Pandemic relief #4 – Sustainable food choices in times of crises

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak continues to take its toll. If you have stepped into a grocery store lately then you have been confronted with the panic-buying spree. Admittedly, empty shelves can trigger our feelings of scarcity and make us act irrationally. As a countermeasure, I raise two questions today that can help us make sustainable food choices in times of crises. May that be a global pandemic or the effects of climate change.

People around the world are triggered by the pandemic-driven shopping calculus and buy stuff they won’t need. Instead of making an attempt to untangle the curious case of toilet paper-hoarding, today I want to take a look at our grocery list with respect to the global food system.

In order to pro-actively navigate this time, two questions need to be answered. First, how does a sustainable and healthy diet look like? Second, what to opt for in times of crises?

Feeding the world

Fact: rising population in the face of climate change makes it challenging to ensure food security for all. A global crises, such as the outbreak of a pandemic or catastrophic weather events have a tendency of disrupting value chains. The coronavirus outbreak is no different. The fragility of our food system becomes abundantly clear and warrants immediate action.

Silver lining: thought-leaders across the globe have been researching well-founded theories on getting the food system on a sustainable track. The leading blueprint to achieve planetary health for nearly 10 billion people by 2050 is the report by EAT-Lancet Commission, ‘Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems – Food, Planet, Health’.

In this report, the commission introduces the term ‘planetary health diet’ and breaks it down into digestible bits. The beauty of the planetary health diet is that it reconciles environmental sustainability and human health. Health is understood in the broad-sense as being a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. Not only the absence of disease. 

A sustainable and healthy plate

A planetary health plate consists by volume of approximately half a plate of vegetables and fruits; the other half (by contribution to calories) of primarily whole grains, plant-based protein sources, unsaturated plant oils, and (optionally) modest amounts of animal sources of protein. This is a flexitarian diet. Thus, it is mostly plant-based and can optionally include modest amounts of fish, meat and dairy.

Source: EAT-Lancet Commission (2019) ‘Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems – Food, Planet, Health’, p.9

Smart shopping list

Due to social distancing people are now shopping in bulk. Planning ahead saves us multiple trips to the supermarket and provides an excellent chance to re-examine what we chose to put on our plates. Where to begin?

Instead of writing up a long list of kitchen essentials I’ll link up the fun and informative ‘Pandemic Pantry’ video of the Happy Pear. These guys make solid suggestions about a shopping list that actually makes sense in times of crises. Food for thought. Literally.

  • Pulses: beans, lentils, peas (canned / dried)
  • Bases: coconut milk, tomato sauce, veggie stock
  • Whole grains: brown rice, whole grain flour
  • Condiments: soy sauce, vinegar, etc.
  • Energy-dense foods: nuts & nut-based goods (e.g. tahini)
  • Spices & herbs: dried versions of what you normally use
  • Frozen fruits & veggies

Naturally, getting your hands on fresh produce will be more challenging and concessions will have to be made. Still, crisis diets can be shaped according to planetary health guidelines. Did you notice that toilet paper and white flour were nowhere on the list?

Many plant-based foods have in fact a longer shelf life than their animal-based alternatives. For instance, think of plant-based milks or dried beans. They are not only the ‘green choice’, but also the smart option in times of crises. 


EAT’s report paints a clear picture about a sustainable and healthy diet. It’s mostly plant-based with emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains and plant-based proteins.

In times of crises we can opt for sustainable and healthy foods. In fact, many plant-based foods have a longer shelf life and align with recommendations of a planetary health diet.

Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all. A planetary diet is ‘flexitarian’ for a reason. I believe partly because sustainability on a personal level looks different for each of us. Surely, it takes more work to figure out compared to a traditional diet. However, way more beneficial in the long run. My recipes got your back if you need some inspiration to get started.

The most important item that is missing from our shopping list is moderation. Don’t buy more than what you need. Hoarding disrupts the food system and leads to food scarcity and unnecessary waste. Take what you need, leave what you don’t.

Shop smart & take care,