Shelter in place tips to stay healthy and happy: Pandemic food, cleaning and self care

social distancing tips for the long term

You’re probably sheltering in place, or preparing to do so or at least staying home a lot more. I am too. Whether you’re in quarantine or self-isolating, or just hunkering down inside until it’s all over, people all over the globe are doing the same. Here are some shelter in place tips to help you over the weeks and months ahead.

We have high-risk people in our family so we’re on self-imposed lockdown and have been since the beginning of March. No visitors and no coming and going except for absolute necessities. You couldn’t pry me out of here with a crow-bar.

It’s super stressful. I’m worried for myself and for the other high-risk people I know. I’m worried for my friends in healthcare and my kids and family who live far away.

It feels like one of those dreams where you can’t move and something bad is coming.

We don’t know how long coronavirus will be with us. The Spanish flu came in three waves over about a year and a half. Experts estimate vaccine development will take a year to 18 months. The federal government is planning for 18 months, with multiple waves.

It’s easy to feel out of control but we aren’t powerless. There are concrete things you can do to minimize social contact longer, stay on an even keel and make the experience as positive as possible.

How do you keep yourself healthy and happy even though the world outside is insane? What about fresh food? How do you clean with strong disinfectants if you’re sensitive to them? How to stay on an even keel? How long will we need to be in this situation?

There’s a lot you can do to make this time better for you and your family. It’s go-time. Or stay time.

“We won’t starve but we won’t be healthy”: Fresh food while in isolation or quarantine

Healthy pandemic food: microgreens and garlic pot
Fresh food, even inside during a pandemic: Fennel microgreens and garlic leaves

We plan to isolate for the long haul as much as possible. Our goal is to limit trips outside, including trips to the grocery store.

We’ve always had plenty of extra beans and dish soap. But if that’s all you have, what do you actually eat?

I’ve heard lots of people say things like “We won’t starve but we won’t be healthy”. People have bought plenty of rice and pasta but what about leafy greens that won’t last long? Frozen vegetables were sold out in many places when we were preparing.

Nutrient-dense foods boost your immune system. Endless pizza won’t cut it, especially for the months it can take to get through a pandemic wave.

We have four strategies for maintaining our fresh food access while hunkered down.

  • When you shop, buy storage vegetables. Cold season favorites like winter squash, cabbage, onions and root vegetables keep for a long time. You can keep squash on the shelf, cabbage in the fridge and root vegetables in sand to maintain freshness and limit trips to the store. Use a bin and clean play sand from the home improvement store. Store vegetables in sand in layers and check them whenever you pull some out. Cook those that are starting to sprout. You can store beets, carrots, turnips and onions this way. It’s how we store garden produce in the fall.
  • Grow microgreens. Order some seeds for microgreens or grow old seeds from your seed stash. Pick up some potting soil and use any containers you have around the house. Radish seeds will be ready to eat in about a week, just about when your leafy greens from the store are used up. Sow some new seeds every few days to keep yourself in greens. Microgreens are more nutritious by volume than mature vegetables so it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference. We’re also growing garlic indoors for the garlicky leaves.
  • Early garden. It’s just about time to sow the early spring garden where I live. We will sow the spring greens a bit early and put some walls of water or row cover around some of them. If it’s not near planting time for you, try sowing some greens seeds in pots inside. You can grow a lot on windowsills.
  • Foraging. If you have a backyard free of herbicides and pesticides, there will be a lot of fresh food growing soon. Dandelions are entirely edible and there are many edible weeds that are nutritious and tasty. At my house the dandelions, french sorrel and parsley are starting to grow.

Porridge and wine? Manage your pandemic pantry while sheltering in place.

Shelter in place tips: immunobooting cocktails
Use caution with elderberry. While possibly helpful for flu and colds, the elderberry-COVID19 interaction is unknown. Gin’s still OK in moderation.

One of our colleagues who lives in Ireland said they are prepared—they have plenty of porridge and wine.

I think that’s a pretty good mix. It fills the need for calories and the need for treats. I don’t know that I’d want it for months.

When you’re planning food, think about how many people you might be hosting in your family, including your immediate family and any extended family that might come to you. Estimate how much time you think you’ll be together, possibly up to two or three months. Here are some tips for long-term prep in a hurry.

