A New Normal for the Holiday Season and Beyond: Food Shopping and Home Cooking During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A New Normal for the Holiday Season and Beyond | Food & Nutrition Magazine | Volume 9, Issue 5

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes in our typical routines. For many people, there’s a new normal: working from home, limiting grocery store trips and reworking exercise routines.

While this time of year can be stressful in normal circumstances, a global pandemic adds an additional layer of concern. However, there are plenty of ways to safely celebrate the holidays and create new traditions.

One positive outcome of the need to quarantine is that many people have gotten creative in the kitchen. On social media, the hashtag #myquarantinekitchen is a space where users can share their culinary creations. Some trends, such as baking, became so popular that grocery stores nationwide noted a shortage of certain ingredients including yeast. Many people started baking, not only to yield delicious results, but also to reap the soothing therapeutic rewards. For instance, one qualitative interview found that individuals who participated in baking classes reported improved self-esteem, primarily because of increased concentration, coordination and confidence. Creating a product to keep or give to others is both beneficial and rewarding.

Some quarantine cooking trends are classics, while others have people experimenting and thinking outside the box. People with more time on their hands have taken on the lengthy process of making sourdough bread. While creating a sourdough starter is simple, caring for the starter takes time to maintain but yields the best results. Sharing sourdough starter is a way to connect with others and help them begin the sourdough baking process.

Other quarantine cooking trends include whipped coffee, also known as Dalgona coffee, which is milk at the bottom of the mug and frothy sweet coffee spooned on top; homemade banana bread; and mini pancakes served in a bowl like cereal.

These trendy creations are getting people excited to cook in their own kitchens, which may come with certain health benefits. For example, a 2014 study found a positive association between the time spent on food preparation and diet quality, including a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables. Spending time on food preparation at home may lead to healthier dietary habits among adults. A lack of time or skills may have been a barrier to home cooking, but now people are using quarantine time to build confidence in the kitchen.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many consumers stocked their pantries in case they wouldn’t be able to shop again for a long time. As months passed, grocery shopping became more strategic. According to the International Food Information Council’s 2020 Food and Health Survey, in-person shopping has decreased, especially among those in poorer health. Many consumers are limiting the number of times they shop for groceries and are relying on services such as grocery delivery or curbside pickup. Fewer trips to the grocery store often means more items are purchased during a single shopping trip. Now, people are planning meals rather than winging it and buying ingredients for dinner on the way home from work.

Rethinking Traditions
Just as food shopping and home cooking have evolved, the way we celebrate holidays is changing as a result of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to rethink traditions involving large gatherings and potluck-style meals. If you plan to attend a small gathering, bring your own food and drink, and use your own utensils, plates and cups or single-use items. Because gatherings may be smaller, many people are rethinking their menu, scaling down recipes and using different cooking techniques to make the holiday menu more manageable and create less food waste. Most consumers are doing a mix of cooking themselves and outsourcing some of the cooking.

When choosing the size of a turkey or other meat to serve, estimate about 1 pound per person. Rather than roasting like usual, consider the culinary technique spatchcocking, which is removing the backbone, so the bird lays flat on a baking sheet (comparable to butterflying, which is essentially the same technique applied to other meats and poultry). This method cooks the bird more evenly and much quicker. For example, a 10-pound turkey can cook in the oven for about 70 to 90 minutes — about half the time it takes to roast a whole bird of the same size.

Turkey, ham or other meats can be cooked in a multi-pressure cooker or slow cooker. If frozen, follow safe thawing practices: Thaw meat in the refrigerator on a bottom shelf for about four to six hours per pound. If you’re looking for a fancier presentation, create a turkey roulade: Pound raw, lean, tender turkey breast into a thin layer, roll it tightly around prepared stuffing and secure with butchers’ twine. Cook until the internal temperature of the turkey and stuffing reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Serve the roulade in slices to show a swirl of turkey and stuffing. To make gravy, add wings or giblets to a roasting pan to get enough drippings.

Instead of preparing every side dish commonly shared during holiday meals, choose a few favorites that pack big flavors. Make the extra effort to caramelize pecans with warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom to top mashed sweet potatoes. Make individual mini cheesecakes instead of a large New York-style cheesecake and add extra flair with salted caramel sauce topping. Or think beyond tradition entirely — make food on the grill or add globally inspired flavors.

