Grocery

Grocery Shopping Online? We Asked Home Cooks for Their Best Tips.

April 16, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.


In light of social distancing and shelter-in-place recommendations, grocery shopping has changed a lot recently. Due to the increased difficulty of shopping in person, many have turned to online ordering and delivery services, often for the first time.

Have you found the ideal time to score a delivery slot on FreshDirect? Do you swear by Amazon Fresh? Maybe you’ve discovered the best independent retailer for high-quality produce or spices? We want to know.

Last month, Food Editor Emma Laperruque started a Hotline thread looking for your best online grocery shopping tips. We also swung by our Cookbook and Baking clubs on Facebook to gather more intel. Along the way, we learned about how Food52ers are shopping virtually, and how they cook when met with substitutions.

Of course, we can’t talk about online grocery shopping without addressing privilege. Many don’t have the economic means to buy enough groceries to last two weeks. Some don’t have easy access to the internet to place an order. Still more don’t live in areas that grocery stores deem deliverable zones. If you’re experiencing difficulty sourcing food like so many others, it is challenging—and as widespread challenges go, everyone’s experience is different.

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Top Comment:
“Haven't done it myself, but I understand that some bakeries and restaurants are now carrying retail groceries and delivering”
— Smaug
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Personally, I’m still struggling with how to space out shopping as much as possible without hoarding. For all of us, adjusting to this new normal will take time. But above all, it’s important to be kind to yourself and to your community. Maybe add some chocolate to your cart as a treat, bake your favorite cookies, then see if your neighbor would appreciate a few (delivered at a safe distance, of course). If you’ve never cooked with certain items, but they were all that’s left at the store, ask a friend—or search your favorite cookbook or website—and learn to make something new. Here’s our community’s best advice for online grocery shopping.


Make a list of what you need to last at about two weeks.

Whether you’re getting groceries delivered, picking up an online order, or still shopping in person, it’s best to buy a larger amount of food at once—this is the safest option for yourself as well as grocery store employees, e-commerce shoppers, and delivery people. Think about pantry items (grains, canned and dry legumes, tinned fish, tomato paste, boxed stocks), frozen goods (peas, greens, cuts of meat), as well as items that last a long time in the fridge or cellar (hard cheese, yogurt, kimchi, eggs, sturdy greens, cabbage, squash, potatoes, garlic, onions) that you can combine into meals. If you like to bake, consider a bag of flour and sugar, maybe a couple packets of yeast. Write out a list of meals you’d like to make, then make one big grocery list. Buy what you need, but don’t hoard.

Be prepared to make swaps and go without go-to products.

Though you may prefer whole milk to skim, curly kale to lacinato, butter beans to pintos, you might need to manage your expectations on what each store will have in stock at the time you’re adding items to your online cart, and further, the time when your order will be fulfilled by a shopper.

“People place an order online, then I go through the store and shop it. Our orders have more than doubled in the past two weeks,” noted Food52-er Miss_Karen, who works as an e-commerce agent at a supermarket in Colorado Springs. She explained that such stores may not have everything listed online in stock by the time shoppers arrive in the store, due to the increased orders: “The misconception is that if the order is placed online that the product is automatically available.” Consider yourself lucky if you’re able to get the Swiss chard you need for Wednesday’s dinner, but don’t feel like you can’t get creative with swaps: Try collard greens, kale, or broccoli rabe.

Community member Shelly placed a grocery order online but, as shelves had been emptied, wound up with unexpected substitutions: “I am grateful for the helpful articles and videos from Food52 to help give me inspiration,” she said. “I also find myself remembering a lot of advice and stories from my mother and grandmother on how they made do with limited resources during the Depression.”

Cookbook Club member Nicole W. is also diving into the site for ideas: “I received dandelion greens in my CSA box this week which I’ve never worked with before, so I tried the recipe for Dandelion Greens Salad from the Food52 website.” Still, she’s staying flexible: “I subbed scallions for the leeks since it was what I had in hand.”

Learn the best way to interact with each platform.

“I’ve found the trick to getting a Whole Foods time slot is to keep refreshing your browser about every 15 minutes,” observed Food52er Karen Mead. “Just takes a second, and eventually I have always gotten a time slot pop up for the same day.” Still there’s no exact science for most delivery services, as there are likely more slots reserved for highly-trafficked cities and certain densely populated areas. Having used a number of grocery services myself, I’ve found that the early bird does indeed get the worm: Set a reminder on your phone to wake up as early as the day’s service opens—or, if it simply resets each day, just after midnight—to snag a slot.

Consider speciality suppliers over larger platforms.

Services like Fresh Direct, Instacart, and Amazon Fresh may deliver to you if you’re based in a large city, but with more people than ever using these platforms, you still may not score a slot. And what if you don’t live in their delivery zones? Luckily, a number of specific independent purveyors exist. Community member Creamtea recommends Grow and Behold for meat and poultry, which ships around the country. Specialty shops like Diaspora Co., Burlap & Barrel and NY Shuk will keep you supplied in turmeric, chiles, cardamom, cinnamon, za’atar, sumac, and more.

Many services that typically cater to restaurants like Natoora and Baldor (both Northeast-based services) have reorganized their platforms to supply home cooks. To find services in your neighborhood, get in touch with your local farmer’s market to inquire about a CSA pickup or delivery. Your local grocery store, butcher shop, or bakery may have also set up an online shop or be taking phone orders, as have many independent restaurants.

Still, with everyone purchasing the same items at once, you still might be met with longer wait times for items like flour and grains. Community member Louisez noted that even Bob's Red Mill and King Arthur Flour have major delays in shipping and restocking as they try to keep up with orders.

