In just a few short weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed our lives, from how we work to how we handle grocery shopping—if we can leave the house at all.
With some cities and states now thinking about easing social restrictions to reopen businesses, it’s more important than ever to be extra careful when it comes to running even the most essential errands. Although online ordering through services like Fresh Direct or Instacart is a great alternative to taking an extra trip outside the house, in dense areas like New York and Los Angeles, it’s been almost impossible to nab a slot. Curbside pick-up from major retailers is also a good option, but not all stores offer it and, again, it can be hard to access.
Whatever the reason, a trip to get groceries is something many of us can’t avoid. Given that the FDA recommends planning your shops so that you bring home enough food to last you at least one week, and maybe two—a little longer than most of us are used to—a little strategizing can ease a lot of stress and make the process safer overall. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best tips to help shoppers stay safe while grocery shopping, including the best times to go, how to get in and out of stores safely, and what to wear to make the trip.
Before You Go
Get there before—or after—everyone else. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends going to the store early in the morning or quite late at night, when others haven’t started shopping or are wrapping up their days. Night owls, this is when to take advantage of those chains with 24/7 hours. Early risers, make sure to check your preferred retailer’s website before you head out the door; some stores are reserving their first open hour or two for seniors.
Research when your local store is busiest. Google Maps tracks foot traffic at stores and other retail outlets with user-submitted data, then breaks it down by hour. Search your local grocery store before you shop to see when it’s emptiest. Sunday at 10 a.m., for example, is probably going to be busier than Tuesday at 7 a.m. If you have a flexible schedule, aim to go at a less busy time.
But also consider shopping somewhere you don’t usually frequent. Big-box stores aren’t the only option, especially if you live in a city with more speciality retailers. If the prospect of a crowded store stresses you out (understandable!), there are other options besides braving the masses or online ordering.
Look for mom-and-pop shops or midsize chains, like the beloved East Coast–headquartered H Mart, a Korean-American supermarket with 61 locations across the United States. Check out local grocers, which might have just the ingredients you need to inspire you to break out of a cooking rut.
But be sure to look up websites in advance; those are often tailored with specific information about what a store does and doesn’t have in stock and what policies it has implemented to protect shoppers and workers. Call ahead to find out more or to ask specific questions.
Stretch your trip to the store and support local farmers or small businesses at the same time. Do a quick search to see if there are any Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes in your area, or local butchers, bakers, or even restaurants, who’ve pivoted to delivering some bulk items or allowing shoppers to pick up prepaid orders from local greenmarkets or their storefronts.
With CSAs, you’re supporting local farmers and getting the freshest ingredients. Visit LocalHarvest.org to research CSA options near you.
Make a list the old-fashioned way—and plan ahead. Lots of us use our phones to make grocery lists, but it’s time to consider going back to the old pen-and-paper kind. Organize it by grouping things to match the layout of the store (produce, baking supplies, etc.). Writing down your usual essentials reduces browsing once you’re in the aisles, and taking time to plan meals ahead of time keeps down the number of trips you have to make. Plus, if you have a physical list, you can keep your phone in your pocket, which means one less round of sanitizing it when you get home.
Grab a face covering. Ideally, you’d have a mask to cover your nose and mouth when you leave your house (and if you’re in a state like New York, it’s already an order in places where you can&apost social distance).
The CDC recommends a face covering of any kind, as does the FDA. It’s easy to tie a bandana or scarf so it covers your nose and mouth. Here are their tips for how to tie one safely. And here’s our guide to finding a face mask available online.
While You’re There
Bring your own disinfecting wipes and/or sanitizer. Most stores have wipes for cart handles by now, but bring some with you just to be sure, per the CDC. Make sure to sanitize your hands once you’ve left the store, and don’t touch your eyes or fiddle with your face mask while you’re inside.
Try to pay with a contactless card or mobile payment like Apple Pay. Don’t have that? Be sure to wipe down ATM keypads, dispose of gloves, or sanitize your hands after entering a PIN on the card reader.
If you can, BYO cart. And think ahead if you want to use reusable bags. If you have a metal cart that can be wiped down and sanitized, use that instead of the grocery store carts. For reusable bags, stick to washable totes. And heed the counsel of University of Washington nutritionist Ann-Marie Gloster, who told Vox that shoppers should throw bags straight in the wash once they&aposve unpacked their groceries.
Go alone and leave the kids at home. The fewer people exposed to others in a store, the lower the risk. If you can shop alone, do it. If you have kids and someone at home who can look after them, coordinate your shop for when they can be cared for and you can focus on the task at hand. If that’s not possible, don&apost worry! Just sanitize their hands, coach them not to touch things, and try to make sure they stay away from other shoppers while you’re on the move.
Try not to touch your face. This might be the most difficult step of all and the one you’ve heard the most since the outbreak began, but the CDC’s science backs it up too.
Stay six feet away from other shoppers. If you happen to be sharing an aisle, remember that the FDA and CDC currently recommend maintaining this distance to reduce the risk of transmission. Honor the one-way signs on the aisles, if your store has established them.
Look beyond the first row of products. “Grab items that are not as prominently visible—they’re less likely to have been extensively examined and touched by other shoppers,” says Nidhi Ghildayal, Ph.D, a public health researcher and health decision scientist at the University of Minnesota. And be a conscientious shopper! Whatever you touch, you should be taking home with you. Avoid picking things up and then putting them back on shelves.
Be kind. These are difficult, stressful times. While many of us are going grocery shopping only once a week or every two weeks to keep our families safe, the employees at our supermarkets are stocking shelves for hours at a time. Let’s show our gratitude and be polite.
Once You’re Home
Wash your hands. This should be the very first thing you do, says the FDA. Warm soap and water. Twenty seconds. You know the drill.
Put your purse away. “After grocery shopping, I tend to put my purse aside for a couple of days. Because I’m not leaving the house, I have the time to let any germs that may have made its way onto its surface die,” says Ghildayal. And disinfect your phone.
You don’t necessarily need to wipe down food packaging. According to the FDA, there’s no current evidence that food packaging is involved with transmitting COVID-19, so they don’t directly advise disinfecting your groceries and wiping down packaging. Per their website: “Again, there is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, if you wish, you can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air-dry, as an extra precaution.” So if it makes you feel better, there’s no shame in the Lysol game.
But please do wash your produce. You are hopefully doing this anyway! But only use water. There’s no need to spray your food down with chemicals or even soap, which can in fact be dangerous.
Wash your hands again after putting away your groceries. The FDA advises washing hands once again after you put away your groceries.