One of the many things that have surprised me about the COVID-19 pandemic is that I had not expected to spend so much emotional labour on food.
A couple of years ago I made the conscious decision to pass on 90% of the emotional labour around food in our household to Q. I still did my share of cooking food and cleaning up after food, but I stopped doing the menu planning or the grocery list. I carry almost all the emotional labour surrounding our kids – I’m the one who knows what size clothes they wear, where the bins with the next size up are kept, when they next need to see the doctor, the dentist, the optometrist, etc. I gave food to Q. And that’s worked pretty well for our household.
But COVID-19 has changed things somewhat.
I feel like I am thinking about, worrying about, discussing, preparing, cleaning up after, and, oh yes, eating food ALL.THE.TIME.
First thing, all the blog posts about how to cut costs during the pandemic by reducing the amount you spend on groceries make me laugh out loud. Our grocery bill has gone up. WAY UP. In part this is because P. is no longer getting two snacks and a lunch at nursery school four days a week and E. is no longer getting hot lunch twice a week (and it turns out that even though this didn’t look like much it really was a substantial amount of food that someone else was feeding my children). But it’s also because E. is eating at least three times the amount of food he would eat at school. He’s not rushed, he’s not stressed, and the entire contents of our fridge/pantry are available to him. At school it’s a challenge to get him to eat more than a granola bar at snack time. At home he’ll eat a full plate of veggies with guacamole and fruit and assorted carbs. And the amount of food he’s consuming at actual meal times is staggering. I said to Q. the other day “I thought this wasn’t supposed to happen until he was a teenager” after E. ate three full-size burritos (for comparison: I ate one) and then made himself a PB&J because he was “still starving”.
Our grocery bills have gone up as well because we’re doing a moderate amount of stockpiling. Q. has read a lot about food security and the supply chain and he thinks there’s a very good chance that we (in Ontario) will be facing some shortages later in the year, especially if the situation is still grim in the US and cross-border shipping is harder. There are problems currently with getting in seasonal workers to prune the fruit trees. Q. doesn’t think there’s likely to be a famine, but he does think that some things will become unavailable and/or extremely expensive, so we’ve been buying some tinned fruit and veggies every week. We have frozen stuff too but we’re hedging against having a protracted power outage. It’s probably in the ballpark of $30-$50 per grocery shop of food that we’re planning not to eat anytime soon. It’s not a huge amount, but it does add up.
We’ve been buying in larger quantities from our butcher and our fisherfolk to try to minimize how often we have to be down on the main street in our neighbourhood to pick up an order (they both do contact-less pick up). The price of beef just tripled, according to our butcher, because of the COVID-19 outbreaks in the processing plants. We’ve cut way back on our beef consumption anyway for environmental reasons, but that’s likely to have a knock-on effect on prices for other meat as demand increases.
The LCBO (our provincially-controlled liquor store) offers same-day pick up at some stores, so I did a big order a couple of weekends ago (although not as big as I had thought as it turned out I bought small bottles of white wine rather than full-size ones!). Under ordinary consumption patterns what I picked up would probably last us into August, but I’m not going to lie, we’re both drinking more than we usually would. Everything about this situation is hard (even though it’s also all fine in the grand scheme of things) and having a fancy cider AND a glass of wine on Friday night is one of the highlights of my week.
What really eats up my mental energy though is ordering our groceries.
Q. and I are trying to stay out of the grocery stores, so we’ve been using the online ordering system for our big grocery chain. When it works well, you get an order slot, choose your groceries, check out (and you can edit the contents of your cart until three days before pick up) and then they text you when the order is ready to be picked up, you drive to the store, and they load it into your trunk.
It’s a good system, but the demand for it has been so high that they’ve been struggling to keep up. They just this week announced they’ve greatly expanded their capacity for ordering, which means more available slots. Q. and I had worked out a good system where we each had an account and we took turns ordering. I’d have an order in my name, and then as soon as I picked it up, the next day I could book a new slot for two weeks later. But Q. would have an order ongoing for the week in between. It took us some trial and error to figure this out, but we had hit a groove.
