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Coronavirus Pandemic Changed Eating, Food Shopping Habits

Pandemic eating shopping
The pandemic has changed the way we eat and shop for food. Above, dishes that are part of the healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: Greek Reporter

A new survey in the United States shows that a staggering 85% of people reported that the coronavirus pandemic made a change our eating and food shopping habits — and some experts believe that the healthier patterns we learned in the past year may be here to stay.

As part of its investigation into the changes Americans made regarding their food, dining and shopping habits over the last twelve months, the International Food Information Council, located in Washington, D.C., conducted their 16th annual “Food and Health Survey.”

While the entire world was forced to master a range of new tasks, from Zoom meetings to ordering food online for the first time ever, many practices we learned in this most difficult of times are in our skill set to stay.

The many shortages which made the pandemic even more difficult to navigate was coupled with the need to begin making dinner at home every night of the week — a rarity in the US, as going out to eat on a regular basis has been a firmly entrenched part of our lives.

Pandemic eating, shopping habits changed for good

The new focus of much of our our food-related attention quickly became how to stock up on basics at a time when even flour was hard to come by; as time went on and the shortages eased somewhat, shopping for every meal of the week became a normal part of life as families spent nearly all their free time at home, eating meals together every day.

The IFIC’s survey showed that in 2020, fully 85% of people reported a change in their eating and food preparation due to Covid-19; this year that number dropped to 72%, as restaurants opened up to fulll capacity once again.

However, the many changes that took place last year have clearly made a mark on  society’s food-related habits. Naturally, we all looked forward to not having to wear a mask when shopping or when dining out in a restaurant.

Worry-free dining in restaurants, once a staple of weekly life in the United States, has now returned across the nation, even as the Delta variant causes coronavirus numbers to creep up once again.

And, according to the IFIC survey, Americans are true to form when it comes to what we choose to buy and eat, finding that some things never change, with “taste” continuing to rule in food choice at No. 1, or 82%, despite the myriad changes in our pandemic eating and food shopping habits.

The price of food followed, at 66%, with “healthfulness” coming in at 58%, “convenience” at 52% and “environmental sustainability” at 31%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the level of knowledge — and comfort — that Americans had with foods was one of the key factors in purchasing during the pandemic, at 68%.

As anyone who lived through the past year knows, comfort foods played an important part in keeping us on an even keel during those difficult days when practically everything else in our daily lives, including work, schooling and social activities, were either curtailed or drastically changed.

While American families in the pre-pandemic era were already known to be departing from the age-old ritual of the nightly meal shared together, the coronavirus made us stop and indulge once more in this important bonding experience.

Although this was not strictly voluntary, of course, as evening sports and other activities  had been cancelled for the most part, a seismic shift did occur in the last sixteen months, as families assembled together once again at the end of every day.

But now, as Americans rush out to their favorite restaurants — seemingly making up for lost time — that trend is again falling by the wayside, at least somewhat, an aspect of the negative side of our pandemic eating and food shopping habits.

Nutritionist Ali Webster, the director of research and nutrition communications at the IFIC, states “Last year, 60% of Americans were cooking at home, and now we see that number shift down below 50%.”

The day-to-day demands of shopping for and preparing every meal appeared to mount over the last year, with comfort foods — and not necessarily the healthiest choices — reigning in our diets.

Research that came out of Produce for Better Health’s 2020 “State of the Plate: America’s Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Trends” showed that fruit and vegetable consumption increases with the frequency of family meals.

However, apparently this rule was upended during the pandemic, as the US’ fruit and vegetable consumption was shown to continue to erode, even while Americans spent a great deal of time shopping for home-cooked meals and eating as a family.

Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, the president and CEO of Produce for Better Health, stated in the US News and World Report that it is time for Americans — and others as well — to act now to reverse this downward trend.

She calls our eating habits a “fruit and vegetable consumption crisis in our country” at the present time although one bright point of light emerged as one in four people stated that they are consuming more protein from plant sources than hey did a year ago.

