We’re coming to the end of the first week of total lockdown in Italy, since the government passed the “Io resto a casa” (I stay home) decree that makes it illegal to go outside for reasons other than work or health (with proof). I won’t lie to you and say I’m doing great in this situation, but my husband and I are adapting, like all Italians, to life inside. From my point of view here in Florence, Italians are proving more law-abiding and polite than anyone imagined. We’re resilient, collaborative, empathetic and most of all, creative. Things are tough, and it’s not going to be instantly better when this is over, but at least at the moment the feeling is that we’re all in this together and all trying to help each other out.

An empty Ponte Vecchio | Photo by Tracy Russo taken on her way to go food shopping

I am amongst the lucky ones: I think about all the people who aren’t receiving their salaries right now or whose businesses are suffering, who are locked in a small apartment with three kids or worse yet, are alone, or abused. Tommaso and I both have jobs that make smart working possible, a good sized apartment with some outside space, and savings to get us through tough times. I am, as always, a person of privilege.

For this and other reasons, I have hesitated about writing something on my blog about the Coronavirus quarantine. There is something I’m really good at though, and that is organization. And for reasons I’ll explain below, one thing I am extremely organized about is food. So although it has nothing to do with art and travel, the themes of this blog, I’m hoping that this practical guide to food shopping under lockdown, based on personal experience, will be helpful to you.

Food shopping and cooking in quarantine

My colleagues tease me because I am super organized about everything, especially about food. I don’t talk about this much with strangers, but I’ve suffered from a lifetime of digestive problems and was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC), a chronic auto-immune disease that affects the colon. More on that another time; the point is, I’ve always had a slightly restrictive diet, and with this disease, I’ve found that following a very specialized diet developed in the USA for UC is key to keeping my symptoms under control. That, and reducing stress, which right now is not easy. To make sure I always have “compliant” foods in the house, I need to shop and cook strategically. I developed meal prep methods of my own, and learned a lot from one of my favourite American food blogs, Detoxinista. In preparation for the lockdown everyone knew was coming, I spent about a week ensuring I have all the ingredients I need to stay healthy – no small feat, as many are not typical Italian pantry items.

Speaking with my mom in Canada, and reading comments from friends in the States on Facebook, I realized that I’ve taken my usual planned food shopping and meal prep a step further at this time, and so am going to share my method with you, hoping it will help you when the time comes for you to stay inside. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to isolate and patiently wait this out, and applaud the Italian government for being strict with us. I hope that in other countries, grocery stores and governments will soon quell the panic and stop the stockpiling; here, stores have worked hard to ensure that (almost) everything is in stock. So get out your mask and disposable gloves, it’s time to go food shopping.

Food shopping strategy

Shop for 5-7 days

The rules around here are: only one person per family is allowed out to food shop, and must carry documentation and proof of destination should there be a police check. Supermarkets are enforcing one person per cart rules, and making you line up, separated by carts to create distance, to enter one at a time. Line-ups can be two hours long in some places like large city supermarkets (although a friend in downtown Florence reports that her small shops aren’t busy at all).

As we’ve been asked to go out as little as possible, this is not the time to run down to get some bread. You’re going to need a list and to buy multiples. In our household, my husband dons a respirator mask and disposable gloves and goes out for us and for his parents, fills two large carrier bags and then delivers the goods. Gloves are removed before entering the car, and outside clothing is removed at the front door (inside the house, to the neighbours’ relief).

supermarket line italy coronavirus
This is the line at our suburban esselunga store in Florence | ph. courtesy husband Tommaso Olivieri

Balanced, good food

Tommaso came in yesterday after his 2.5 hour supermarket voyage and declared that he had thrown caution to the wind and bought a whole round of cheese, organic salmon, craft cookies… If you’re in quarantine, you don’t have much to look forward to, so if you can afford to do so, my tip is to eat well – cook elaborate and delicious meals for yourself and try to enjoy it. Since I’ve had UC, I’ve stopped eating grains, but am also borderline vegetarian, so we need a constant stock of fresh proteins and vegetables which is a big challenge right now.