The challenge is that you can only put something in your cart if it is in stock in the store at the moment you are shopping for it, and they’re not doing substitutions for out-of-stock items because the demand for the service is so high. So if I put a 2lb bag of carrots in my cart but on the day they’re processing my order that brand of carrots is out of stock, we don’t get carrots, even if there were other carrots in the store. It means I tend to put several of any key item into the cart, all of different sizes and brands, to try to guarantee we get what we need. And that means that our potential grocery bill looks ridiculous. But I need to do it- the last two weeks we had well over $200 of items in our grocery cart that we couldn’t get. So the shops, which looked unbelievably expensive at the point where I could no longer edit the order, ended up being about what we’d normally spend.
Most things we eventually get. We’ve had no luck with yeast (this was one of the few things Q. didn’t think about picking up when he did a ‘stock up on staples’ shop about two weeks before the panic buying started). This is frustrating because Q. was diagnosed with celiac disease last year and he has been mostly baking his own gluten-free bread. Luckily the gluten-free bread in the stores hasn’t been hard to get, but his own stuff is better. Baking powder is problematic too but we won’t run out for a while yet (although not all baking powder is gluten-free certified, so I’m trying to get another brand so I can stop using the kind that is safe for Q. when I’m making the kids gluten-filled pancakes). Beyond Meat products seem to always be available to be put in the cart, but are always out of stock by the time my order is processed.
The biggest issue at the moment is fruit. We’ve had two weeks in a row where we didn’t get most of the fresh fruit we ordered AND we didn’t get any of the frozen fruit we’d put in our cart either. So the current shop (which we’ll pick up on Wednesday night) has probably over $100 of frozen fruit in it. I put every single kind of frozen fruit we’re likely to eat in the cart, and I logged in every day to see if new kinds had come back into stock. There’s the possibility, of course, that this week we’ll get ALL THE FRUIT, and I’m grateful that we are financially secure enough to bear the cost if that happens (and then at least we won’t have to order frozen fruit for quite some time!).
It’s meant that we’ve stopped meal planning. Q. makes dinner every night because he has the kids in the afternoon and he’s a real wizard at putting things together in a tasty and nutritious way, especially as we get closer to picking up a grocery order and the fridge is getting bare. I do lunches and I usually have a rough plan for the kids but I’m often scrambling for what to feed Q. given his restrictions. We often bank on leftovers but then the kids sometimes eat the planned leftovers at dinner the night before!
But the mental load of keeping track of everything is tiring. Q. puts things in the cart as well but since I’m the one with the smartphone and I’ve downloaded the app, it’s faster for me to hop on and see if something’s back in stock. Q. and I talk a LOT about food right now and often he’s staring in the pantry while I’m sitting on the couch with the app open searching for items as he lists them. We’re trying to predict what we’ll need at least two weeks before we’ll need it, so we have two chances to get it before we run out. I’ve just now put toilet paper in the cart. We probably have a month’s supply of toilet paper still, but I don’t know how bad the shortages for it are. We might need a month to get toilet paper successfully delivered. I’m moving to a system with shelf-stable foods where I order a replacement when we’re down to one in the store room in our basement. So if we have a jug of maple syrup in our fridge and two in the pantry downstairs, I won’t order another, but as soon as one of the extras moves up to the fridge, I’ll add it to the cart, even though we still have an extra. Because it might only take one shop to get it, but it might take months.
We’re very fortunate that we’ve never had food scarcity issues. We’ve always had enough money to buy the food we needed (and to splurge on the food we wanted). And we’re still able to buy what we need. But I can tell that the effort of making sure the right things are in the cart and the uncertainty of knowing what we’ll actually get when we go to pick up the groceries is producing stress for both of us. Less stress than if we were battling our way through our grocery stores, where people don’t respect the social distancing guidelines, but certainly not stress-free.
What’s your grocery shopping experience been like? Are you braving the stores or ordering online or both? Any shortages that have surprised you?