Top 5 ways to feel better about food shopping in the crisis

Food shopping for the family isn’t the most enjoyable chore at the best of times. Too many trolleys, too little time, too expensive, too much choice, too easily distracted. It can leave us feeling exhausted, anxious, confused and overwhelmed. However, it’s a necessity for us to feed our families and we all must do it. Now add into the mix the restrictions of food shopping in the pandemic and it’s a heightened emotional experience (and that’s before you find out what’s left for you on the shelves!).

The unsettlement of the once-a-week outing, two meters spacing around the car park, anxiety of shopping trolley handles, doormen at the door and inability to keep social distancing down a supermarket aisle really is very strange. And it’s okay to feel this way. If we look at David Rock’s SCARF model used to minimise threat and maximise reward we can start to understand why our brains are innately making us feel this way and what we can do to make it a more positive experience.

STATUS – On a normal day, we are free to choose where and how we shop. Supermarkets understand this and create communities and loyalty cards around it so that we feel accepted as part of their group.

The threat here is that what we have been used previously has changed. The shops we normally choose to shop in have changed, our ability to order online at the drop of a hat has changed and we are more restricted about when we can shop.

For me, a positive spin on this is to understand that we are all in it together. The pandemic has been a great leveller as we are all experiencing these surreal changes in our own ways. You might feel very weird standing in the car park waiting your turn, but you can be sure that the person two meters in front or behind is thinking it’s not normal either. The other element to look at is how it has forced changes to your food shopping habits. Before the pandemic did you shop three-four times a week? Had you ever stepped foot into your local farm shop or butcher? Had you ever thought of getting a vegetable box delivery? How do you think your food shopping habits might change for the better once we are free to choose once again?

CERTAINTY – It’s quite clear throughout the pandemic that the only certain thing is that the immediate future is uncertain. You might have heard it several times over the past few weeks but one of the aspects we crave as human beings is certainty. That’s why our bodies develop their own rhythms, it’s why babies generally sleep better if they have a bedtime routine and why children enjoy a structure around their school day. With certainty we know what to expect and are free of endless surprises. It’s fair to say that food shopping now is uncertain.

The obvious threat is that we don’t know what is on the shelves, and despite possibly writing out a beautiful shopping list of ingredients from the beautifully planned meals we simply can’t be certain of what we find when we get there – and that in itself can be hugely confusing, overwhelming and daunting. Even for me, as a chef with 20 years’ experience and the natural creativity to substitute ingredients, I still feel the tingling of these emotions.

On the plus side in order to make us feel more settled, it’s important to focus on the fact that there is food. It might not be what we expect it to be, but we can be certain that there is food, and ultimately that is all we need to feed our families (which remember is the purpose of this trip in the first place!).

I’d recommend going with anchor meals on your shopping list and trying to substitute where necessary. Cooking (apart from baking) tends to be made from building blocks instead of rigid rules. Try substituting cream for Greek yoghurt, feta or Parmesan rind, or a courgette for broccoli, spinach or peas. A tin of tomatoes can be substituted in a sauce for a glass of red wine, stock and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Just add the same amount of liquid that you would normally have in the tin and you’ll be laughing.

AUTONOMY – A lot of what is being restricted now is giving us a feeling of loss of autonomy. No longer are we able to work where we want to work, see friends and family when we want to see them or food shop when and where we like. The restrictions are in place for a reason and it’s important that we adhere to them – to save lives. That’s a hell of a big reason. But it might be leaving us feeling unsettled and frustrated.

The threat therefore is exactly that. That whereas we have become used to food shopping being a convenience that we can choose do to 24/7, this is no longer the case.

The best spin on this it to acknowledge just how much choice we have, and how much choice we will have once again once lockdown is lifted. When I lived and cooked on Colonsay, one of the Inner Hebridean islands off the West Coast of Scotland, food deliveries came on the passenger ferry five times a week in the summer months, three times a week in the winter months and were cancelled if the weather was bad (often!). There was no autonomy in this, and it was the only way to get food to feed the restaurant, pub and hotel. Once I got used to it however, I loved it. I loved the challenge of having to substitute and slightly living on the edge not knowing when the next supplies were coming in. Once we finished our fifteen months on the island it made me truly appreciate how lucky we are that we can pop down to Tesco’s whenever we like, just to pick up one ingredient. Although I never really picked that habit up again and will instead have a shopping list on the go and once it’s full I’ll shop saving me time and money.

RELATEDNESS – As we spend more time at home that the majority of us have ever done before, going to do the food shopping might be the only time in the day, week or month when we see others apart from our immediate family. It’s a time to see members of the public, supermarket heroes and any random who will care to give us a smile. However, with that comes its own complexities.

The threat here is that the strangers we would normally see now no longer perceive us to be neutral strangers but potential health hazard and virus carriers. It’s head down avoiding others (quite rightly to keep the imposed two meter social distance) and cracking on. Human beings are naturally social and enjoy community and ‘relatedness’. The word itself means how safe we feel with others. I think neither others nor ourselves feel safe now which is why we need to wear face masks and gloves making us look even less relatable than before.

So we need to put something in place here to combat these natural emotions. Make others feel safe in your presence without getting into their social distancing space. Smile, be friendly, be respectful and if they choose to look the other way, then do the same. For me, there is an element of introvert and extrovert here… the extroverts may want to do a jazz-hand wave versus the introverts wishing to cast down their eyes and look at the bottom shelves. And both are just fine. I urge you not to take offence and remember that we are all more extreme versions of ourselves than we may normally be. It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it is just being human.

FAIRNESS – Does any of this seem fair? No, not really. I would imagine that the threat of it not feeling fair has come to us all at some point over the past few weeks and months. We can look at it on a global or local level and the answer is the same.

How does this relate to how we shop? In the first few weeks of the pandemic in the UK we saw fairness go out of the window as the threat (fear) set in and panic buying was out of control. The shops reacted well (if a little slow) and started regulating how much we could buy of certain produce. Why would it seem fair to buy 100 toilet rolls if it left our neighbour with none?

So what is our positive here? Insight and learning perhaps? To look out for others more and acknowledge that there have been times that humans recently have become more egotistic. To reject this and move back to living in communities where fairness comes naturally. We can keep asking ourselves if we really need things if it means that others loose out. You might just save money here too!

All of this in a simple trip to the food shops I hear you say! No wonder you may be finding trips to the shops exhausting. By acknowledging these emotions (and talking about them) it can help you to feel in control again. Remember, the psychological injury which we are all experiencing now can be as difficult to manage as physical pain and once we have understood how to minimise the threat we can then learn how to maximise the reward.

Happy shopping and stay safe!