You’ve seen the photos of barren shelves and miles-long lines. You’ve heard rumors of hoarded Purell, fistfights over salami, grown men reduced to blubbering messes because they can’t find toilet paper and bacon. In the coronavirus era, grocery shopping has become part Greek Olympiad, part masochistic feat. Your nice neighbor is suddenly squirreling away Twix bars. The benign crossing guard from your child’s school allegedly maintains a stash of Polar seltzer in an underground bunker. In times of crisis — and this is a time unlike any other — grocery shopping has become a litmus test for resilience and strength, as well as a showcase for culinary eccentricities not usually revealed until a fourth date.
So what do we really need?
First, a report from the front lines. Market Basket operations supervisor Joe Schmidt has seen it all, from blizzards to Super Bowl Sundays. He started as a bag boy at 14 and climbed the ranks for more than 30 years, and he’s never witnessed anything quite like this.
“I’m used to snowstorms,” he says.
Not surprisingly, customers are loading up on canned items such as tuna, plus paper goods, and shelf-stable milk. Sensible.
However, he says, “It’s interesting to note that we’ve had the highest movement on SPAM at any time that I can remember. There’s been a run on it.”
A SPAM shortage? Really? While gelatin and sodium might be comforting in a pinch, it’s also important to make your shopping haul last longer by stocking up on protein- and fiber-filled foods that will keep you feeling full, says Kathryn Fulginiti, a registered dietitian at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass.
“Protein and fiber is what keeps you more full and satisfied, and blood sugar stays neutralized,” she says, helping to keep hunger at bay.
She suggests loading up on fruit and vegetables paired with nut butters for dipping. And don’t be shy about visiting your frozen food aisle, which contains an array of wonders beyond tater tots and fish sticks.
“Frozen fruit can be used not only as side dishes but as breakfast toppings such as on cereals or waffles, or in smoothies,” she says. She especially likes frozen avocado and blueberries. Frozen veggies are great, too, as long as you choose pure vegetables without added sauces, such as cheese.
And while it might seem sensible to hoard bread, you can get a healthy starch fix in other ways, such as through pretzels, granola bars, and whole-grain crackers, she says. Pair with hummus, nut butter, tuna, or low-fat cheese (which has a lengthy refrigerator shelf life).
Also consider experimenting with alternative milks, such as almond and soy, which can stay in the fridge longer than cow’s milk. And instead of starting from scratch with your eggs every morning, she suggests hard-boiling and refrigerating them or baking them in muffin tins and freezing them for a protein-packed meal. Mix with your favorite veggies, store, and pull them out for a stress-free breakfast, no sugary cereals needed.
And when you’re embarking on a walk or hike — the requisite six feet apart — pack trail mix with dried fruit and nuts instead of chips. Though if you really do crave a satisfying crunch, Fulginiti swears by Biena’s chickpea puffs, which look like cheese balls but are rich in protein and fiber, and come in a variety of flavors (barbecue! ranch!).
Of course, we’re also coping with unprecedented stress, and if you’re not feeling the urge to get creative with chickpeas, well, it’s understandable.
Melrose’s Kerry Zirpolo recently secured large quantities of grated cheese and unsalted butter. Her husband did the same, unbeknownst to her, and now they have a stash. She snapped a photo of the cartons piled high on her counter for posterity.
“I’m curious to see, during the apocalypse, the random things people don’t want to run out of,” she says.
Well, Kerry, it’s better than reality TV, and I’m happy to tell you: Boston’s Kristi Mello has tucked away a large stash of Van Holten’s sour pickles and three quarts of Mt. Olive kosher dills, as she eats at least one pickle per day.
“I didn’t buy bread or milk. Just pickles,” she admits.
Arlington’s Phil Drapeau made sure to load up on Heinz chili sauce, which reminds him of childhood.
“A recent purchase was made to make sure my nacho cravings were properly met. Once I heard it was a run at the grocery store, I got a bottle as back-up since it isn’t always easy to find,” he confesses. “It’s like ketchup with a kick, and like ketchup, it has to be Heinz. Tortilla chips, generous helpings of shredded Mexican cheese blend, Heinz chili sauce, and a 350-degree oven. It’s not something I think about every day, but it’s something I can’t imagine living without.”
Amid the chaos, another Boston woman — asking to remain nameless because of wanting conceal her at-home dining habits from her boss — finds solace in Mrs. Adler’s gefilte fish.
“That’s the brand my mom would buy, and it reminds me of her,” she says.
So just remember: The person harboring mysterious quantities of baked beans or scouring the shelves for Dinty Moore beef stew might have very real reasons. In times of trouble, food has a unique capacity to act as a familiar touchstone and to drum up essential feelings of safety and calm. While it’s important to eat healthfully and to stock up smartly to avoid unnecessary grocery trips, judge not your neighbor’s Doritos.
“We replenish on a daily basis,” says Market Basket’s Schmidt. “And we open at 7 a.m.”