Food for Thought

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?

7 Comments

Filed under COVID-19, Food

7 responses to “Food for Thought

  1. Well, we’re just shopping for the two of us — but yeah, we are spending a lot more on groceries than we ever have — partly because we’re eating all our meals at home now (we used to have lunch out several days a week — mostly fast food type stuff, but still eating out, and a nicer dinner out on Saturday nights), partly because we’ve been stockpiling some stuff too. Our cupboard/closet & fridge/freezer compartment space is limited in a condo — but aside from milk & bread & maybe a few other things, we have enough meat, pasta & canned goods to eat out of our cupboards for several weeks (and maybe not even get too bored).

    Our bills have also been higher because dh has been doing all the shopping (and he prefers to go into the store and pick out his/our own stuff versus ordering online & picking up — which may be slightly less risky, but as you’ve pointed out, comes with its own set of problems). He doesn’t care (or think) to look for bargains — plus (and I agree here), if you need it and you’ve been looking for it and it’s been hard to find because, pandemic, are you really going to quibble about paying extra?

    I’m finding it frustrating not to be going into the store with him… I know they only want one person per family to go in, and I understand why, and dh prefers to be the one taking on the risks — but I would really like to see for myself what’s there and what’s not. My shopping priorities/wish list are not always the same as his. I will often see & grab something from the shelf that I will realize in the moment that we need or could use or that it’s a good buy; he will notice & grab different things that I might not think or notice (or care about). For example, I’ve asked him several times now to get a refill package of ground cinnamon, which I like to have on my oatmeal for breakfast… he still hasn’t bought it. He doesn’t like cinnamon, so it’s not a priority or top of mind for him (& he doesn’t always bring a grocery list with him, or consult it while he’s going through the store — granted, it’s not as easy to pull out when you’re wearing gloves…!)… meanwhile, I watch the cinnamon bottle get emptier…! I would like to be eating more fresh fruits & veggies; he doesn’t trust those right now (who knows who’s been touching them?) so he hasn’t been buying them, or as much of them, and frozen doesn’t always cut it. I am watching my refill bottle of Softsoap getting emptier and emptier and asked him to look for that (and I know handsoap is something that isn’t always available when you want/need it) — but he thinks we have lots and don’t need to worry about it yet — and even uses soap from the handsoap bottle by the sink to soak the dishes in because it’s more convenient than reaching under the counter for the bottle of actual dishsoap (!! — grrrr….!). But he will come home with two gigantic bags of SmartPop popcorn, because that’s HIS priority…! lol

    I’m just waiting for the day when I run out of some of my personal care items, like hair mousse or deoderant or cotton makeup removal pads, and have to try to get him to look for THOSE on my behalf….! I am rather brand particular and if I can’t get what I want, I’d prefer to be the one seeing what’s available & deciding what the next-best substitute would be. There’s a lot of stuff (both in terms of groceries & personal care items) I would like to go out & buy that isn’t necessarily a necessity… it may or may not even be available. I could probably get along without them or make some kind of substitution. But if they are available, it would make life easier and more pleasant & more normal for me.

    Sigh…

    Oh yes, as for shortages — as I said, I haven’t been able to see these things for myself — but dh reports that, after the initial couple of weeks when shelves were pretty bare of everything, most things seem to be available again (including toilet paper). Cleaning stuff has still been harder to come by (he says those shelves are still pretty bare), but he did bring home a bottle of toilet bowl cleaner recently and he scored a bottle of Lysol spray cleaner for me on his last shopping expedition. He hasn’t had any problems finding meat so far.

    (Sorry for hijacking the comments section… I should probably write about this on my own blog…!)

  2. P.S. I do recognize that while I can afford to buy stuff at a more expensive price tag than what I’d normally pay, not everyone has that flexibility…

  3. We are also spending more on groceries. I don’t know how it’s possible NOT to! We’re spending less on other things (activities, the gym, clothes, etc) so it’s kind of a wash. And yes, there is SO much emotional labor being spent on food and preparation of it! I totally agree. It feels so essential to get food and supplies, although better now that in the beginning when people were hoarding.

  4. Turia

    Yes, I think about that a lot too. This is stressful and time-consuming for us, and we have the financial security to pay whatever price we need to pay to get the food we need. If Q. and I (the ultra-privileged) are finding this challenging, how difficult must it be for those less fortunate?!

    You should do a post on food too! It sounds like you have a lot of thoughts about it. I’d be frustrated as well if Q. was doing the shopping in store but wasn’t using a list or wasn’t remembering what I really wanted/needed. We still need to make a list of what we will buy every week no matter what because we keep having things slip through the cracks.

    FYI, to judge from what I see when I order online (and what I saw at Shoppers the other day when I had to go in to pick up prescriptions), I think soap, including liquid handsoap, can still be hard to find (at least it seems to be in my neck of the woods). So it might be worth DH picking some up sooner rather than later, even if he thinks you still have lots. That’s good that your DH hasn’t noticed much not available. I saw my neighbour a week ago and she said that the store where we do our online ordering was really hit and miss sometimes with the selection and what was available. Maybe my neighbourhood is still doing more panic-buying and hoarding than yours!

  5. Ana

    Maybe we are completely reckless, but we still do our weekly in-person shop, with an electronic list. The issue with no substitutions is a deal-breaker for me with on-line shopping and what you describe with the mental load of constantly adding and checking and updating the order sounds horrific. I just can’t deal with that. I make the meal plan & we both finalize the list the night before, my husband goes to the store and texts me if they don’t have things (because I do the meal planning and can help figure out substitutions better).
    AND STILL the actual planning/prepping/cleaning process is a HUGE part of each day for both of us. My kids are also eating us out of house and home and grocery costs have gone up for sure, due to being home and eating more, no school lunches, no work lunches.

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  7. a

    I am braving the stores because I am too much of a control freak to deal with a 2 week delay, out of stock items, and the inability to see what’s there vs what’s listed on the website. Most of the shortages have been meat and paper products, but I’ve been able to get what I need so far. I don’t know what it is about this situation, but it makes everyone hungry all the time yet unsatisfied with what’s available in the house.

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