Ultimate Guide to Cooking for Quarantined Loved Ones

As new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to soar around the world, we all are hunkering down, staying home more, and eating out and grocery shopping less. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who are at high risk — mainly older adults or people with serious chronic health problems — find ways to have their meals and groceries delivered, either by friends or family or food services like Instacart and Postmates.

By now, you may know someone like that yourself. Maybe it’s an older relative or neighbor, or a friend in self-quarantine because they may have been exposed to the virus.

The question is, what kinds of foods should you bring, and how do you deliver them safely in these days of social distancing? Are there precautions your friend or loved one should take before they dig in?

It’s a scary time, but luckily there are answers — and solutions. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

So many casseroles | Photo by Meredith.

Make It Healthy

It’s tempting to load up on sugar or alcohol during stressful times. Totally understandable, but “those things chip away at our immunity,” cautions Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of Eating in Color and other books. Instead, think comfort foods with lots of nutrients.

Important: Be sure to check with the person for any food allergies or special diets, says Melissa Majumdar, MS, RD, CSOWM, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You don’t want to go through all your efforts and then not have them be able to enjoy it.”

Meal Ideas:

  • Tuna casserole: Canned tuna is a great source of protein and omega-3s, and you can usually make it with ingredients on hand, says Largeman-Roth. Add canned or frozen peas for more vitamins and nutrients.
  • Soups and chili: You get multiple food groups in one pot, and soup is easy to divide and freeze,” says Majumdar.
  • Meatloaf: You can make it 500 different ways, and it tends to freeze well.
  • Pulled chicken or pork: You can add vegetables to make a full meal.


  • Bread: It’s easy to freeze, and you can grab just a slice or two when you need it.
  • Apples: They’ll last for three weeks or so in the fridge.
  • Oranges: High in vitamin C, they also last in the fridge. “People may be low on fresh items if they’ve been quarantined for a while,” says Largeman-Roth. “Getting something fresh and citrus-y may lift their spirits.”
  • Shelf-stable milk or milk alternatives: They’re a smart option if there’s a run on fresh milk, especially if you have kids, says Largeman-Roth.
  • Carrots, dried apricots, and canned pumpkin: “Anything naturally orange!” says Largeman-Roth. “They’re a good source of beta carotene, an important immunity booster.”
  • Canned or dried beans and lentils: They have zinc, also good for immunity.
  • Spinach and almonds: They’re rich in magnesium, which helps us sleep and manage stress.

What Not to Bring:

  • Fragile produce like berries: They spoil fast, and someone in quarantine may not have the space to freeze them.
  • Super-perishable produce like lettuce or avocados: They go bad quickly, and you can’t freeze them.
  • Homemade cream-based soups: They don’t freeze well.
  • Common culprits for food poisoning: “Remember that you’re cooking for someone who’s likely in a vulnerable population,” says Majumdar. Skip unpasteurized soft cheeses, sprouts, raw or undercooked meats, or salads with eggs and mayo.
  • Packaged cakes, donuts, and cookies: “They’re not a great idea for someone who’s worried about their immunity,” says Largeman-Roth.

Make It Easy

A few simple steps can help ease stress for everyone:

  • Use individual serving dishes — they’re easier to reheat in a hurry.
  • Choose canned foods with pull-top lids, especially if the person is elderly. Can openers can be tough for older hands.
  • Include clear cooking instructions.
  • Remember add-ons. If you’re making soup, throw in whole-wheat crackers or bread to make a whole meal, Majumdar says. Or add a jar of marinara sauce and a loaf of garlic bread with dried pasta.

Make It Safe

While there’s no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through food, we all need to be extra vigilant right now, Majumdar says. Check the CDC’s updates for specific advice, and always follow basic food safety rules.

For the Cook:

Before and during cooking:

  • Wash your hands and work surfaces often, especially before and after handling raw meat.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for meat to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Cook to the proper temperature.
  • Refrigerate salads and other cold foods right away.

Transporting food:

  • Use disposable dishes and tote bags or other containers you don’t need returned.
  • Transport your food either hot or cold. Avoid the danger zone (40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), where bacteria likes to grow.

Delivering food:

Follow the lead of FreshDirect and other food services who are now doing only non-contact deliveries. Set a time and place to leave the food and call or text your friend when you’ve dropped it off. Sanitize your hands before and after you leave.

For the Person in Quarantine:

  • Wash produce well under running water. Pay attention to bananas, avocados, melons, and other fruits and veggies with a peel or rind. Any surface bacteria can spread inside when you slice through it.
  • Follow cooking instructions carefully. Refrigerate promptly anything you won’t eat right away.
  • Think FIFO: First in, first out. If you’re stuck at home for a while, you’ll likely have leftovers piling up, Majumdar says. Use up first whatever will go bad the soonest.

Make It Thoughtful

These are stressful times, but simple touches — a small plate of homemade cookies, or even fresh flowers — can help everyone relax. And don’t forget the microwave popcorn, adds Largeman-Roth. “People are going to be watching a lot of TV and movies.”

Explore Our Recipe Collections

  • Tuna casseroles
  • Soups and chilies
  • Meatloaf recipes
  • Pulled pork