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Foods to Have on Hand in Case of a Sudden Illness

When I got sick, I had nothing to eat, and no one to call. That won't happen again.

King Henry III offered his kingdom for a horse, according to Shakespeare. I was ready to swap mine for a glass of ginger ale last week.

My ordeal began on Thursday morning. I was at home, typing on my computer, when I began shivering and couldn’t get warm, no matter how many layers of clothing I put on. My head was splitting. I had the flu.

My illness didn’t last long, only a few days. Lucky, right?

I was stupid, that’s what I was. I’m older, I live alone — and I had nothing to eat or drink in the house.

(MORE: How I Finally Put an End to My Chronic Pain)

Before winter began, I made sure to buy salt for the porch and logs for the fireplace. I put snow tires on my car. My medicine cabinet was well stocked with over-the-counter pain relievers. But like Old Mother Hubbard, I didn’t give much thought to my kitchen cupboards, which were practically bare. I’m the kind of person who likes to shop every day for what’s fresh and in season. I try not to buy processed and preserved foods.

For three days I was too sick to get in the car and drive to the store. It’s winter in Minneapolis, where I live. Temperatures were below zero all week. My friends — the close ones you call when you need help — were all vacationing in Florida and California.

I had no choice but to tough out the flu by myself.

For several days my aching body craved what my kitchen couldn’t provide: comfort foods, like Jell-O, crackers and soup. I would have paid top dollar for a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli with its metallic tasting tomato sauce, my favorite lunch when I was growing up. I desperately needed fluids. Sorry, but water doesn’t cut it when you’re sick. I wanted fruity sodas.

I Needed a Survival Plan

My bout with the flu taught me a scary lesson: I needed to be fully prepared in the kitchen. On Saturday morning, when I was feeling better, I headed out to the supermarket. This time my mission went beyond buying food for that night’s dinner: I wanted to put together an emergency food larder.

Before getting in the car, I called nutritionist Maureen Callahan, who writes many of Next Avenue’s “Fiftysomething Diet” articles, for advice on what to stock up on. “When you’re sick, don’t worry about eating a canned soup that’s a little too salty or some sugary Jell-O — if that’s all you can get down or tolerate, then go with it,” she told me. “The most important thing for your body is to get some calories and plenty of liquids.” Her only no-no was caffeinated drinks, because caffeine is a diuretic.

She emailed me an article from the American Diabetes Association that listed food recommendations that can apply to anyone who gets the flu or a cold, including high-carb foods, like sherbet and vanilla wafers. Every “sick” food list I found on the Internet touted the electrolyte-replacing benefits of saltine crackers. Foods should also be chewable and easy to swallow. When you’re sick is no time to be on a diet, said one reputable health site.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Foods You Should Never Eat — Or Try Not To!)

I couldn’t just buy willy-nilly, though. Since I’m rarely out of commission, foods would need to keep for a long time in my pantry or freezer. Ice cream would be a perfect choice, except for one problem: A pint of Ben & Jerry’s has never lasted a week under my watch. I needed foods I wouldn’t crave or be tempted to eat when I’m feeling OK.

Here’s what I took to my supermarket check-out counter:

  • Jell-O It’s so much fun to eat. Lime is my favorite flavor.
  • Canned chicken noodle soup It’s not homemade, but who cares? It’s hot and soothing. Studies show that chicken soup may contain mild anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Instant mashed potatoes Nothing says, “There, there” like mashed potatoes, even if they’re dehydrated flakes from a box.
  • Instant chocolate pudding Yum.
  • Aseptic milk For making the mashed potatoes and pudding.
  • Frozen bread So I can always have toast.
  • Green tea
  • Honey For the tea.
  • Instant oatmeal In one-size serving packets.
  • Macaroni and cheese The ultimate boomer comfort food. I bought the casserole version, which is already prepared. Just heat in the oven or microwave.
  • Frozen concentrated juice Those tiny cans take up so little room in the freezer.
  • Fruit-flavored Popsicles Is there a more cooling treat when you’ve got a fever?
  • Ginger ale It’s great for nausea, and I love it.

(Note: If your flu is the stomach variety — mine wasn’t — and you’re throwing up or have diarrhea, whittle the list down to clear liquids: Jell-O, juice, tea, clear chicken broth; foods that won’t upset the stomach.)

I didn’t think I’d be dipping into my new supplies anytime soon. But on Sunday, the next morning, I awoke with an unbearable toothache. On Monday morning I went to the dentist. An hour later I was having an emergency root canal. “You won’t be able to chew solid food for a while,” the endodontist said to me afterward.

I smiled as best I could — not so easy when your jaw and lips are numb. But despite my discomfort, I was happy knowing my kingdom had everything I needed for the next few days.

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