With shelter-in-place orders and more time spent at home over the past few months, it’s no surprise that COVID-10 has changed the way we eat and feed our families.
According to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2020 Food & Health Survey, 85% of Americans say they have made at least some change in the food they eat or how they prepare it during the pandemic.
While many busy families were used to grabbing take-out or going out to eat to get a meal on the table, the good news is that more people have prioritized scratch cooking and family meals again. Yet the pandemic has also had a negative impact on the foods we eat and our eating habits. So as some states continue to re-open and we slowly return to our quasi-normal lives, it’s anyone’s guess whether any of our eating habits will last and what the impact will be on our and our children’s health.
HOW COVID-19 HAS CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT
With so many changes to our lives, COVID-19 has also changed how we shop for food, what we purchase, and our eating habits.
FAMILIES ARE COOKING AND SHARING MEALS
Pre-COVID-19, many families were accustomed to running their kids around to after-school sports, rushing home from work, and culling something together for dinner.
Yet seemingly overnight, the pandemic forced us back to the mid-century—and I would argue a simpler time—when home-cooked meals were a mainstay in most American households. In fact, according to the IFIC survey, 60% of people say they’re now cooking at home more.
In recent years, plant-based diets had been growing in popularity, but in the wake of COVID-19, sales of plant-based foods surged in part, due to meat shortages and the need to save money at the grocery store.
PLANT-BASED DIETS AND FOODS ARE TRENDY
In fact, in mid-March, plant-based food sales were up 90% compared to 2019, according to a report by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and SPINS.
CANNED GOODS AND FROZEN FOODS ARE BACK ON THE TABLE
Any nutrition expert will tell you that if you want to eat healthy and lose weight, shop the perimeter of the grocery store where the fruits and vegetables and whole foods are located and limit the interior aisles where you’ll find tons of processed foods.
Yet in the wake of COVID-19, when many people were stockpiling food, finding empty store shelves, and looking to lower their grocery bills, the center aisles where the canned goods are located became more highly trafficked.
In fact, Nielsen data has shown increases in sales of beans (82.1 %) canned and pouch tuna (75.6%) and rice (84.5%).
Sales in the frozen food aisles have increased as well, with 70% of people who have purchased more frozen foods since March, a recent survey from the American Frozen Food Institute found.
Relying on canned goods and frozen foods can be a welcome change to the way we eat, but it also depends on what you buy.
For example, beans and lentils are packed with nutrition, encourage healthy eating habits, and can allow your family to eat plant-based on a budget, yet there are also a ton of canned goods and frozen meals that should be left on the shelf.
WE’RE SHOPPING LOCAL
Shopping the farmers’ markets and eating local has always been a way to get fresher, more nutrient-dense food and maybe even save money on organic food.
Yet in an effort to lower the risk of infection from food handling, more people are buying their food from local sources.
In fact, according to data from Yelp, sources of local food are seeing increased demand including:
- Community supported agriculture (CSAs) +430%
- Farms +149%
- Fruit and vegetable stores +123%
WE’RE EATING HEALTHIER OVERALL
Whether it’s because we have more time to think about food, the kids are at home, or there’s an interest in immune-boosting foods, many families are making healthier choices.
According to the IFIC survey, approximately 1 in 5 people are eating healthier overall as a result of the pandemic. What’s more, 59% of parents of children under age 18 are familiar with the MyPlate recommendations versus 39% of people without children.
WE’RE SNACKING MORE
Pre-COVID-19, snacking was a big part of our culture.
In fact, 90% of adults snacked during the day, and kids snacked 3 times a day, consuming up to 600 calories from processed foods.
Blame it on boredom, but 41% of parents with children under 18 are snacking more these days, compared to 29% of people without children, the IFIC survey found.
What we’re eating isn’t the best either.
In fact, Mondelez International has experienced an “unprecedented demand” for snack foods like Oreos, Ritz and Triscuit, particularly in online food sales.
With many summer camps closed and kids stuck at home watching TV, on devices, and snacking more, experts worry we’ll see an increase in childhood obesity rates.
STRESS EATING IS ON THE RISE
No surprise here, but according to a recent American Psychological Association (APA) survey, 46% of parents say their stress levels are high in the midst of the pandemic.
As a result, we’ve found ourselves stress baking and turning to food to cope. The IFIC survey found that 33% of parents say they’re more likely to eat when they feel emotional.
While eating is definitely comforting in the short-term and there’s nothing wrong with indulging in some ice cream for example, long-term emotional eating can lead to weight gain, chronic health conditions and feelings of guilt or shame. And besides, it doesn’t solve anything.
AFTER THE PANDEMIC, WILL OUR NEW HABITS STICK?
Overall, most of the changes we’ve made have been positive and it seems like we’re headed in the right direction. In fact, the IFIC survey found that 54% of all consumers say the healthfulness of their food choices matters more now than it did in 2010.
Unfortunately, 22% of parents of children under 18 said the average American’s diet will be generally worse over the next decade, versus 12% of people without children under 18.
As many states continue to re-open and loosen some of their restrictions, we’re slowly returning to a new way of life.
Many children have already returned to sports and in some states, school is back in session in the fall.
Restaurants have opened and with more optimism, we may see more people dining out again, but for now, that’s not the case.
A recent Bank of America survey found that while people are eating out now more than they were in April, many are still apprehensive and 32% say they won’t be comfortable until 2021.
Something else that’s promising is that home cooking may see a renaissance. A survey by HUNTER found that of the 54% of Americans who have been cooking more during the pandemic, 51% say they will continue to do so when the pandemic ends.
The bottom line: COVID-19 has brought with it so much uncertainty and ever-changing consumer habits and behaviors that it’s anyone’s guess what will happen down the line.
My hope is that the positive changes we’ve made including the healthier foods, the home cooking and the family meals don’t fall by the wayside when COVID-19 subsides.
While it may not be easy or convenient, the long-term effects on our and our children’s health now and well into the future are immeasurable.