5 things to buy in bulk to get through the coronavirus outbreak — and 4 not to


To slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, nationwide, the White House asked Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people and practice social distancing. Governors of states including Michigan, Illinois, and New York have shut down businesses including bars, restaurants, and gyms indefinitely, and many districts have canceled school

For at least a few weeks, Americans will be spending a lot more time at home. To adapt to this new normal, they are stocking up on groceries. Department of Homeland Security recommendations for a pandemic include "additional supplies of food." You don't need to fill every closet and shelf you've got, though: "Two weeks' worth of essential items is enough," according to epidemiologist Malia Jones. 

Before you head to the grocery store, remember that it's important to only purchase items you will actually use, so you don't end up wasting food or money. Here are some items you can feel free to buy in bulk and some you shouldn't, according to health professionals.

Foods, drinks, and medications

Buy: Over-the-counter medicines 

"It's always good to have Advil and Tylenol," says Carolyn McClanahan, a former physician and the director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. If you're feeling unwell, call your doctor or local health department to ask about the availability of COVID-19 testing, she says, but be prepared that unless you meet the Centers for Disease Control's criteria for testing, you may not be tested if you're experiencing only mild symptoms. You may end up simply recuperating at home. 

So make sure you have enough cold-and-flu medicines, supplies, and remedies. 

"Ideally, if we had enough test kits, [people with symptoms of coronavirus] should be tested so their contacts can be notified," she says. "However, with the lack of test kits, not being tested with mild symptoms and self-isolating is an acceptable option."

Buy: Fruits and vegetables that will last

If you want to keep your immune system strong, your diet and lifestyle choices can make a real difference, says Dr. Amy Edwards, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals who works with the UH Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health. Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, Edwards says, helps.

Buy produce that has a long shelf life. Apples can last for two weeks in the fridge, according to a report by the Food Marketing Institute. So can potatoes, onions, and squash. Unopened canned beans can last for one year. 

"That's the way to get through flu season," she says. This is "not only good for your heart, it's good for your immune system too."

Consider stocking up on nut butters, too, suggests Joy Bauer, health and nutrition expert and registered dietitian for NBC's "TODAY Show." She offers more ideas for making nutritious, affordable meals at home here.

It's always good to have Advil and Tylenol.
Carolyn McClanahan
director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners

Buy: Foods you love

Many people are only buying certain foods because they have a long shelf life, says University of Washington epidemiology professor Anne-Marie Gloster. Eventually, though, social distancing will end, and you don't want to be left with a pantry full of unappetizing ingredients.

"Try to buy foods you know you're going to eat long after this is over," Gloster says, so you don't waste money on things you'll end up throwing out.

This is especially true if you fall ill. "I hearken back to my college days," she says. "I have packets of ramen. It makes me feel good when I have a cold. When you're sick, you don't want to make a homemade soup or anything." 

Don't buy: Zinc

Zinc is a mineral that boosts your immune system and a common ingredient in over-the-counter products designed to fight and prevent colds. While it might seem like a good time to buy zinc supplements, Edwards says they won't actually help. "Most Americans who eat fruits and vegetables are zinc sufficient," she says.

The excess zinc will not boost your immune system as your body will flush it out, she says.

Don't buy: Bottled water 

The average person needs three gallons of water per day for "proper sanitation and hygiene and personal cleanliness," Gloster says. But the advice to have that much on hand in bottles or jugs is primarily given to people prepping for natural disasters when access to clean, running water may be shut off.

The spread of COVID-19 most likely won't result in a limited water supply, Gloster says, so buying bottled water in bulk might not make sense.

If you are worried about the quality of your drinking water and you do want to get bottles, figure out how much you really need instead of buying all you can fit in your trunk. The average human should drink about half a gallon of water per day, according to Healthline.com.

I have packets of ramen. It makes me feel good when I have a cold.
Anne-Marie Gloster
University of Washington epidemiology professor

Cleaning supplies

Buy: Bleach

Household bleach is an effective cleaner against coronavirus, according to the CDC website. While you can buy it in bulk, don't use it in bulk on your house, Gloster says. "I know people think more bleach is better, but it isn't. It's damaging to your skin and surfaces. A little bleach goes a long way." 

To make a safe bleach-based cleaner, the CDC recommends "properly diluted" solutions. Mix five tablespoons of bleach with one gallon of water, or four tablespoons of bleach with one quart of water. 

Buy: Soap

While sales of hand sanitizer have skyrocketed, washing your hands thoroughly is actually the most effective way to disinfect them, McClanahan says. 

"People buy hand sanitizer, but plain soap and water is the best," she says. "Don't worry about things like [hand sanitizer], just use basic hygiene. Learn how to wash your hands well: 20 seconds, soap and water." 

At Walmart, a 12.5 ounce bottle of Mrs. Meyer's hand soap is $3.49, while hand sanitizer is totally out of stock. 

A little bleach goes a long way.
Anne-Marie Gloster
University of Washington epidemiology professor

Don't buy: Paper towels 

While some toilet paper is necessary, paper towels are not, McClanahan says: "I don't know why people are buying so many paper towels." Use dish rags you can wash, dry, and reuse instead. 

Don't buy: Distilled white vinegar

Although some people use vinegar to deodorize their trash cans and sinks and to clean windows, it is not proven to eliminate the coronavirus, according to Consumer Reports. So don't waste your money on it. 

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