Mercy Dietitian Talks Healthy Eating Amid COVID Changes

March 16, 2021

Working from home may be the “new normal,” but that doesn’t mean unhealthy eating has to be.

Mercy Fort Smith dietitian Jenna Siebenmorgen says following a similar workday routine every day – complete with setting specific mealtimes, accomplishing goals and finding opportunities for exercise during the day – can help someone maintain a healthy lifestyle, even while staying at home. This routine also can benefit children attending school at home.

The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics says there is no “one size fits all” routine when it comes to healthy eating. The group’s message during National Nutrition Month is “personalize your plate.” Siebenmorgen says there are many options for accomplishing this through meal planning, eating a variety of healthy foods and trying new recipes. She believes setting goals and understanding the reasons behind making healthy changes is important.

Nutrition Month Mercy Fort Smith Dietitian Jenna Siebenmorgen discusses healthy eating with Mercy dietetic intern Nathaniel Snipes.

What are the keys to maintaining a healthy routine from home? Siebenmorgen points out three important steps.

1.     Try to keep regular mealtimes, and keep meals consistent, like you would if you were going to work every day. Don’t skip meals, including breakfast, which can create excess hunger down the road.

2.     Try new dishes. Extra time at home may allow for this. Also try to make healthier versions of dishes you like.

3.     Have a goal in mind, whether it’s losing weight, gaining strength or something else.

“It’s easy for us to talk about these things – eating healthy, staying active – but the ‘why’ behind it is important for people to get motivated to do it and to continue doing it, and to see results and tracking results,” she says, adding that goals could be to lose weight, prevent or manage a disease, gain strength or just to continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle, even as a daily routine may change.

Some people may have experienced quarantine or work-from-home weight gain, but Siebenmorgen says that is not the case for everyone.

“We’ve seen patients who’ve had that quarantine weight gain and they’re realizing that now and they’re wanting to take action and make some of those changes,” Siebenmorgen says. “We’ve also seen some patients who’ve really taken this past year as an opportunity to change their diet, because they’re at home now and they have more time. Maybe they’re able to do the exercise now that they wouldn’t been able to do before because they had an hour commute to work. Now, they don’t have that hour commute and they can use that time to exercise more.” 

Nutrition Month Siebenmorgen Mercy Fort Smith Dietitian Jenna Siebenmorgen says parents can help guide children toward healthy eating choices.

Siebenmorgen suggests setting up a work-from-home day into goals to accomplish in the morning, afternoon and evening, along with specific mealtimes and breaks for exercise. Set goals for things you want to accomplish during each time and plan meals accordingly, she says, adding that work-from-home situations may also allow more time for meal planning, where before someone might be grabbing lunch out because they couldn’t go home during the day.

If you are eating out or getting takeout, it’s possible to choose wisely, Siebenmorgen says. She suggests portioning restaurant meals into several meals and to limit take-out to perhaps once a week.

“That meal will give you something to look forward to; maybe it’s a little bit more of a decadent meal or a more fun meal,” she says. “That helps you organize your meals at home, but on a specific day, we’re going do something different.”

Feeling better – both physically and mentally – is also an important goal, said Nathaniel Snipes, dietetic intern with Mercy Fort Smith.

“I know with COVID-19 right now, a lot of people are not really digging the stay-at-home thing,” he says. “You see people saying that they’re more depressed now. So, I think keeping your activity levels high while also eating healthy, that’s going to help with your mental health as well.”

Snipes adds that keeping things as normal as possible during the pandemic is important, especially with meals and an exercise routine, because it will be easier to return to a normal schedule once COVID-19 limitations are over. 

Staying Active

Maintaining an exercise routine – or even starting a new one – is still possible, even if you’ve had to change your daily routine, Siebenmorgen says.

“Even though you may be staying home more, there are ways to stay active,” Siebenmorgen says. “You may not be going to the gym as much or seeing friends as much. But you can still try to make at-home activities fun, especially for children. We can get outdoors, weather permitting. There are a lot of indoor exercises you can do.”

Some examples are doing push-ups against a wall or chair exercises, as well as utilizing free online workout videos (such as fitnessblender.com), Siebenmorgen says. Pieces of inexpensive exercise equipment can be purchased, although items around the house such as water bottles or laundry detergent can be a great alternative. Resistant bands are also effective and are available in different strengths.

Finding a new skill or hobby also is a great distraction from being tempted by food, she says. Hobbies like scrapbooking or starting a home project can keep you busy and keep your mind busy and off snacking.

“When you get bored, you start munching,” Siebenmorgen says.

“I think using your time efficiently and managing your time well is an important aspect to healthy living,” Siebenmorgen says. “And just remembering that if you have a specific goal in mind, there will be work to put into it, but it will be worth it at the end. Think about what you want to accomplish and put forth the effort to do it.”

Nutrition Guide A plan for healthy eating involves balance and proper choices.

Children

Siebenmorgen says children have been affected just as much as adults when it comes to a stay-at-home routine. Parents can help their children by keeping a variety of healthy snacks on hand and talking with their children about their feelings.

“Something that I’ve seen some parents do is keep a snack basket with healthy options in eyesight,” she says. “If the child is saying they’re hungry, offer fruits or vegetables for a snack first. Slice up an apple with some peanut butter, for example. Encourage them to have that first if it’s true hunger.”

Quarantining and a stay-at-home routine can cause anxiety in children, and sometimes they may take those emotions out in wanting to eat to feel better, Siebenmorgen adds.

Food-related activities for children and making something fun is OK, as long as parents are showing their children what healthy snacks can be.

“You want to teach your children to have a healthy relationship with food by helping them understand you only do it as a treat or on special occasions,” she says. If a child wants candy or cookies for breakfast, for example, use simple statements with the child, such as “That’s not on the menu today,” but maybe they are on the menu this afternoon. Offer healthy options that are “on the menu” instead, Siebenmorgen says.

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