  • To start, you just want enough calories. Use a calorie calculator to calculate how many total calories each person needs each day. An estimate of 2000 calories per day per person is a good beginning rule of thumb.  Multiply that by the number of days you will be at home. Find the calories per pound of each storage item and plan out what you have and what you will need.
  • Buy calorie foods. That’s stuff like brown rice and beans. Grocery stores in my area are sold out of dried beans, but check restaurant supply and warehouse companies, or smaller grocery stores. Costco  is fine but I prefer places like restaurant supply or bulk warehouses locally or online where you can get 25 lb bags.
  • After calories, everything else is either a morale food or a vitamin food, meant to be a treat, add nutrition or make your rice and beans taste good. Think about foods that will make you feel like life is normal. That’s stuff like coffee, chocolate bars, wine, peanut butter and raisins.
  • Augment your thinking with a quarantine food calculator.  This calculator is helpful for making sure you haven’t neglected any food category.
  • Get some immunity boosters like zinc tablets and probiotics. Be aware—there’s some question as to whether elderberry is good or bad if you’re sick with COVID-19.  I take my elderberry syrup in a cocktail but now I am more cautious. Studies find elderberry has health benefits but because elderberry has not been tested with COVID-19 and has been shown to increase some cytokines in lab studies, maybe try turmeric or cranberry in your cocktail instead.
  • Plan out how much morale food you will use every day to make it through your estimated time. In our house coffee is a BIG morale booster. We make one pot a day now— no more unlimited caffeine.
  • Treat frozen meats, frozen vegetables and limited special items the same way. Now is not the time to eat all the tortilla chips (I did that).
  • Hold some of the treats back to bring out as a surprise, especially for spring holiday celebrations and birthdays.
  • Don’t forget toiletries and household items. If you missed out on the toilet paper rush, see this video from The Fairly Local Family on making your own cloth wipe substitutes.

Now that you have your stores, it’s time to manage them. There are lots of ways to manage and stretch foods.

  • Weigh out your planned portions with a kitchen scale.
  • Stretch meats with textured vegetable protein, or use meats like a seasoning in stir fries and casseroles rather than making them the main ingredient. Last night my husband made enough chimichanga filling for three giant servings with only 1/2 lb of ground beef.
  • Start practicing strict food waste management within your pandemic pantry. There will be lots of people getting creative with the bits and bobs in the cupboard. Yesterday’s lunch was broccoli stalk and ugly cabbage leaf coleslaw, and salmon cakes made with frozen stale bread, garlic leaves from the garlic pot, a bit of leftover fish, leftover  homemade fish stock, a backyard egg and a brushing of chorizo oil. It was pretty delicious.
  • Put one person in charge of inventory control and don’t eat the last of anything without talking about it. You can draw up an inventory and drawdown plan on paper or use a pantry inventory app.
  • You may need to hide the chocolate.

While you’re in isolation, make note of what you missed. We have plenty of breakfast and dinner foods but we are out of easy lunch food.

Add the “like to have” items to your list for the next time you get groceries and start a “next time” list for your stores.

Pandemic cleaning with Lysol when you’re used to vinegar

Keep up with your high-touch cleaning routine even if you’re in self-isolation for a long time. There are still risks introduced if someone has to go out for necessities. Think of it as self-care for your peace of mind.

I’ve had a gallon of bleach and some Lysol in my emergency stores for at least 16 years. This is the first time I’ve ever brought it out to clean with it. Lysol is nasty stuff.

Normally, I’m a mild soap and vinegar kind of cleaner. That’s all over for the duration.

If you use Lysol or bleach for cleaning as directed, it’s hard on the lungs. Lung irritation is bad during a respiratory pandemic.

This novel coronavirus can live for days on hard surfaces and a day on cardboard. Health recommendations are to clean high touch surfaces such as doorknobs and light switches, handles and counters daily.

Here are some tips:

  • Open windows and increase the ventilation.
  • If you have a mask or respirator like the ones you use for home improvement projects, wear it to protect your lungs.
  • Close the door to the room being disinfected to protect family members from the fumes
  • Wear household cleaning gloves
  • Use a lot of rags, switching to a new one frequently.
  • If you’re using a bucket, switch out the water frequently.
  • Do the bathroom toilet surfaces last.

