Grocery Shopping in a Time of COVID-19

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Established food shopping routines have been turned upside down. Here's how to navigate the strange new world.

Grocery shopping has changed drastically over the past month. What used to be a pleasant, even relaxing experience has become an exercise in self-awareness and patience. There are limits on many of the foods I usually buy in larger quantities, i.e. two boxes of pasta, two cans of tomatoes, 1 4-liter bag of milk per household. This has forced me to seek out alternative ways of feeding my family.

What follows is a list of suggestions for how to navigate this strange new world of food purchasing, based on my own experiences, as well as advice from experts. It's important to strike a balance between stocking your kitchen sufficiently and not overbuying food, between cooking and eating as you usually do and making do with what's available at the store, between nourishing your body with healthy fresh produce and avoiding unnecessary trips out of the house. Hopefully these tips can help.

1. Make a meal plan, but be able to deviate from it.

A meal plan helps to keep your eating on track, but inevitably you'll encounter shortages at the store that will force you to alter the menu somewhat. Become comfortable with substituting different kinds of beans, rices, leafy greens, root vegetables, and protein sources for each other.

This is along the lines of what Christina Chaey wrote in the latest issue of Bon Appétit. She said, "A few years I made the game-changing decision to start buying fish not according to the recipes I'd bookmarked but based on what looked best a the market." This wise approach can apply to almost any foods. If something is fresh or on sale, buy it and figure out how to cook it when you get home.

©. K Martinko – Empty shelves at my local supermarket

© K Martinko – Empty shelves at my local supermarket

2. Buy plenty of vegetables and fruit.

When I shop for a week, I aim to buy seven family-size servings of fresh produce, plus some extra to account for lunches and snacks. Then I load up on a bag or two of frozen vegetables because inevitably we run out of the fresh stuff before the week is over and that's when a bag of frozen corn or peas can save dinner. (Did you know you can roast frozen vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts? They're delicious.)

3. Think about your snacking habits.

It's tempting at this time to load up on junky snacks as consolation for crummy circumstances, but it's important to realize that many people are less active than usual, which can lead to weight gain. I know that if I have healthy snacks on hand, such as almonds and hummus and dried mango (not to be eaten simultaneously, of course), I am less inclined to reach for the chocolate mini eggs. There's nothing wrong with treats, but be judicious and try to stick to Mark Bittman's advice about making your favorite treats from scratch.

4. Avoid overbuying.

Chances are, store-imposed limits or empty shelves may force you to avoid overbuying, but it's a bad idea regardless. It can lead you to have too much food in the house, which results in waste, and it causes shortages for others. Buy what you know your household will consume in a 1-2 week period, plus a bit of extra if you can store it, but avoid the temptation to stock up like a prepper for six months of total isolation. That's not fair to anyone, and you might end up regretting having to live off canned beans indefinitely.

pantry foods

© K Martinko – A few well-stocked pantry shelves

5. Focus on buying whole, long-lasting foods.

Buy lentils, beans, chickpeas, brown rice, nuts, shelf-stable milk and plant-based milks, oatmeal, potatoes, onions, wheat flour, olive oil, canned tomatoes, etc. Think of shopping as a chance to stock up on the building blocks of cooking that can be used in a variety of ways to make numerous different meals. Don't lock yourself into overly specific recipes and specialized foods that cannot be used in multiple ways. See Melissa's wonderful post on stocking a pandemic pantry.

6. Don't stop fighting against the plastic.

It nearly broke my heart last week when my reusable bags were turned away at the door of the supermarket and I was told using plastic was necessary. So I compromised by seeking out glass, metal, and paper packaging inside the store, and leaving most of my fruits and vegetables loose. Grocery carts are dirty at the best of times, not to mention food supply chains, so I always make a point of scrubbing food well before eating. Consumer Reports says there's no data to show that COVID-19 is spread by consuming food.

"The risk of getting the virus from your food is considered low," says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ director of food safety research and testing. Other steps may not make much difference. For instance, buying frozen vegetables rather than fresh under the assumption that they’re packed in a more sanitary way is not an approach that has been backed up by evidence, Rogers says.

7. Continue to practice good hygiene.

Only one household member should go shopping at a time (this is currently enforced at my local grocery store) and try to shop at off-peak times. Leave your cell phone at home or in the car and don't touch it until you've finished shopping and putting food away. Use a paper list that you can toss afterward. Wipe down groceries if desired before entering the house. (The efficacy of this is debatable.) If food is going into storage, it doesn't matter a whole lot. Disinfect counters and wash hands thoroughly once home and after putting food away.