This page will be updated as new information becomes available [Last update: 04.30.20]

The world has been surprised by a massive threat. A global pandemic has brought us to our knees. What can we do to try to stay healthy as individuals?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection, which causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), first emerged in China in December 2019 and has now spread worldwide. It is now time to “stay at home” and practice social distancing

But the measures adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may contribute to changes in food purchasing and eating behavior. For example, we may shop less frequently and we might need to organize our trips to the supermarket in a different way. In the midst of this new level of uncertainty when it comes to our access to food, how can we continue to eat smart?

Read on to get answers to some of the most common questions going through our minds right now.

Rinse your leafy greens thoroughly with water.

Safety First: Can SARS-CoV-19 be transmitted through food?

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no evidence to date of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through the consumption of cooked or raw food. According to EFSA, “the experience of previous outbreaks with coronavirus, namely with the SARS-CoV coronavirus and with the MERS-CoV coronavirus, show that its transmission did not occur through food consumption.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that “foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

In the meantime, FDA recommends four key steps for safely dealing with food to prevent any foodborne illness: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. This means that it is better to act preventively. 

We know that the coronavirus infection is typically characterized by respiratory symptoms, which indicates droplet transmission. This means that you can get sick if droplets from other people’s coughs and sneezes land on you and make their way into your mouth, nose or eyes. You can help prevent virus particles from ending up in your mouth, nose or eyes by washing your hands thoroughly (with clean water and soap for a minimum of 20 seconds) before touching your face or eating. 

There are a few other habits you can also be mindful of in order to prevent bringing virus particles into your mouth, nose or eyes. Do you enjoy the smell of strawberries, blueberries and grapes? Well, perhaps this is not the best time to enjoy smelling fruits and vegetables while grocery shopping (or taste test them before washing). Another innocent habit to avoid is licking the ends of your fingertips to separate plastic produce or grocery bags when you’re in a hurry. Not only might you contaminate yourself, but these actions may increase the spread of the virus if you are sick but you don’t know it yet because you aren’t displaying symptoms.

For now, let’s just dream of farmers’ market scents and be public health agents!

How much food should I stock up on?

In a situation of quarantine or isolation at home, it is important to ensure that you have food stores that will last you a few days to a week at a time, so that you will have access to food should anything happen (like you becoming sick, or limited inventory at your local supermarket on any given day). This can also help you avoid frequent shopping trips to the supermarket, where coronavirus transmission and infection is a risk.

But supermarkets also depend on our purchasing behaviors in order to best manage their stocks. This means that responsible purchasing – buying in adequate quantities and but not over-buying – will be essential in this period. In fact, food hoarding may not help you as much as you think it might, because it may stimulate excessive food consumption. Evidence shows that people with obesity hoard more calorically dense and high-fat foods than their lean counterparts.

So try to buy enough food to last you a week or so, but not more unless you are purchasing under special circumstances (such as for someone at risk of serious illness who needs to stay at home). This should give you enough (safe and planned) opportunities to visit the store again or have groceries delivered before you run low on supplies.

Foods and supplements can’t prevent COVID-19, but eating healthy can boost your immune system, helping you recover from infections. Photo by Naomi Koelemans on Unsplash.

Can I strengthen my immune system through certain foods?

Scientific evidence is scarce with regards to the relationship between food and the strengthening of our immune system. Based on evidence we have so far, no specific food or food supplement can prevent or help in the treatment of COVID-19.

But what scientific evidence does show is that an adequate nutritional and hydration status contributes, in general, to an optimized immune system and to a better recovery from disease. This means that having a worse nutritional status before getting infected may lead to worse prognosis and an increased risk of complications in case of acute illness. This is especially a concern for malnourished elderly people.

The goal currently is to “flatten the curve” or to stagger the number of new cases of COVID-19 over a longer period (as opposed to accumulating a massive number of new infections all at once). This is important so that all people can have better access to medical care – hospitals can only treat so many patients at a time.

The good news is that the “stay at home” strategy may actually provide you time to improve your nutritional and hydration status for the upcoming weeks or months, before you come into contact with the coronavirus. This is a great time to be staying hydrated, getting your vitamins through a variety of fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep and overall staying healthy. 

How can I plan?

With greater pressure on food supply chains, some recommendations for planning and purchasing are advised below:

Make an organized list before you shop. A list is an essential tool to ensure the purchase of all the food items that you need, allowing you to avoid frequent trips to the supermarket for things you forgot. Plan to buy only what is necessary, without exaggeration.

