Last weekend someone close to me who works in public health received a call from a fellow medical professional, a physician employed by a university. Said doctor is one of the people who received a text from "a friend in the military" who was telling people to stock up immediately, saying the federal government was going to announce a quarantine within 72 hours. It turned out to be a hoax, according to a National Security Council text released later that night.
Nevertheless, although the text itself was fake, its urgent advice is wise. At this point if your household isn't stocked with at least two weeks' worth of supplies . . . well, I wouldn't say you're doomed. However, I would ponder aloud why you're being so cavalier about something officials have been recommending we have in place in case of what's happening right now.
If you're a procrastinator on this front, you're not alone. Americans in general have long held a lax attitude when it comes to disaster preparedness. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, only 39% of its respondents had developed an emergency plan and discussed it with their household.
Surveys conducted in subsequent years by other companies and agencies don't show much improvement: type some version of "American disaster preparedness data" into any search engine and prepare to be either depressed or relieved to know you're not the only person putting off stocking up.
It's easy to understand why that is the case. Geographically speaking, the United States is so spread out that for most people when disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and wildfires occur, they happen in areas far removed from where we live. We trust that the Red Cross or the government will handle aftermath. Maybe we send money to relief organizations.
Today, unless you live in a town that's under a "shelter in place" order or whose businesses have been ordered by local government to close until further notice, life probably feels normal. The power is on. Clean water is still flowing out of our faucets (unless you live in a place such as Flint, Michigan). Whatever emergency is underway probably doesn't feel like it's actually happening to many of us.
"I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing," said the nation's top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on Monday.
That means right now, we all need two-week (or likely more) supply of goods that will see you through whatever comes later today, or tomorrow. Officials have stressed that the food supply chain is still going strong. That's reassuring. Also, despite the widespread run on toilet paper, there's no indication of impending shortage on that front.
So, what should you put on your grocery list? Many of us have limited storage space in their refrigerators and freezers. Apartment dwellers probably don't have nearly the amount of room in their larders as people with free-standing homes. And with industries shedding jobs left and right, the need to budget is high.
Taking all of these factors into account, here's our suggested list of shopping strategies and tips for when you brave that trip to your local supermarket – hopefully not long after you finish reading this.
Shop with an eye on stability and longevity
As I stated above, in all likelihood your electricity won't blink out. Nevertheless, in times of uncertainty the wise shopper buys items with an eye on a power loss scenario, and that could happen even if your local grid stays operational. If your refrigerator breaks, you'll be regretting that splurge on a quart of salmon mousse. Instead, prioritize items that can stay viable outside the refrigerator for an extended amount of time.
In the game of durability and longevity, the hard squashes are king. We're talking spaghetti squash, acorn squash, butternut, you get it. Store them in a place that's cool and dark, and they'll last for months.
Potatoes, garlic, and onions also keep well unrefrigerated. Just don't store them together – the gas emitted by the onions can accelerate spoilage in your potatoes.
Citrus, cauliflower, and apples last for a couple of weeks at a reasonable room temperature. Of course, stored at a chilly temperature and properly wrapped, they can remain edible for much longer. Other produce fares better in the refrigerator than room temperature including broccoli and root vegetables such as parsnips, carrots and beets. Cabbage is inexpensive and, if properly refrigerated, can last for more than a month.
Leafy greens are important to maintaining health, but you can strategize here as well. Kale, collards, and other greens are more durable than spring greens or spinach. But you don't have to give those up entirely.
Don't sleep on those eggs – they can last for around five weeks in the refrigerator, and you can also freeze them. If you're going to buy milk, keep an eye on the expiration date. In the realm of cheese, the harder it is, the longer it lasts. Hope you like parmesan.
Whatever you choose to freeze, keep in mind that it's always possible for your appliances to break down. That's just a fact of life. So you may want to lay off the ice cream and frozen desserts. Yes, comforts are important when disaster strikes, but they also take up valuable space.
Save your freezer space for extra loaves of bread and frozen fruits and vegetables, which have been proven to pack as much of a nutritional punch as fresh selections. Here's where you can cater to your sweet tooth with packages of mangoes and pineapple for desserts and smoothies – but also spinach, peas, broccoli, green beans, and sliced carrots, which can be mixed in with other foods and also pack down easily in most freezers.
Seafood and meats also freeze well, so plan your meals for the next two to three weeks and shop for those proteins accordingly. But again – resist the temptation to over-purchase here. If everything goes sideways and there's a brown-out, contending with a kitchen full of rotting beef isn't something you'll want to deal with. Deli meat, though, might last a bit longer than raw.
Be careful with the dairy items that you choose to freeze. I have frozen butter with a fair amount of success, but other products don't thaw as well.