If this is your first time preparing a holiday meal or you’re feeling the symptoms of cooking fatigue, look into meal kits from delivery services or support local businesses by placing an order to have a meal or side dishes made for you.

Keeping Traditions at a Distance
As the CDC notes, travel can increase risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. Rather than traveling to visit family and friends, get comfortable with online gatherings or schedule time for phone calls. Sit around the virtual table together to enjoy a meal. Share family recipes, such as grandma’s beloved apple pie, and create an online cook-along. Dependent on weather, family and friends can host holiday meals outdoors while keeping a safe distance of at least 6 feet and wearing masks when not eating or drinking.

Leftovers and Food Safety
Holiday meals often yield leftovers. However, any perishable foods that have been kept out at room temperature for more than two hours (or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit) should be discarded. Foods that are safe to keep can be packaged in air-tight, clear containers so you can easily see the contents. Label containers with the name of the food inside, the date it was prepared and the date by which it should be used, which is generally three to four days in the refrigerator. Leftovers can be stored in the freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below for two to three months.

There are many ways to reheat leftovers, but the goal is to maintain the integrity of the original recipe. To do so, the general rule of thumb is to reheat food in the same way it was originally prepared, but you can use other kitchen appliances to help reheat leftovers. The exception is a slow cooker, which is not recommended for reheating leftovers. For foods such as soup, reheat to a rolling boil on the stovetop or microwave in a covered container in 30- to 45-second intervals, rotating and stirring in between until heated through. Gently reheat meat and poultry in the oven set to a maximum of 350 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid overcooking. Use an air fryer to recreate a crispy exterior on roasted vegetables. Use a food thermometer to ensure all leftovers, regardless of how they are reheated, reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you get tired of eating the same thing over and over, repurpose leftovers to create an entirely new dish. Add leftover ham and vegetables to omelets, frittatas or quiches. Layer leftovers on hearty bread and use a panini press to make a bistro-style sandwich. Use leftover meats and vegetables to make a pizza or flatbread.

The Season of Giving
For those who want to deliver traditional holiday foods to family members, be mindful of food storage. To prevent bacteria growth, hot food must stay at an internal temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Alternatively, you can divide portions into shallow containers to cool to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, then transport these foods in a cooler with ice packs to maintain their temperature. Poultry wings and legs can be kept whole, but breast and thigh meat, ham and other large foods should be sliced into smaller portions for quicker cooling. If you’re on the receiving end of a food delivery, reheat food in appropriate containers. If using a microwave, transfer any food packaged in a metal container to a microwave-safe plate or bowl before reheating. For a crisp texture on foods such as rolls and roasted vegetables, reheat in an air fryer or oven.

When mailing shelf-stable food gifts, wrap ready-made items, such as a loaf of banana bread, in plastic wrap or vacuum sealed in an airtight bag to retain freshness. Or create a DIY banana bread baking kit with the non-perishable ingredients and equipment needed. Securely package these gifts with bubble wrap or newspaper to pad items and fill empty space in boxes, so items do not get damaged in transit. Aim to ship fresh food products at the beginning of the week, so they’re not left in transit over the weekend. When sending perishable foods, select a quick delivery method and indicate on the packaging “Keep Refrigerated.” Additionally, make sure items are packaged properly according to food safety standards to ensure they remain at an appropriate temperature — dry ice, waterproof packaging and other measures may be needed.

Recommendations can change frequently as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. For the latest information and CDC guidelines, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.


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Julie Lopez
Julie Lopez, RD is the registered dietitian and culinary nutrition chef behind her website ChefJulieRD.com based in New Jersey.

Cooking has always given Julie joy because of its powerful ability to connect people together. She was always intrigued by the way food can impact your health and decided to follow her passion to dive deeper in learning through culinary school and becoming a registered dietitian.

Julie’s passion is to educate others about nutrition through food and giving them the tools they need to build confidence in the kitchen. It’s her mission to help everyone appreciate all the delicious ways foods can be prepared so everyone can fall in love with it again and again.

Most recently, her recipes have been featured in NBC News, Huffington Post, and US News & World Report.