How to eat healthy when physically distancing

During times of uncertainty, it feels overwhelming to go about our normal routines, let alone adapt to the ever-changing environment and necessary habits during this COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re feeling drained and losing the motivation to stay healthy, we’re right there with you. Here’s how we are tackling thorny issues, such as how to cook healthy food and stay safe at crowded supermarkets.

Please leave a comment to share your tips.

UPDATES: Switched from social distancing to physical distancing. The Foodist Kitchen’s course is no longer available for free.

Does your face start to itch the moment you step into a grocery store?

This problem and many others, like how to hoard food without screwing your neighbors over too much, are novel questions we haven’t grappled with before and feel inappropriate to discuss. Well, no such restrictions exist here at Garlic Delight. And while we are panicked about COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) and observing strict self-quarantining measures, we’re also trying to maintain a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle.

I almost didn’t write this post because there are already too many coronavirus articles on the Internet and too many PR-sounding, robotic emails from companies telling me how they’re handling the pandemic. But then I noted that I got a lot of relief from discussing very serious questions with friends, like “how do I buy food safely?” and “what are you baking to cheer up?” or “are you buying VTI right now?”.

So I want to continue the discussion with you, dear Garlic Delighters, with tips on how to survive and thrive during these uncertain times whether it’s about food (how to cook when access to ingredients is limited), loneliness (that was me when I herniated my disc and was stuck in bed for 1 to 2 years), or how to work from home (been doing it for years).

Please add your comments to share your tips on how to shop, cook, and dodge passersby on the sidewalk when they walk within 6 feet of you.

NOTE: You already know I’m not in the healthcare field. So none of this advice is medical information. You should consult the CDC’s website and your healthcare professionals if you have medical questions or feel symptoms and need medical attention.

How do I keep buying the food I normally buy?

Buy it from your local grocery stores which are staying open because they are considered essential businesses. The U.S. supply chain is a miracle. Somehow, the supply chain still runs at full force, stocking the empty shelves within hours to days (at the worst-case scenario). This isn’t true in many countries. According to my friend Benjamin, some grocery stores are shut or, if open, empty in London.

That said, our local Safeway seems to never have flour every time we go there. (We may need to bite the bullet and buy 20 pounds of flour from Costco and freeze 15 pounds of it.) Even Amazon Pantry temporarily shut down due to overwhelming demand. (If you need an Amazon alternative, The Wirecutter has a list of vendors to check out.)

If you’re not finding the food items that you normally buy at your local supermarket, consider a supermarket farther away. Look into alternative or unconventional grocery stores, including the following:

  • CSAs: Some deliver to your front door or have convenient pickup locations
  • Farm stands
  • Cafes/restaurants: My friend’s local donut shop is turning into a grocery and produce distribution store
  • “Ethnic” grocery stores: Asian grocery stores are a great source of beans, rice, and soy sauce which are cheap, shelf-stable ingredients.
  • Target: Target offers free delivery if you purchase over $35 of goods. Target sells grocery items and household staples like toothpaste.

Many restaurants remain open even if they are only doing delivery and takeout service. Avoid dining in, but you can order takeout.

RELATED: How to make your groceries last a month or longer with tips on storage.

How do I avoid crowded supermarkets?

  • Grocery delivery services
  • Curbside pickup: I discovered our Safeway allows you to purchase items online and pick them up in-store.
  • Visit local smaller corner stores: Your local fruit shop or butchery is probably less crowded because they don’t carry household items. Plus, supporting local businesses is awesome right now, if you can.
  • Visit “rural” grocery stores: I discovered the grocery store in “rural” Boulder still has flour and yeast thanks to my neighbors on Nextdoor. It’s an extra 15 minutes drive from downtown.
  • Go during off-peak hours: When we called Whole Foods, the customer service desk told us to come from 11 am to 3 pm on a weekday.
  • Call ahead: We call before leaving home to ask if there is a line outside waiting to get in. You should also ask when the restricted times are so you don’t show up when the store is only open to seniors and those who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Check Google: Google tells you the time when high-traffic stores like Whole Foods and Costco have the most people.
  • Buy more food when you’re at the store: If you’re buying enough for 1-2 weeks, then you can go less frequently. But avoid hoarding so your neighbors can get food too.
  • Avoid tiny stores if it looks like they’re not practicing social distancing: Yeah, I know this one is controversial. We want to support local businesses too. But we avoid going to stores that are smaller in square footage and where people tend to be packed more closely because the store isn’t enforcing social distancing.
  • Ask neighbors for help: My neighbors on Nextdoor tipped me off to the Lucky’s that still has yeast. Try texting your neighbors to see if they’ve spotted elusive ingredients on supermarket shelves.

