How to Grocery Shop in a Pandemic

My premeditated trip to Trader Joe’s began at 7:40AM with the momentary thrill of pulling into an empty parking lot. But the cheerful sign (in TJ’s signature font) told me the store hours had been reduced. Covid-19 means they completely sell out in five fewer hours each day.  

I drove back an hour later, arriving fifteen minutes before opening time. Both parking lots were overflowing—Ah yes, the Trader Joe’s I’m used to. I contemplated aborting the mission. Then I remembered my bare-shelved fridge and two homeschoolers.

I nervously joined the throng of patrons appropriately self-spacing on the sidewalk. We waited in silent solidarity until the giant door slid open. And that’s when it got interesting because you can’t really “social distance” in Trader Joe’s. 

I spent twelve minutes and 140 dollars inside, receiving accolades from the cashier at checkout.

She said, “You move fast – that’s good. If you don’t come at 9, you shouldn’t bother coming at all.”

It was totally surreal like living a dream or being stuck in a strange movie. Until I realized it kind of felt like being on a meditation retreat. I’ve been meditating for two decades now, sitting several retreats a year. I take a vow of silence on these “vacations” which unearths all kinds of interesting things. I’m not a novice with unexpected musings I just haven’t encountered many in the supermarket.

In these times of Covid-19 I think grocery stores are fertile ground for not only viruses but something we actually want and all desperately need: Mindfulness in our activities of daily living.  

Moving swiftly through the aisles, I felt the oneness of us all pushing carts. Silently paying attention to our bodies and the bodies of others. Weaving in and out with kindness to snag, limit two, of whatever items were in stock. Noticing hands (my own and others) as they reached, touched and grabbed. Sensing limbs, breath and my jumpy mind as I maneuvered through tofu and greens. Consciously trying to give others space and not take more (literally or physically) than a reasonable share. 

A “we’re-in-this-together” feeling hung in the air. And patience, it seemed, prevailed even in the midst of obvious fear. In spite of uncertainty and not-enoughness people were trying in new and unusual ways. The only thing lacking from a meditative perspective was deep-belly, full-bodied breaths.  

In an instant that twelve-minute shopping spree became a chance for mindfulness practice. Amidst worry and uneasiness came an opportunity to pay attention in the simplest of ways. The routine task of filling a grocery cart became a heightened experience in that moment.

It’s true that as a dietitian I take grocery shopping seriously, but today was different in more than just a germ-o-phobe way. It was obligatory and otherworldly; Straightforward yet salient. Fastidious, raw and wide-awake in a mind-body sense.

It made me hopeful that these unsteady times will deliver some long-lasting lessons. Like how we might approach grocery shopping with greater kindness and compassion. It’s one item we can add to the list of possible ways we have to awaken.

On the drive home I thought of ten tips for grocery shopping in Covid-19 times:

  1. Check your local store’s website before leaving home as many places have shifted hours.
  2. Honor the hour(s) reserved for elderly and vulnerable populations.
  3. Make a list of only your highest priority items. The rest will have to be ad lib. 
  4. Use a paper list, not an App on your phone. This way you can toss it when you’re done. (Cell phones have been dubbed “the third hand,” so keep that thing in your purse or pocket while you shop). 
  5. Remain flexible, invoking the mantra: “If it’s gone, simply move on.” I love meal planning but right now the priority is food flexibility. If you’re clinging to making a menu for the week make sure it isn’t fueling rigidity. 
  6. Don’t hoard. Next time you shop you might be the one who comes up empty on something you really need. 
  7. If at all possible, do not bring your children to the store.
  8. Help your cashier by packing your own groceries. If you’re uncomfortable, wear winter gloves (you can wash them later). 
  9. Thank EVERY hard-working person at your service in the grocery store. They’re underpaid and spend all day face to face with strangers, which probably feels pretty vulnerable right now. 
  10. When you get home, wash your hands. Then unpack your groceries and wash your hands again.

Most importantly, recognize that grocery shopping is a privilege and luxury. If you’re fortunate enough to have what it takes to grocery shop: time, health, transportation, funds and access to a grocery store, try bringing some mindful awareness to the task in the coming months.

How has your perspective widened during a routine task this past week?

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