A Germaphobe's Guide to Shopping and Cooking in March 2020 and Beyond
Updated: Mar 23
My shopping and hygiene habits have previously been considered extreme by most people. But in the private chef world, it's a different story.
A few years ago a client got into my car and remarked that we'd get along just fine, because I carried an economy size bottle of hand sanitizer in the front seat. I'm the original chef germaphobe. As a result, I rarely get sick. I've had two colds in the last fifteen years.
For me, hand washing and staying away from sick people has always been a part of my personal and professional hygiene. It doesn't affect the way I live, nor do I obsess about germs. I'm simply not interested in exposing myself or clients to other peoples' bad habits.
I've been made fun of for the way I shop("you're so OCD!") put food away, cook, clean, and also the way I've tried to keep my distance from others while shopping. I've never understood the need to get so close to other people in a grocery checkout line or at the post office. It's not going to get you to the front of the line any faster, right?
As a chef, I'm responsible for my health and also for the health of my employer or clients. If I get sick, they'll get sick because I'm cooking their food, and my face(where the germs are coming from through my breath) is only at arm's length from their food I'm preparing.
However, as careful as I am, I was in the store last week and as I scooted behind two people in the pasta aisle, one of them turned around suddenly and coughed directly into my face. She was most likely trying to avoid coughing in the person's face she was with.
I was kind of horrified, especially when I looked back and it appeared to be a young woman with her mother and the young woman, who'd coughed on me looked sick- wrapped in a blanket and with her mom pushing the cart.
Why in the world are people out shopping when they're sick? Especially if they have friends or family to help them? Yikes.
If I see the worker at the bagel shop touch their face and then handle food, or take my money and start to prepare my food without putting gloves on, I'll run out of the shop as soon as their back is turned. It's easier than asking them why they're not wearing gloves, and then I may or may not call the establishment later and let them know. It's not always well received.
So here are my top 10 germ avoidance tips/habits.
1. Wear disposable gloves while shopping if you want to. (I've always wanted to do this and now it's more than acceptable.) The way to do it is to NEVER touch your face, and as a chef, I don't ever touch my face while cooking- it's gross. If I do, I wash my hands immediately. So I can attest to the fact that I've been in the habit of not touching my face or hair so this isn't a hardship. Right now I'm wearing gloves. I've been shopping recently and watched a couple of visibly sick people use the self checkout.
Use the self-checkout option. Why? Because you're wearing gloves, and there's less exposure to other people. If you're going through a checkout line, that cashier has handled everyone's items before you got there, that they've touched.
If you're at a self checkout, your items are going from your cart or basket, directly into your own shopping bags that you've brought to the store. You're not putting them down on a counter and the cashier isn't touching your items after touching the potentially sick person's purchases ahead of you.
Preferably use reusable shopping bags that are also washable.
You'll put the fresh pair of gloves on in your car, before you grab a cart or basket. As soon as you've finished shopping and put the cart away, remove the gloves, inside out and discard them in the trash bin outside the store. You're then walking to your car with clean hands and there's no need to re-sanitize your hands right away.
2. Try to shop later at night if possible, when there are fewer crowds.
I think this is self-explanatory, but since the two times I've been directly exposed to others' germs in the last week were from coughing and sneezing in the supermarket, I'm now leery of shopping in the middle of the day when it's busier.
3. The shopping cart is your best friend. If you do go through the checkout aisle with a cashier, position your shopping cart behind you as a barrier so that the next customer in line doesn't creep up on you. I've never understood the need to be so damn close to the customer in front of you. It's called PRIVACY...and social distance.
If you're cart-free, put your basket directly on the conveyor belt at the end of your items, creating distance between you and the person behind you. They might try to "help" by removing it, but stop them and tell them that you're not finished using it yet. They will most likely look at you quizzically and shake their head.
4. Don't buy bulk items unless you'll be cooking them(aka sanitizing). For instance, it's fine to buy lentils, oats and beans in bulk, but you wouldn't want to purchase nuts, candy, or anything that people can stick their hands into and grab from the bins. I see this happen all the time and it's disgusting. (And it's usually a man...sorry guys- I know it's not all of you but I have yet to see a woman grab "free food" from the bulk bins.)