To organize you shopping list:

  • Check the food you still have available at home;
  • Check the current storage capacity of your refrigerator and freezer;
  • Plan the different meals you intend to have, ensuring the use of the foods that you still have available at home. This way you will not forget all of the specific foods and ingredients necessary for meal preparation;
  • Include foods from different food groups (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, meats and proteins, dairy, etc.) and respect the recommended proportions.
Try to buy foods from a variety of food groups.

What kinds of food products should I buy?

Here are some tips:

Buy only what you need!

Select foods that have a longer shelf life.

Make sure your shopping basket is balanced. Get a mix of food items with less and more durability (e.g. fresh produce and legumes like beans, respectively). Foods with less durability must be purchased in a smaller quantity and should be the first things that you eat.

Do buy fresh products including fruit and vegetables! Just try to buy those that have greater durability (like apples) or you select frozen products.

Prefer high nutritional foods over calorie-dense foods. Calorie-dense foods provide a lot of energy but few nutrients. Examples are cookies and chips.

How can I protect myself at the grocery store?

Take the following precautions to minimize the risk of infection for yourself and others at the store:

  • Avoid handling food except to put it in the shopping cart;
  • Keep at least 6 feet away from others;
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your unwashed hands;
  • Practice adequate hand hygiene before and after grocery shopping;
  • Adopt good respiratory etiquette measures (do not use your hands when coughing or sneezing; use a tissue or forearm).

What foods should I buy?

Buy things that are healthy but that you will eat! Buy ingredients that won’t go bad before you plan to eat or prepare them. 

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes the importance of an overall healthy eating pattern, with all five groups as key building blocks, plus oils (major source of essential fatty acids and vitamin E,  including olive oil). The USDA MyPlate includes five food groups: Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Protein Foods, and Dairy

When buying fruits, go for fruit with greater durability such as apples, pears, oranges and tangerines. You can buy less durable fruits (bananas, all berries, pineapple) in a smaller quantity.

When buying vegetables, go for vegetables with greater durability such as carrots, onions, zucchini, pumpkin, broccoli, cauliflower and green beans (you can also buy frozen!). Buy fresh produce in smaller quantities and eat it first, including green leafy vegetables and tomatoes (or try canned peeled tomatoes instead!).

If you have a freezer, it is a good idea to freeze fresh vegetables, or you can buy frozen ones. Evidence shows that supermarket produce has similar antioxidant activity and nutrient content comparing to frozen varieties.

When buying grains, try to buy breakfast cereals without added sugar like oatmeal, corn flakes, muesli, without added sugar. Always check the food label for added sugar! These are durable and have high nutritional value. 

Bread is also a good option due to good durability and it doesn’t need to be stored in a refrigerator. However, the nutrient profile can vary widely across different types of bread. Try to shop whole-wheat bread or multigrain sourdough instead of white bread as it contains higher amount of fiber, which is beneficial for your gut bacteria and improves stool frequency and regularity. Be aware that some bread loaves are high in fat and sugar, which should be avoided. You can spot these because a bread loaf prepared with fat has a softer, smoother texture and stays fresher longer than those without added fat (e.g. focaccia, buns and rolls).

Buy rice, pasta and protein-packed quinoa for very durable food items that you can combine with your veggies and proteins.

What about proteinsEggs stand out as foods that have good durability, high nutritional value and do not need to be stored in the refrigerator.

Legumes (e.g. beans, beans, peas, lentils) are a great source of protein and they are also packed with vitamins and other healthy nutrients. You can buy them canned or dried. Legumes have high quality proteins, which can be alternatives to meat and fish. Did you know that combining beans and rice in the same meal provides you all 9 essential amino acids (i.e. amino acids that you need but that cannot be made by the body)?!

Nuts and seeds (e.g. walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts) are also great options that work as snacks. They have high nutritional density, contain fiber (which fights inflammation and keeps your gut healthy). They are rich in vitamins like vitamin E and minerals. They can also last you a long time. 

Fish and meat can be purchased either frozen or fresh, however fresh fish and meat must be used within the first 2 or 3 days of purchase. If at the end of the 3rd day you have not used all the fresh meat purchased, freeze it or cook it to eat later. The prepared foods keep well and with quality for a period of 3 days in the refrigerator. You could also buy canned fish (e.g. tuna, sardines), but only use it for some meals.

