Chef on a Budget: How to Grocery Shop During a Pandemic

According to CNBC, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As people across the United States face heightened financial insecurity, it leaves them wondering how their basic needs, such as the means to afford food, will be met. College students might find grocery shopping challenging, as this is likely the first time in their lives they’ve been on their own. Additionally, how should everyone buy their meals and make them stretch to minimize spending and the number of trips to the grocery store? As the virus is spread through person-to-person contact, it’s important that everyone stay home as much as possible. The grocery store is a prime location to unintentionally come in contact with infected individuals, or spread the virus if you’re asymptomatic.

Before shopping, survey your kitchen and make a list. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to shop aimlessly. A list helps you stick to your budget and spend less time in the store. Additionally, it helps you get an idea of what meals you’d like to prepare for the week, including ingredients you already have in the pantry. A list of pantry staples usually includes: 

  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Canned goods
  • Sauces
  • Cereals (hot and cold)
  • Broth

Staple foods are part of a healthy and affordable meal, because they’re inexpensive, easy to buy in bulk, and have long shelf lives. Frozen fruits and veggies, cooking oils, and seasonings and spices are other cooking essentials that last a long time and are relatively inexpensive. It might be hard to find quality fresh fruits and veggies if you live in a food desert, so frozen is just fine (and just as healthy).

As well as knowing what to buy, proper food storage is important to ensure that it doesn’t go to waste. Items like milk and eggs should be stored on a shelf in the back of the refrigerator – NOT the door – to preserve shelf life. Due to opening and shutting, the door is the warmest part of the fridge and can make your perishables go bad faster. Additionally, unless you plan to cook your meat within a day or two, store it in the freezer. Uncooked meat and poultry go bad in the refrigerator after a few days. A complete guide and a chart on how to properly freeze food, courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), can be found here.

For many of us that are staying home, grocery shopping is the most excitement we’ll get out of the entire week. However, given the circumstances, it can also be a bit nerve-wracking. Be mindful of your surroundings when shopping by keeping your distance from other customers and sales associates, wearing masks, and washing your hands as soon as you get home. If you’re one of the anointed few who found hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, these are useful when in contact with germy cart handles and other surfaces outside of the home. Even if you’re using hand sanitizer while shopping, keep washing your hands with soap and water.

If you’ve taken inventory of your kitchen and started a grocery list, but you’re still stumped on what to make, there’s a plethora of recipe ideas online in the form of videos, blogs, and mobile apps. Listed below are some helpful resources.

Budget shopping:
$5 Dinners: Quick and Affordable Meals
$5 Dinner Ideas: Budget Friendly Affordable Meals
Healthy on a Budget: $20 Grocery Trip
How to Eat for $10 a Week: Emergency Extreme Budget Food Shopping Haul
Pandemic Pantry Weekly Menu: Family of 4 Survival With On-Hand Food Only * Week 1*

Recipe ideas:
Yummly (meal planner)
3 Healthy Budget Recipes
10 Budget Recipes and Cheap Easy Meals You Should Try
60 Cheap Dinner Ideas for Under $10
$30 for 1 Week of Dinners

Shopping on an extreme budget might take some getting used to, but it doesn’t have to be difficult, unhealthy, or tasteless. Whether you’re a single young adult or taking care of an entire family, there are ways to buy and prepare enjoyable food without breaking the bank (even if we are in the middle of a global crisis). The hyperlinks above are just a few of the helpful resources out there, but what’s listed is a good place to start. 

In the midst of all this, please remember that you’re not alone. What we’re witnessing is frustrating, confusing, and scary but we’re in it together. If you need more ideas, reach out to family members and close friends (by phone or Zoom, of course) and ask them how they’re feeding themselves and their families. Share this article with people you think will find it helpful. Now more than ever is the time to reach out and support one another, even if it’s with something as mundane as grocery shopping. If you’re in a position to help others, please consider donating to your local food pantry and blessing someone else in need. We have to do all that we can to keep ourselves and others healthy, connected, and fed.

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