Canned foods: Canned fruit without sugar and large jars of applesauce are useful items – the latter can be used as a substitute in baking recipes. Canned tomatoes and spaghetti sauce are increasingly hard to find for a reason – they're ingredients in a number of comfort foods. So if you see these items, grab a couple of cans and jars of each but please think of others and don't hoard.
Dry ingredients: Make sure you have carbohydrate staples: flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and baking powder, as well as pasta, rice, and for all you fancy people, quinoa. Oatmeal is also a great item to have on hand even if you don't typically eat it. In a pinch it can be ground up and used as a stand-in for flour.
Legumes: You can buy canned beans, but packages of dried beans are less expensive and produce a higher yield. People who own an Instant Pot or slow-cooker know the advantages and ease of keeping a few bags of dried beans and peas around.
Soups: Comfort favorites are always good, but don't forget to grab a few cans of cream of mushroom, cream of celery, and those other 1970s favorites that mom and grandma loved mixing into casseroles.
Animal proteins: Cans of tuna and other seafood, dried meats and shelf-stable smoked meats (like smoked salmon, if you live in a place where that's readily available) are good items to have on hand in case you are ordered to shelter in place. When refrigerator and freezer stocks run low, meat eaters will be glad to have a few cans of chicken or Chicken of the Sea to dig into.
Other shelf-stable items: Pre-Pandemic-monium, it was easy to make fun of hipsters and their preference for frou-frou plant-based milks. Now, where I live, there's been a run on oat milk as well as almond- and coconut-based beverages, all coveted for their shelf-stability. Shelf-stable dairy can also be found, and is far more popular in Europe than the U.S. Grab it if you see it – you may be glad you did one day soon.
Coffee and tea: Maybe this goes without saying, but if you're a caffeine addict you really, really don't want to run out during a time that you can't leave the house. Get some extra whenever your hit the grocery store. Provided it is sealed, it'll keep for a long time.
Dried fruit and sweets: If this is indeed the end of the world as we know it, there's no reason not to be comfortable as long as possible. Dried fruits pack a lot of nutrition into a small serving size in addition to being delicious. Buy cookies if you'd like, but if you have the ingredients to bake them, that's better. And don't forget the chocolate.
Government officials have been advising us to make sure we have cold medicines and over-the-counter pain relievers on hand to ensure people can treat symptoms at home if need be. In addition to making sure you have enough cough syrup, flu and cold medicine and fever-reducers in your cabinet, do your best to purchase drinks containing electrolytes such as Gatorade. (If you're an adult with no young kids in your household, leave the Pedialyte for people who need it. That should seem like an obvious statement…and yet.)
Now is not the time to be coy or choosy about having extra feminine products on hand, either. Ditto for hand soap (for obvious reasons), dishwasher, and laundry detergent, and if you can get your hands on it, basic cleaners such as bleach and hydrogen peroxide. While other people stalk down those tubes of Clorox wipes, go for the bottle of Clorox bleach or its generic equivalent instead.
It's also important to stock up for your pets. Cat litter, pet food, medications, any regular items they typically need, grab a little extra.
Having extra water on hand is also a good idea. However, please leave the distilled water for people who need it for their medical devices or other special needs. In most places your tap water is fine to drink, and if you're really unsure about it, invest in a filter. Then save a few water-tight containers as they empty, clean them well and fill them from your tap.
Last things to keep in mind
Despite the urgency expressed here, it's important to refrain from shopping in a state of panic. That's as unwise as shopping hungry – you may buy items you don't need, or too much of one thing and not enough of something else. Take time to do an inventory of your needs, make a list, inhale a few breaths before you go into the store.
Also, and I can't express this enough: resist the urge to hoard. There's absolutely no reason that anybody should not be able to buy essentials right now, and you don't want to be the guy driving around with a truck-bed full of toilet paper for no reason other than being able to haul it.
Having said that, as you shop if you come across items that are harder to come by like bleach or Isopropyl alcohol, consider purchasing an extra container – just one – for someone else who may need it. I was fortunate enough to go to a major big box store when they had just restocked their hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol and bleach the other day, and although I had those items on hand, I picked up an extra of each just in case.
Not long afterward I received a call from a friend of mine who is a massage therapist, and who was panicked at having run out of alcohol to sanitize her table. In that moment I was happy to have been able to pass along the bottle I had just bought. For me, that extra may have provided psychological security, but for her it means the ability to continue earning money so she can eat.
This brings me to my final thought: take care of the people around you. If you're lucky enough to be able to afford and to store two weeks' worth of supplies, think about those around you who don't have the means to do so either financially or physically. Looking after the welfare of your neighbors and community is also a way of taking care of yourself. That, too, is an essential part of making it through any disaster . . . even the ones we don't yet notice.