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How to shop for groceries during COVID-19

So you’ve self-quarantined: you aren’t going to work, the playground, neighborhood cookouts, or anywhere, really. The problem is, we all still have to eat, and the whole town is showing up at the same grocery store for that exact reason. The supermarket can feel like the most germ-filled place to be during a quarantine. Here are some safety tips for grocery shopping while avoiding COVID-19.

Here’s what you need to know

  • Keep your distance from other people, as they’re a bigger risk than the food or packages.
  • The virus can live on cardboard packaging (e.g. a cereal box) for 24 hours, so if someone else has touched that item and put it back, or sneezed/coughed within six feet of the box, it could be contaminated.
  • Meal planning can decrease your amount of time in grocery stores
  • Take cleaning supplies and bags with you to lessen your chance of contracting the virus
  • Choose less busy times, and send just one family member, to reduce your contact with others at the store
  • The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed the virus is not traveling in the food itself, so you don’t have to be concerned that your groceries themselves are contaminated.
  • Remove shoes outside your home, and remove and wash your clothes once inside.

Should I even be going to the grocery?

If you are elderly or you have an underlying disease or condition, the CDC has warned that COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for you. If possible, avoid the grocery store completely and stay home. If you have a family member who can shop for you, or you are able to have groceries delivered, these are better options than risking interaction with others who may be carrying the virus. (Over 7600 Americans have already died from the disease as of Monday, April 6, and the number is climbing daily, so for many, it’s not worth the risk to have fresh bananas.)

Nobody with symptoms that could even possibly be related to COVID-19, including fever, cough, or shortness of breath, should go to the grocery store, as they could infect others even if they haven’t confirmed they are positive for the virus. 

If you are elderly or immune-compromised and still have no choice but to visit a grocery, check to see if your store is offering special hours for you, often at the beginning of the day when they have freshly cleaned and restocked.

Protecting yourself (and others) if you go

Social distancing, or remaining six feet apart from others at all times, is the most important thing you can do in public. Six feet is the range in which you could be contaminated if a virus carrier was to cough or sneeze near you. If others are getting too close to you, walk away and wait until there is more clearance. When you check out, if the register doesn’t already have a plastic divider separating you from the cashier then step back as far as possible to give them space. In addition, make sure you are giving others space to make their selections before walking up right beside them.

Bring your own cleaning supplies: don’t rely on those nice little wipes they usually have by the carts when you enter the store — they are most definitely going to have run out at many places. Pack disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket, and sanitize surfaces that you touch, such as the cart.

Bring a large bag from home to avoid the basket: Ever been to IKEA? Their bags are gigantic. This is what you want to bring to the grocery if you have one of those laying around. Avoiding contact with carts can decrease your chances of coming in contact with the virus, as so many others have used the cart before you. (Some stores have been banning people’s bags from home, though, so be prepared to put your bag back in the car if this happens to you.0

Use a credit card, not cash, to avoid handing change back and forth to the cashier.

Send only one person per trip from a quarantine group, in order to minimize the whole group’s cumulative exposure to outsiders. There is no need for multiple people’s hands, eyes, noses, and mouths to be possibly exposed to coronavirus when one person working alone can get shopping done. If you need help loading groceries, then one person can stay in the car while the other person goes into the store alone.

If you must bring a small child to the grocery, use a blanket to cover the entire cart or have them walk beside you holding your hand without touching anything. Very small children can be secured in a stroller rather than a cart to prevent touching things. If you use the blanket method, throw the blanket into a garbage bag in your trunk, and place it in the washing machine on high heat when you get home.

Wear a mask and gloves, just to be extra safe. If you are currently sick and absolutely have to go to the store, and you can access a mask, definitely wear it. Public health authorities are also increasingly recommending you wear a mask in public even if you aren’t sick, in order to prevent spread in case you’re ill and don’t yet know it. As for gloves, these are great but they only help you if you refrain from touching your face and you disinfect them thoroughly before removing them.

Meal plan to minimize time and frequency in the store

Let’s just say this isn’t the time to saunter around the store, waiting to see what “speaks to you” for dinnertime. Walk in with a specific list, get those items, get out. Dieticians and experts are recommending a two-week meal plan, so that you can minimize your trips to the store and prevent overcrowding and hoarding. 

If you used to be an every-two-days type shopper, this may be more difficult for you. It’s time to utilize your freezer to store meals until it’s time to eat them, rather than shopping for fresh meat and produce every few days. 