There are lots of high touch surface checklists online, but I found they didn’t go far enough. A lot of them are meant for institutional settings, not home.

Think through your day to identify other high touch surfaces such as the coffee maker, the toaster, a shared toothpaste tube, the hand weights and exercise mat, the temple thermometer and the cabinet frames near the handles.

As you go through your day you’ll notice more places that need attention.

Since asymptomatic people can spread the virus, it’s important to keep up with it daily and make sure you protect yourself while you do it, even if no one in the house is symptomatic.

Avoid The Shining Syndrome: Stay mentally and physically healthy during shelter in place

I made up “The Shining Syndrome”. No one wants to go all Jack Nicholson on their poor long suffering family. How can you stay healthy and happy despite the situation?

There’s no doubt this is hard. It feels like doing everything through mud. Focus and energy are hard to come by.

Our sports activities are cancelled. The gym is closed. If you’re under quarantine you can’t even go for a walk.

All that is OK.

Keep your spirits up by equal parts action and self-care

In all uncertain and scary situations, action promotes a sense of control. Doing your high-touch cleaning and household routines, growing some microgreens, knowing that you’re following best practices is helpful.

There are plenty of activities that fall under the umbrella of self-care right now. Anything that makes you feel better and is good for your physical and mental health. Self care is good for your immune system, and gives you the wherewithal to be a help to others.

Self-care takes a lot of different forms

Beauty during pandemic shelter in place: hyacinth bulb emerging
It’s OK to still find beauty in the little things. Hyacinth bloom emerging.
  • Spend some time without screens. Since a lot of us are working and going to school remotely, the coming weeks will include a lot of screen time anyway.
  • Limit pandemic coverage. I check the news for global, national, state and workplace updates twice a day. Having it on autoloop wasn’t good for me.
  • Share whatever good fortune you have and try to help people from where you are. Donate to a food bank or city mutual aid organization. Donate supplies to a hospital. Reach out to family members, especially those who struggle with anxiety or who have jobs in hard-hit industries. Check in on a neighbor.
  • Designate some part of the day a pandemic free zone. That means no pandemic Netflix, no pandemic talk, no scrolling coronavirus updates. Everyone needs a break every day. Our coronavirus break is from dinnertime to bedtime.
  • If you’re a planner person, use your trackers to maintain a sense of control. Track your self-care routines, your high-touch cleaning and your food inventory to remind yourself that you’re on it. If you’re in quarantine or isolation track your temperature or other symptoms (or hopefully your lack of them).
  • Now is a good time to start a gratitude journal. If your loved ones are healthy, if you have a job, if today was a good day, if your spring bulbs started coming up, if your cat is the best cat in the world, it’s OK to still remember and be grateful for those things even while there is great suffering in the world.
  • Maybe start a meditation practice. Focus on the things you can control and spend at least a few minutes a day on yourself. I like Headspace, which has a ten day free trial.
  • If you are a churchgoer, find an online worship service that works for you. My relatives are pleasantly surprised by the quality of the church experience they found online.
  • Spend time on purpose doing things you like. It’s a good time to spend time with art, music and hobbies that make you feel good. Get out on a balcony or backyard and listen to the birds in the sun even if you can’t go for a hike.
  • Spend time with your pets. If you are in quarantine, follow guidelines about masks and handwashing. Petting and playing with companion animals can be a mental health lifesaver at a time like this. Enjoy the fact that at least one creature is thrilled that everyone is home.
  • Celebrate birthdays and holidays, with whatever treats and virtual participation you can muster.

Personally, I have a lot of natural egg dye in the house to use for pysanky Easter egg experiments. You probably have your own fun stuff lying about that could use some attention. Now’s the time to break it out.

Happy healthy pandemic shelter in place
Someone’s happy about shelter in place. Let nonstop fetch begin.

Exercise is good for your immune system

Even if you aren’t allowed on the soccer field and are avoiding the gym, it’s still easy to exercise at home.

The old standards like pushups, planks and squats are accessible anywhere. I like free exercise apps like FitOn for guided workouts. FitOn lets you invite friends so you are “working out together”.

We’re all doing daily family pushups.