How do I protect myself at the supermarket?

According to the CDC, COVID-19 spreads via respiratory droplets. Person-to-person contact appears to be the most common and efficient way for the virus to spread. Therefore, the most important factor is to keep a distance at the grocery store and avoid touching your face while in the store.

I found the following advice helpful in deciding how to protect Alex while he is shopping at the grocery store.

NOTE: Again, we’re not epidemiologists so follow the CDC’s advice first!!! We’re simply explaining what we’re doing but it doesn’t mean it is the best thing for you.

Preparing to go shopping

  • Only 1 person goes to the store: We figured that if 1 person goes, that halves the chances of exposure to the coronavirus. Alex goes because I can’t pick up heavy things.
  • Very carefully curate a shopping list: We don’t want to loiter. Having a shopping list that is organized by sections of the grocery store makes shopping more efficient (household items like dish detergent and trash bags are listed next to each other whereas fruits and vegetables are together). Our shopping list →
  • Create a list based on general categories rather than precise items: While I like to put items like avocados and ginger on the shopping list, I know that we can’t afford to be picky. So if the precise item is missing, Alex knows to buy any fresh fruits and vegetables that he can find. Same with canned foods and noodles. Maybe there’s no ramen, but you can buy pasta.
  • A paper shopping list: I print out the shopping list to help Alex avoid touching his cellphone as much as possible while he is at the grocery store.
  • Keep at least 6 feet of distance in the store: We park further away if necessary and line up at least 6 feet away from the nearest person if possible.

While shopping

  • Wear gloves: We have latex gloves leftover from a few years ago when Alex bought them for car repair. We try to avoid buying new gloves as to not hoard important medical supplies during these times.
  • Avoid touching our faces: No matter how bad it itches. And it will itch like crazy. (There’s conflicting information on wearing masks so we’re still evaluating it.)
  • Buy what we need and don’t hoard: We buy as many fresh fruits and vegetables as we can. We buy shelf-stable foods that we know we will eat. Never eaten canned sardines before? I’m not sure now is the time to start. Everything we buy, we know we will eat eventually anyway and I’ll find a way to cook it.
  • Keep physical distance: Stay at least 6 feet/2 m away from all people if possible.

After shopping

We’re paranoid about our groceries. I don’t recommend following what we’re doing. You should follow the CDC’s recommendations, and Vox tells me we’re being overly cautious. That said, we started wiping down our packaged foods after I heard NPR’s Coronavirus Daily on March 24th mentioned a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found the following:

Scientists discovered the virus is detectable for up to three hours in aerosols, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Study reveals how long COVID-19 remains infectious on cardboard, metal and plastic from Science Daily
  • Unload all the groceries outside the door: We will leave all the unfrozen foods that don’t require refrigeration outside for 2 to 3 days based on the study cited above.
  • Wash hands: Wash hands as soon as we come in the door.
  • Sort the foods and only put away cold items: We don’t have disinfectant wipes so we use paper towels and IPA (isopropyl alcohol) to wipe down the exterior packages of all the foods we need to refrigerate and store in the freezer.
  • Wash hands again
  • Wipe down the cell phone
  • Put away the non-refrigerated items 2-3 days later
  • Cook as much food as possible: I try to cook all of our food. If I eat fruits and vegetables raw, I try to wash them well.
Our food and household goods are in quarantine on the front porch.

How do I order less takeout food?

Learn to cook more at home 🙂

The rest of this post is all about how to get started, as painlessly as possible.

What if I don’t have the equipment to cook food?

Here’s the basic equipment I use to cook:

  • Essential
    • Cutting board
    • Knife
    • Frying pan
    • Saucepan
    • Spatula
  • Optional
    • Tongs
    • Fine-tooth grater, a.k.a. zester or Microplane if using the brand name
    • Big soup pot
    • Scissors
    • Slotted spoon
    • Ladle
    • Can opener

With about a dozen items of equipment (and bowls, plates, cups, of course), you can make most of the recipes I detail on Garlic Delight. Luckily, most cans these days are designed with a self-opening lid 😉

If you want to be successful at cooking, then these extra items are helpful:

  • Colander
  • Oven thermometer
  • Meat thermometer
  • Baking sheets
  • Kitchen scale

How do I eat healthier?

