Don’t Panic. Prepare.

By Andrea Strong
Updated February 28, 2020
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You might be feeling a little anxious and overwhelmed by the latest developments involving coronavirus. You may be wondering what (if anything) to do about it, other than wiping down surfaces with sanitizing wipes and washing our hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice. 

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Whether you're binge-reading about a potential pandemic or not, here are best practices for how to shop for food and prepare your kitchen in case of a local coronavirus outbreak—or any other reason you'd want to spend awhile at home. We spoke to emergency preparedness expert Joshua Piven, the New York Times best-selling writer and co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario series, and Lori Uscher-Pines, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and author of "Citizen Preparedness for Disasters: Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness" to gain insight into how best to stock your pantry in these stressful times. 

Prepare a Two-Week Supply of Food

The key with a contagious illness like coronavirus, Piven explains, is to try to avoid enclosed public spaces with lots of people, like groceries or big box stores. “Supermarkets are places where you will come into contact with lots of people and surfaces touched by lots more people, so it’s best to stay away from big stores if coronavirus comes to your community,” says Piven. 

Uscher-Pines explains that the situation with COVID-19 in the U.S. is rapidly evolving, so guidance on what to keep in your home, and the appropriate supply, may change in coming weeks. That said, in the event that Americans are asked to shelter in place (i.e., remain at home to minimize your risk of catching coronavirus and to prevent additional transmission of virus in the community), she recommends a two-week supply of food stored at home.

Go for Non-Perishable Pantry Staples You Enjoy

“It’s always good to store food that your family will actually eat,” says Uscher-Pines. “But you also want to try to avoid foods that will make you thirsty and stick to high energy, nutritious foods.” She recommends protein bars, peanut butter, dry cereal or granola, canned goods, and your favorite comfort foods, like boxed mac and cheese.

Piven says your pantry is a great place to focus your grocery shopping energy. Stock up on dry grains like rice, farro, quinoa, and lentils. “You want to have a supply of beans and nutritious grains—things that will last forever, that don’t need refrigeration, and are easy to cook, cheap, and that make meals,” he says.” Rather than canned beans—buy them bagged. “They are cheaper and you will have plenty of time to let them soak,” says Piven. Also essential—pasta in all shapes and sizes and lots of canned tomatoes (crushed or whole) to make sauce.

Don't Neglect Breakfast

It’s nice to have a big bag of steel-cut oats, some cold cereal too, preferably one with some nutritional value like granola. Piven recommends keeping things interesting by adding dried fruits and toasted nuts. 

Add on Some Pantry Proteins (and Frozen Meat if You Have Space)

Anything with some protein in it is good to have in the pantry. That can mean nuts and nut butters. Eggs are another good choice. “Several dozen eggs for a good source of protein you can use them for baking, stir fries, hard boiled and frozen veggies taste good on them,” says Piven. Protein bars are more expensive, but if you like them go for it. Jerky is a good thing to have on hand as a snack. If you have a large stand alone freezer to store frozen food, you can certainly stock up on meat, which Piven says will probably come in handy “if you get to the point where you cannot eat one more bean.” He also recommends tofu, and shelf-stable proteins like canned fish.  

Pick the Right Fruits and Vegetables

Most fresh fruit is fairly perishable but Piven favors apples which do pretty well in the fridge and bananas taste great frozen. Piven recommends stocking up on bags of frozen vegetables as a good substitute for fresh vegetables. Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes will keep well. 

Remember, Flavor Still Matters 

Piven recommends keeping onions and garlic on hand for cooking, as well as olive oil, salt, pepper, and spices.

For Babies, Think Shelf-Stable 

Obviously, breast milk never runs out, but if you are not nursing, Uscher-Pines says to be sure to have an adequate supply of formula on hand. Also don’t forget diapers, and medications like children’s ibuprofen so you can treat routine child illnesses if you are asked to shelter in place. FEMA also recommends storing non-perishable pasteurized milk, which is good for both toddlers and older kids. If you usually make your own food from fresh fruits and vegetables, Piven says it’s a good idea to switch to pouches or glass jars of food because fresh fruit will not last. 

Don't Forget the Fun Snacks

If you or your kids have a favorite snack, whether it’s granola bars or popcorn, try to have these in good supply. Piven advises to keep it relatively healthy since staying inside can mean being more sedentary. 

Pick Up Your Favorite Sick-Day Foods 

In case you come down with a cold (whether it’s COVID-19 or not), be sure to pick up vegetable or chicken broth—Ulser-Pines says the best sickbed foods are those that are high energy and hydrating. Piven says to stock up on the chicken-broth packets, which are easy to store and reconstitute with hot water. Keep bread in the freezer for toast, and some crackers too. If you have kids or older relatives living with you, a bottle or two of Pedialyte is also helpful. 

And Stock Up on All the Other Necessities

In addition to food, Uscher-Pines suggests stocking up on any prescription medicines, as well as household basics like toilet paper, laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, pet food, hand soap, shampoo, over-the-counter pain relievers/fever reducers, cold medicines, and tampons/sanitary napkins. 

Hopefully, stocking up your kitchen—and cooking in it—will offer comfort in these tough times. If you are feeling anxious and need to speak to someone, please text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor for free confidential support.