Cooking for Your Neighbors During Quarantine Feels Great! But Is It Safe?

Collage of a basket of muffins with angel wings flighting above roofs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash, jakkapan21/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Nicholas Swanson/Unsplash, and jordachelr/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I’ve always cooked a lot, but during quarantine, with few other options for activities that offer a sense of accomplishment and are compatible with caring for a preschooler, I’ve become a kitchen dervish. Last weekend, I made the following dishes: beet pancakes, mushroom bourguignon, “superhero” muffins, hummus, pita bread, kale slaw with peanut dressing, lemony lentil soup, and black bean soup, with its accompanying pickled red onions. (Don’t skip those; they are delicious.) Yes, we are eating at home more often; no, I probably don’t need to cook quite this much.

One early heartbreak of this quarantine was that I felt like I couldn’t rebalance the universe by directing some of my manic kitchen energy to people around me who, for various reasons, are finding cooking a burden. In those panicked first days, I felt like nobody would ever eat anyone else’s food again. But recently, reflecting on the fact that people in my town are definitely ordering and consuming takeout, and remembering that I’d read that the risk of transmission via cooked food is low, I decided to ask a few friends if they’d be willing to receive prepared food from me.

They said yes, and I got to live out my fantasy: Packing jars and boxes of salad, soup, and cake into a tote bag, then leaving the whole thing on a doorstep, like a fairy godmother with too much Tupperware. Voilà! I was flooded with a sense of well-being. For a few hours, I got to feel like I was contributing to someone else’s life—reaching out across the bubble that separates us. And my husband was happy that the whole nine-inch lemon-blueberry yogurt cake didn’t stay in our house. But did we do the right thing? And is there anything else I should be doing in the kitchen to make sure my porch drop-off habit is safe?

“The reality is, this coronavirus is not really a virus that is recognized to be transmitted by food,” Craig Hedberg, professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences said, when I asked for his advice. “So, the general rules of food safety apply.” These practices for preventing any food-borne illness were helpful for me to hear again, since it’s been a few years (decades?) since I underwent a mandatory safety training course for a food-service job.

First: Don’t make food for other people if you feel sick. (Of course, some people may be transmitting the coronavirus without having symptoms, but definitely skip it if you’re not sure you’re feeling right.) Second, follow basic rules to prevent contamination: Wash your hands (more on that below); work on clean and sanitized surfaces; pay special attention to contamination possibilities when you’re working with raw animal products. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a rundown of those rules, if you need a refresher.) “If we do those things” that protect against food-borne illness, Hedberg said, “we really are controlling any theoretical risk of COVID-19, as well.”

Entertaining the hypothetical situation in which an asymptomatic carrier of the virus might be preparing food for somebody without knowing it, Hedberg added: “If you want to put an extra layer of protection into the system, you could wear a face mask while you’re preparing food. You’re working to prevent a theoretical risk, but if it makes you feel more comfortable and makes the recipient feel more comfortable, it’s a relatively simple thing to do.”

Of course, we should always wash our hands before starting to cook. In a commercial kitchen, Hedberg said, people might also wash hands when changing tasks—when you’re done cutting carrots, and are moving on to onions, for example. But in a home kitchen, I’m much more often multitasking, toggling between cooking and helping my child make a blanket fort and taking out the compost and switching the laundry and back to cooking, and on and on forever. “When you’re cooking for other people, you want to focus really narrowly on that task,” Hedberg suggested gently when I described my situation. That means that my nicely washed hands are less likely to get randomly contaminated by something else in my house.

And finally: Make sure to wash your hands well right before you put the food you’ve made into containers for delivery. Because coronavirus doesn’t survive the heat of cooking, the part of the process when you’re packaging your cooked food into containers is key.

When it comes to delivery, I’ve just been emulating the practices of contact-free delivery that restaurants and grocery delivery services have recently adopted. I make sure the recipient knows that I’m coming to drop something off, leave it on their doorstep at a time when they’ll be home, and then text to let them know it’s there. Hedberg agreed that this is a good plan, because you want the person to get the food from the doorstep to the fridge quickly—not to prevent coronavirus transmission, but simply to keep it from garden-variety spoilage.

That brings me to the final point, which is a matter of pandemic etiquette: Clearing your food drop-off plans with your target first is key. In the Before Times, I would leave Christmas cookies and sweet-and-spicy mixed nuts on my neighbors’ doorsteps without asking. But now, just to be sure, I send a text or an email in advance. (That way, I can find out about any allergies or restrictions, too.)

And so: Food fairies of the world, go forth and drop off. You’ll feel better afterward. And if I have any neighbors reading this who want to get in the rotation, just let me know. You’d be doing my mental health a favor.