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How To Eat Safely During The Coronavirus Crisis: Tips, Resources, FAQs

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We answer your urgent eating-related questions, like, Can the virus be transmitted through food? Is it OK to have friends over for dinner?

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Life has changed dramatically this past week, from schools and restaurants closing to evolving policies around social distancing and public events. As Chicagoans — and most people across the country — hunker down at home over the next few weeks, Curious City is answering questions about how to safely deal with food, cooking and eating during coronavirus.

Please keep in mind that what is known about the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is still evolving. This information does not constitute professional medical advice. For questions regarding your own health, always consult a physician.

How safe is it to shop at the grocery store?

The main issue with grocery shopping is your exposure to other people and contaminated hard surfaces like grocery carts, freezer handles and credit card swiping machines. Delivery services also involve some contact with people who may handle your produce.

“Stay away from other shoppers, [and] don’t hover over someone’s shoulder trying to get the last toilet paper,” said Martin Wiedmann, food safety professor at Cornell University.Article continues below

For this reason, you should shop as infrequently as possible and at off-peak hours. Stores including Jewel-Osco, Dollar General, Target and Whole Foods are even creating special hours for seniors and vulnerable populations. You may also want to check with elderly neighbors to see if you can shop for them.

When you must shop, keep a safe distance from other shoppers, wear gloves, wash hands, wipe down surfaces and don’t touch your face.


Can the virus be transmitted through raw food?

As far as experts are aware, at this time, you cannot get the virus from ingesting food. However if you were to touch food that contains the virus and then touch your mouth or eyes or other mucus membranes, you could get it. But the risk is extremely low.

“The current thinking is that you really have to inhale it or touch your face and have it come into contact with your mucosa,” said Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease specialist at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement France.

Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety at Cornell University, said it’s important to keep the big picture in mind.

“Nothing we do right now is zero risk, and food consuming has never been zero risk,” he said. “The lowest risk today will be packaged foods and canned foods. But that doesn’t mean we should not eat fresh vegetables. We’ve got to take care of our overall health, too.”

Can the virus be transmitted through cooked food, like bread?

The current information suggests that ingestion is not an infection pathway for Covid-19 whether through cooked or raw food.

“If you eat it … it goes into your stomach [where it cannot be transmitted],” said Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease specialist at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement France. “Along the way, it could potentially come into contact with your mucosa [where it might theoretically attach and infect], but it’s very unlikely that this is how it transmits.”


Can the people who prepared my food transmit the virus to me?

Experts say the virus is transmitted person-to-person, through the air or on hard surfaces where it can live up several hours or days. Again, it is not thought to be transmitted through the ingestion of food, but there may be a low risk transmission through fecal contact, where a food worker does not properly wash hands. All food service professionals are supposed to be trained in safety procedures to avoid such transmission, however.

What are my takeout and delivery options, and are they safe?

In the Chicago area, a site called Dining at a Distance has been building a database of more than 1,000 local restaurants and their options for pick up, delivery and other ways to support restaurants.

If you opt for pick up, experts recommend doing so at off-peak hours when you will not likely be waiting in a room with others. If possible, wait outside away from other customers.

If you are doing delivery, you may want to opt for “no contact” delivery, where the delivery worker leaves the food at your door or other desired location indicated in your online or phone order. But don’t forget to tip. These people are doing important work in trying times. Same principles apply for grocery delivery.

After you get the takeout or delivery dishes, treat packaging as you would any surface out of your control by wiping it down, washing or discarding it, and washing your hands again. Again, all professional workers are supposed to be trained in safe food handling, but these are special times. Transfer food into your own clean dishes and enjoy.

How do I safely store food?

Although authorities urge people to avoid hoarding, many have and will continue to stock up on food during this time. Inevitably, many will buy more than home refrigerators or freezers can hold. These are some aspects of the crisis that Cornell food safety professor Martin Wiedmann is worried about. He said consumers need to be careful about refrigerating excess food in the hall or on their porch, because most of those perishables need to be kept under 40 F for safety.

