Food in the time of COVID-19

On social media, pictures of freshly baked homemade bread abound.  Comments regarding the dearth of yeast are common, yielding to threads and tips regarding sourdough starters.  Even my sister sent me a photo of Seymour, her star starter.  And while I’d like to blame bread for my recent increase in eating, sadly, I’ve not made any homemade bread.  I just eat.  And, no, I’m not picky.  Perhaps it’s stress from the numerous school-related e-mails.  (For those parents with more than two-school age children, I don’t know how you do it.)  Or maybe it’s anxiety not knowing what the new normal will look like or when it will occur.  It could be because I worry that someone I love will fall ill.  And, of course, there’s money.          

Personal finance professionals spend a lot of time talking about food.  How—and what—we eat reveals a lot about how we live and spend.  Before the pandemic, many reached for prepared food in convenience, trading money for time.  Now, many working from home consider eating out a luxury, reserved for those with the means, transportation, and willingness to risk illness.  Americans, in large numbers, have turned to preparing meals at home, while restaurants have limited hours of operations or, in some cases, have closed.  Anecdotally, our family’s finances track this general trend—an increase in grocery costs, a decrease in eating out expenses.  (The amount spent on alcohol has remained the same.  Yes, that’s a line item on our spending plan.)

What about food makes it so ripe for discussion about spending habits?  First, distinguishing between wants and needs can be challenging.  We need to eat to live, certainly.  But what items are necessary is always up for debate–expensive cuts of meat, soda, organic vegetables, chips?  Second, convenience costs more.  By weight, block cheese costs less than pre-cut or shredded cheese.  For those who enjoy cooking and have time to prepare meals, buying block cheese may be an obvious choice.  For those who aren’t so handy in the kitchen or who are short on time, the extra cost of prepared products may be well worth it.  Lastly, the true cost of food may be more than what you pay at the store.  While the cost of good-for-you foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, may be more expensive than not-so-good-for-you processed foods, our diet affects health care costs and quality of life issues.              

What is one to do when money is tight, storage space is limited, and going to the grocery store is an event involving masks, wipes and hand sanitizer?  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Inventory what you have at home.  Before making a shopping list, note what items are in your refrigerator, freezer, and cabinets.  It may be that you have more than you thought at home and are able to postpone that trip to the store for a few more days. 
  • Plan.  And, then, make a list.  Seasoned home cooks know what staples can be easily used in multiple dishes.  Taking the time to plan out meals can help reduce food waste and lessen the amount of time you’re in the kitchen.  And don’t forget to include a leftover night.    
  • Shop the sales.  Before you shop, check out the store’s advertisements and shop the sales.  Beans are on sale?  Buy a bunch.  They last a long time and can be added to soups, stews, pasta, and rice dishes to make you and your family feel fuller longer. 
  • Buy what you eat.  No matter how good the sale, if it’s something you or your family won’t eat, it’s a waste of money.  Indeed, it’s not a good idea to buy something just because it’s a recommended staple if you don’t like it, use it, or regularly eat it.
  • Use your freezer.  Fruit, veggies, cookies, and leftovers all can find a home in your freezer.  Indeed, aside from having frozen staples (blueberries, anyone?) in your freezer, your freezer can help to extend the shelf life of products like bread and meat.

Shop well.  Eat well.  And stay well.

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