How the Pandemic Has Changed Our Eating and Shopping Habits
Whether you became a creative sourdough bread baker or you excelled at holding flawless Zoom meetings, a few of your newly acquired pandemic practices may have made their way into your ongoing daily habits. While I’ll bet there are also some restrictions you couldn’t wait to ditch quicker than you can say “social distance.”
For better or worse, one thing for certain is that COVID-19 has shaped many of our food-related decisions. What foods to stock at home, how to shop and how to get in and out of stores quickly became the focus of our attention. To help highlight the changes Americans made surrounding their food, nutrition and shopping habits over the past year, the International Food Information Council in Washington, D.C., conducted their 16th annual Food and Health Survey.
How Habits Have Changed
It’s no surprise that Americans are excited to emerge and shift toward “normalcy,” whatever that might mean for each of us. IFIC’s survey showed in 2020, 85% of people reported a change to eating and food preparation due to COVID, but this year that number dropped to 72%.
Many of us look forward to not having to wear a mask when shopping or when going to a restaurant, not worrying as much about COVID-19 when food shopping and not cooking as much at home. But we do look forward to being able to enjoy worry-free dining in restaurants more often. Some parents are enthusiastic about getting back to date nights, and many of us are even looking forward to getting back to (or starting) healthy diets.
IFIC found that the overall reasons for why we buy the foods we purchase haven’t changed very much: Taste continues to rule at No. 1 (82%), followed by price (66%), healthfulness (58%), convenience (52%) and environmental sustainability (31%). Being familiar with the food you purchase is key (68%), especially during a time when so much was uncertain and comfort in any arena was welcomed.
Cooking and Meal Prep
Although I have spent the past 30-something years encouraging families to come together at the table for mealtime, it took a pandemic to actually make this occur regularly, albeit not necessarily voluntarily. But as we emerge – family meals have diminished as well.
According to nutritionist Ali Webster, director of research and nutrition communications at IFIC, “Last year, 60% of Americans were cooking at home, and now we see that number shift down below 50%.”
As cooking fatigue and the demands of running a household, home schooling and holding down a job set in, so did kitchen creativity. Albeit idealistic, I’m hoping that those who rarely cooked at home in the past, picked up some cooking confidence and that they’ll continue to connect at the table at least a few days a week.
Produce for Better Health’s 2020 State of the Plate: America’s Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Trends research showed that fruit and vegetable consumption increases with the frequency of family meals, yet sadly, it was found that the news is not as encouraging as we would hope. America’s fruit and vegetable consumption continues to erode over time.
Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO of PBH, encourages us to act now to reverse this downward trend which she calls a “fruit and vegetable consumption crisis in our country.” I had hoped that pandemic panic shopping would have prompted people to buy more produce in all forms, including frozen, canned, dried fruits and vegetables, but overall, every age group needs to work on welcoming these foods to their plates more regularly.[
Working from home eliminated the need to walk all the way to a vending machine or a food truck to pick up a snack. Instead, most of us were just an arm’s reach from our kitchen counters or cabinets. Whether it’s because we’re hungry, thirsty or craving sweets or salt, one third of Americans reported snacking more than usual in the spring of 2020. Now, only 18% say this remains true.
The frequency with which we snack has held steady since 2020, with 58% of us snacking at least once a day, and 25% of us enjoying mid-meal munchies multiple times a day.
And what are the most common snack attack times? Americans’ favorite times of day to partake in snacking are late afternoon (3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) and late evening (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.).[
Although I am one of those people that loves to go food shopping – and yes, I also sing along to the music that’s playing while I walk down the aisles – I include myself on the list of those that relied on food shopping online during quarantine. These days, I’m happy to be back in supermarkets, but it seems 42% of Americans now say they shop online for groceries at least monthly – up from 33% in 2020 and 27% in 2019. Moreover, 20% shop online at least weekly (vs. 11% in 2020 and 13% in 2019).
Younger consumers, African Americans and parents, in particular, tend to grocery shop online more frequently than others. Overall, there seems to be less concern about exposure from farmers and food manufacturers who produce the food people buy, but 28% still express some concern. Even though more of us are back to schlepping from stores, for some of us, online purchasing habits will continue perhaps for certain staples while supplementing in between with quicker in-person visits.
When it came to reading nutrition labels on packages, COVID didn’t create any major changes. Whether online or in-person, about half of us always or often pay attention to food labels when grocery shopping – which obviously means half of us are not reading about what we’re eating.
It’s no surprise that more people read labels when shopping in the store (52%) than when buying online (46%), but the number of shoppers is still meager when compared to the wealth of information that the food package could provide. IFIC’s survey showed 60% of those people in excellent/very good health always or often pay attention to food labels, which could account for why they’re in better shape.
Weight and Dieting
The number of people who said they followed a diet in past year didn’t shift much, with four in 10 people saying they followed a diet. Surprisingly, calorie counting has become a top diet trend in 2021. Although the calories on a label seem to be the hottest number on the package, most people don’t really know the amount of calories they need for the day, and the focus on calories often overshadows the nutrient value of the food.
IFIC showed that although fewer people dieted in 2020 in order to lose weight, there still seems to be a desire to improve physical appearance – at least while we’re still on Zoom calls! One in four people say they’re eating more protein from plant sources vs. a year ago, but as mentioned above, we still are far from eating the amount of plants we need each day.
What the Future Holds
Pandemic or otherwise, we can be sure that Americans have an appetite for more information about the foods they’re putting in their carts, including knowing where their food comes from, how it’s grown, what its package is made of and how its ingredients will impact health and well-being.
IFIC’s study also showed that more than four in 10 people believe that their individual food and beverage choices influence our environment. Let’s hope that we each took a lesson or two away from this past year to help us move forward and make our pandemic-free lives just a little better.