(In the safest way possible.)

Close your eyes and think back to your last trip to a restaurant. You and your closest friends all squeeze together, practically on top of each other inside a cozy booth, as menus are passed around the table. The options seem endless. You have no idea what you’re in the mood for, though, your stomach is teased by the juicy scent of a meat-lovers’ pizza crisping in the oven. The restaurant is bustling with people laughing and chatting. You look around to see what others have ordered: gooey garlic bread; heaping mounds of buttery, twisted pasta; a sizzling slightly-pink steak. Your stomach grumbles in its empty state. Flash forward and its past dinnertime. Your bellies are slightly rounder and filled with carbs, but now your tastebuds crave sweetness. You stand in line outside on this warm spring evening, waiting for your mint ice cream to be handed to you. Couples and giddy children huddle beside you underneath the light of the shack, as they share chocolatey licks of their cones and spread ice cream around their lips. 

Now, forget everything you have just imagined. Picture the opposite. Picture restaurants with giant “CLOSED” signs dangling in their windows in the middle of the day. Picture vacant parking lots and barren streets. Instead of bumping into neighbors and sharing friendly conversations at your local supermarket, you’re now rushing down the aisles in hopes of avoiding all contact. The shelves look as if they were ravaged through by animals. Bread and eggs have suddenly become a scarcity. People’s faces are draped with tight surgical masks, bandanas, old scarves, or anything else they could find to cover their mouths. Bare hands are a rarity, and instead they’re now hidden behind rubber barriers. This is the current state of the world that we’re living in today, and it feels like a scene straight out of a horror movie. 

COVID-19, a chest-tightening, lung-infecting disease has been swiftly creeping around the globe since early November of 2019. According to the World Health Organization, as of early April, already over 100,000 people’s lives have been taken due to this sickness. Because of these steadily increasing numbers, the world has practically gone into shut-down mode. People all across the globe are told to stay in their homes, aside from making essential trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, and the likes. Eating out at your favorite restaurant and going shopping with your friends out of boredom is no longer an option. Beaches, parks, and some walking trails are all being shut down. Even grocery shopping isn’t the same. Common foods and household products are not always available, limiting our options for what we can eat and suddenly making cooking and baking a challenge. 

Our day to day life has changed drastically. Millions of people are unemployed, schools have gone completely online, and it seems as if life has come to an eerie halt. 

What many may not realize is that all of this change is taking a major toll on mental health as well. The Center for Disease Control put out a notice stating that stress and anxiety during an infectious disease outbreak may increase, and can likely cause things like: lack of sleep, loss of appetite, worsening of chronic physical and mental health problems, and an increase in drug and alcohol usage (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). 

However, just because the world may be seemingly spinning out of control, all light is not lost. Even with the closure of restaurants and the inability to hangout with friends and family like normal, there are still ways to make the best out of every day. 

This is why my friends and I decided to have our own car picnic. 

On a warm and sunny 50 degree day, four of my friends and I drove to our old high school parking lot and backed up each of our cars into a circle facing each other. Then, without stepping foot in the parking lot, we maneuvered our way over our seats and all sat in the opened trunks of our own cars. The five of us were widely spread out– with much more than six feet in between our tires. 

Once we were finally all situated, my heart couldn’t have been happier in the moment. Having spent the past three weeks prior seeing no one other than my father, it was a breath of fresh air to be able to physically see four familiar faces that were not my dad’s. 

To make this “car hangout” even more special, we decided to all bring our own food to make a picnic out of it– packing our own lunches at home so we could actually eat them “together.” In preparation for this, I was trying to think of something filling, yet feasible, to eat in my car. So, I settled on making a spinach wrap stuffed with kidney beans, romaine lettuce leaves, white onion, peppery white rice, spicy store-bought guacamole, and creamy roasted red pepper hummus. Although this seems like a slightly strange lunch to bring to a picnic, I was craving something other than the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I’ve been housing all week. Wanting to add a snack to the mix, I stuffed a bag of Hippeas (vegan white cheddar chickpea puffs) into my makeshift “lunch box” as well.

Though, to be completely honest, I was so infatuated with the fact that my friends were actually right there in front of me, that I paid no real attention to what I was eating. 

This entire ordeal was definitely one for the books. We spent three hours in that parking lot, giggling and catching up. And, during those hours, we had numerous people drive by, roll down their windows, and snap photos of us! We must have been quite a sight to see, as we hid out in our trunks like the ground was actually made of lava. 

Overall, it felt more than incredible to be able to “share” a meal with my friends again, without any wifi interferences or other distractions. So far throughout this quarantine, I just haven’t felt like myself (as I’m sure is the same for most of us). However, this car picnic made me feel like times were almost normal again– aside from the forced distancing, of course. I was able to let my inner anxiety ease away for the time being and just be present in the moment. There was just something about seeing my friends’ faces that provided me with a deep sense of comfort knowing we are all in this together, and that we will make it out on the other end.

Although we had a blast, I feel a moral obligation to emphasize the need to exercise caution when it comes to hangouts like this. Since the safety of these types of get-togethers is highly dependent on your physical wellbeing and location, I am not necessarily encouraging others to go out and try this at home. Instead, I urge you to find other safe and creative ways to make the most out of this situation– with food as an added perk. We are beyond lucky to be living in an time period where “FaceTime dates” and “Zoom coffee hours” are practical options for hangouts with friends, so take advantage of them!

By now, we’re probably all familiar with the concept of getting stir-crazy, but we don’t have to let this get the better of us. Even simply calling someone on the phone while you enjoy your afternoon tea can be the exact healthy communication you need in order to get you through the rest of the day.  

By sharing food and laughs with others, whether in person or through a screen, you’d be surprised what wonders it could do for your state of sanity.