However, we are still far from eating the amount of fruits and vegetables that we need each and every day.

Snacking habits — and the rise of comfort foods to the fore during the worst of the pandemic — may have played a part in this unwelcome trend.

As many people worked from home, snacks were just a few steps away and it was even easier than walking to a vending machine or a food truck to indulge. During the Spring of 2020, an unsurprising one third of Americans reported that they were snacking more than usual.

Now, according to the research, only 18% say this is still true, offering some hope that the dreaded “Covid-19” (nineteen pounds of extra weight, that is) will soon be shed. Or at least, that additional pounds won’t be put on quite as easily as they were in the “sweatpants and sofa” days of the early pandemic.

The study found that the frequency with which we snack has held steady since last year, with 58% of Americans indulging at least once a day; fully one-quarter of us partake of between-meal noshes multiple times every day.

Mid-afternoon and late evening remain the most common snack times, with the late-afternoon doldrums that hit between 3 PM to 5 PM and the late evening, considered to be 8 PM to 11 PM, comprising the snacking danger zone.

Although most of the survey participants said that we were thrilled to be able to shop freely in supermarkets once again, sans masks and social distancing, fully 42% of Americans state that they now shop online for groceries at least once per month.

This is a marked trend upward over even the 33% who did so in 2020 and the 27% who shopped online for groceries in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. Twenty percent now shop online at least once a week, versus only 11% in 2020 and a paltry 13% in 2019.

The survey revealed that certain cohorts, including younger consumers, African-Americans and parents tend to grocery shop online more often than others.

As opposed to Americans’ initial worries regarding exposure to the virus from touching the foods in grocery stores — remember being reminded to wash your hands after handling every kind of food? — most Americans are not worried about contracting the coronavirus from foodstuffs or going to the grocery store.

Still, a surprising 28% of people in the US still express some concern over this possibility, which may play into the number of people who still shop online. It seems clear that this habit may be here to stay for many, who find the convenience added to the undeniable safety factor of shopping from home are an unbeatable combination.

The study’s experts say that these online purchasing habits “are likely to continue, perhaps for certain staples while supplementing in between with quicker in-person visits” to grocery stores.

Our propensity to buy items without checking their nutritional content, which is provided by law, remains a sticking point for nutritionists, however.

The pandemic did not increase Americans’ willingness to read package labels for such information, according to the survey. “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,” they state.

The survey found that more people read labels when shopping in the store, at 52%, rather than when they  buying online, at 46%, despite “the wealth of information that the food package could provide,” the nutritionists state.

Notably, the IFIC survey showed that 60% of those people who are either in excellent or very good health always or often pay attention to the information on food labels — which could be one reason why they are in better physical shape.

Those who stated on the survey that they followed a diet in the past year didn’t change much from prior statistics, with four in 10 Americans saying they sis indeed diet during that time.

In what is perhaps the least surprising stat that came out of the surgery, calorie counting has become a top diet trend this year, as we emerge from our comfortable cocoons and attempt to fit into our norma workaday wardrobe.

Although survey participants focus a great deal on the calories that are given on every food  label, most people don’t actually know the exact amount of calories they need for a day. Moreover, the study points out that this attention to calories often overshadows the equally-important nutrient values of foods.

In hopeful results the study found that overall, Americans now are more interested in information about the foods they are putting in their carts, than they were before the pandemic.

Knowing where their food comes from, how it’s grown, what its packaging consists of and how it will help them become healthier overall is now part of most American’s thought processes when it comes to food shopping.

Significantly, the IFIC study also showed that more than four in 10 Americans believe that their individual food and beverage choices have an influence on our environment. Whether this is a result of the pandemic allowing us to focus more on our food shopping, or the result of ongoing environmental awareness campaigns, these and the other more hopeful signs to come out of the pandemic give hope that we may have learned a thing or two in this past pandemic year.

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