With stay-at-home orders in place, most of us are donning our chef’s hat (and sweatpants) far more than usual. For many, cooking has become not only a life-sustaining necessity, but also pure quarantine entertainment. It nourishes our bodies and keep our minds present.
However, it’s the step leading up to it — buying the food — that’s now become one of the biggest stressors in life. Whether navigating tight supermarket aisles or waking up early to grab one of the last online delivery slots, grocery shopping is not just a chore, but it’s one ridden with anxiety.
The good news: There’s currently no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Yet, there are still plenty of safety measures to practice as you unpack your next grocery haul. Put these tips to use to keep yourself, and your food, safe while quarantining.
First and foremost: Minimize supermarket trips
The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, according to the CDC. In other words, you’re much more likely to get the coronavirus from being around someone who’s sick than from touching a box of cereal.
“Your risk from going to the grocery store is bigger — much bigger — than your risk from getting it from food,” Don Schaffner, food microbiology professor at Rutgers University told Inquirer reporter Jonathan Lai. “At the grocery store, you might stand by somebody who’s symptomatic or asymptomatic." Asymptomatic means people who aren’t showing symptoms, but still carry, and transmit, the virus.
If you can afford it, make a list and try to buy one to two weeks’ worth of groceries at a time. (A list will help you move more quickly and efficiently through the store.) And if you can swing it, grocery delivery (especially contactless options) is even better.
Wash your hands before and after handling groceries
Along with social distancing, handwashing is one of your best lines of defense against COVID-19. By the time you’ve returned from the supermarket, or just from scooping up a grocery delivery at your front door, you’ll have come in contact with several high-touch surfaces. (Your doorknob, house keys, car steering wheel or bike handlebars, and phone all fall into that category.)
To stay safe and clean, the CDC advises to wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Do this first thing when you enter the door, and again, after putting away groceries. That second step is part of basic food-borne illness prevention, which, according to the USDA, is extra important when handling meat and fish.
Wash produce — without soap
There is no evidence that you can get the coronavirus from groceries. But you can get food-borne illness such as from E. coli, and it’s important to avoid getting sick right now, for any reason, while our health-care system is stressed.
While we’re all working on stepping up our hand-lathering habits, there’s no need to employ that soap on your fruits and veggies. In fact, it could actually do more harm than help.
According to the USDA, since soaps and detergents aren’t approved by the FDA, you could end up ingesting residues absorbed on the produce, which may make you sick.
Rosemary Trout, program director of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University, recommends using a plain old scrub brush, especially for produce with roots and stems that often trap dirt.
Feel free to clean packaging, but mainly for extra peace of mind
Studies show that the coronavirus can live for 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. But, according to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the levels of the virus drop dramatically within a few hours. And, again, the FDA reports that there’s currently no evidence to support the transmission of the virus from food packaging.
Yet, even if just for peace of mind, it won’t hurt to wipe down containers. Just make sure to only use soap and disinfectant sprays on sealed, nonporous containers (like glass pickle jars and plastic condiment bottles). You don’t want your food to come in contact with the disinfectant.
Alternatively, you could place nonperishable items in a designated area for a few hours before use. By that time, if there had been any virus on the package, it will now be significantly reduced. For produce, feel free to rinse and store in your own Tupperware containers. Experts aren’t urging consumers to take this step at this time, but if it makes you feel less stressed, go for it. At the least, you’ll have clean and ready to use ingredients when you need them.
Keep up with routine kitchen cleaning
To prevent foodborne illnesses, you should already be regularly disinfecting your kitchen. And you certainly shouldn’t be stopping now.
“Have a backup supply of soap,” says Trout. “You always want to keep your kitchen clean because food is a really good format for growing microorganisms. You can use cleaning agents, like bleach and Lysol, but soap and hot water is one of your best cleaning tools.”
If using dishcloths to wipe down surfaces, the USDA advises to wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine. Now’s also a good time to take stock of any unnecessary clutter on your countertops.
“When you have more stuff, there’s just more surfaces for pathogens to grow, and it makes it harder to clean,” says Trout.
When scrubbing down surfaces, make sure to add cabinet handles into your routine. Take note of other high-touch surfaces, like knobs for the stovetop and oven, and handles and buttons on the microwave and dishwasher. And don’t forget the faucet, which, while serves to clean your hands, is regularly turned on with dirty fingers first.
Try to find comfort in cooking. Your biggest coronavirus threat is other people, not food. At this time, there aren’t any major new coronavirus protocols to abide by inside your kitchen, aside from staying extra mindful about cleaning and basic foodborne-illness prevention practices. Washing your hands before and after cooking and eating is, and was always, a smart idea. Stick with it.