It's not only about the spread of coronavirus, but also about food safety, food waste, and nutrition. A food safety experts shares what you need to know.

By Toby Amidor
April 06, 2020
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Toby Amidor, R.D., is a registered dietitian and a food safety expert. She has taught food safety at The Art Institute of New York City culinary school since 1999 and at Teachers College, Columbia University for a decade.

Need to take a break from home cooking or want to support local restaurants? Those are just two of the reasons why folks have been ordering in during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before COVID-19 hit, ordering takeout and food delivery seemed as easy as opening an app, but things have certainly changed.

Now, there are several things to keep in mind when you put in that order, including human contact, food safety, nutrition, and food waste. Here are simple guidelines to follow the next time you order in, whether it's pick-up or delivery. (And here's everything you need to know about the safety of your groceries during the coronavirus.)

Minimizing Human Contact

COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness, which means the virus is not carried or transmitted by food or food packaging, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is, however, transmitted from human-to-human contact when people are in close contact with one another (within six feet), and through respiratory droplets that are released when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These droplets can land in the mouths, eyes, or noses of people who are nearby or inhaled into the lungs. (More here: How Is COVID-19 Transmitted?)

When you get your takeout or delivery, you will potentially have human contact when you're picking up and signing for your order or when the delivery person hands it to you.

If you're picking up takeout: Ask the restaurant what its procedure is for curbside pickup. Some establishments have you wait inside your car for your order until it is ready instead of waiting on line. Most restaurants also allow you to pay with a credit card online as you don't want to directly hand off cash to another person. And signing the receipt should be done with your own pen (so keep some in your car) instead of using one that is passed to you and used by other people.

If you're ordering delivery: Apps like Uber Eats, Seamless, Postmates, and GrubHub allow you to leave a tip online so you don't have to come in contact with the delivery person—many of these apps are offering "contactless delivery" now, too. Meaning, when you order, the delivery person will likely knock, ring your doorbell, or call, and then drop the bag in front of your door. Before you even have a chance to answer the door, they'll likely already be back in their car (believe me, they don't want to have contact with you either).

Handle Packaging Carefully

Although food packaging isn't known to carry the virus, according to Food Manufacturers Institute (FMI), there is a possibility of contracting the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. But, again, this is not the most likely way the virus is spread. Researchers are currently exploring how long the virus can survive on surfaces, and it is thought it could be anywhere from a few hours to a few days, according to The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC).

Until we know more information, it is a good idea to handle the packaging carefully. Don't place takeout bags directly on your counters; instead, take containers from the bag and place them on napkins or paper towels so they don't come in direct contact with your home surfaces. Then dispose of the to-go bags immediately and transfer the food from the containers to your own plate. If you order multiple meals, don't stick the extra ones right in the fridge; transfer to your own container first. Use your own napkins and silverware, and ask the restaurant not to include it to minimize waste. And, of course, sanitize surfaces and your hands right away. (Also read: How to Keep Your Home Clean and Healthy If You're Self-Quarantined Because of the Coronavirus)

Keep Food Safety Issues In Mind

One of the biggest issues when it comes to ordering food is leaving leftovers out for too long. You should refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours (or 1 hour if the temperature is over 90°F), according to the FDA. If the leftovers sit out longer, they should be tossed. Leftovers should be eaten within three to four days, and check them daily for spoilage.

Think About Nutrition

When ordering takeout, think about the food groups you need to get more of, especially fruits and vegetables. ICYDK, 90 percent of Americans don't meet the daily recommended amount of vegetables and 85 percent don't meet the daily recommended amount of fruit, according to the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines. And if you're getting groceries only once every other week, your fresh produce is probably dwindling. So, ordering in is a good opportunity to get a fresh salad, fruit salad, veggie side dish, or a veggie-based meal. Think about color when ordering your food; more variety in color means you're taking in a bigger variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (natural plant compounds that can help prevent and fight disease). These nutrients can also help keep your immune system strong.

Ordering food may also be a treat these days, but that doesn't necessarily mean you want to order pizza with every possible topping or tacos with all the extras. Take a minute to review the menu and order healthier options that you probably won't cook yourself. For example, if you're craving that special burger, then go ahead and order it but with a side salad instead of fries.

You also don't want to eat everything you just ordered in one sitting, especially if you ordered enough for a few meals. Transferring the food onto a plate can help you eyeball portions so you don't end up finishing everything in the container.

Minimize Food and Packaging Waste

You also want to think about how much food you're ordering. Do order enough food for several meals, but you also don't want to end up tossing the food if you ordered too much. Look on review apps of photos of the dishes so you can get a better idea of portions. Also, talk to whomever you're hunkered down with and compromise on several dishes you know you'll finish. (And for when you're cooking, read: How to Use "Root to Stem" Cooking to Cut Down On Food Waste)

Make sure to recycle any takeout containers possible. Unfortunately, ordering in will come with extra waste, but it's helping support your local restaurants. To minimize waste, ask the restaurant to forgo putting napkins, silverware, or any extras you don't need or will end up tossing. (And consider implementing these other small ways to reduce waste so you can even out your impact.)

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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