The current crisis

We’ve all been asked to stay home except for essential jobs and shopping for essentials, which includes food. Most people can get their supermarket trips down to once a week with a little planning.

A harrowing experience?

That’s how a friend described food shopping at this time. It’s unsettling to feel that you are taking your life in your hands, just by going to the supermarket! Wearing masks, constant wipe-downs, the “supermarket swerve” when someone avoids you with her cart—these are not what we usually expect but we’ve accepted them. It’s serious business at the grocery store these days.

Focus on what’s essential

With restricted shopping during the epidemic, you need to stock up on foods that keep well in storage: rice and other grains, beans both dried and canned, pasta, and frozen vegetables. That’s right: the very foods that went missing off the shelves in the first couple weeks of the lockdown. I remember thinking: “Wow! These people are making pretty good choices!” There’s something about a crisis that brings out people’s survival skills.

A little heat is essential!

An image I’ll never forget, from one of my first post-epidemic supermarket trips, is a very satisfied-looking young man approaching the cashier, with one large bottle of Frank’s Hot Sauce in each hand. I wondered: Did he think Frank’s will protect him from the virus? Or is life just not worth living without it?

What’s the plan?

Eventually, even the abnormal becomes normalized, and you start to see food shopping during COVID for what it always has been: an adventure and an important mission. So how to approach it?

Plan. Sit down, looking at the calendar to see what days you have least and most time to cook, and choose recipes for dinner for the week. (Where to find recipes is “everywhere,” but also a topic for another day.) Draw up a list of ingredients to buy for those meals, noting when the recipe calls for a staple you already have (like soy sauce or balsamic vinegar). Review your staples while you are at it, to see if you are running out of any. Don’t forget breakfast and lunch needs, like oatmeal, bread, and peanut butter. Stretch out your produce purchases by choosing recipes that will allow you to use a large vegetable like a head of cauliflower in two different entrées during the week.

What should you buy?

Well, start out with those items that went missing in the first panicked weeks of the coronavirus. Those people knew what they were doing.

Rice, dry beans and dry pasta last indefinitely on pantry shelves in their original packages, or in carefully sealed containers once opened. Canned goods are a time-honored way of surviving a crisis: canned beans are great, and canned vegetables can be good in a pinch (rinse both to reduce sodium). Canned tomato products (crushed, diced, sauce, paste) are indispensable. Some other canned and jarred products add a gourmet touch to your cooking: jarred roasted red peppers, capers, canned artichoke hearts. Frozen vegetables are nutritionally equivalent to fresh, but choose varieties with no added sauces (which contain lots of sugar, salt, and oil).

Limiting factors

What sends a person to the grocery store when they run out of it? For most people, plant-based or no, it’s probably bread, milk, and lettuce. But bread can be stored in the freezer; and plant-based milk comes in aseptic (juicebox-type shelf-stable) packages that can stay on your pantry shelf till opened. That leaves lettuce. Shelf-stable and frozen items, along with long-lasting fresh produce, can stretch out the time between shopping trips, making salad greens the limiting factor for plant-based shopping.

Getting fresh

But salad greens aren’t the only fresh produce you want in your kitchen. Buy a variety of whatever fruits and veggies are your favorites, and don’t forget dark leafy greens like kale. [See follow-up entry, “Save Your Veggies,” for more specific advice.] But some vegetables have a special role during an extended emergency.

At a time when your trips to the grocery store are widely spaced and could be curtailed at any time by a new directive, stock up on vegetables that last for weeks in their preferred storage space: onions and garlic (on the counter), carrots and cabbage (in the fridge), and potatoes (in a dark pantry or drawer). These vegetables also happen to be economical, and versatile as building blocks for a variety of meals when you add canned tomatoes, beans, and ethnic herbs and spices. Put them in a curry or a stir-fry; add Mexican or Middle Eastern spices for a soup or stew. The possibilities are endless!

If you do run out of lettuce, you can shred or slice cabbage (red, green, or both) along with carrots for a delicious salad. With cabbage, alway pull away leaves from the outside rather than slicing into the head, to keep the rest of the head crisp and unspoiled. Don’t forget fruit. Oranges and apples are good keepers: store at room temperature, but refrigeration can lengthen their freshness if you have room.

In bad times and in good …

We can be well nourished even in a time of shortages and restrictions. And guidelines about what foods are good for us, and how to use them to the fullest, can serve us well even when this crisis has passed.

Bonus tips for COVID shopping

No, You Don’t Need To Disinfect Your Groceries. But Here’s How To Shop Safely.
An excellent article from NPR with advice from scientists:
Click here to learn how to shop safely!

Be well!