How to safely shop for groceries during the coronavirus pandemic

Experts share tips for stocking up on food and supplies while minimizing the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus and other germs.
Pandemic times shopping. A young woman wearing a protective mask and gloves buying food supplies, picking fruits in a supermarket.
Shopping for groceries these days may require a few extra steps to cut down on the spread of germs. Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY
By Katie Jackson

The coronavirus pandemic is already wreaking havoc on the restaurant industry. But with more people being advised to eat meals at home, grocery shopping has become increasingly difficult as supermarkets struggle to keep up with the overwhelming demand.

Unless you are sick, elderly or an individual with a compromised immune system, grocery shopping can still be done safely. However, there are several guidelines shoppers should follow before, during and after their next trip to the store.

For starters, food isn't the enemy.

"In general, places that sell food are hard-wired for sanitation and hygiene," Celine Beitchman, director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education, told TODAY Food. Health officials have yet to name food as a source of transmission, but since the virus spreads by human contact and can live on certain surfaces for hours, or even days, it's important to minimize any points of contact as much as possible, especially in the most public of places, like a grocery store.

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When is the best time to go shopping?

Traditionally, it's been early in the morning or late at night. But with major stores like Walmart, Albertsons and Trader Joe's cutting store hours (and more people working new hours from home), it's harder to tell these days.

"So there's brand-new data out from Retail Aware, and they are saying they looked at shopping patterns from March and April," NBC investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen told TODAY. "The best times [are] Wednesdays and Thursdays before 10 a.m. [for] the lowest crowds. Weekends are continuing to be the busiest times, so avoid the weekends if you can when going to the grocery store.

"Independent supermarkets tend to be a little less busy than the big-box stores."

Some stores in the U.S. and abroad have introduced senior-only hours in order to accommodate individuals who are most at risk.

What to do before you go

While shoppers can't control who they will encounter in the store, they can make things easier — and safer — by preparing in advance. Now, more than ever, Beitchman recommends creating a list of what you'll plan to make and eat for the days ahead.

Based on that list and your budget, make a concise shopping list. And don't just rely on non-perishables. "Fruits and vegetables provide a wealth of nutrients that support whole body health, including a strong immune system," said Beitchman.

Here's Vicky Nguyen's recommended grocery list for two weeks:

  • Grains: pasta, rice and quinoa
  • High-fiber foods: fruits, vegetables and lentils
  • High-protein foods: canned tuna, beans, frozen meat, tofu
  • Tortillas (because they last longer than bread!)
  • Some treats are OK!

Also, make sure to bring sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer with you to the store.

Don't take the whole family along

In order to streamline the trip and keep grocery stores less crowded, limit how many people you take with you — or go alone. Kids may be attending school at home but, according to Beitchman, they probably shouldn't be shopping for food unless they're old enough to help and can be counted on to keep their hands away from their faces ... and other items in the store.

Wear a mask

"The CDC and the Surgeon General have said that everyone going out into public for any reason to cover their nose and their mouth," said Nguyen. "That doesn't have to be an official surgical mask." But everyone, including store employees, should be wearing masks. "Some employees are getting pushback. I think now is the time to say to your boss, 'This is the guidance from the government. Let us wear masks."

The self-checkout might be a good idea right now, too, in terms of limiting contact with other people. "Just remember you're going to be touching a lot of things. You don't want to touch your face," said Nguyen. "But you're limiting your contact with that cashier. That protects them; that protects you."

Sanitize your surroundings

When you get to the store, use a sanitizing wipe to rub down high-touch areas like cart and basket handles. Use hand sanitizer, or wash your hands, immediately after leaving the checkout lane, especially if you used any type of touch screen for payment.

Stay focused and be mindful

"I think the best strategy is to limit your time in the store as much as possible," said Amanda J. Deering, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at Purdue University. Part of limiting one's time in the store means understanding the general layout of aisles and knowing where everything is.

Most perishables (produce and dairy) are kept around the periphery of the store, while shelf-stable processed foods and cleaning products are in the middle aisles, said Beitchman. Plan to start with the non-perishable items on your list.

Shop with your eyes, not your fingers

Deering said the riskiest areas will be those with items people touch the most, like salad bars (which should be avoided these days) and the produce section. "Make these your last stops in the store to avoid transferring the virus, if present, to other areas," she said.

Typically, picking produce involves touching and poking around for desired ripeness, but these days it's best to avoid touching anything you don't have to and use your eyes to dictate what's fresh. For example, avoid fresh foods with obvious bruises or brown spots. If the food comes in plastic packaging, be mindful to touch just the one you want to select.

"If you’re immunocompromised, consider buying pre-packaged produce that likely has undergone strict sanitation standards at the packing site," added Beitchman, who also advised cooking any raw vegetables to further cut down on the risk of contamination.

Don't hoard

Unless you're shopping for dozens of people, buying a year's worth of food may not only lead to potential waste, but it will also make it harder for others to feed those in their households. Unless your family has been placed under quarantine, current Department of Homeland Security guidelines recommend buying enough food to last for two weeks at a time. The same goes for toilet paper.

When you get home

After you wash your hands, don't forget about washing your produce. There have been no reported cases of COVID-19 being transmitted by ingesting food, but it's possible for the virus to live on surfaces. When you get home, scrub hard-skinned produce with a soft-bristled vegetable brush, using warm water. Other types of produce, like fruits or leafy veggies, can be soaked for about 15 minutes in water to get rid of excess dirt. Make sure to rinse them thoroughly before consumption.

"There is some research that says soaking fruits and vegetables in vinegar for 10 minutes will kill some bacteria," said Nguyen. "There have not been studies to say whether it can kill coronavirus. So the best advice there is really to use running water and really scrub your fruits and vegetables."

If you carried items home in reusable bags, make sure to wipe them down thoroughly, or wash them immediately, after returning home.