Tips for buying groceries online in a pandemic

Getting started

Plan ahead by loading your cart several days before your supplies run low. It might take several days to get a delivery slot. 

If you’re struggling to secure a pick-up or delivery slot, log on early in the morning. I’ve had the best luck between 4:30 and 6AM.

What to buy 

Buy a combination of fresh and frozen produce, buying two (not ten) of items you consume frequently. 

Choose fresh produce that lasts in your fridge for up to two weeks like: Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, carrots, beets, sweet potato, fennel, zucchini, parsnips, purple cabbage and zucchini.

Stock up on frozen foods like spinach, green beans, edamame and berries. 

Pick plant based proteins like dried or canned beans, chickpeas and lentils.

Opt for canned salmon, tuna or canned chicken packed in water. As my husband says, “It’s not just for cats anymore.”

If you buy chicken, ground meat or fresh fish put a stash in the freezer for later use.

Choose hearty whole grains like quinoa, farro, bulgar and steel cut oats. You might finally have time to cook them!

Select your delivery method

Choose curbside pick up or doorstep delivery. Fees vary but are higher for door-to-door service. Tips can be added to your online purchase.

In some areas curbside pick up (where they load your trunk) means an easier time securing a slot. 

Day of guidelines

Keep your phone or device handy in the hours preceding your scheduled order. Some items may not be available and your shopper will text you to approve or decline suggested substitutions in real time.

Other options

If you’re willing to relinquish some control over which fresh items you get try an online delivery service. Some examples are Misfits Market, Imperfect Foods or a local farm/Community Supported Agriculture membership.

These services range from $28 to $50 per week depending on size and customization preferences. Some accept SNAP/EBT (both Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods) and shipping fees range between $4.50 to $6.00 per week. While the boxed produce shares may not allow for 100% customization they’re a great way to try out new foods – especially if you enjoy getting creative in the kitchen. 

What to do when you get groceries home

There are varying schools of thought about how to best unpack groceries at home. Since this is an entirely new and evolving situation, you’ll need to decide what feels most comfortable for you. 

Thorough hand washing is critical after you carry groceries into your home, as well as before and after you put food away. Some reports suggest setting up a sanitizing station where you wipe down the exterior of cans, boxes and bags with a disinfectant wipe or cleaning solution. The problem is a lot of items (like bananas) can’t be wiped down with a bleach solution. So what to do?

What about sanitizing food packages?

The decision about whether or not to sanitize food packaging is based on personal preference. Here are the latest official CDC guidelines based on our current understanding of the coronavirus. 

“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, like a packaging container, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.”

How should I clean fresh produce?

If it comes in a bag you can wipe the outside or simply wash your hands before and after you handle it.

For loose-leaf bulk items like broccoli crowns, individual apples or unwrapped leafy greens and fresh herbs I advise:

Do not use bleach or isopropyl alcohol solutions, soap or other cleaning chemicals to wash your food. 

Veggie washes and vinegar solutions do not kill coronavirus. It’s okay to keep washing with running water. 

The virus doesn’t live more than 1-3 days on any surface (including metal) so if you’re worried just keep things in the fridge for a couple of days.

Wash (with clean water) before prepping and cooking fresh produce. 

If you’re worried about things like an apple skin, you can peel it for now (even though this is not considered necessary). 

Perhaps buy fresh produce like bell peppers in a three-pack instead of loosely (for now). 

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?