The Coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of people worldwide to re-think the way they shop, cook and eat. Many of us try to minimize the time spent outside of our homes, and going grocery shopping may be one of the more stressful tasks that we are facing on a regular basis.
The stay-at-home-order was issued just days after my family and I moved out of Manhattan into the countryside of Upstate New York, where it felt much easier to isolate from the crowds. However, going grocery shopping still continues to cause a lot of anxiety for me. Unfortunately we live in an area where getting groceries through an online delivery service is not an option. So while I always loved going to supermarkets before, it is now an errand I am dreading, and I miss the inspiration I enjoyed from browsing the food aisles, and the smiles that a simple friendly interaction with another customer would put on my face.
To leave our house less frequently, we decided that we would limit our grocery store trips to a maximum of once weekly. But after I ended up having to throw out an entire box of rotting salad greens, it was clear that my shopping methods needed an update! Here are my favorite tips to make shopping less stressful, more efficient and cost effective!
- Start your shopping trip by taking stock of everything you already have in your fridge and pantry. Also make sure to check the expiration dates of packaged items, to see if you have things that need to be eaten first before you buy new ones.
- Save time while you shop by taking a “mental” tour of your supermarket and write down a shopping list organized by aisle. Depending on the layout of your local store, you can start with all the fruits and vegetables, move on to the dairy aisle, the meat counter, the baking aisle, and so on. Save frozen foods for last, so that they will have less time to defrost before your check out
- Plan to buy a mix of fresh foods (like fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and dairy products) shelf stable foods to stock up on (these include rice, pasta, dried legumes, canned, jarred and pickled foods as well as nut butters, preserves and shelf-stable UHT milk or milk alternatives) and frozen foods that will come in handy once the fresh foods are all used up.
- To maximize your budget and resourcefulness, create a rough outline of the foods and dishes you will want to prepare, cook and eat during the next week, taking all family members’ individual preferences and dietary needs into consideration.
- Avoid over-purchasing or “panic buying”. In some areas, this shopping behavior has led to an increase in prices, and a shortage of certain items for other people in need. Before buying items in bulk, compare the unit prices and consider what you will actually need. Otherwise you may end up spending more money than necessary and facing the challenge to store excess groceries that you may not have the space for.
- Instead, make a meal plan for main dishes that incorporate using one or more of the same ingredients in different recipes; that way you can save money by buying larger quantities and reducing waste.
Plan your meals:
- If fresh products such as fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products continue to be available in your store, plan on using those ingredients first, since they have the shortest shelf-life.
- Once the fresh produce is used up, you can move on to using frozen fruits and vegetables. Canned fruits and vegetables are usually less nutritious and higher in sodium than fresh or frozen ones, so they should be saved for last, when you have run out of fresh options.
- Staying on a lower budget is of concern for many people at this time, and rationing ingredients that you have limited supply of may feel compromising to some. It can even lead to making unhealthy food choices! In these cases it helps to have one wholesome (and inexpensive) side dish that is available for people to eat as much as they want. For example, if there is only 1 small piece of meat per person, you can serve it together with a huge pot of rice, or a large loaf of whole grain bread that everyone can fill up on.
Reduce food waste:
- When cooking at home, consider preparing larger portions of some dishes and freezing half of it for a later day.
- Freeze or store leftovers as snack option or to use as a side-dish with another meal.
- Make the most out of food scraps that you would normally throw away, like turning the stems of broccoli into a broccoli slaw salad or pureeing them into a soup. How about turning the crushed-up bits of corn flakes or crackers at the bottom of the bag into an alternative to breadcrumbs? Or maybe into a crunchy topping for salads or vegetable dishes? There are so many ways to become creative with leftovers!
- Bread that has gone stale (but not moldy!) can be used to make delicious French toast, bread pudding or croutons
Keep guidelines for healthy nutrition in mind:
- Try to eat something fresh with every meal: Some fresh foods spoil quickly (like blueberries or salad greens), while others last longer (like apples or kale). Creating a meal plan for the week ahead will help you to plan your shopping and food storage accordingly.
- Limit your sodium intake: If fresh foods are not available, you may need use more canned, frozen or processed foods than usual. When shopping for those, try to look for those that say “low sodium” or “no salt added” if available, and buy frozen vegetables without added seasoning. Don’t add salt to dishes while cooking, but instead, feel free to use herbs and spices generously. If you think that your meal still needs salt, sprinkle a little on top of your food just before eating. (Scientists have found that adding salt to a dish this way is much more efficient, since it will be the first thing to touch your tongue and therefore creating a much better salty taste than if the salt has “disappeared” somewhere inside your meal.)
- Adjust your portion sizes: While working from home and self-isolating, many of us are a lot less active during the day and may need to reduce our overall food intake in order to maintain a healthy body weight.
- Limit your fat intake: Many prepared foods and frozen dinners contain higher amounts of fat than if you would cook those dishes at home. If possible. choose plain frozen vegetables and use low-fat cooking methods like steaming or grilling instead of frying. Read nutrition labels to avoid trans-fats and hydrogenated oils.
- Know your carbs: In times of stress or uncertainty, we often crave “comfort foods” and may find ourselves snacking more and eating less healthy than usual.
- Including a lot of healthy fiber in our diet: Is not only important to keep our digestive system running smoothly, it will also help to keep us feeling full longer. Examples of healthy fiber include whole grain products, brown rice and legumes. Trying to identify if you are really hungry, or if your appetite for something sweet has an emotional background, can be a very interesting exercise. If you notice that you feel anxious, sad, or simply tired, try a relaxation technique, talking to a loved one or even drinking a cup of tea first. If you still want to satisfy that sweet tooth, take a small portion of whatever it was that you were craving and enjoy it along with some fresh fruit, making sure to savor every bite! When buying canned fruits, look for those that are canned in fruit juice, not in syrup, and avoid drinking sodas or sweetened beverages.
Enjoy your meals!
Many people usually do not have a lot of time to cook meals at home, and this may be a great opportunity for you to focus on preparing healthy dishes for yourself or for your whole family. Take advantage of the abundance of recipes available on the internet, take inspiration from blogs, cooking forums or social media pages.
While planning my shopping and meals for days and weeks in advance was an unfamiliar challenge for me, I was thrilled to find out that my parents, who used to regularly go on month-long boat trips, and many of my friends who are avid campers and road-trippers, had lots of experience and ideas for what to eat and how to improvise with limited storage and refrigeration space.
Use the opportunity to exchange recipes with friends, share meals with your family (either in-person or via face-time), or involve your children by teaching them how to cook and help in the kitchen.