Experts say delivery services are probably a safer option, but if you have to go shopping yourself, follow this protocol.

By Betty Gold
Updated April 01, 2020

Safety is top of mind right now, and for good reason. People all over the world are following protective protocol and health guidelines to avoid contracting and/or spreading the novel coronavirus, including social distancing, proper hand-washing, taking safety precautions when having items delivered, and being vigilant about maintaining a strong immune system. As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, accomplishing what used to be “everyday” tasks and chores can mean crippling anxiety for many—grocery shopping in particular.

Indeed, now that shelter-in-place orders are being enforced by the government in several states in an attempt to flatten the curve, many are increasingly (and rightfully) fearful of leaving their homes. While these practices are meant for the health and safety of every American, one of the biggest obstacles for those in voluntary quarantine has been figuring out how to feed themselves and their families. Some have looked to grocery delivery services, which is a safer measure than facing crowds (not to mention shortages) in grocery stores.

But delivery isn’t a viable—accessible, affordable—option for everyone, and many have continued to buy food and supplies at brick-and-mortar grocery stores. Eating isn’t exactly optional. But preparing for what used to be a simple grocery shopping excursion is suddenly overwhelming: What’s the best way to avoid crowds? Should we be wiping down every carton, container, and cucumber? Are plastic gloves a good idea? Based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and several health experts, here’s what we know about grocery shopping safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recognize your risk.

You should only go to the grocery store—or anywhere outside your home for that matter—if and only if only you’re feeling completely healthy and absolutely confident that you haven’t been exposed to COVID-19. Keep an eye out for symptoms before you take the leap, including respiratory illness, difficulty breathing, cough, and fever. “The most important reminder: if you are unwell for any reason, you should stay home,” says Max Teplitski, PhD, chief science officer for the the Produce Marketing Association and former acting director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NIFA food safety and nutrition divisions. “Do not put on a mask and venture outside to run errands. If you are unwell, just stay home, contact a medical professional as appropriate, and order a home-delivered meal or groceries.”

According to the CDC, people at high-risk for getting seriously ill from this virus—including older adults or those with autoimmune issues or other chronic health problems—should remain particularly cautious when leaving their homes. For this population, it may be smartest to skip the grocery store entirely. However, many shops have begun introducing “seniors-only” times, which is another safer option for elderly Americans.

Limit the number of trips you take by going in with a game plan.

Make grocery store trips as infrequent as possible by stocking up as much as you can (within reason—no hoarding) on each visit. One endeavor a week is plenty, as you’re putting yourself and others at risk every time you enter a public place.

The easiest way to manage this is to be completely prepared before you leave the house. “Careful planning prior to shopping saves time, and helps you avoid impulse shopping for all the wrong stuff,” says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, and medical advisory board member for Persona Nutrition. Somer recommends making a list after you check your cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer for needed items so you can focus your efforts on what you actually need. “Planning out your week's meals and snacks ahead will also help you stay on track and reduce the number of trips to the store,” she says. Keep a list posted on your refrigerator so you and your family members can jot down needed items throughout the week, and organize the items on it according to the sections of the grocery store.

Go when it isn’t crowded, and always keep a distance between you and other people.

Because COVID-19 is mostly transmitted through close contact with other individuals, the key to going out in public safely is to be mindful of social distancing protocol. “The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person—between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet),” states the CDC. Avoid stores with any large groups of people inside. Typically, early in the morning and later at night are the least crowded hours. If maintaining a six feet barrier between you and others isn’t possible, leave the store and try another time of day (or another store entirely). If you see friends, family, or colleagues when shopping, avoid hugging or shaking hands. Wave, smile, and speak at a distance—keep interactions as brief as possible by making plans to video chat at a later date.

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Stock up on shelf-stable items.

In addition to making an organized game plan and grocery list ahead of your shopping trip, stocking up on items that won’t immediately expire will help curtail the number of times you’ll have to revisit the supermarket. Check out this list of emergency food items and reference our kitchen staples guide to make endless easy recipes at home. If you’re looking for healthy options, check these RD-recommended shelf-stable foods.

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Additionally, purchase produce that has a longer shelf-life. “Hard-skinned squashes, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes will keep for months in a cool dry place,” says Dr, Teplitski. “If you have a cool basement, all citrus fruits, cabbages, carrots, beets, white potatoes, watermelons, and apples will store pretty well, as well as Brussels sprouts that are still attached to the stem.” In the refrigerator, Teplitski says that most leafy greens will keep for about two weeks, and napa cabbage and cauliflower can keep for a couple of months. See our ultimate guide to keeping food in the fridge and freezer fresh as long as possible here.

When shopping, don’t linger and don’t touch.

The CDC has reassured Americans that COVID-19 isn’t known to be spread through food or food packaging. This means that packaged foods and fresh produce that have been properly washed are safe to consume, and food that’s been properly handled and prepared poses minimal risk of transmitted coronavirus. However, you still must follow safety protocol to avoid transmitting the virus person-to-person or from touching surfaces that are insufficiently sanitized. “When going to the grocery store, try to avoid touching objects as much as possible,” recommends William Li, MD, a physician, scientist, and author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. “Bring a clean pair of disposable gloves in your car, and put them on before you exit the car. Do not touch your face. If you have a mask (it doesn’t have to be N95, anything covering your nose and mouth will help keep you from touching your face), wear it. Let automatic doors open for you, or use your foot to gently push open the door. If you have disinfecting wipes, wipe down the handle of the grocery cart or basket.” Most supermarkets are providing free wipes, but if they don’t, bring your own to clean your cart’s handles. You can also use them to open fridge and freezer doors.

Choose cashless payment options, if possible, and follow the doctor’s orders when exiting.

“When at the cashier, if you can, pay with mobile pay or use a credit card,” says Dr. Li. “Just make sure you wipe down the card with a disinfecting wipe.” He recommends trying not to exchange bills and coins. “Next, exit the store using the automatic doors, or use your foot to gently open it. When you get to your car, place your bags inside. Keep the door open. Remove your gloves and dispose of them. Then return to the car and close the door. Use hand sanitizer to clean your hands before touching the steering wheel. All this helps keep you safe,” he adds.

Wash your hands immediately after, and avoid touching your face.

“Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after you have been in a public place,” advises the CDC. If soap and water are not readily available after shopping, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. “Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.”

Follow proper protocol to prevent cross-contamination.

Once you’re home, consider disinfecting all nonporous containers. You can use regular disinfecting wipes, or follow the CDC’s guidelines for making an at-home diluted chlorine bleach solution: mix 1/3 cup of bleach per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. Wipe your containers with this solution and let it sit for one minute on the surface until you dry it off.

In regards to fresh produce, Dr. Teplitski says to always wash your fruits and vegetables immediately prior to consumption, even if you are going to peel them. “Wash them under running water—NO soap, NO bleach, NO Lysol, NO other concoctions of household chemicals—for at least 20 seconds. Produce that is labeled ‘ready to eat’ (such as many bagged salads) do not need to be washed again,” he says. And never wash raw meats: “The splatter created during washing of meats will cover your entire kitchen in foodborne bacterial pathogens that may be found on raw meats, fish, or poultry carcasses.”

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Wash hands again when you’re finished, and wipe down surfaces.

After you’ve finished putting your groceries away, wash your hands again and clean all areas your grocery bags may have touched (here’s our guide for exactly how). Finally, remember to thoroughly wipe down hard kitchen surfaces—like your countertop, oven handles, and refrigerator door—frequently. “Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings,” states the CDC.

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