If you’re on a restaurant food diet or a company food meal plan for lunch and dinner, you aren’t used to making food for yourself.

Start by eating frozen meals and make a salad to go with it. Or order takeout meals and food delivery from healthier restaurants. My friends are eating more salads, grain bowls, Chinese food (veggie stir fries and vegetable stews).

Then consider learning to cook one meal a week. Start small and simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

Try techniques like boiling, pan frying, and baking because they’re easy and less complex than stir frying and braising. Gradually increase complexity if you decide you like cooking.

How do I get inspiration for what to cook?

Wow, this is the perennial problem most home cooks have. Here’s what I do:

  • Ask family & friends: I used to get ideas from going to my friends’ houses for dinner. Now, I can text them to ask what they’re cooking at home.
  • Watch cooking shows: Netflix cooking shows, even the ads (I don’t have cable TV) for the Food Network or online cooking shows, can inspire.
  • Subscribe to a meal plan: Many provide shopping lists, recipes, and a weekly plan for what to make.
  • Look up mouthwatering restaurants on Yelp: Scope out their menu. If they have descriptions of what a dish contains, you could reverse engineer it.
  • Browse food blogs and inspirational food photography websites: There are so many food bloggers working extra hard to help people during these stressful times.

Where do I find good recipes?

I ranted about how to find a good recipe with key criteria to keep an eye out for (e.g. missing ingredients, reviews, precision). So, with an understanding of how to find a good recipe, here are places where I look for inspiration.

  • Cookbooks!!!: Most libraries are closed but you can usually visit cookbooks’ websites to see if they posted recipes online or have Youtube videos. Search for the digital version of the cookbook online. Cookbooks are the #1 place where I like to get recipe ideas because they focus on techniques and (hopefully) rigorously test the recipes.
  • Google: Search for the dish or ingredients you’re considering cooking. You’ll find a lot of great recipes.
  • Pinterest: If you’re a visual person, search for the ingredients or dish in Pinterest and you’ll find plenty of inspiration.
  • Facebook: Join Facebook groups where people share recipes. Ask your community on FB and Instagram for recipe recommendations. See what’s trending.
  • Food blogs I frequently visit: Some are famous and others virtually unknown.

How do I start cooking for the first time as an adult?

Many of my friends get fed at work because they work for fancy tech companies. They have colleagues who are learning how to cook for the first time because many knowledge workers are lucky enough to be able to work from home. But this means no lunch and dinner ready to eat.

There are so many free resources to teach you how to cook as a beginner. Run a quick Google search and you’ll find videos and websites from the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Bon Appetit, New York Times, and Youtube stars. The Foodist Kitchen is offering its cooking course for free with the promo code covid. (Update: the Foodist Kitchen course is available for sale.)

Pick a personality or an outlet who doesn’t irritate the hell out of you and try a few of the techniques they teach.

If you need more help or advice, email me and I can teach you to cook: [email protected]

Here are some simple, almost-no cook recipes you can start with.

5-Minute Garlic Bread with Garlic Powder
This quick and easy garlic bread recipe scales up to serve four, six, or even eight people with the same amount of effort.
Get the Recipe
5-Minute Smoked Salmon Cream Cheese Dip With Lemon Zest
This simple and refreshing dip is perfect for no-cook summer days and fall picnics. Make a dip or spread and double or triple the recipe so you can freeze the leftovers.
Get the Recipe
Garlic Butter Popcorn
For a twist on the classic popcorn recipe, this buttery popcorn carries a hint of garlic. It’s subtle and sure to delight garlic lovers.  
Get the Recipe

And simple drinks you can make at home.

5-Minute Homemade Hot Chocolate
This hot chocolate recipe takes 5 minutes or less, 2 ingredients, and a microwave. It's a no-cook recipe that's perfect for hotel travelers, tiny-house dwellers, students in dorm rooms, and busy working people who don't want to deal with a stove.
Get the Recipe
Must-try Fruit Smoothie with Silken Tofu and Peanut Butter
This vegan smoothie recipe uses silken tofu instead of dairy for a delicious, high-protein breakfast or snack. Substitute with your favorite fruits and top with roasted nuts for extra richness.
Get the Recipe
5-Minute Homemade Vegan Miso Soup With Silken Tofu and Seaweed
You'll love this belly-warming miso soup during cold wintery nights. It only takes 5 minutes and you can add any garnishes to tailor it to your tastebuds. Add a dash of sesame oil for extra indulgent miso soup.
Get the Recipe

What food should I cook while stuck at home that I normally wouldn’t have time for?