This is my shopping list – consider that this is not a standard pantry list, since I’m assuming you, like I, have many things at home all the time, like spices, sugar, flour, tea, coffee and the like. We are two adults, I expect families might have a list that looks a bit more kid-friendly. NB At the bottom of this article is a downloadable two-family shopping list (if, like us, you’re shopping for someone old or sick as well as for yourself.)

  • Protein
    • organic chicken breasts
    • chicken thighs for soup
    • salmon fillets
    • fish fillets
    • whole fish
    • smoked herring
    • smoked salmon
    • prosciutto
    • a ton of eggs
    • hard cheeses
    • plain yogurt
    • butter
  • Fruits and vegetables
    • oranges (for eating and juicing)
    • bananas
    • strawberries
    • carrots
    • zucchini
    • leeks
    • green beans
    • fennel
    • fresh spinach
    • baby tomatoes
    • fresh and dry onions
    • sweet potatoes
    • regular potatoes
    • Salad
    • Frozen blueberries
    • Frozen porcini mushrooms (or dried porcini)
    • If your weather or kitchen windowsill permit, potted herbs (I got basil, rosemary and sage)
  • Pantry
    • Rolled oats (I use them to make oat flour), you might want flour to bake your own cakes or cookies, or to make pasta
    • You may want some grains: rice, pasta, quinoa, etc.
    • UHT milk and non-animal-based milk
    • Tons of nuts and seeds
    • Dark chocolate
    • tomato sauce
    • applesauce
    • sugar-free jam
    • olive oil
    • maple syrup (I order mine online)
    • nut butters
    • lots and lots of wine

The fridge is not the only place to put food

If you’ve lived in Italy you know our fridges are not huge, but if you’re in the States and shopping for lockdown, you too are going to have trouble storing all this. This is where the triage method comes in. Freezer – Fridge – Outdoors – countertop/pantry. Example: I’ve just bought three packages of chicken. I can eat one tonight, the other two go in the freezer. I make sure my tiny freezer is set up by zones that fit certain kinds of packaging so that stacking proteins neatly on one side doesn’t take a lot of room.

Is it cold outside where you are? If temperatures are not going below zero and not above say, 15C, you can store some things outside. I hang things like bags of oranges outside on the balcony (like you do when you go camping and don’t want bears to eat your food, but less high). Some things need to ripen out on the counter, but you don’t want it to ripen all together. You’ve bought two avocadoes? Put one in the fridge, it ripens there too, but more slowly. Bananas are an unfortunate exception to any preservation logic, but if you’re able to buy 2 of each state of ripeness, you’re golden. Over-ripe bananas are, of course, fodder for banana bread.

Only the pharmacy in Santo Spirito is open | ph. Tracy Russo

What goes bad first?

They say you should eat vegetables with every meal, and in my diet that’s a must since I’m sadly not having a big yummy plate of pasta. What I’ve learned is to plan my meals based on what goes bad first. That soft lettuce isn’t going to last more than two days, and also takes up a lot of space in the fridge, so it gets eaten before, say, the zucchini, which will still be fine a week from now. Fennel is brilliant for lasting for ages, as are fresh beets, leeks (think homemade leek quiche). My sides might go in this order: salad, spinach, zucchini, fennel, carrot.

Also, while variety is the spice of life, right now we’re rationing on that, trying to think about how each ingredient can be a meal unto itself. Avocado, for example, is not being wasted as a part of a salad when it can be a meal if made into avocado toast. Anything that risks going bad should be frozen ASAP; if the zucchini looks a bit weathered, cook it all up into cubes with some olive oil and put what you don’t eat right away into the freezer. Ziplock bags take less space than containers for frozen fruits and vegetables; I’ve got bags full of cubed squash and eggplants in there that will be great when we run out of fresh food, along with frozen fish or even cured fish like herring. I’d make a decent sailor, if I didn’t hate boats!

Non-food items

Italy didn’t have the rush on toilet paper that Australia did, but of course you’ll want to have a reasonable amount of that at home. To avoid filling your cart with big items and to get around stock problems, consider ordering Amazon Pantry (click here for Amazon Pantry in mainland USA – this is a referral link – or Amazon Pantry in Italy). They should have things like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, pet foods. Stock up on disinfectant hand soap as well as toothpaste. Here in Italy, I use Amazon also for the foods I consume regularly but that aren’t part of the Mediterranean diet, such as kilo tubs of peanut butter, jugs of maple syrup (cuz hey, I am Canadian!), and massive feed-bags of oats (which here are kinda considered food for horses).