No doubt there is a virtual option that can keep you in condition for whatever it is you like to do, even if you can’t do that exact thing right now.

Talk with people

We’re all going to need to be intentional about staying in touch, for our own mental health and for others.

  • Call people you like and listen to their voices. Stay in touch with family and friends via phone and video call. We’ve talked more with our kids and relatives while in isolation than we ever do when the world isn’t crazy.
  • Tell people what you’re doing and why. If you, as a known rational and reasonable person, are putting your house on lockdown for the protection of your family and others, it helps your friends and family take this thing seriously. Your personal testimony may help others to burst through the normalcy bias bubble to take serious action themselves.
  • If you normally have coffee or lunch or drinks with someone, keep doing it over video call or over a video conferencing platform like Zoom. The wine is real and the faces are virtual. Call it “a coffee break”  or “happy hour” to make it more social, just like getting coffee at work is more social than having a meeting.
  • Talk with the other people in your household. What are the expectations around chores and cleanliness, private spaces and common spaces and quiet times? How will you decide what music plays in common spaces and what shows to watch together? Clear and kind communication will help ease this hard time.
  • This situation will strain even sunny temperaments and relationships. If you find yourself really struggling, reach out to community and employer counseling resources. If you have a regular therapist, see if they are available via phone or video. Lots of online counseling services are available.

Use what you learn to prepare for another wave

Seeds ready for survival garden
Gear up for pandemic gardening. This time it’s serious.

At this time, China’s new cases are imported from other countries. Asian countries that are coming to the end of this wave are worried about a rebound wave as citizens in other countries come home to their shores. We should be thinking about that too, even while we are in the midst of this first wave.

Garden season is just starting in much of the US. Now is a good time to grow a survival garden or get some chickens. Focus on calories and easy crops that will add taste and nutrition. It’s not the time to experiment with novelties. You may be able to get a community garden plot if this wave has passed your location for the summer or grow some pots on your balcony. My two favorite survival gardening books are Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times and The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times . This is a great post from Attainable Sustainable on how to start a bootstrapped garden.

Try learning how to preserve food this summer so you never have to fight the crowds at Costco again. The more food storage and preservation becomes just part of your normal life the more agile you can be and the less impact shocking situations like this one will have. I prefer freezing, drying, root cellaring and fermenting over canning.

I’ve been storing food for a long time, if only to avoid going to the grocery store when I’d rather be elsewhere.  It’s always a good idea to be prepared for a disaster, even if the disaster is a job loss or a nasty blizzard. It’s how people used to live as a matter of course.

As this wave passes, set up proper bulk storage if you can. You can order food grade plastic buckets online or you can put out a request on FreeCycle or Craigslist. I have some nice pickle buckets from a cafeteria worker who saw my request on FreeCycle. Get Gamma lids for easy access and use Mylar liners to protect the contents. If you will have more than one bucket containing the same item use oxygen absorbers to keep the reserved foods fresh.

Use what you learn from this experience to know how to prepare for the next emergency. Do you need to store more coffee or hot dogs? Did cooking oil or hand lotion become scarce? If you prepare your stores after this passes you will be able to make faster decisions if another wave starts.

The new normal—at least for now

This is not going to be quick.

COVID-19 and its consequences are a real and present danger to us all today and it’s up to all of us to make careful decisions. Everyone’s well being depends on smart choices right now.

Maybe COVID-19 will die down in the warmer weather, maybe it won’t. Some studies suggest that the virus is climate sensitive and will spread more slowly in the warmer months.

If that’s true, we’ll have a good window to prepare for the possibility of another wave. In the end, the more we can learn from this, help each other and prepare for future emergencies the better off we’ll be.

Imagine the future, not so long from now. Imagine that you’ve adjusted to this situation. Perhaps you’ve become a social distancing pro. Imagine you’re doing what you can to help others. Maybe your relationships are stronger than ever through creative virtual socializing and mutual aid. Maybe you learned to store and prepare food or have a new appreciation for your home as a refuge. Perhaps we as a social species will have learned to pull together to keep all of us safe.

All we can do right now is all we can do. Take comfort in that. This too shall pass.

Be compassionate with yourself and others. We’re all in this together. We always have been, but now we know it. Take care and God bless.

Shelter in Place Tips

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