He also warned against things like washing meat in the same sink where you wash vegetables, causing cross-contamination. He noted you don’t need to wash any meat you are going to cook.

“Wash your hands before you cook food. Keep raw food, raw chicken, raw meat, etc. away from produce. … Cook things at the proper temperature using USDA temperature guidelines,” he said.

He said it’s extra important to take these precautions today. “If someone gets foodborne illness now because of something else — not coronavirus — and has to go to a hospital or has to travel, that exposes them to greater risk.”

What pantry staples should I buy to make versatile recipes for my household?

Chef Sarah Stegner said her top six pantry staples for this time are dried beans, onions, nuts, oatmeal, plenty of salt and some kind of oil.

For versatile meals, she recommends roasting a chicken (at 450 F until the thigh registers 165 F), or you can buy a roast chicken to-go from a restaurant.

“I like this because you can get multiple meals out of it,” she said. “And once you have that chicken and [eat most of the meat], you take the bones and the trimmings and make a stock or soup out of it.”

You can also freeze that soup to have it ready to go in case someone in your house gets sick.

Longtime Chicago chef, baker and restaurateur Ina Pinkney suggested keeping your refrigerator full of eggs and your freezer full of frozen soup. She also suggested cheering up the household by making breakfast for dinner, something like pancakes.

“I think it’s the most comforting way to end a day,” she said.

You can find the recipe for Pinkney’s famously light, heavenly hot pancakes here. Pinkney said you can find the potato starch in the “Jewish food section of your grocery store.”

How should I cook and care for a member of the family who is sick?

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention says that when someone in the household is sick, they should stay in their room and be cared for by only one family member.

The CDC further advises people who suspect they have COVID-19 to “use a separate bathroom, if available” and “not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home. After using these items, they should be washed thoroughly with soap and water.”

Authorities have not devised any special dietary recommendations for patients with the virus, but the CDC does recommend drinking plenty of fluids.

Is it OK to have friends over for dinner?

Experts say no, and the CDC recommends “limiting food sharing” in general. As unsavory as this is, we spit when we talk and touch our faces — more than we realize — and that can spread the virus, said Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease specialist at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement France. You can be carrying the virus, and be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.

“If you’re having a dinner party with someone who is infected and shedding [spreading the] virus, you’re all gonna get it,” Abbate said.

Essentially, when you have dinner with a neighbor, you’re having dinner with them and anyone they’ve had dinner with over the last two weeks.

If you still want to have people over, Abbate suggested really limiting who you invite. If you have a friend across the hall that you want to see, she said “stick with them and no one else. Now you have a slightly larger family.”

What are some ways to keep enjoying meals with other people?

While it’s hard to be isolated from friends and family, especially during mealtimes, here are some creative ways Chicagoans are keeping meals fun and social.

— Call for advice. Prairie Grass Cafe chef Sarah Stegner is manning a cooking hotline from 2 to 4 p.m. everyday at (847) 920-8437.

— Stage virtual dinner and cooking parties with friends on apps like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Facetime, like this group of Italians.

— Share a challenge with household members to come up with the most creative dishes with the staples you still have on hand.

— Finally learn how to make bread. All you need is flour, water and salt. You don’t even need yeast if you make your own sourdough starter with water and flour.

— Involve the kids. Chicago chef Cheryl Knecht Munoz is posting daily lessons and recipes you can cook with children home from school on her Sugar Beet Schoolhouse blog.

— Use the good china and light a candle, says Chicagoan Eilleen Howard Weinberg.

— Anshe Emet Day School chef Ben Randall is posting daily recipes for kids at SageBZell on Instagram

— Louisa Chu of the Chicago Tribune plans to start cooking through the Tribune recipe archives on Instagram as well.

Special thanks to our questioners

Thanks to everyone who sent in food-related coronavirus questions, including: Ned Lot, Jennifer Ptak, M.Hamilton, Helen Micari and Mary Beth N.