In many parts of the country, buying groceries has become very stressful. We see that people aren’t practicing social distancing, so going inside stores can provoke feelings that range from disgust and anxiety to anger and fear. But we have to eat while trying to keep ourselves and our families as safe as possible, so what are some strategies for buying healthy food in the time of COVID-19?
1. Check for local small-business options.
Some smaller markets and farms have quickly adapted to the pandemic with open-air pickup. While very few have managed to upgrade their websites to allow for online ordering, some have slapped up a quick web form for requests or advertised email ordering on their social media pages. Some will even call you back and tell you which of your requested items they have, and you can pay for them over the phone before picking up your order curbside. Other local markets and farms offer a printed list of available items — you drive up, choose what you want and pay, and your choices are loaded into your vehicle. If you can’t physically check the boxes, just ask your shopper to do it for you on a second copy of the list — from six feet away. If you have to use a credit card in person, just remember to wash it, along with your hands and everything else.
One of the most interesting developments is that some restaurants are converting to mini grocery stores. They are still getting food from their suppliers, and if their service has been limited to take-out or delivery, they often have a surplus to sell — usually not every day but perhaps two or three times a week. I just ordered fresh shrimp, pancake mix and beautiful produce from a locally-owned brewery — I paid over the phone and a masked and gloved person placed the bags in my trunk. It takes a little research to find out who is doing what in your community, so start by searching Google or Facebook. For example, if I enter my city plus “take-out,” the top result is a very active Facebook group that posts about lots of local options beyond prepared food, i.e., all the small markets, farms and restaurants offering drive-through grocery pickup. Try keywords like “curbside” in search engines and social media, or simply call or email your favorite small businesses, and see how they have adapted; if they haven’t come up with a no-contact procedure, maybe you can figure it out together. This is a great way to support your community while limiting your exposure.
2. Try online ordering and no-contact curbside pickup from your favorite chain grocery store.
Many regional chains offer this option, and prices vary. In my town, the big store is Harris Teeter, where you can pay $4.95 a pop or $100/year for unlimited pickup orders. Once you bite the bullet on the cost, the big challenge becomes getting a time slot. You’ll have to game out your particular store’s operating procedure, but the slots at my store are filled for a full week, so I am planning today what I need a week from now. If the store has an app, you can add groceries to your list as you think of them and periodically check for pickup slots. Delivery may also be an option in your area. In my case, delivery is available but too pricey at $16.95 per order. However, if COVID cases increase as projected, delivery fees may start to sound like a pretty good use of my stimulus check.
Note: If you are over 60, you may be eligible for discounted delivery or free pickup on certain days — check your chain’s website for more info.
3. Take advantage of Amazon Pantry.
To stock up on shelf-stable foods and household items, search Amazon Pantry. You don’t need a Prime membership to get free shipping, as long as your order totals $35 or more. To see all Pantry options, create a free Amazon account (if you don’t create an account and log in, you will see very limited selections).
4. Consider buying an Amazon Prime membership.
For $119/year or $12.99/month, you can enjoy unlimited free deliveries of any size from Amazon. Even if you buy a membership for only one or two months to get through the current crisis, Prime vastly expands your options for healthy staples, such as lower-sodium soups, unsalted nuts, and canned fruit that hasn’t been drowned in syrup. And if you have a Whole Foods in your town, your Prime membership may cover free delivery of fresh grocery orders of $35 or more. You can add instructions to your account to ensure that your deliveries are left in an accessible spot, such as a table on your porch. Update: On April 12, Amazon announced that it will ask new customers to join a delivery and pickup wait list for Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh. This means that as Amazon ramps up its ability to meet the current spike in demand, you will be “invited” to shop online for fresh groceries.
• Pro tip #1: Download the Amazon app. Having the app on your phone lets you add to your Amazon cart or Whole Foods cart any time you think of something you need, and this can be done with voice command via Alexa, if you set it up. Having the app also allows you to easily compete for the Whole Foods delivery slots because you can quickly check for openings without being tied to your computer. (In my area, Whole Foods books its deliveries for the next three days and opens slots at unpredictable times throughout a given day, so it is often possible to get same-day delivery, but you must keep checking for slots.) When your Whole Foods shopper begins working on your order, you’ll receive a text. Over the next several minutes, you’ll get a text each time something you ordered is out of stock. Click the link and accept or reject the suggested substitution that appears in the app.
