Grocery store shelves have been cleaned out, despite the fact that there is currently no lack of food in the country. Although the empty shelves may look worrisome, there is no need to grab that last box of keto pea protein linguine if it’s not something you already eat.
Panic-buying every jar of pasta sauce in the store may also affect those who don’t have the means or the space to stockpile, in particular people who don’t have the financial ability to spend hundreds of dollars on groceries at once. “That is probably about half of us, especially during this time when many of us are not working or can’t work, with limited incomes or no incomes coming in,” said Lorrene Ritchie, director of the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California. “The last thing a family in that situation can do is go out and spend $500 on groceries.”
Here are tips on how to shop for food responsibly, without overstocking your bunker.
Think about others when you shop
It’s scary to see your local grocery store completely emptied of supplies, but fight the urge to panic by looking at what has happened in other places. Although there have been reports of food shortages in Wuhan, China, one of the first cities to be locked down, grocery stores remain open in Italy, France, and California, where people are being asked to shelter in place.
Though bare shelves may make food feel scarce, remind yourself that this shortage is temporary. Before you buy your 20th can of beans, consider the person behind you who can buy only a little at a time, whether because of financial or space constraints. “I think this is a rare situation where we’re going to have to walk into the store and say, Do I need this more than the next person who might be coming down this aisle?” said Nathan Novemsky, professor of marketing and psychology at Yale University.
Food assistance programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), allow participants to buy only items that are eligible, so by avoiding those things, you’ll be helping people in your community who have limited choices.
“Presuming you get sick and all your family’s going to be quarantined, then only that amount of food is what you need, and any more than that is probably going to end up being wasted,” said Dr. Ritchie. The C.D.C. currently recommends having a two-week supply of food and knowing how to get food delivered, if that’s possible where you live.
And hold on tight to that advice, because the desire to overbuy may actually increase over the next few weeks. “The psychological panic buying is in its infancy compared to where it’s going to reach when people start to feel the effects of the virus around them,” said Dr. Novemsky.
Make the most of your existing pantry
Dig through the back of your pantry and the corners of your freezer — how many half-full bags of pasta and frozen broccoli do you have? If you’re going to be stuck at home with more time on your hands, this is a good moment to experiment.
Cooking with constraints is how some of the world’s best dishes were created, said Tamar Adler, host of the Food Actually podcast on Luminary and author of “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace.” “Some of the most delicious things seem to be created by having to make food out of what is left,” she said in a phone interview, citing now-fancy dishes that use ingredients that would have been thrown away, like bouillabaisse (a French seafood soup) and ribollita (an Italian soup that uses up stale bread and beans). Anybody can make something taste good when they have top-shelf ingredients at their disposal. But Ms. Adler praises “being able to make the best of stuff that is often ignored, like the stale bread and bones, and this is the perfect time to be doing that.”
She recommends being flexible with substitutes, mixing different dried grains into savory porridge or making pastry dough out of whatever flour or fat you have on hand. “I’m looking at my half-empty jars of jam, and so I’m going to try to make hand pies,” she says.
New York Times Cooking has plenty of pantry recipes that can be made with the staples you probably already have at home. If you do have time to make it out to the store — and your store is stocked — here’s what you should buy.
How you can help people who can’t stockpile
Even though a food shortage may not be real, a volunteer-labor shortage and an influx of newly unemployed people have caused problems at food distribution organizations. Organizations often have annual fund-raisers, which may be canceled or postponed as people practice social distancing. Consider donating generously to food banks and other charities this year if you are able. (Wirecutter has more ways you can help your community while keeping everyone healthy.)
If you aren’t in a position to donate money, you can also donate time safely. “The food banks, your local food pantry, are experiencing shortages of people to work and put packages of food together. Often that can happen in a safe way with social distancing,” Dr. Ritchie said.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.