Your Guide to Grocery Shopping for a Family in the Pandemic

Even though Americans are practicing social distancing, they can still leave the house for essential purposes like buying food. Here's how to limit your exposure to the coronavirus (COVID-19) at the grocery store.

Officials have promoted social distancing—staying six feet away from others in public—to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus outbreak. Still, most people are allowed to leave the house for essential purposes, such as replenishing their food stock. (The exception: Don’t go out in public if you’re feeling sick, or if you’re under a mandatory 14-day quarantine.)

We spoke with experts about how to stay safe while grocery shopping during the pandemic. Here are their top seven tips for keeping the coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) at bay.

Limit Your Time in the Store

The coronavirus partly spreads by respiratory droplets released through coughs and sneezes. These droplets can travel up to six feet, and they could infect someone after landing in the eyes, nose, or mouth. That’s why it’s best to practice social distancing and limit contact with others.

“Prepare your grocery list ahead of time to minimize the amount of walking around you have to do to find your items,” suggests Nini Mai, DACM a clinic director of Evolve Health & Wellness. She always has her credit card “readily available” in her pocket, which saves time while checking out.

You might also consider when you want to complete your shopping. "To reduce your risk, it is highly recommended that this take place at times when the store is less busy," suggests Dr. Corey Basch, Professor & Chairperson of the Department of Public Health at William Paterson University. "For older individuals, and those with underlying health conditions, take advantage of early openings and hours that are reserved for these populations."

Touch as Little as Possible

After an infected person coughs or sneezes, contaminated droplets may land on store shelves, food boxes, and shopping cart handles. Do your best to limit contact with these items; it also doesn’t hurt to use sanitizing wipes. “Take advantage of the wipes provided to clean your grocery cart handle, or bring your own if your store doesn't provide them. Keep another wipe handy to quickly wipe down self-checkout,” suggests Octávio Costa, M.D., chief medical officer of Rafael Pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Mai also advises to avoid unnecessarily touching items that you don't intend to purchase, especially meat or produce. This practice has another benefit: If you’re actually COVID-19 positive but not displaying symptoms, not touching groceries protects other shoppers from your potential germs.

For the same reason, you should avoid paying with cash. "When paying, opt to pay electronically with apps on your phone if possible, and if not, use credit over cash. Avoiding the cash exchange is a critical part of this process," says Dr. Basch.

Woman putting shopping bags in car trunk
Pollyana Ventura/Getty Images

If You Must Shop When Feeling Sick, Wear a Mask

People with COVID-19 symptoms shouldn’t go out in public. But what if you're a single parent, and your family desperately needs groceries? “Wearing a mask can be one effective measure in preventing the spread of coronavirus from the infected person to others,” says Rosemary Olivero, M.D., division chief of infectious disease at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s because masks can stop respiratory droplets from spreading after you cough or sneeze.

However, Dr. Olivero adds, “wearing masks is not necessarily helpful for the general public to prevent themselves from getting infected with coronavirus.” Healthy Americans (those who aren’t displaying COVID-19 symptoms and don’t have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 infections) should save masks for health care workers instead.

Go Grocery Shopping Alone

Dr. Mai also suggests limiting the number of people in your group. Shop alone to limit exposure, and leave the kids at home if you can. Little kids especially might not understand social distancing guidelines, and you definitely don’t want them running up to strangers. “Many parents have asked if their child can come to the grocery store if they wear a mask,” says Marshneil Chavan, M.D., a pediatrician at a CHOC Children’s Hospital in California. “But it would be best not to bring your child to the store if possible.”

Avoid Touching Your Face

If you get infected droplets on your hands, you can infect yourself with the coronavirus by touching your nose, eyes, or mouth. “Always avoid touching your face, especially when in public areas since you can easily touch a surface without thinking,” says Dr. Costa.

Wash Your Hands Often

Once you get in the car, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Then wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds at home. You can also wash up again after putting away groceries. Proper hand hygiene is the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Be Mindful of Produce and Packaging

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that the coronavirus hasn’t been shown to transmit through food or packaging—but it never hurts to play it safe. Here are some tips to prevent COVID-19 from hitching a ride from your groceries into your kitchen.

  • COVID-19 might survive for 24 hours on cardboard, says Robert Frenck, M.D., medical director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Consider throwing away unnecessary external packages (like cereal boxes or soda boxes) and only keeping the contents. You can also wash nonporous packaging with disinfectant wipes, suggests Consumer Reports.
  • Perishables like fruits and vegetables need to be washed immediately with a bit of soap and a brush before storing. "As an extra layer of safety, their containers can be washed—again, with soap and water—before storage," adds Dr. Basch.
  • Be sure to clean all surfaces in your car or home that were touched by shopping bags and food, says Dr. Basch. Sanitize your countertops after removing grocery bags. You should use a disinfectant approved to combat COVID-19; check out a list here.
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