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If you’ve been wanting to improve your diet, expand your cooking skills, or even lose a few pounds, this is an excellent time to start.

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People are hyper-focused on food now, understandably: how to shop for it safely, how to clean it and how to improvise when staples run low. Then there’s the cooking (and baking) to do.

Being housebound during the COVID-19 pandemic has made putting home-cooked meals on the table more challenging. But, when it comes to healthy eating, it also presents a real opportunity.

If you’ve been wanting to improve your diet, expand your cooking skills, or even lose a few pounds, this is an excellent time to start.

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Many of my clients, whom I’m now working with virtually, have echoed this sentiment. Having greater control over their food environment (e.g., no restaurant eating, social receptions or other distractions) has helped them build a new routine around their diet, one that they feel confident about maintaining when we emerge from this.

Of course, not all of us have been on this path. For some, feeling stressed, anxious and bored has meant regularly turning to high-calorie comfort foods.

Regardless of where you stand on the healthy eating track, consider working toward a positive dietary goal while social distancing. Doing so can help bolster your nutrient intake, your energy level and your mood. Here are four suggestions.

Eat a healthy breakfast

If you start the day with nutrition in mind, you’re likely to plan the rest of your meals and snacks in the same vein.

It also creates structure around meal times, something that, for many people, has been disrupted by staying home all the time. Eating breakfast first thing (e.g., before you check e-mails or the news) will help prevent grazing your way through the day.

A nutritious and satiating breakfast should include protein, fibre-rich whole grains, whole fruit and/or vegetables and healthy fats. Build breakfasts around immune-supportive nutrients such as vitamins A, C and E, folate, zinc and omega-3 fats.

Try overnight oats soaked in kefir (a source of gut-friendly prebiotics and probiotics) topped with sliced strawberries (vitamin C; thaw frozen berries in fridge overnight) and chopped walnuts (omega-3s).

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Or, whole grain toast spread with mashed avocado (folate) served with a smoothie made with yogurt (vitamin A, zinc), mango (vitamin C) and ground flax (omega-3s).

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Eat more plant protein

Getting more of your protein from plants versus animals means that you’re also getting more fibre, antioxidants and protective plant phytochemicals. Excellent sources of plant protein include beans, lentils, soybeans, edamame, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds.

Use kidney beans, black beans and chickpeas to make a vegetarian chili. Add black beans or pinto beans to tacos, burritos, quesadillas and nachos instead of meat.

Toss white kidney beans into a tomato sauce for pasta; roast chickpeas for snacks; add shelled edamame to stir-fries, salads and soups and make a tofu scrambler for breakfast.

Whole grains deliver some protein, too. Create a plant-based bowl using quinoa, freekeh, farro, red rice, black rice or brown rice.

Practice portion control

If you’d like to lose some weight, use this time to get a handle on your portion sizes. Pull out the food scale to weigh cooked fish, chicken and meat. In general, aim for three to four ounces (women) or four to six ounces (men).

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Use measuring cups for cooked grains and pasta and teaspoons and tablespoons for cooking oil and seeds.

If you prefer to eyeball serving sizes, fill half your plate with vegetables, one-quarter with protein and one-quarter with starchy foods. Consider serving your meal on a luncheon-sized plate (7 to 9 inches in diameter) instead of a dinner plate.

Don’t eat out of the bag (or box); measure or count out one serving and put it on a small plate.

Become a mindful eater

Approaching meals and snacks with your full attention can help distinguish between emotional and physical hunger.

To practise mindful eating, take time to sit down, without distractions, to enjoy your meals. Put down your cutlery between mouthfuls and chew thoroughly. Take time to savour your food. Pay attention to its colour, aroma, taste and texture.

Tune in to your hunger cues; eat until you feel satisfied, not full.

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Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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