How to encourage healthy eating for the body and mind during stay-at-home orders

Photo of Wesley McWhorter, MS, RD, preparing food with Laura Moore, MEd, RD, and students watching (Photo by Terry Vine)
Laura Moore, MEd, RD, watches Wesley McWhorter, MS, RD, demonstrate for students Lucy Lengfelder and Rachael Vega how to prepare vegetables in the Research and Demonstration Kitchen at UTHealth. (Photo by Terry Vine)

Stay-at-home orders from government officials due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced us to quickly adapt to a new normal, especially when it comes to eating. Restaurant dining rooms are closed, grocery shopping can be challenging, many parents are tasked with serving meals while working from home, and families who relied on school meals are now left to provide them since schools closed.

Planning a constant pipeline of healthy meals and snacks can feel overwhelming, especially when all you want to do is eat junk food because of the stress of such an uncertain time. As a father of two, Wesley McWhorter, MS, RD, a chef and dietitian with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health, knows how tricky meal planning during this time can be.

“One of my kids will eat anything we prepare and the other usually won't touch anything we prepare. My wife and I have the experience with the stress of working from home and trying to stay sane, as well as wanting our kids to eat healthy meals,” McWhorter said.

He has some handy tips to help you provide healthy, immunity-boosting food for your family in a practical way.

Eat real food

“All fruits and vegetables are good options to boost immunity as they contain a range of antioxidants,” McWhorter said. “With stress being at an all-time high, it is also important to note the mental health benefits of eating fruits and veggies. Processed foods, especially those with lots of added sugar, taste great when you eat them, but they actually contribute to depression and anxiety.”

Processed foods are pro-inflammatory and promote free radicals, which are waste byproducts in the body that, when built up, can harm the body’s cells. Free radicals seek an electron, and antioxidants have an extra electron to give. Fruits and veggies contain antioxidants, so they help neutralize the free radicals, which otherwise would cause stress that contributes to mental health issues, cardiovascular disease, and other issues, McWhorter said.

Another major benefit to eating fruit and veggies is the high fiber content.

“Fiber is the food for our gut microbiota and helps keep us regular, helps with heart health and blood pressure, and has many other benefits,” McWhorter said.

Fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are good sources of fiber, but most processed foods have little to no fiber.

“About 90% of adults don’t eat enough vegetables on a given day, and I assume that number will be higher during the quarantine. So, it’s even more important now to prioritize eating real food and not overconsume the processed foods.”

Approach healthy eating in small steps

Start where you are,” McWhorter said. “While we want to see half of your plate full of fruits and vegetables, don't try to change everything at once. Try adding a vegetable to your dinner plate, a can of beans to a soup, or some fruit to your dessert.”

If you are wondering where to start, try your hand at the below recipes crafted by dietitians with UTHealth School of Public Health’s Nourish Program.

Plan ahead

It’s easiest to eat junk food when in a pinch, so try to have healthy food on hand. This will require some advanced planning, especially now that grocery shopping has changed dramatically over the last few weeks. You’ll want to select recipes beforehand and make a list before you go so you can spend the least amount of time in the store as possible. Another option is to order online and pick groceries up curbside. Due to high demand, you’ll need to allow at least four to five days for online ordering. Aim to buy enough groceries for the week ahead to avoid stockpiling or hoarding.

Make it a family affair

Include the kids by encouraging them to help when you are cooking. Find some age-appropriate tasks like stirring, opening, washing, or even cooking parts of the meal, that can help them feel a sense of ownership. 

“Bonus – research shows including kids in the cooking process can lead to improved consumption behaviors,” McWhorter said.

It’s good to help them learn some new skills with all their newfound free time, and it sure beats trying to keep them entertained while you do all the work.

Celebrate the little victories

“Too often we resort to two different ways of thinking about nutrition – where either it is perfect or we are failures,” McWhorter said.

He recommends taking baby steps in both nutrition and health behaviors as a whole to help achieve a sense of success.

“Little wins can include a vegetable eaten or tasted, a fruit shared, or even spending more time at the dinner table. These are the little things that make a difference and can actually create some great behaviors for our kids in the future,” McWhorter said. “Modeling is important for kids. If we show healthy behaviors, that’s what they will repeat.”

Be mindful

For those streaming TV shows or dealing with boredom, is important to be mindful of what you are consuming. Try to portion out snack foods to prevent you from overeating. Don’t sit down in front of the TV with a whole bag – it’s just too easy to eat the whole thing, McWhorter said.

Another thing to be mindful of? Your neighbors.

