With new COVID-19 strains on the rise, here’s the safest way to grocery shop

Katie Jackson and Kerry Breen

Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, most shoppers are familiar with public health recommendations like wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying home as much as possible. But as new, seemingly more contagious variants are discovered around the country, experts say it's important to maintain those protocols and try to limit trips to the grocery store when possible.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using grocery delivery or curbside pickup, when possible, to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

Unless you are sick, elderly or an individual with a compromised immune system, grocery shopping can still be done safely. However, there are several guidelines shoppers should follow before, during and after their next trip to the store.

Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia who is involved with the Moderna and Novavax vaccine clinical trials, emphasized that masking and distancing is even more important now and said that those who have been relaxed should stay vigilant.

"The same preventative measures that were effective for the quote-unquote older variants (are) effective for the new variants," Kelly explained. "I don't think that people who have been being careful really need to change their behavior, but I do think we have a large portion of our population that probably isn't being as careful as they could be."

Related: The cost of food is expected to keep increasing in 2021, but there are simple ways to save money at the grocery store.

While it is important to be safe and keep an eye on your surroundings, experts emphasize that food isn't the enemy.

"In general, places that sell food are hard-wired for sanitation and hygiene," Celine Beitchman, director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education, told TODAY Food. The CDC advises that the risk of infection from food and food packaging is thought to be low, but it's important to follow good food safety practices.

Related: The time you decide to go shopping can affect your food choices and your wallet.

When is the best time to go shopping?

According to Google Maps data, Mondays at 8am is the least busy time to shop while Saturdays between 12-3pm is the busiest time. Some stores in the U.S. and abroad have introduced senior-only hours in order to accommodate individuals who are most at risk.

Related: The time you decide to go shopping can affect your food choices and your wallet.

What to do before you go

While shoppers can't control who they will encounter in the store, they can make things easier — and safer — by preparing in advance. Now, more than ever, Beitchman recommends creating a list of what you'll plan to make and eat for the days ahead.

Based on that list and your budget, make a concise shopping list. And don't just rely on non-perishables. "Fruits and vegetables provide a wealth of nutrients that support whole body health, including a strong immune system," said Beitchman.

Here's NBC News investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen's recommended grocery list for two weeks:

  • Grains: pasta, rice and quinoa

  • High-fiber foods: fruits, vegetables and lentils

  • High-protein foods: canned tuna, beans, frozen meat, tofu

  • Tortillas (because they last longer than bread)

  • Some treats are OK!

Also, make sure to bring sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer with you to the store.

Don't take the whole family along

In order to streamline the trip and keep grocery stores less crowded, limit how many people you take with you — or go alone. Kids may be attending school at home but, according to Beitchman, they probably shouldn't be shopping for food unless they're old enough to help and can be counted on to keep their hands away from their faces ... and other items in the store.

Keep trips short

The less time you spend in the store, the less likely you are to pass someone who may be spreading the virus, or spread it to someone yourself.

Dr. Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, said that people who live in areas that are seeing high rates of COVID-19, especially of new variants, should keep visits to "15 minutes or less."

"What we have to remember is that the social distancing and mask wearing that's been going on to the extent that it has in the United States has not been sufficient to control this epidemic," he said. "We had 4,000 deaths most of the days last week, and hospitals are full again. We're not being vigilant enough with just plain old coronavirus circulating, and now we're going to need to be more vigilant for the next couple of months."

Wear a mask

"The CDC and the Surgeon General have said that everyone going out into public for any reason to cover their nose and their mouth," said Nguyen. "That doesn't have to be an official surgical mask." But everyone, including store employees, should be wearing masks.

The self-checkout might be a good idea right now, too, in terms of limiting contact with other people. "Just remember you're going to be touching a lot of things. You don't want to touch your face," said Nguyen. "But you're limiting your contact with that cashier. That protects them; that protects you."

It's also important to make sure the mask fits properly: A mask should cover your nose and mouth, and should fit snugly to prevent droplets.

Sanitize your surroundings

When you get to the store, use a sanitizing wipe to rub down high-touch areas like cart and basket handles. Use hand sanitizer, or wash your hands, immediately after leaving the checkout lane, especially if you used any type of touch screen for payment.

Stay focused and be mindful

"I think the best strategy is to limit your time in the store as much as possible," said Amanda J. Deering, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at Purdue University. Part of limiting one's time in the store means understanding the general layout of aisles and knowing where everything is.

Most perishables (produce and dairy) are kept around the periphery of the store, while shelf-stable processed foods and cleaning products are in the middle aisles, said Beitchman. Plan to start with the non-perishable items on your list.

Related: These are the best foods to stock up on in case you or your family needs to self-quarantine.

Shop with your eyes, not your fingers

Deering said the riskiest areas will be those with items people touch the most, like salad bars (which should be avoided these days) and the produce section.

Don't hoard

Unless you're shopping for dozens of people, buying a year's worth of food may not only lead to potential waste, but it will also make it harder for others to feed those in their households. Buy enough food to last two weeks at a time.

When you get home

After you unpack your groceries, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you carried items home in reusable bags, make sure to wipe them down thoroughly, or wash them, after returning home. You should also make sure to clean your mask regularly, since it can become contaminated.

“You have to decide when it’s likely to have gotten contaminated,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, the medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in August. He explained that the more people you encounter, the more likely it is. Passing through a crowd, for example, is more likely to contaminate your mask than walking by a couple of people.

This article was updated on January 22, 2021.