The milk was the first to go.
Next went the avocados and eggs. The remaining cloves of garlic helped prep a leg of lamb for Easter.
That was Day 26.
After that last trip to the store in mid-March, I wondered how long we could make the groceries last. “I bet we can make it to June 1,” I joked to my husband. And, somehow, over the days and weeks and months that followed, that joke became the goal.
Grocery shopping in the time of COVID-19 felt stressful. It seemed like it multiplied the risk of exposure and infection and reset the quarantine clock. We decided to try to avoid it – not forever, but maybe just until the curve started to flatten.
With a bit of creativity and resourcefulness, we figured we could stretch a couple of shopping trips into two and a half – maybe even three – months.
We held out 89 days.
We probably could’ve lasted a little longer, but we were out of butter and down to our last box of spaghetti. We missed variety and the very experience of combing the aisles, perusing the wine selection, seeing what was on sale and finding inspiration for future meals.
In the Before Times, grocery shopping was less of a chore and more of a fun Friday after-work activity, part of – or a precursor to – date night. We’d stock up for the week and buy ingredients for that night’s dinner, then cooked together, often trying a new recipe and enjoying a glass of wine while we talked and chopped, pan seared or roasted.
We try to eat fresh and typically only buy what we need for a week at a time. So, like many people around the world, we felt largely unprepared for the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Thanks to a little planning, a lot of rice and beans, eggs from friends who keep chickens and ducks and – when the farmers markets finally opened near the end of our experiment – fresh local herbs and greens, we made it to the early part of Phase 3 for Whitman County. June 13, to be exact.
Our self-imposed grocery challenge became a way to help mark long days in lockdown. We started meal prepping, rationing luxury items – cheese, chocolate, wine, whiskey, Luxardo maraschino cherries – and paying extra attention to reducing food waste.
We candied orange peels, made bread crumbs from day-old loaves that we also made ourselves and used radish greens in soup.
We ate a lot of soup.
We already had some “emergency food” in the pantry – those aforementioned rice and beans and a bunch of wheat berries from a continuing interest in baking bread.
In the freezer, there were salmon fillets from last summer and part of a lamb from Christmas. We figured we would do the best we could with what we had and see what happened.
What happened was stews, casseroles, homemade bread and, when the dairy milk ran out – which occurred fairly often early on – homemade oat and rice milks. We turned the spent grains into porridge.
We stretched as many ingredients as we could, reinvented leftovers, boiled down the bones and saved our favorite, fancier or more comforting dishes for weekend date-night dinners. Some friends said they were impressed with our commitment. Others worried about us. One mailed us a box of some of our favorite foodstuffs from Trader Joe’s.
Those last couple of trips to the grocery store had felt a little surreal. Toilet paper and cleaning supplies were scarce. Beans and rice were limited – first five per person, then two, then one. Flour was out. Sugar was low. Other people’s panic buying was making us nervous.
So, we went back and bought another round of ingredients we would normally buy and got a few things we normally wouldn’t.
Of what? We weren’t quite sure. But we decided that last-minute splurge on a jar of Nutella – the biggest one on the shelf – would somehow help. So would a case of red wine and a few packages of Lotus Biscoff cookies. We should’ve bought more than one gallon of ice cream. We also should’ve stocked up on more frozen veggies and berries.
As the pandemic, uncertainty and anxiety spread, and wearing a mask started to seem more about making a political statement than public safety, we concentrated on what we could control: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When supplies dwindled, we looked into delivery options. The one time we tried home delivery – from a local grocery store, as cases of COVID-19 were climbing – the delivery guy wasn’t wearing a mask.
We traded our homemade bread for our friends’ duck and chicken eggs. We made our own crackers. And, on Day 58 and again on Day 72, we treated ourselves to a trip to Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Pullman for a quart of Cougar Tracks ice cream, tin of Cougar Gold cheese and smoky sausages from Cougar Quality Meats.
At some point, we started keeping a log of our experiment, which didn’t feel so extreme when compared to the likes of others’ well-documented food challenges.
There was the Orlando man going a year without buying any groceries; a well-known author spending a year eating only locally grown food and writing a book about it; and a Canadian couple making a yearlong attempt to eat only foods grown within 100-mile radius of their apartment and writing a book about that, too.
It got us thinking: Could we go six months with more lead time and careful planning? With COVID-19 lingering and the annual cold and flu season looming just around the corner, it’s certainly on our minds.
Grocery challenge timeline
Day 18 – Decided to try to make it to June 1. Used the last of the dairy milk in a latté.
Day 20 – Ate the last avocado.
Day 24 – Four apples left.
Day 27 – Two apples left.
Day 29 – Used the last lemon in homemade hummus.
Day 32 – Out of eggs.
Day 38 – Out of beer.
Day 41 – Craving salad.
Day 43 – Ordered beer, eggs and milk online for delivery from a local grocery store.
Day 44 – Groceries arrived. Ate the last apple.
Day 47 – Three onions left.
Day 48 – Two onions left.
Day 56 – Traded homemade bread for a friend’s farm-fresh duck eggs.
Day 63 – Placed first online farmers market order.
Day 66 – Used the last two oranges in an upside-down cake. Saved the orange peels.
Day 67 – First pickup at the drive-thru farmers market.
Day 68 – Traded homemade bread for eggs from a friend’s backyard chickens.
Day 69 – Candied orange peels.
Day 76 – June 1. Can we make it to July 1?
Day 78 – Ran out of Nutella. So probably not.
Day 81 – Used the last onion on the last chicken.
Day 83 – Ran out of tofu.
Day 88 – Made a shopping list
Day 89 – Masked up and went to the store.
Grocery challenge strategies and staples
Givens – Or, stuff we already had on hand: salt, pepper, sugar, flour, dry active yeast, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa powder, vanilla, balsamic vinegar, apple-cider vinegar, white vinegar, red wine vinegar, olive oil, canola oil, coffee and tea.
Four whole chickens – Used leftovers for tacos and tamales (which freeze well), then boiled down the bones to make broth.
Chicken sausage – Great in soups as well as with beans. Also freezes well.
Fresh stuff – Got what might last longest: apples, onions, garlic, carrots, oranges and other citrus.
Herbs and spices – These are the seasonings we ended up using the most: smoked paprika, cumin, cayenne, chili powder, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, basil, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, nutritional yeast and bouillon cubes.
Tomatoes – Paste, sauce and canned whole and diced tomatoes.
Tuna – Unsalted and water-packed.
Tofu – Versatile and freezes well.
Tahini – For homemade hummus, dressings, dips and sauces.
Toasted sesame oil
Dried beans – Particularly garbanzos, black beans and white beans.
Rice – Brown and Arborio (a must-have for easy Instant Pot risotto).
Popcorn kernels – Stovetop popcorn became a go-to quarantine snack.
Canned veggies – For when the fresh and frozen run out.
Cougar Gold – Cheese that comes in a can was practically made for a pandemic.
Masa – For homemade corn tortillas.
Seeds and nuts – Walnuts, almonds, flax seeds and sunflower seeds.
Preserves – Raspberry jam and marmalade.
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