What to buy when your grocery store is out of pasta, beans, juice, and other staples


To slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus nationwide, the White House asked Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people and practice "social distancing." About two dozen states including Michigan, Illinois, and New York have shut down certain businesses indefinitely, and many districts have canceled school

In light of the sweeping closures and spike in COVID-19 diagnoses, many people are hunkered down at home and buying more groceries. If you're heading to the grocery store to stock up, though, it's likely that you won't find exactly what you need. That's why it's important to have a list of backup options, says University of Washington epidemiology professor Dr. Anne-Marie Gloster.

"When you make your list, sit down and really think about what you like to eat, what the people in your family like to eat, and make a substitution list," Gloster says. 

For example, if your family eats cereal every morning, put that on the list. When you get to the store, however, cereal might be gone, so put back-up foods like oatmeal or granola on your list as well. 

Here are expert-approved substitutions for items that might be out of stock at your grocery store. 


Substitute: Eggplant

Sales of dried beans are 37% higher than they were in March 2019, according to a recent Nielsen report

"Eggplant can be used to make a mock refried bean dish," Gloster says. All you have to do is cube it, stir fry it with some oil, then puree it, according to a recipe from cooking blog Ancestral Nutrition. This will have the same consistency as beans and you can alter the taste by adding spices and vegetables. 

Frozen eggplant can last 6-8 months, according to a report by the Food Marketing Institute.

Pasta or rice

Substitute: Polenta

Pasta sales are 10.4% higher than they were at this time last year, according to Nielsen data, and rice sales are 25.3% higher. Like pasta, polenta is high in starch and carbohydrates, though it has fewer carbs.

Note that it is a little pricier. On FreshDirect, an 8.8 ounce box of Roland polenta is $2.99, but a 16 ounce box of De Cecco spaghetti is $3.19. (Prices are based on delivery options in New York City.) 

"Think about your carbohydrate sources as a base" for your meals, says Gloster. "I top my cooked polenta with cheese sauces, gravies, pizza toppings, or honey if I have a sweet tooth. It is great to blend in with cooked squashes. It is a wonderful starchy accompaniment to pork or fish dishes. Think shrimp and grits."

Some cooking experts say that any sauce you can put on pasta, you can put on polenta.

I top my cooked polenta with cheese sauces, gravies, pizza toppings, or honey if I have a sweet tooth.
Anne-Marie Gloster
University of Washington epidemiology professor


Substitute: Juice concentrate 

Orange juice is a common flu-season buy. Right now, demand for Tropicana, the biggest orange juice seller, is high, Bill Poulton, senior director of fruit procurement for Tropicana Products, told NewsChief. 

"You can buy frozen juice concentrate and make orange juice and the other juices," Gloster says. 

Juice concentrate is made by evaporating water from juiced fruit. Additives to enhance color or taste are also often used. They are sold frozen or at room temperature and are meant to be diluted in water. At Target, a 12-ounce can of orange juice concentrate is $1.69. Thaw and add water and it will make approximately 48 ounces of juice

Cough suppressant 

Substitute: Grand Marnier liqueur, or bourbon and honey

If you're feeling unwell, call your doctor or local health department to ask about the availability of COVID-19 testing, says Carolyn McClanahan, a former physician and the director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. 

However, be prepared that unless you meet the Centers for Disease Control's criteria for testing, you may not be tested. If you have only mild symptoms, or if it turns out you have a cold, the flu, or simply allergies, you may end up recuperating at home.

All of this mean that you'll probably want to keep some over-the-counter medicines like Robitussin in the house. Cough remedy sales are 16.9% higher than they were in March 2019, and cold and flu remedy sales are 18.1% higher, according Neilsen.  

If your grocery store or pharmacy is all out of cough medicine, you can use alternatives, McClanahan says. "My favorite cough syrup is Grand Marnier," she says. "It's an orange liqueur and it has a thickness to it so it does much better job of cough suppressing than Robitussin."

A 1-liter bottle of Grand Marnier typically retails for $36. If you want to make a cough suppressant "on the cheap" McClanahan suggest mixing bourbon and honey. How much honey? Enough to "make it taste good," she says. "Everyone is different." 

And, in general, remember to buy foods you like. Social distancing will eventually end, and you don't want to be left with a bunch of ingredients you won't eat. 

"Try to buy foods you know you're going to eat long after this is over," Gloster says. This will save you money in the long run, as you won't need to throw out food you only bought because of the pandemic.

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