Stay safe when buying food and other supplies with these expert ideas
For those of us without Doomsday Preppers-style storage space in our homes (which is most of us), making trips to the grocery store for food and other essential items during the COVID-19 outbreak is a given.
And though retail stories are taking extra precautions, don’t let your guard down, says Brandon Brown, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the University of California, Riverside.
“Grocery stores often have long lines, and sometimes hundreds of people inside depending on the size of the store,” he says. “And there may be people who enter who are symptomatic or asymptomatic and shedding the virus.”
Given that concern, grocery delivery seems like a safe option. But that’s only if you’re lucky enough to nab a delivery slot. One popular grocery delivery service, Instacart, recently reported that order volume skyrocketed 150 percent over the course of only a few weeks amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
So, if making a trip to your local grocer is inevitable, know that with the right game plan and precautions in place, it’s possible to make your trip safe and efficient.
Shopping Strategy #1: Map Out Where and When
When it comes time to shop, there’s a fair chance you’ll have a selection of grocery stores to choose from, as most state governments have deemed them essential businesses during the outbreak.
So how do you pick? For one, you might have access to special shopping hours at some, depending on your age.
“Many grocery stores are allowing seniors to shop prior to opening for the general population,” explains Brown. “Take advantage of this.”
Though most major grocery retailers offer special hours for older adults, including Costco, Trader Joe’s, Albertsons, and Walmart, call ahead to be sure.
When you’re calling, you should also check the store’s policy on how many shoppers are allowed inside at once.
“If you can, shop at grocery stores that are limiting the number of shoppers inside,” Brown says. “Then you are more likely to be able to keep six feet of physical distance, which is the best way to slow the spread.”
Brown recommends going no more than once per week.
Shopping Strategy #2: Make a List (But Leave Room for Substitutions)
Although seniors getting to grocery stores during special hours might have access to the first pick of the day, expect potentially sparse or limited selections of many staples, advises registered dietitian Kristen Smith, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“With the shortage of eggs right now, one of my favorite substitutions is flax meal,” Smith recommends. To make a single “egg,” mix together one tablespoon of flax meal and three tablespoons of water and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Another substitute on Smith’s list? Plain Greek yogurt. She notes that it can replace sour cream, mayonnaise, and cream cheese in a number of recipes. And if your store is out of all-purpose flour, now’s a good time to try a gluten-free blend. Cup4Cup and King Arthur Flour both make a measure-for-measure gluten-free flour that makes easy work of the swap.
Don’t be afraid of substituting spices either, says Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.A.D.N., C.N.S., host of The Nutrition Diva podcast. “I wouldn’t let a missing ingredient stop me from making a dish—go shopping in your spice cabinet instead,” she says.
If you’re unsure if ground cumin could be replaced with, say, chili powder in a crock pot recipe, Reinagel recommends trying a small taste to see if you enjoy it.
As for getting your fill of fruits and vegetables, Smith recommends opting for varieties with longer-than-average shelf lives, like apples, citrus fruits, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots.
Shopping Strategy #3: Prep a Safety Toolkit
Although a shopping list and destination was all you really needed to stock up in pre-COVID times, Brown stresses how important it is to plan for your safety––from getting into your car to coming back home.
“It all starts with your transportation,” he explains. “Were the surfaces in the vehicle wiped down and disinfected the last time it was used?”
He also recommends storing anything you’ll use at the store (your cell phone, wallet, credit cards) in a separate plastic bag. This way, you’ll know exactly what you need to sanitize afterward.
Next on your to-prep list before heading out? A face covering to avoid touching your face and disinfecting wipes or spray to wipe down commonly touched surfaces once you arrive.
You can also wear gloves as an additional barrier—just remember that if you touch a contaminated surface while wearing them you can still spread the virus. And you’ll need to take them off before touching your face.
Your best bet is to use hand sanitizer after you’ve checked out, and wash your hands thoroughly when you get home and again after you’ve put the groceries away.
Shopping Strategy #4: Be Aware of Everything You Touch
You’ll need to be decisive—and aware of what you’re touching—the second you enter the store, says Brown.
First stop: Grabbing a cart or basket. “Since many people touch shopping carts and other counter surfaces, I would disinfect the cart handles beforehand,” he says, noting that if the store you’re entering doesn’t have automatic doors, your first point of contact—the handle—needs to be wiped down.
While you’re shopping, take care to only touch what you plan to buy.
Paying at the register is another time to be on high alert. The CDC notes that touchless payment via smartphone apps are the safest way to pay. If that’s not an option, Brown advises using a card instead of cash (to avoid having to handle change from the store’s register) and then storing it in a separate plastic bag until you’re able to disinfect it later.
Shopping Strategy #5: Be Tactful Coming Home, Too
Once you’re back in your home, and away from physical contact with potential carriers of COVID-19, you’re in the clear, right? Not so fast.
The FDA and CDC recommend washing your hands before and after putting away groceries. If possible, remove the packaging and transfer products into your own containers. Disinfect any countertops or other surfaces that your grocery bags touched.
There’s no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmitting the new coronavirus, according to the CDC. So, as tempting as it might be to want to give your fresh produce a soapy bath, resist—unless you’re willing to risk an unnecessary urgent care trip.
Fruits and veggies are porous, meaning they’ll soak up—and leave for you to ingest—any harsh soaps and harmful chemicals placed on them. Instead, simply give them a good rinse and dry them thoroughly before meal prep or taking a bite.
While grocery shopping during the COVID-19 outbreak is understandably stressful, Brown notes that the most crucial component to keeping yourself safe right now is also the most simple and easy to do.
“No matter what,” he says, “wash your hands when you arrive home.”
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.