COVID-19 concerns have many of us staying in and cooking more, so how do know how much food to buy when you're suddenly eating every meal and snack at home? We turned to an expert for help.
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Shot of a young woman shopping in a grocery store
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In this alternate reality we're all currently living in thanks to COVID-19, grocery shopping has certainly taken on new meaning. For one thing, our food needs have gone up — quite a bit. Between kids home from school, and most of us now working at home, we're preparing most, if not all, of our meals in one place.

"We live in a culture right now where we typically aren't preparing three meals a day from our home, so this whole new mindset is tipping people on end because people aren't necessarily prepared to suddenly be cooking three meals a day," says clinical dietitian Kristin Gustashaw MS, RDN, in the department of food and nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The general recommendation for emergency preparedness suggests that everyone stocks up on enough food for two weeks (in case you or a family member gets sick and has to quarantine). But how do you calculate that for your family? And how much is too much? We asked our nutritionist-turned-mathematician to run the numbers for us.

Grains

suggested amount: 4-6 servings per day

What that could look like for one person for two weeks:

  • two loaves of bread
  • one box rice
  • one box pasta
  • one box oatmeal
  • one box dried cereal

"Keep in mind, that's just for one person," Gustashaw. "If you're going to multiply that by seven, for example, now we're talking about 14 loaves of bread, and that can seem overwhelming."

That's when she advises to think about variety instead. "Rather than 14 loaves of bread, let's think about four packages of English muffins, four bags of mini bagels, six tubes of biscuits or croissants, and three packages of tortillas. That's the equivalent of 14 loaves of bread, but now you have variety, and emotionally it's not as overwhelming to see in your cart, either."

She continues, "Nutritionally, you also reap benefits, because you have different nutrient profiles the more you mix things up." For pasta, try different shapes and mixing it up with quinoa, barley, bulgur, or polenta. For oatmeal, remember that you can use it in other recipes, too.

"Oatmeal is a versatile product; you can use it in cookies, meatloaf. It doesn't just have to just be a hot cereal,” Gustashaw says.

Protein

suggested amount: 4-6 ounces per day

What that could look like for one person for two weeks:

  • one jar of nut butter
  • two dozen eggs
  • three cans of beans
  • one can of chicken
  • one pack of string cheese (12 per pack)

While you can fulfill your protein needs with meat alone, it not only may be temporarily harder to find right now, but it can be nutritionally beneficial to mix things up and think outside the usual protein sources. And just as with grains, when you mix up your proteins, it doesn't look so overwhelming in your fridge.

"Get creative beyond meat to include Greek yogurt, powder proteins, beans, nut butters, cheese," suggests Gustashaw. Speaking of dairy, make sure you also get two to three cups of milk a day. "It can be soy or almond milk, just make sure it's a good protein source, eight grams per serving," she adds.

Fruits/Vegetables

suggested amount: 4-8 cups per day

What that could look like for one person for two weeks:

  • three cans of fruits (5 cups)
  • three cans of vegetables (5 cups)
  • six bags of frozen fruit (4 servings per bag)
  • six bags of frozen veggies (4 servings per bag)
  • one bag of fresh fruit (apples, pears, or a bunch of bananas)
  • one bag of raisins/dried fruit (10 servings per bag)

Canned food gets a bad rap, says Gustashaw. "Research says that those who eat canned vegetables actually end up eating more vegetables on average versus people who don't, and the reason is quite often people buy fresh and don't eat it on time and it goes bad, so despite their best intentions they're not getting enough vegetables," she says. Eat fresh fruit first before it goes bad, or freeze it for smoothies later, she suggests.

And Don't Forget About Staples…

Most of us may have more time on our hands, so now's the time to take advantage of it — to try new recipes, learn to cook from scratch, and kickstart healthy habits, suggests Gustashaw. Stock up on staples to create your own recipes, like olive oil, canola, flour, yeast, sugar, baking power, baking soda, pancake mixes, and seasonings.

Note: While everyone's needs will be different, depending on your health or caloric needs, the suggested amounts are based on emergency preparedness for the average person per day.

Empty store shelves are seen in a supermarket as people has been stocking up for food and other essential items fearing the supply shortages in Brampton, Canada on March 22, 2020. (Photo by Sayed Najafizada/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Credit: NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images

What's Up With the Supermarket Shelves?

First, it was the toilet paper, Then, the canned goods aisle started to look a little sparse around the edges. Now, seemingly overnight, grocery store aisles have started to look picked through no matter what aisle you're brave enough to venture down.

Yes, during this unprecedented time, the empty shelves have created a chain reaction among people: hoarding.

"The thing is, hoarding in and of itself is a normal behavior among animals, we just haven't experienced it because most of us haven't, especially in America, experienced scarcity in our lifetimes," says Stephanie D. Preston, PhD, professor of psychology at University of Michigan. Taking a little more than we need is a natural reaction to stressful situations, she adds.

"We've done experiments in the lab where we'll make people feel anxious or happy or neutral, and then we offer them a variety of products for free afterwards and we say 'take as many as you want.' What we've discovered is that the people who were anxious in the study take more, so there's this direct link between uncertainty and hoarding."

Keep in mind, though, that the extreme cases of hoarding that you see on the news are there for a reason: they're the exception rather than the rule.

"They are the anomaly, not the norm," she says. "Most people are taking a little more than they need right now because they're anxious, but they're not going overboard," she says.

The good news, though, is that the supply should soon meet the demand, and the demand itself will level off as people stop unnecessary stockpiling and get more comfortable with — and better able to gauge — their new increased food needs.