If you have plenty of time and want to tackle a complex dish that you typically wouldn’t have space in your life to try, check out these recipes:

Pork and Shrimp Wonton Soup
Morsels of pork and shrimp combined with mushroom make this unique wonton soup recipe a delightful burst of umami goodness. Enjoy this savory, heart-warming comfort food. Great for cold weather. Enjoy with friends and family.
Get the Recipe
Chas’ French Onion Soup
Piping hot French Onion Soup is a great way to greet the cold winter weather. Watch the stale bread come back to life when coated with golden, bubbly gruyère and given a chance to soak up the delicious rich soup.
Get the Recipe
Spicy Jambalaya with Chicken, Shrimp, and Sausage
This Spicy Jambalaya is inspired by Nolas, my favorite restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. Our recipe is a spicy take on the traditional jambalaya thanks to the Italian sausage substitution. This dish contains sausage, shrimp, and chicken.
Get the Recipe

What recipes can I make to feel happier?

Here are my favorite foods that never fail to cheer me up or provide a sense of comfort:

5-Minute Homemade Hot Chocolate
This hot chocolate recipe takes 5 minutes or less, 2 ingredients, and a microwave. It's a no-cook recipe that's perfect for hotel travelers, tiny-house dwellers, students in dorm rooms, and busy working people who don't want to deal with a stove.
Get the Recipe
Kari’s Shiitake Mushroom Meat Sauce
This comfort food envelopes you in warm, fuzzy feelings. This recipe can be doubled or tripled for batch cooking to leave extras for freezing. It's versatile — substitute any ground meat and serve with vegetables, noodles, toast, or soup.
Get the Recipe
Garlic Cucumber Noodle Salad
This is a cold noodle dish, ideal for a hot summer’s day. The cucumber and carrot add a refreshing touch. What really makes these noodles stand out though is the chili sauce: we love LGM (Lao Gan Ma)! Enjoy it for a snack or as a side dish. 
Get the Recipe

Plus, any noodle dish on this planet. Seriously, I’m at the point of eating plain noodles with butter, salt, and chili sauce on them.

Our food shopping list

In addition to following the CDC’s recommendation for social distancing when we go shopping, here is our shopping list so you can see what we’re buying:

  • Tofu
  • Ground meat (bison, beef)
  • Cured meat (prosciutto, sausage)
  • Seafood (smoked salmon, shrimp, frozen fish)
  • Cheese (mozzarella, raclette, goat, mont d’or, reblochon, comté, gruyère, morbier, brie)
  • Vegetables (green beans, broccoli, romaine lettuce, potato, bell peppers, carrots)
  • Fruits (avocado, cherries, apples, mandarins, oranges, lemons)
  • Aromatics (ginger, onion, garlic, green onions)
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Frozen fruits
  • Ready-made frozen foods (wontons)
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Heavy whipping cream
  • Butter
  • Yogurt
  • Broth (bone broth, chicken, vegetable)
  • Canned food (canned tomatoes, spam, sardines)
  • Shelf-stable staples (flour, olive oil, canola oil, salt, noodles, beans, popcorn kernels)
  • Soy milk
  • Snacks (beef jerky, macadamia nuts, dried mango)
  • Coffee
  • Oatmeal
  • Protein bars
  • Chocolate
  • Vanilla

I found this Vox article very helpful for modifying my typical shopping list to include a few preparedness items I forgot to buy like acetaminophen/paracetamol. I also added a few luxuries that I normally wouldn’t buy to boost my morale. These include prosciutto, dried mango, vanilla (Alex puts it in his milk), and heavy whipping cream.

TIP: We’re noticing ginger and a few other spices are not available. I’m wondering if it’s because a lot of the ginger supply comes from China and many countries are temporarily limiting or shutting down exports. I freeze ginger and grate it very finely. This stretches the little ginger I have left. I’ll switch to onions and garlic soon once I run out of ginger. Powdered ginger is an option but not for stir frying. Garlic powder tastes almost as good as fresh garlic, except not recommended for stir frying.

What we are doing for cooking

Here are our go-to dishes that I routinely make because they’re “template” recipes that allow easy substitution. They also require less mental energy to make than tackling a brand new recipe where I need to learn the ins and outs.