5. Start coughing when you're in line at Home Goods or some other retail establishment with a customer line if you feel the person behind you creeping up into your personal space. As an extreme measure, you may have to fake sneeze and sniffle if coughing doesn't seem to do the trick. Note: maybe only use this as a last resort right now as you don't want to be ejected and carted away to the hospital.
6. Never touch a gas pump handle directly. I cringe when I see people do this but it's another reason why washing hands throughout the day and not touching other people's hands in the first place is a good idea. You really have no idea where their hands have been. Men are infinitely more prone to doing this than women.
Use the towels provided at the pump and don't touch the touch screen with your fingers, either. I don't waste my disposable gloves at the gas station- I just make sure to sanitize my hands as soon as I get back in the car after using towels, and I grab a couple of extra towels to keep in the car in case the next gas station doesn't have any available.
7. Your credit card should stay with you whenever possible, but if someone handles it, it should be sanitized. I always clean my credit card off with hand sanitizer before it goes back into my wallet. When I use it at a self checkout, I'm now doing the same thing. This may seem extreme but those credit cards have been everywhere lately.
8. Your vehicle should be wiped down if anyone else touches it. I had to take my car in for a checkup last week and I used at least 10 bleach wipes to clean the door handles, steering wheel, gear shift, window switches, mirrors and outside door handles. I've always done this but I was a little more careful this time. Your car is handled by several people when you take it to the shop, not just one. Your keys should also be wiped down, if you're getting really serious about this.
9. Preparing food at home. (Which is what you should be doing right now anyway...)
-Leave items like bananas, tomatoes, avocados out on the counter in a bowl. Wash right before use.
-Anything that is going to go directly onto a cutting board should be thoroughly washed before use. Fruits and veggies, rinsed well in warm water if used cold, and hot water if you're cooking it(broccoli, etc.) I always rinse carrots before I peel them.
Avocados: maybe use a bit of soap because they're handled more frequently, by more people.
Pineapples, melons, etc should always be well-rinsed before placing on a cutting board anyway because of dirt and transport issues. Again, numerous people have handled produce before you touch it. First producers, then packers, then truckers, then grocery store produce workers, then other shoppers. That's a lot of handling.
Things like onions and garlic should also be rinsed, and onions should have the first layer peeled before they go on your clean board.
I always pre-prepare produce with numbers of people in mind that have handled the items before I got them.
Wash your "triple-washed" lettuce right before you use it. The basic rule of thumb with produce is that the less it's washed, the longer it will keep, so do it at the last minute. I am not worried about germs staying on produce bags, but I am taking the extra step of washing my hands whenever I touch any outside packaging from the store.
10. Restaurants: While I empathize with restaurants that are going through a challenging time, I can't recommend getting takeout from them right now. The exception to this would be restaurants that are paying their employees' sick leave and have new hygiene regulations in place.
Perhaps use this time to get creative in the kitchen and have fun cooking at home. You can purchase all organic food and make healthy meals at home for half the price of take out meals that aren't organic!
Unless food establishments are paying their employees to stay home when they're sick or not feeling well, those hard-working employees might come to work when they're sick because they have bills to pay.
Even if restaurant workers aren't showing signs of illness, they're still breathing on your food from inches away while they're preparing it. They may be asymptomatic carriers of illness and may look fine. Either way, restaurants are a non-essential and a luxury that you may want to avoid for a while until there is more known about COVID-19 and how it's actually transmitted.
These times are really hard on everyone. It's in our best interests to stay as healthy as possible and to take care of ourselves and others so we can hopefully get on with our lives as quickly as possible.
Part of that is limiting socializing, but there's nothing better for you than fresh air and exercise. Keeping healthy people inside is not going to make things better in the long run.
If we're healthy and active, getting outside and taking in fresh air, going for a walk, bike ride, paddle or run while keeping our distance from other people is the best preventative medicine there is. I also think that for some of us, our mental health depends upon it.
I also believe that we can shorten the length of a cold(not a virus, maybe...but a cold) by getting outside and inhaling fresh oxygen and letting sunlight in.
I'm not a medical professional but this is what works for me and other healthy, active people I know.
By all means, make the best decisions for you and your family right now and let's remember to take care of each other by being a bit more compassionate and loving on social media as well as in the real world.