What about dairy products? Try to buy dairy products that still have a high calcium content. Milk has high nutritional value and is actually quite durable when stored in the refrigerator. Low fat cheese products (e.g. sliced mozzarella, ricotta, cottage) are also great snack options.

Plain natural yoghurt can benefit your gut microbiota, the collection of microbes in your gut that plays an important role in your health, and in your immune system! The microbes in yoghurt can improve the function of your gut microbiota and prevent disease-causing bacteria from taking over. Your gut microbiota may be disrupted from emotional stress, so now is a good time to be eating plain, natural yoghurt and other foods that feed your healthy gut microbes, including whole fruits and vegetables.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Evaluate perishable foods over time. Do not consume any food whose appearance, color, taste or odor has different characteristics than usual.
  • It is useful to wash (just with water) and chop vegetables, blanch in boiling water for a minute, then immediately place under cold running water and freeze it. Vegetables with a high water content (e.g. lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers) do not freeze well, but pumpkin, broccoli, asparagus, leeks, green beans, carrots, and brussels sprouts do.
  • Try to maximize time and resources while cooking. For instance, use several baking sheets in the oven (one for vegetables and another for meat, chicken or fish). Make the most out of your cooking time and cook more meals that you can store in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Then just warm it up the next day!
  • For households with small children, it is important to buy some exclusive foods for the smallest, such as baby cereal and fruit cups or jars.

Can contaminated food make me sick? Some safety practices.

Learn to wash your hands properly, and take other precautions that can help prevent COVID-19. Learn more here.

The Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) states that, although it is suspected that the new coronavirus is of animal origin, currently its transmission occurs from person to person through close contact with people infected by the virus, or through contaminated surfaces or objects. There is also no known instance of people getting sick with COVID-19 from contaminated food. But there are still some safety precautions that you can take.

The available evidence suggests that the virus can survive up to about 2-3 days on hard surfaces like metal or plastic, and about 1 day on soft surfaces like cardboard. The easiest way to minimize risk of infection from foods or their packaging is to quarantine all non-perishable groceries 3-4 days in an out-of-the way place (specific place inside the house or in the garage) before letting them inside the house. 

Given that COVID-19 is an “enveloped virus”, covered in an oily (fatty) membrane, simply washing your hands with plain soap (effective at disrupting the oil on surfaces) and water (effective at rinsing away the virus) will protect you. Wash your hands after handling groceries and packages coming into your home.

If you don’t plan to cook some fresh produce before eating it, wash it thoroughly under running water. Popular vegetable rinses such as vinegar are not known to be effective at killing viruses.

For other perishables that need to be immediately frozen or refrigerated (e.g. milk and yogurt containers) you can wash the container surface with a small amount of soap and water.

Guidelines for the handling, preparation and consumption of foods reinforce good hygiene practices, such as:

  • Properly disinfect your kitchen counter and tables with appropriate products (soap and water are fine);
  • Cook and “plate” food at appropriate temperatures;
  • Wash raw food properly;
  • Avoid sharing food or objects between people during preparation, cooking and consumption;
  • Prevent cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods:
  • Aways wash your hands after handling raw food;
  • Store raw and ready-to-eat foods separately;
  • Store raw meat in sealable containers at the bottom of your fridge so that it cannot drip onto other foods;
  • Use a different chopping board for raw food and ready-to-eat food, or wash it thoroughly in between preparing different types of food;
  • Clean knives and other utensils thoroughly after using them with raw food;
  • Do not wash raw meat or poultry. Any harmful bacteria will be killed by thorough cooking, and washing may splash harmful bacteria around the kitchen
  • Always wash your hands after handling raw food

Take-home message

The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to spread worldwide with increasing burden on our healthcare systems and care of all patients with disease, not just those affected by COVID-19. To face these challenging circumstances, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, namely healthy eating, drinking enough water, getting physical activity and sleeping 7-9 hours per night.

Be a public health agent with responsible and adequate purchase of foods that have good durability! Buy foods that promote healthy eating (not a ton of processed food snacks) and help you not have to go to the grocery store so often.

In summary, before heading to the supermarket, think about

  1. What foods do I have at home?
  2. With the food that I have at home, what meals can I prepare?
  3. What food items do I need to buy additionally to make meals I know how to prepare?
  4. Plan your meals using the food you have at home.
  5. After planning the meals you want, make your shopping list.

Finally, take a moment to realize that this is actually a good opportunity to improve your eating behavior because you are in control of it and have no external food temptations.