Empty Bread Shelf at Grocery Store
Credit: JIM WATSON/Getty Images

When the weather forecast says snow is on the way, before dreaming of hot chocolate and sledding, some people immediately gasp, "Oh dear, heavens let's get to the Piggly Wiggly before they run out of bread." Grab their keys and head to the store. It's such a common phenomenon, that North Carolina's favorite TV meteorologist Brad Panovich even uses a "Bread Meter" to let his viewers know how bad the winter weather will be and Nashville's News4 puts "buy bread and milk" on their winter weather Panic-o-meter.

The folks at Accuweather believe it all started with the residents of the Northeastern United States, who should be used to the cold weather. "It appears that New Englanders can take credit for the purchasing of milk and bread prior to the storm," the site reported. "It was the monumental blizzard in 1978 that trapped many in homes for weeks that gets at least some credit for the current tradition." If you have survived being trapped indoors for weeks, it makes sense that you might want to stock up on perishables the next time a big storm is predicted.

In some parts of the South, "snow" usually means just a light dusting that lasts a day or two, yet the impulse remains the same: go to the grocery store. Why do some of us feel the need to stockpile supplies like it's the Great Blizzard of 1888 all over again? Turns out there is a psychological reason for wanting to stock up.

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While none of us can control the weather, when a storm is brewing, psychologist Lisa Brateman suggests that people may buy supplies to feel a modicum of control over their situation. "The thought to get milk before a storm is followed by the action or compulsion to go out and stockpile it," she told How Stuff Works. "In one way or another, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to feel in control, and buying things you might throw out still gives the person a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation."

Psychologist Judy Rosenberg has a different psychological theory for why we stock up on perishable items before storms: Optimism. "Buying perishables is like saying, ‘the storm will be over soon and I won't be stuck in this situation for long,'" she told How Stuff Works. If you buy canned goods or buckets of shelf-stable mac and cheese, you may be unconsciously accepting the fact that the storm is here for the long haul. Buying milk or eggs, though, means you unconsciously believe you will be back at the store soon enough to restock.

Alan Stewart, a researcher at the University of Georgia, believes the need to load up on bread, milk, and other essentials before a storm is driven by childhood experiences or weather-related trauma. "It probably is fear of, one, not knowing how long the event is going to last, and two, do people have everything they need?" he said. "So, if the weather service and the media want to prepare people-and they want to avoid what happened in Atlanta a few years ago--people get milk, bread and eggs. These are just things you get every few days."

Stewart also pointed out that impending snow doesn't have to trigger panic. In fact, if you like snow and have good childhood memories of sledding and snowmen and hot chocolate, the idea of a snow storm can seem romantic and, perhaps even be a reason for excitement— and not just at the prospect of eating bread, milk, eggs, and French toast for days on end.

What she found was that during one of that city's worst snowstorms, which began on November 24, 1950, an article in a local newspapers referenced milk as "the one shortage that has hit all sections" and bread as being "doled out in some stores" because of a storm that ultimately brought almost 3 feet of snow.

Yes, stocking up on bread and milk for a 1-inch snow is perhaps a bit overboard but, in a more sustained weather event, what types of things should people run to the store and buy? The American Red Cross preparedness website recommends things like:

  • Water, one gallon per person per day
  • Non-perishable foods (Note: eggs, bread and milk are perishable)
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Sanitation products
  • Blankets
  • Extra cash
  • Cell phone chargers
  • For the complete list, visit this website.