  • Hamburgers with caramelized onions and ketchup/tomato sauce.
  • Vegetables with chopped up hot dogs
  • Spruced up pasta sauce with sausage
  • Braised lamb, chuck, tofu, and chicken wings
  • Thai curry
  • Hoki filets from New Zealand cooked in butter
  • Baked salmon with lemon slices
  • Fried eggs with gruyère (like a lazy version of raclette)
  • Stir fries
  • Noodles (pasta, Korean sweet potatoes noodles, Chinese rice noodles, mung bean glass noodles, Nongshim Shin ramen, Mamas, Indomie Mi Goreng, Maggie’s…and then once I got desperate, I went to Top Ramen, Maruchan)
  • Oatmeal
  • Crustless quiche lorraine

I urge you to find your go-to dishes that don’t require extra learning so you can cook without stressing out, which inevitably happens when you’re learning a new recipe.

Staying mentally healthy

I’m so blessed I’m not on the frontlines as healthcare workers and grocery store clerks are. Thank you all being society’s heroes by keeping us alive.

Thank you to the unsung heroes in society who are working on the frontlines, including healthcare workers, supermarket workers, law enforcement, childcare workers, delivery/courier folks, and many others.

A huge part of feeling motivated to cook and eat healthfully is having the mental energy to do these tasks.

The anxiety and uncertainty around COVID-19 zaps my mental energy, making it hard to focus on work, go outside for exercise, and even keep up producing new and fresh articles on Garlic Delight. We’re taking action to fix this.

How do I protect my mental energy?

We did a “staycation” last weekend. It was 2 calm days of hanging out in pajamas, eating whatever I want, watching Rick and Morty. I made a marbled chocolate cheesecake, which was the highlight of the weekend. This staycation might not sound like much but the absence of news gave me a huge mental lift.

Back to reality now, I make my bed every morning because any semblance of routine helps me feel more in control.

Working from home advice

Michelle at Money Hungry has great financial advice and helpful context for thinking about the pandemic. Melissa at Imagination Soup has advice on activities to go with kids, some of which are exciting pastimes for adults too. Hopefully these resources help you if you’re worried about work during these times.

NPR’s Life Kit has great advice on how to work from home and generally surviving social distancing.

Since I began working from home in 2015, I write a weekly report where I record my top 3 goals for the week, the things I accomplished that week, and my top 3 goals for next week. This report is helpful for personal accountability and, frankly, helps others learn what I’m up to and get credit for the work I do.

Nick at Macheesmo shared that Prof. Laurie Santos has a course called The Science of Well-Being from Yale that you can take for free. You can also check out her podcast The Happiness Lab.

The book that has given me the most solace is a little-known book called The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth. This first-hand experience of living through the Great Depression helps me understand how it feels to live with uncertainty everyday while the stock market bounces like a yo-yo and there is mass unemployment.

Another big help for preserving mental energy has been to stop reading news headlines and refreshing the news app on my phone and computer.

Where we get our news from today

Alex has mostly restricted himself to reading Wikipedia and looking at the coronavirus global cases map visualization by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) after becoming anxious and twitchy from checking Google News headlines every 15 minutes.

I like to listen to podcasts for my news updates. NPR’s Coronavirus Daily, Planet Money, Politics Podcast, KCRW’s Left Right and Center, Vox’s The Weeds, and many more. We’re trying to focus on hard news and not on opinion pieces, which can be stressful and filled with misinformation.

Humor is also helping. The late show hosts like Stephen Colbert (or Colb-Air) and Trevor Noah are filming monologues from home, and the uplifting laughs combined with informative updates make a big difference. Alex introduced me to Jesse Appell today, and it’s incredible plus hilarious.

What we are doing for entertainment

NPR links to free things that weren’t free before coronavirus.

I’m listening to upbeat music. I haven’t broken out the Christmas playlist yet…but I’m close. Here are free music resources as well as (new to me) artists and songs that I’m discovering for the first time. They provide a cheerful lift:

What we are doing for exercise

  • Walking outdoors
  • Biking outdoors
  • Our YMCA has free Youtube videos with workouts. I imagine a quick search will surface plenty of workouts you can follow along at home
  • The custom workouts that my physical therapist designed for me

What we are doing for social connection

  • Calling friends!
  • Talking to family
  • Joining virtual meetups: Justin and I are hosting virtual SF Bay Area FIRE meetups. The meetup on Saturday, March 28th was AMAZING! We had about 50 people on sharing tips on how to stay calm, exercise at home, and manage money. I’ll plan to invite the NoCo Mustachian group to the next virtual meetup. I’m participating in ongoing virtual meetups with my Denver Bloggers Club which is another excellent way to get social interaction while we’re physically distancing.

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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