• Pro tip #2: For no-contact delivery, do not include alcohol in your Whole Foods order. Even one bottle of beer means the delivery person must scan your license.
• Pro tip #3: For Whole Foods orders, a suggested tip for the driver is automatically added, but it is optional. If you can’t afford to tip, simply remove it from your order before completing your purchase. However, if you are in a position to help the workers out there taking the bulk of the coronavirus risk, by all means, do so.
5. Try Instacart or a similar delivery service.
Instacart, in 5,500 cities across the U.S., offers delivery from multiple stores. In my city, they will shop at any of five different grocery store chains plus Costco, Petco and CVS Pharmacy — and the standard delivery time is two to five hours. Stores and delivery times vary by market, so visit instacart.com and enter your zip code to see your options. As with the Amazon/Whole Foods app, you can use the Instacart app to fill your cart from your phone, add substitution choices for out-of-stock items and include delivery instructions. A note on the shoppers: These folks are freelancers akin to Uber drivers, and they can cancel an order if too many things are out of stock or they don’t think it’s worth their time to stand in peak lines at a store. If your order is cancelled, you’ll get a somewhat mysterious email notification of the cancellation that says you can easily reorder your whole cart — click here. I recently tried this and increased the tip amount, and my order was delivered promptly by a different driver. A note on fees: There is both a delivery fee of $3.99-7.99 per order and a service fee of 5% of your order. There are also alcohol fees and other potential fees in certain jurisdictions, so study the fees pages carefully. Obviously, the fees can add up quickly, so if you plan on using the service frequently, an Express membership is worth the $9.99/month or $99/year cost. Perks include no delivery fee for orders over $35 (you still pay the service fee), and the ability to order from multiple stores with no additional fee if you order $35 or more from each store. Buyer beware: Both Express options set you up for auto renewal, so remember to cancel when life finally gets back to normal.
• For a step-by-step guide to food delivery from Amazon, Instacart, Peapod and FreshDirect, click here.
• For detailed info on New York City delivery options, try this article.
Unpacking Your Groceries
Most public health authorities, including the CDC and the WHO, consider packaging to be low-risk for transmission of Coronavirus. But for grocery items that were selected and bagged not long before you get them, it is possible that the virus could be present on packaging if it was handled by an infected person. Recommendations for the general public include immediately throwing away packaging and washing your hands after opening. But if you’re cautious like me, or if you’re high-risk for developing more severe symptoms with COVID-19, you may want to consider a more thorough process. Steps include:
• Wash your fruits and veggies well, especially anything you are eating raw.
• Let food containers sit untouched for a few days if possible (canned goods, boxes, etc.).
• Wipe down plastic containers with soap and water or alcohol when practical.
• Wash your hands for 20 seconds after putting away your groceries.
• Wipe down all counter surfaces and fridge/freezer door handles with soap and water or alcohol after putting away groceries.
• Dispose of or recycle bags. If keeping them to reuse, let them sit untouched for as long as possible.
Another Option: Meal Kits
Deborah Davis, owner of the disability travel and lifestyle site PUSH Living, has used Amazon/Whole Foods delivery during the pandemic, but mostly she relies on two meal kit delivery services. Davis, a C6 incomplete quad, prioritizes organic, dairy-free and gluten-free foods, so she orders morning shakes from Daily Harvest and meal kits from Sun Basket.
“For me, with balance issues and low blood pressure, and a schedule I already can’t manage, it is far easier to pick meals online and have them delivered” than to shop, she says. “The box is large so I have to open it outside and take the meals out as I can, which is fine. I adopt the attitude that every activity is a form of exercise, rather than feel frustrated by the ‘difficulty’ of doing it the hard way due to limited function. The cost is also predictable and budget-able.”
The variety of meal kit services can be overwhelming — this post gives a good introduction to 15 of them. While Sun Basket is currently sold out due to COVID-19 demand, some companies are still taking new customers. If the prices seem daunting, Davis notes that single people may be able to stretch their meals. “The minimum two meals a week meals are for two people, so I can actually get up to four meals out of one cooking session,” she says. And buying precise portions can be a smart long-term strategy, she adds. “The sauces, ingredients, and spices are all included, which saves money by not having to purchase a larger size than needed.”