Team up with a neighbor to cut back on deliveries and meet minimums on bulk orders.

You scored a delivery spot from a service, but heard that your neighbors haven’t been able to. Consider inviting one or two other households to add groceries to your order. Same goes for services that only deliver in bulk. You probably can’t finish 50 pounds of bread flour, green lentils or basmati rice, nor do you have the storage for 15 pounds of carrots or potatoes—but if you’re in touch with neighbors, consider splitting these large orders. (I did just this week—who says New Yorkers never get to know their neighbors?)

“It's been fun to do ‘share packs’ of driveway or sidewalk drop offs to family [and] friends in need of baking supplies to keep kitchens and families going.” Baking Club member Leann K. commented, as she was lucky enough to score flour and sugar in bulk.

Chat with your neighbors to find the best way to divvy up food while still practicing proper social distancing, like using gloved hands to transfer items to containers or clean bags and leaving them on your doorstep for your neighbor to grab.

If you can’t shop online…

Grocery stores are essential business, and will stay open for the foreseeable future. If you can’t shop online, wear a mask and gloves when you go to the supermarket, touch only the items you plan to purchase, and purchase only what you need. As more people buy larger amounts of supplies, some stores can’t restock quickly enough. You’ve surely seen many photos of empty pasta, produce, and, of course, toilet paper shelves. Upon running into these shortages, some have even turned to the mail to send items to loved ones in other areas: “My parents sent me toilet paper,” Food52er Stephanie B said. “So they deserve some kind of award in my book.”

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • KOKelley
    KOKelley
  • Liz Summers
    Liz Summers
  • Randi Jenkins
    Randi Jenkins
  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • Rebecca Firkser
    Rebecca Firkser
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Rebecca Firkser is a freelance food writer and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, among them Food52, TASTE, Edible Manhattan, Extra Crispy, The Strategist, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl.

9 Comments

KOKelley April 19, 2020
Please, Please reach out to your community about local farmers. I am in Texas so a bounty is currently coming out of the earth with limited buyers. Many here are doing vegetable boxes. Many also need (safely distanced) volunteers because the lack of income is not allowing them to pay employees. Liz S. you are awesome for supporting your local farms and I am going to pass on that method of selling - I like it.
 
Liz S. April 19, 2020
It is working well. Last week was the 3rd week with 75 bags of veg available. We (mailing list) receive and email at 2:00 p.m. on Thu with a photo of what is in the bag and the price. This week the 75 bags were ordered in an hour. On Saturday the pickup is "drop an envelope with check or cash in a box", pick up your bag. One of the farmer's checks off names. They have their usual employees. It is a 6 acre farm and they are working distanced, plus one of the farm owners is the only one doing the harvesting and to reduce handling, nothing is washed. I am happy with safety for all of us and it has allowed them to have their normal crew … we start late here in MT so usually it is part time crew for another month. I think they will be able to do normal CSA distribution but I don't know if we will have Farmer's markets in any way. I've been buying from this farm for 8 or 9 years. In early March they sent out a questionnaire which included asking for ideas on how to do food distribution safely. Some might be distributed/delivered by volunteers and maybe there can be a kind of online market/store.
 
Liz S. April 19, 2020
Excuse typos and poor punctuation … GAH!
 
Liz S. April 16, 2020
Up until this week, I've shopped in the store - carefully! Last week masked. My closest grocery does do a "click and pickup" and this week I found out that a favorite natural food store has their online shopping up and running. They will be my go to hopefully.

I live in rural NW MT and normally keep a VERY full pantry, more so in Winter and I had not decreased Winter stock when things started heating up. I am a sourdough baker so keep a stock of a variety of flours. Additionally, I ordered Rancho Gordo beans (I normally keep a good stock, but topped off my usual) as well as frozen/canned seafood from my normal supply: www.vitalchoice.com. And I am able to do this as I had/keep a good stock of items to start with so just filled in a bit. But this option … my income is stable and it is just me ...

Vital Choice has since run low on some things and a bit slower shipping, but are getting caught up. I don't know about Rancho Gordo, but point is … direct sources (food and other items) other than Amazon do have things and I've found the direct sources are usually shipping faster, although you might have to pay shipping.

Still. Many of the online options, as noted, are unavailable because of location or ability to access. Our local foodbank is ok so far and supplying our area to those in need.

And probably TMI, but I bought a bidet attachment for the commode and so can stretch my TP supply :)
 
Liz S. April 16, 2020
Oh … another option for me and hopefully for others … my local organic farm is doing a "no contact" veg pickup. They send an email weekly with the offering and price and you say yea or nay. For me, it is a great option to get fresh veg weekly without going to a grocery. I have to think that farms doing CSA/Farmer's Market in other areas are doing something similar … I hope so, anyway!
 
Randi J. April 16, 2020
I joined Walmart grocery delivery 98$ a year and I joined Sat and got a delivery window for Monday. They were out of two things and substituted 7 but all in all was very successful. No contact delivery. It was really good. I will do another for next week on Saturday and have it delivered on Monday or Tuesday hopefully!!!
 
Smaug April 16, 2020
Haven't done it myself, but I understand that some bakeries and restaurants are now carrying retail groceries and delivering
 
Author Comment
Rebecca F. April 16, 2020
yes! that's mentioned in this story :)
 
Smaug April 16, 2020
Sorry, I just skimmed, I'm not really doing any online shopping myself except for some items I normally buy on Amazon. I first heard of this through a "Nexdoor" post; I understand that they're nationwide with local message boards, and might be a good place to find out who's doing this in your area.