As you are preparing for lockdown, you might also want to get a few things to help you work out in the house: if you don’t already have one, I suggest getting an exercise mat or yoga mat. I also have found some elastics my mom brought me to be super useful, as is a foam roller for sore muscles from inactivity.

If you’re going to be smart working, do what you can to create a workspace in the home and in particular, get anything you need to ensure good posture, because you can’t go for a massage or to the chiropractor. After the first day of lockdown, I literally ordered a high tech office chair on Amazon (it came the next day!) because a ten-year-old Ikea office chair is not okay day in and day out. A lot of people I know ordered printers, though I can’t imagine why! Remember our delivery guys are amongst the heroes of coronavirus so thank them and don’t stress out if you don’t get your Amazon Now within two hours, okay?

Also, seems obvious, but make sure you have enough prescription medicine to last you a while, as well as any over the counter items you might need. This includes having a digital thermometer in the house (if you have a fever over 37.5C, call the coronavirus help line), and if you have high blood pressure, a pressure cuff. If you tend towards high blood pressure under stress, grab that prescription to lower the pressure because you WILL need it. When my BP hit 150/90 last week I knew it was time to break out the yoga mat. Do not stockpile cold medicines or anything else for that matter, just think ahead to avoid going out.

Last but not least, to help that blood pressure, WINE! If you want to support Italy at this time, numerous Italian winemakers offer the option to purchase online, and some are offering shipping deals and discounts. One is my friends at Querceto di Castellina (where you may recall I went to a superb vineyard dinner) – who are offering free worldwide shipping at this time, and have a wonderful wine club you can sign up for to order a case of Chianti Classico.

Cooking and sharing (online) during quarantine

In the past year, I’ve been doing meal planning and prep, with most of my cooking happening on Sundays. I find that having the work-week’s calendar planned out, including indications like “take chicken soup out of the freezer” and “marinate meat before leaving for work”, reduces stress and ensures that I’m getting the right calorie intake. It also reduces food waste and allows me to have all the right ingredients when I need them.

Most weeks, I plan out lunches and dinners, but leave a few blank spaces for unexpected leftovers, skipped meals, or frozen soup (I keep a stash). There are a few things I try to always have made up in advance, including a long-lasting oat and seed bread, and some homemade peanut butter cookies (like these ones without flour or sugar). Now that we’re at home and there are two of us without social activities or the gym to go to, so I have skipped the complete meal calendar, opting to just buy a lot of our usual ingredients. I’ve got a list of meals I can make with what we have, and am keeping tabs to make sure nothing goes to waste. To mix things up – fun is really hard to come by right now – we’re also varying our cooking methods, using a sous-vide and the outside gas barbecue more than usual. Another idea – from my friend Tracy – is to try some new recipes; we don’t have much to look forward to right now so at least let’s make it delicious.

As I said, I’m very lucky. I am sharing this quarantine with a wonderful man and the two of us seem to have fun even in the worst of circumstances. At this time, I’m reaching out particularly to my friends who are single and in general catching up with everyone regularly on WhatsApp. We like inviting friends to dinner, so next week we’re planning a few online dinner parties using Skype video on a laptop at an extra place setting on the dining room table. I’m thinking we might even coordinate recipes! Stay healthy, my friends, and stay inside. Let me know if you’ve got any quarantine shopping tips to add in the comments below.


Downloadable coronavirus lockdown food shopping list

Click here to download my coronavirus food shopping list for two families: coronavirus-shopping-list-2-family
If you’re shopping for yourself and for someone elderly or sick, as we are, this list can help guide your designated shopper to efficiently purchase everything for one entire week or more (we supplement this with a mid-week vegetable shipment from a local farm). The food on the list has expanded to things we don’t eat in my house because my in-laws have a more traditionally Italian diet (such as white pasta, store-bought cookies). I’ve written it “in order of appearance” at my supermarket here in Florence, and left it in Word format so that you might edit it, add, subtract, and re-order as you need. The goal is to be swift, efficient, and stay away from other shoppers, and this is our tool to do so.

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