegetables.

There are a handful of foods that can be disruptive to sleep. Spicy foods can cause indigestion and heartburn, and these symptoms are often exacerbated by lying down. Fatty foods and heavy meals are tougher on the digestive system, which might keep you awake. Alcohol is another one–while alcohol can make you drowsy, it often disrupts sleep–especially deep sleep–later at night. Foods with a high water content, like watermelon or soup, are perfectly healthy but their high water content might wake you up in the middle of the night. And of course, any foods or drinks that contain caffeine, including coffee, tea, chocolate, or energy drinks, will make sleep especially difficult to come by. Lastly, try to end your last meal of the day a few hours before bedtime.

Financial Stability

The combination of skyrocketing unemployment rates or reduced hours and scarcity at the supermarket mean that many people are retooling both their budgets and their shopping lists. Before you go to the grocery store, plan your menu: write out a meal plan for the week and figure out exactly which foods you’ll need to make those meals. To limit trips to multiple grocery stores, you may be able to go on a grocery delivery site like Instacart to see availability of specific foods. Depending on availability, build your meals around staples like whole grains, canned or dried beans or pulses, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables, which all tend to be budget-friendly items. You might need to get creative: if your store is out of bulk brown rice (or isn’t selling bulk foods at all due to contamination issues), check the freezer section for parboiled rice. If your store doesn’t have any of these staples available, check online–in addition to grocery delivery companies and Amazon, you might find availability from other smaller online retailers or even local stores that have moved their stock online.

As far as meat goes, we have a few tips. We recommend following as close to a plant-based diet as you can for general health and wellness, but it’ll also save you a few dollars. Avoid making meat the star of the meal, and instead use it to add bursts of flavor to a dish centered around vegetables. Buy a whole chicken instead of just breasts or thighs (or choose bone-in breasts and thighs); in addition to being cheaper per pound of meat, bones add flavor and you can use them later to make broth or stock. Plus, you’ll never have more time than now to perfect your roast chicken! To reduce waste and stretch your budget, make sure that you’re using up any leftover meat–if you roast a whole chicken on Sunday night, you can use leftover chicken in tacos, salads, soups, and sandwiches all week long. Finally, if you’re making any recipe that calls for ground meat–meatballs, meatloaf, bolognese–you can bulk up your meat with healthy fillers like ground mushrooms, lentils, oats, or shredded zucchini or carrots.

If you’d like to order ready-to-eat dinners or meal kits, Zipongo is offering discounts on both Plantable and Sun Basket through June 30. Plantable, which offers plant-based entrees like Thai Coconut Red Curry and White Bean Veggie Burgers, is 10% off for Zipongo users. Sun Basket offers meal kits that cater to multiple types of diets, including gluten free and vegetarian; Zipongo users get 20% off their first order and 15% off all subsequent orders.


If your parents are tech savvy, you can add them as household members in Zipongo, which will allow them to use Zipongo just as you do–they can meal plan and order groceries, meal kits, or prepared meals without ever leaving their house. Under Settings, go to Household Members and add any of your relatives who would like to use Zipongo.

If your parents aren’t as familiar with the internet and online ordering, you can also order for them; this feature is available both on our desktop site and mobile app. For first-time users, watch our video that breaks down each step of the Zipongo grocery ordering process.

The simplest option is to offer them whatever you’re eating–you won’t have to cook two meals. Don’t forget that for many younger kids, it can take up to 14 exposures to a new food before they’ll accept it–so keep offering them whatever you’ve prepared. If they’re a little pickier and you don’t have time to whip up a full meal, try making a homemade version of lunchables–choose a protein (leftover chicken, turkey meat, tofu, edamame, lentil soup), a complex carbohydrate (whole grain bread or pasta, peas or corn), a vegetable, and a fruit. If they’re old enough to choose and prepare their own lunch, you can also put together a box of these items in the fridge and let them build their own lunch.

You can also make the PB&J a little healthier: make it on whole grain bread with no sugar added peanut butter (or any other nut or seed butter), and swap out the jelly for apple and banana slices. Round out the meal with a vegetable, like carrot sticks or cucumber slices, and add a little more protein with a hardboiled egg, a few slices of turkey, or edamame.

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