If you set a goal to lose fat or build muscle, you assume that you'll be able to train at your gym and freely shop for groceries, right?
You certainly don't anticipate empty supermarket shelves, restrictions on shopping or home isolation. Or that yesterday's staple food could become today's rare commodity. Case in point: purchase caps on eggs. Stores sold out of meat, chicken, rice, oats and pasta.
Understandably, people freak out if they think the food supply might be limited. Uncertainties and mass anxieties infiltrate buying habits. This can spiral quickly because emotion tends to have a head start on reason.
It's easy to take something for granted until it's not readily available. Behind any food plan, diet or healthy eating protocol is an assumption that you can reliably access the range of your preferred foods at any time and at minimal inconvenience. That's great, until it's disrupted. It's only then that you realise the modern luxury of 24/7 food choice and accessibility.
All of this can be a little unsettling. It's enough to find shelves are eerily bare, let alone feeling like you can't eat the food you'd usually eat. And it's particularly rattling if your food is a key aspect of your training and performance goals.
This isn't just about hibernating during a pandemic!
If your food is limited in any scenario - on holiday, on a plane, at a friend's house for dinner, on the road - common sense applies. No panic required. Sometimes, you just gotta roll with it.
You might not see another pandemic in your lifetime (I hope!), but you'll almost certainly find it impractical to buy or cook food at one time or another. There's all sorts of reasons that might be the case:
If you travel for work.
Or you're on holiday.
If you're on the road.
Or things are frantic and you don't have a moment to shop or cook.
If you work long hours and you need to keep a back up meal in the office.
Or you're keen to arrive home to an 8 hour + simmered meal that doesn't require any attention.
If you live in a share house and can't snag some alone time in the kitchen.
Or you're mid reno at home and you don't have a functioning kitchen.
No groceries? No kitchen? No problem.
Here's some simple strategies you can keep up your sleeve so that your nutrition remains on track, even if your schedule doesn't.
Obstacle # 1: I can't shop for groceries
If the food you normally buy isn't easily available, that's your cue to shift out of your default shopping and eating mode, and practice your intelligently flexible mindset.
The starred (*) items in purple in the list are useful supplies to have on hand to keep you fuelled if you can't make it to a grocery store or cook your meals.
11 simple food items that are shelf stable and easy to prepare
Can't find your usual steak, mince, chicken thigh or breast? Try cooking using a less popular, but just as delicious 'low and slow' cut, like a beef or lamb roast, shanks, oyster blade or chuck.
Need an easy sauce to simmer your meat? Use a combination of passata or diced tomatoes, tomato paste and a quality beef stock. Add your favourite spices and veggies (like onion, garlic, carrots and celery), and set and forget in the oven for a good 1.5 hours +.
* Empty meat shelves, or can't access or store fresh meat? Canned fish like tuna, salmon or sardines are an easy protein base. Go for the plain, spring water or olive oil varieties. You can also find roast chicken in most delis for protein on the go; for a happy belly, eating the meat is your safest option because the skin tends to be coated in artificial seasoning and poor quality oils. Add to veggies or a home or pre-made salad (if you buy it at a major grocery store, skip the dressing) for a quick lunch, or layer potatoes and cheese for a simple tuna bake.
The frozen food section has lots of great options if you look for it. Steer clear of the processed, 'heat and eat' meals and go for things like frozen vegetables, fruits (like berries, mango or banana), fish fillets, scallops, shrimp and meat.
* Don't forget your dairy, like cheese, yoghurt and kefir. Dairy is a great source of protein and other nutrients and makes an easy snack that just requires a fridge to keep it cool, no kitchen necessary. Try combining frozen berries, Greek yoghurt and cinnamon for a delicious and quick bite or after dinner dessert.
Keen to make your meat last longer? Add other sources of protein to your meal. For example, dairy protein sources (eg, cheddar, ricotta, feta), small goods (eg, bacon, chorizo) or plant protein sources (like lentils, kidney beans, chick peas, peanuts) can all complement a little less meat on your plate.
* No rice or pasta? Try quinoa, cous cous, rice noodles or rice cakes (choose plain rather than flavoured).
* If you're home more often, keep healthy snacks in the pantry instead of high sugar products. For example, nut butters and carrot, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, dried prunes and olives. If you're an absent minded snacker like me, herbal or black teas are a great thing to have on hand too.
Coconut milk or cream and a little of a curry spice blend makes an easy, delicious base for simmering veggies or legumes.
If you have limited refrigeration space, root vegetables (like onions, carrots, parsnips, beetroot), whole vegetables (like potatoes, pumpkin and cabbage) and fruits that have a thick rind and skin (like oranges, lemons, mandarins, melon) keep for longer at room temperature in a cool, dark and ventilated place compared to things like leafy greens.
* For a back up, use protein powder and add a fat and fibre source to it. This is a useful option if you aren't able to eat a complete protein source at your meal. For example, you might be travelling or on the road and you're out of prepped meals, you're working a 10 hour shift and you only have one proper lunch break, or you can't access fresh meat or dairy. Look for a simple whey protein isolate (WPI) or WPI blend from a reputable brand. Be sceptical if it's too cheap. If you're consuming it as a shake, a little trick I learned from Dr. Eric Serrano is to add fats to it. There's no such thing as fat-free protein in nature, and our body isn't equipped to digest it like that. Pick up a packet of LSA (it's a blend of crushed linseed, sunflower seed and almond) and add 1 to 2 tsps to your shake. This instantly adds a small amount of fats and fibre to a lean, liquid protein source like WPI, helping to reduce the pace of digestion so that your body more time to absorb the amino acids in it. The protein isn’t much use to you if your GI tract doesn’t actually assimilate it so that you can use it!
If you can't access fresh fruit and vegetables, there's some excellent items on the supermarket shelves that are easy to store and can help you cover your nutrient bases. Here's my list of top nutrient dense foods that aren't fresh produce, compiled to handle living in the remote tropics of Australia in the cyclone season.
Obstacle # 2: I don't have access to a kitchen
You can cook a healthy meal, kitchen free.
I learned this on my feet mid COVID-19 isolation, confined to the upstairs of my family home. I had just 2 items to do all of my cooking for 14 days - an ancient electric fry pan unearthed from my grandma's house prior to apocalyptic isolation, and a basic, fail proof slow cooker. I also had a small fridge.
Funnily enough, my make shift kitchen turned out to be a pretty effective set up.
3 user-friendly cooking tools if you don't have access to a kitchen
If you have any one of these tools, you can cook in literally any location that has electricity or a gas bottle.
Electric fry pan. Here's your fried eggs and steak solution if you don't have a stove. I'm impressed by the ease factor here - easy to set up, easy to use, easy to clean. Use it to pan fry or add the lid to simmer. Perfect for: a big breakfast, one pan beef burgers and cauli rice, one pot Mexican chicken, rice flour and kefir pancakes, stir fries, curries.
Slow cooker. Add your veggies, meats, canned tomatoes, animal stock, a splash of wine, some herbs and spices. Set and forget. Eat later. The maximum temperature is less than you'll find in an oven, so set aside more time for cooking. Perfect for: hearty beef and veggie casserole, beef chow mein, chicken stock.
BBQ. The humble BBQ earns it's spot on this list because you'll find it available to use in places like motels, camping grounds, parks and beaches. You can even buy a portable BBQ that sets up on a table outside at home. Perfect for: steaks, portobello beef burgers, chicken thigh, haloumi or vegetable skewers.
You'll find plenty more simple recipes in my eBook, Basics: A tool kit for healthy eating.