When the coronavirus crisis firmly took hold in the U.S. in early March, eating habits changed dramatically.

For many, cooking meals every day was a whole new experience as they navigated recipes and their pantries. Others reveled in creating elaborate family dinners and focusing on healthy nutrition. At least for a while.

"Having long thought of myself as someone who cooks a lot, it turns out this was self-delusion of the worst order," Rachel Cooke writes in The Guardian.

Even the most resolute home cooks eventually caved and made do with sandwiches or ordered pizzas when carryout was available. And people turned to familiar brands and junk food.

While shoppers were stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they were also filling their carts with snacks like Goldfish, Oreos, Campbell Soup, and Doritos, reports The Washington Post. Prior to the pandemic, there was a trend toward local, private-label brands that offered fresh, natural ingredients. But with the lockdown, packaged, processed foods are back in favor.

"There is a lot of out-of-home consumption that has now shifted to in-home," said Dirk Van de Put, chairman of Mondelez International, in a recent earnings call, according to the Post. Mondelez makes Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Ritz crackers, and Triscuits. "And in-home, there is more grazing, more continuous eating, and snacking takes up a much bigger role ... Sharing a snack with your kids, as everybody sort of cooped up in the house, brings back a feeling of normalcy, of togetherness, calming everybody down."

Lockdown phases of eating

woman late-night snacking refrigerator At some point you might find yourself eating whatever and whenever you want. (Photo: Aspen Photo/Shutterstock)

If you find yourself eating healthy one day then snacking the next, you're not alone. Health coach and personal trainer Jeff Siegel says most people are stuck in three stages of 11 stages of nourishment "whether they like it or not." The pandemic, he writes in his blog, has made the choice for them. People are going back and forth between these three phases. Can you recognize yourself?

The Emotional Phase — This is characterized by a non-rational approach to food, where health and balanced meals aren't really important. Instead, people eat to calm stress. "Your eating follows the roller coaster of emotions, exacerbated by COVID news and domestic stressors," Siegel writes. "You may find yourself 'eating your feelings' and approaching food to fill some emotional hunger or yearning that you can no longer access on lockdown."

The Fanatic Phase — This is 180 degrees from the emotional stage. Here, people often create strict eating rules, cutting certain foods (carbs, sugars, meats) completely from their diet. "Given the loss of control due to COVID-19, you may notice yourself doubling-down on controlling your food," Siegel says. "Fears of eating the 'wrong foods,' gaining weight, or losing muscle can make your eating more regimented or fundamentalist."

The Anything Goes Phase — After being emotional, then being fanatical, you might just give up and do pretty much whatever you want with food. "You may find yourself eating at weird times or skipping meals because your schedule no longer exists," Siegel says. "You may be forced to eat new things because of limited availability. You may feel out of control or lost when it comes to deciding what and how to eat."

Get creative but don't stress

Frozen vegetables in a bowl Don't stress about eating fresh fruits and vegetables; just fit them in where you can. For example, frozen produce is easy to store and has the same nutrition. (Photo: Shebeko/Shutterstock)

So if you find yourself reaching for cookies instead of carrots, don't feel bad, says Yasi Ansari, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"We need to give ourselves a little extra love right now, take a few steps back, and acknowledge that we are all dealing with a lot of changes," she says. "Find ways to look at the positives of our current situation (I understand this may be easier said than done), but when I find myself stressing out, I look for the triggers, take a couple moments to be mindful and think about what is working out right."

Ansari suggests journaling, talking to friends, and adding movement to the day, like taking a walk around the neighborhood, to deal with stress and uncertainty. When it comes to healthy eating, she tells people to get creative but don't stress.

"No one needs the extra pressure or to feel guilty if all the foods they are currently eating are not considered 'healthy,'" she says. "Instead of focusing on what not to eat right now, focus on ways to add more nutrient-rich foods to your meals and snacks."

Ansari advises people to assess what foods they have access to and stock the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer with essentials that can be used in multiple recipes. She suggests ingredients like fresh/dried herbs, tomato paste, pasta sauces, eggs, pasta, rice, poultry, tofu, trail mix, fruits and vegetables (frozen, fresh, and canned), yogurt, cereal, beans, breads, and nut butters.

Find more ways to add fruits and greens to your daily meals, drink more water, and boost fiber, she says.

"Eat a meal that focuses on variety and make sure it is one that you enjoy," Ansari says. "I have found that the more we can include all foods and not label anything as good or bad, we are able to practice balance, enjoy what we’re eating, be more satisfied after meals, and find ways to indulge without making it a big deal."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

What is lockdown eating and why am I doing it?
From eating healthy one day to eating only processed foods the next, people are on a roller coaster of eating habits during the coronavirus pandemic.