During shelter-in-place orders, some of us have extra time to spend cooking healthy meals as we’ve eliminated the rush of a typical workweek, but we have to avoid over-visiting the grocery for the health of others and ourselves.

This food calculator was created by a dietician to help people meal plan during the quarantine and can be a valuable planning tool for your family’s meals.

Take precautions as you unload into your home

As you enter your home after being exposed to others who potentially have COVID-19, treat yourself, your garments, and your packages from the store as a biohazard until they’ve been sanitized.

Remove shoes outside your door. It’s not entirely clear that coronavirus can enter the home on shoes, but fecal transmission is a concern and science has revealed that the bottoms of our shoes are covered in poop and other bacteria. So it’s not at all out of the question that infected poop, droplets, or other matter could make it into your home via your shoes.

Wash your clothes and coat, and consider where your purse was in the store (if you need to take it in at all). If you can’t wash your clothes immediately, have a dedicated bin where you can segregate them until you can clean them.

The virus can survive 24 hours on cardboard and 72 hours on plastic, so follow these guidelines for sanitizing your grocery packages and counters when you come in.

Consider alternate shopping options

If you can find a way to avoid the store completely, go with that option. Most delivery services are so backed up that consumers are struggling to book time slots within a reasonable timeframe from when they are ordering. 

Here are some ways around this:

  • Be flexible with which store you are willing to buy groceries from. It’s not the time to insist that Aldi’s chicken isn’t as good as Meijer’s. 
  • Order groceries with the mindset that they will take a week to be delivered, in spite of promises on the site to have “same day” or “two-day” delivery. Instacart, for example, has been scheduling out at least five days ahead of delivery recently.
  • Combine forces with other households. Offer if your neighbors need anything if you do go to the store or place an order, and leave it on their steps to reduce direct contact with others once it’s delivered or brought home. This will also reduce the total delivery fees paid by combining into one order.
  • Consider supporting local restaurants by getting takeout whenever you are able, and when you are tired of cooking. While the sit-in section of the restaurant is closed in many places, drive-thrus and takeout options are typically not. 
  • Make a game of cleaning out the older food in your cupboard to elongate your time between grocery trips: what can you actually make out of those cans from last year that haven’t expired, a random potato, and the produce in your fridge? Experiment and get your kids involved.

  • 1 Comment

    • lemur

      Good advice there! My wife and I have started getting our groceries delivered about a month ago.

      You cannot emphasize enough the need to plan ahead when using delivery. Most delivery services have gotten a bump in demand. The time slots for deliveries are limited. So in order to get timely deliveries, it is necessary to have the grocery list ready ahead of time. With Walmart Grocery delivery, we would get our list ready on Wednesday and I’d put in the order on Thursday morning as soon as I got up, for delivery on Friday. (Same day delivery? Haha! As if!) It used to be that Walmart would show only two days of delivery time slots. They’ve now expanded it to four days but they fill up as soon as they are available.

      (Prior to the crisis, my wife would go to the grocery store on Friday morning. Our grocery list was often finalized just before she went.)

      Whatever service used for delivery, I’d advise checking time slot availability on a daily basis to keep an eye on what’s going on. You may have a surprise, like we did when Walmart decided to increase the number of days for which it shows time slots from 2 to 4. That took us by surprise and ended up messing up our schedule. Our next grocery delivery is through a different grocer than Walmart and is delayed from our regular schedule by three days. Not a big deal because we have more than enough reserves to deal with a few days of delay, but I don’t like surprises.

      Some folks might want to consider using a pick up option rather than delivery. It is cheaper than delivery but still eliminates most of the exposure. And in some areas of the country, it may be indicated even if one might prefer delivery because some people have reported their groceries being stolen by the people who are supposed to deliver them! (


      Edited to add:

      I followed my own advice and checked again delivery options this morning. Availability is definitely getting worse. As I mentioned above, we used to be able to get the grocery list together 2 days ahead of delivery, put an order the day before delivery, and then get delivery. Now I don’t see any way to do better than putting a list together 4 days before delivery to put in an order 3 days before delivery. That’s a best case scenario where you have to be very quick on your feet to put in the order as soon as new delivery slots open. If you’re not that nimble, you need to put in the order 6-7 days ahead of delivery.

      From my observation, for those retailers that offer pick up, switching to pick up does not really help with availability. I think the bottleneck is not so much with having drivers to deliver the order the logistics involved with preparing the order. Whether the order will be picked up or delivered make no difference to the work required to prepare it, the space required to temporarily store prepared orders that are still to be delivered/picked up, etc.

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