There are a lot of questions about how to buy and wash groceries during the coronavirus pandemic. Do you need to wear a mask at the store? Should you wipe down food packaging? Does washing produce with soap make it safer?
To help, we asked two experts to walk us through what a healthy trip to the grocery store looks like from start to finish. Dr. William Li, a Harvard-trained doctor and Rachael's go-to guy for health advice, and Max Teplitski, Chief Science Officer for the Produce Marketing Association, share their tips for what to do before, during, and after your shopping trip so you can keep calm, get what you need, and stay safe.
Before you leave home
Wash your hands: You know the drill by now. Frequently washing your hands under warm water for 20 seconds is one of your best defenses against COVID-19. Kick your trip off with a clean set of hands to help prevent cross-contamination.
Grab gloves: Your best bet for staying safe at the grocery store is touching as little as possible, Li says, but you won't be able to avoid touching everything. "Bring a clean pair of disposable gloves in your car and put them on before you exit the car," Li says. If you put them on right before you enter the grocery store and take them off before you get in your car, you cut down on potential cross-contamination.
Avoid touching your face: Right now, the CDC and FDA both state that medical masks should be reserved for people who have COVID-19 and medical professionals and caregivers who come into contact with infected individuals. However, if you have a mask of any kind, Li says you should wear it. "It doesn't have to be N95," he says. "Anything covering your mouth and nose will keep you from touching your face."
Use dedicated "grocery store shoes": If you want to go the extra mile, use only one pair of shoes for grocery shopping, Li says. Leave them outside the house, like in the garage or by the front door, to keep outside germs away from you and your family.
At the store
Don't touch doors: Remember Li's rule—touch as little as possible. Enter through automatic doors or use your foot to gently push the door open.
Wipe your cart/basket: "It's critical to minimize the risk of cross-contaminating produce," Teplitski says, so start your trip by wiping down the cart or basket handle. This prevents any transfer of germs from the handle to the items you select. Most stores are now providing wipes, but you'd be wise to bring your own, just in case.
Shop for produce first: Because it's not boxed, canned, or bagged, produce is your most "vulnerable" food, so grab it before you start touching all the other stuff at the store. Keep it in plastic bags to further prevent cross-contamination. And don't forget basic food safety knowledge. "Don't pick bruised fruits and vegetables," Teplitski says. "Bruised produce rots, and several studies show that bruised produce and those with small rots are more hospitable to human foodborne pathogens."
Don't linger: You don't have to run through the store, but do shop as quickly as you can, Li says. Know what you need before you head in so you can grab and go.
Keep your distance: Social distancing applies at the grocery store. Stay 6 feet away from your fellow shoppers. If aisles are small, wait for people to move away. At check-out, don't stand any closer than 6 feet from the person in front of you. Keep your distance from the cashier, too. Abiding by the 6-foot rule protects you and everyone else.
Clean your card: If you pay by card, clean it with a disinfecting wipe before putting it back in your wallet.
Avoid cross-contamination after leaving: Keep your gloves on while you're still outside. Open the car trunk and driver's door with gloves still on, and keep them on while you place bags inside. Close the trunk, but leave the driver's door open while you remove your gloves and dispose of them (in a trash can—don't leave them in the cart or on the ground where someone else could come into contact with them). Then get in the car and close the driver's door from the inside. Use hand sanitizer to clean your hands before touching the steering wheel. "All this takes more work, but it keeps you safe," Li says.
When you get home
Wash your hands: First thing's first: Wash your hands again—well. You don't want to touch your cabinets, fridge handles, and the like with dirty hands.
Clean boxes, cans, etc., if you wish: Transmission of COVID-19 through food packaging is unlikely, Teplitski says. "We have all heard of the recent study that demonstrated the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on plastic for a few days. It's important to understand that study modeled a worst-case scenario: Viral particles were misted uniformly onto surfaces, then incubated under very uniform conditions. The likelihood of COVID-19 being present in such high numbers in a uniform manner is negligible, and both the FDA and CDC are clear in that there haven't been any clinically documented cases of transmission of COVID-19 with food or food packaging."
That said, it doesn't hurt to be safe, especially if it will put your mind at ease, Li says. So if you wish to clean your packaging, put on a fresh pair of gloves and wipe down packages, boxes, and cans with a disinfecting wipe. When finished, throw away the gloves and again wash your hands thoroughly.
Clean your produce: Wash fruits and vegetables prior to consumption only, Li and Teplitski say. Washing before storing only speeds up rotting for most produce. You should never wash fruits and veggies with any form of soap or household chemical, Li and Teplitski say—only water and scrubbing. Foods that have a thicker skin, like potatoes, beets, and carrots, should be scrubbed with a clean brush to remove any dirt. Be sure to wash all produce—even those that will be peeled, like oranges. These are tips you should always follow to prevent foodborne illness, not just during the coronavirus pandemic. Take care to wash your hands after touching produce and other groceries, too.
Wash your bags: If you use reusable cloth shopping bags, be sure to launder them after each trip to the store, Teplitski says.
Wipe counters, handles, and drawers frequently: Be sure you're wiping down all surfaces regularly. Clean your fridge door and produce compartments. Wipe down pantry shelves. Keep counters sanitized. The more frequently you give surfaces a swipe, the less likely you are to face cross-contamination.