“We should be cognizant of those around us who are possibly not in as good of a situation as we are. Help out your neighbor where you can. Order take-out or pay for their groceries, etc. We are all in this together,” McWhorter said.

Designate a night or two off

“Give yourself a break and support your favorite local restaurant by ordering a to-go meal. As a chef, I can’t imagine the hardships other colleagues are facing – losing their businesses and laying off longtime friends and employees. Let’s help our communities while also enjoying a delicious meal,” McWhorter said.

Nourish Program’s Creamy Orange Chimichurri

Yield: ~4 servings
Serving size: ~¼ cup


  • 2 each mandarin orange, small, peel removed
  • 2 each garlic cloves, peeled
  • ¼ bunch cilantro, fresh (~½ cup chopped)
  • ¼ bunch parsley, fresh (~½ cup chopped)
  • 2 Tbsp. Greek yogurt, plain
  • 1 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt


  1. Combine all ingredients into a blender or food processor
  2. Blend until smooth
  3. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week

Helpful Tips:

  • Substitute ~½ cup canned mandarin oranges, drain juice and only use oranges
  • Add additional oranges to thin dressing
  • Substitute regular plain yogurt or low-fat mayonnaise for Greek yogurt

Nourish Program’s Garlic and Herb Butter Broccoli

Yield: ~4 servings
Serving size: ½ cup


  • 1 each broccoli head (including stem), cut into equal size pieces (~1 lb)
  • 2 Tbsp. butter (unsalted) or canola oil
  • 1 Tbsp. water
  • 2 tsp Italian seasoning, salt free
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp black pepper, ground


  1. Place cut broccoli, oil or butter, and water in a microwaveable safe bowl
  2. Add Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt, and pepper
  3. Cover loosely with lid or a damp paper towel
  4. Cook on high in the microwave for 3 minutes, check for desired doneness
  5. Continue cooking in 1-minute intervals until vegetables reached desired texture
  6. Stir well before serving to evenly coat vegetables with seasoning

Helpful Tips:

  • Microwaving ratio is 2 Tbsp. of oil, 1 Tbsp. of water, 1 Tbsp. of seasoning and 1 lb of vegetables
  • Cook for 3-4 minutes for crunchy vegetables and cook 5-6 minutes for softer vegetables
  • Some hard vegetables (sweet potatoes, beets, etc.) will take an additional 3-5 minutes of cook time over soft flesh vegetables (summer squash, zucchini, etc.)
  • If using stem, cut into slightly smaller pieces than florets
  • Substitute 1 fresh garlic clove for each ¼ tsp of garlic powder
  • Substitute 1 tsp of oregano and 1 tsp of basil for Italian seasoning
  • Omit salt if using salted butter or salted ranch seasoning

Nourish Program’s Smoked Paprika and Herb Spiced Sweet Potatoes

Yield: ~4 servings
Serving size: ~½ cup


  • 1 lb. sweet potatoes (~2 medium sweet potatoes), washed and unpeeled, cut into equal sized pieces
  • 2 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika (sweet)
  • 1 tsp oregano, dried
  • ½ tsp kosher salt


  1. Preheat oven to 375°F (convection) and line a sheet pan with parchment paper
  2. Add sweet potatoes to the bowl, pour canola oil over sweet potatoes, add seasoning and mix well
  3. Spread seasoned sweet potatoes evenly on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper (do not overcrowd pan)
  4. Roast in oven for 25-30 minutes, until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside

Helpful Tips:

  • Substitute any fresh vegetable for sweet potatoes, adjust cook time if needed
  • Don’t have a convection oven? Set oven to 400°F and turn vegetables halfway through the cook time.
  • Low sodium seasoning can be substituted in place of spices
  • Ratio for roasting is 1 lb of vegetables to 2 Tbsp. of oil and 1 Tbsp. of seasoning


Nourish Program’s Chocolate Hummus

Yield: ~20 servings
Serving size: ~¼ cup


  • 1 can (14 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can (14 oz) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ cup simple syrup (1 part brown sugar to 1 part water)*
  • 13 cup canola or safflower oil
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ cup water, for thinning if needed


  1. Combine black beans, chickpeas, cocoa powder, simple syrup, oil, and salt in a food processor
  2. Blend until smooth, stopping to clean the edges as needed
  3. Add water if needed
  4. Serve with sliced apples, bananas, or whole grain crackers

Helpful Tips:

  • See a video demonstration of the recipe
  • *To make simple syrup combine ½ cup of brown sugar with ½ cup of water in a small pot over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, let cool, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
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