During 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, American consumers retained their pre-pandemic eating occasions at approximately the same frequency: early morning snack, breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, after-dinner snack, and late-night meal/snack, according to 2022 research from The Hartman Group. Because most countries isolated from each other and residents were primarily mandated to follow isolation and quarantining practices, those venues with high close-contact activities remained closed or went out of business through most of 2020. Direct person-to-person contacts were severely minimized, almost eliminated. As eat-at-home occasions surged during the pandemic, the number of consumers eating anywhere away from home decreased by about 50% from before the pandemic.
Further, because consumers mostly worked from home, they ate more with others (i.e., family, significant others) during those eating occasions when they would have eaten alone (i.e., for early morning snack, breakfast, morning snack, and lunch) prior to 2020. Consumers also learned to shop more efficiently, especially for dinners, snacks, and meals that they had purchased from food service pre-pandemic. Online shopping and delivery significantly grew in 2020 among all generations except for Gen Z who had often already used digital shopping. But the habit of same-day sourcing stayed. Because of shelter-at-home mandates, about 40% of U.S. consumers cooked at home more often than before the pandemic. They also focused on more expensive foods and ingredients with health and wellness qualities. The trade-up was justified by reduced spending on food and beverages outside the home, fewer options in recreational activities, and travel restrictions. Consumers also had more disposable income, and about 45% also declared that they would continue cooking at home after the pandemic.
But the cooking fun fizzled out quickly in the second half of 2020 as cooking fatigue set in. Consumers shifted their attention to new cooking methods, culinary skills, and authentic exotic flavors. They ate certain foods on other occasions not traditionally meant for those foods, similar to a “breakfast all day” situation.
Where Are We Now?
Consumer behavior toward COVID-19 around the world seemed to occur in common stages. In the beginning, consumers tried to strengthen their health and immunity through products. They then prepared for periods of quarantining, including hoarding supplies to help them manage those restrictions and any others that might be instituted.
More than two years after the pandemic started, about 48% of consumers remained extremely or very concerned about COVID-19 virus variants, declining from 52% in October 2021, according to research on grocery trends by FMI. By this time, however, other important sources of concern began to surface, such as food prices that were up 4% from early 2021 and supply chain issues that have not adequately addressed out-of-stock items. The consumer price index for all items rose to 8.5% for the year ending March 2022, with the food index rising to 8.8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of employees (45%) who continued to work from home full- or part-time remained high, resulting in higher than pre-pandemic levels for at-home eating of mid-morning snack, lunch, and afternoon snack. But the food-at-home index rose 10% for the year ending March 2022, levying economic pressure on work-at-home employees.
In 2019, before the pandemic, eating away from home was highest among Millennials (34%), followed by Gen Z (27%), Gen X (26%), and Boomers (14%). During the first year of the pandemic in 2020, all generations showed a decline in their away-from-home eating occasions. But in late 2021, all generations showed a resurgence, almost to pre-pandemic levels, in away-from-home eating. Gen Z didn’t show much change in their away-from-home eating habits during the pandemic, likely because they are the first generation to grow up in a totally digital world and, for them, shopping and ordering online is a normal process.
Before the pandemic, consumers also were more likely to eat alone (48%) during early morning snack, breakfast, morning snack, and lunch times as they hurriedly prepared to go to work or were already at work. But in late 2021, all generations experienced a decrease in time eating alone except for the Boomers, whose eating-alone experiences remained unchanged at 52%. The Millennials and Gen Z experienced significant drops in time eating alone from pre-pandemic and pandemic levels, and Gen X during pandemic times, perhaps due to a rise in eating as a couple and as a family. Many in these generations also moved back in with family due to financial hardships, causing a decline in time eating alone.
In 2021, approximately 24% of eating occasions took place in or were ordered from a restaurant (including takeout and delivery), surpassing even the 2019 levels. Millennials, Gen X, and parents significantly looked to restaurants to address their need for convenient and healthful meals, often enjoying those meals with others. It was also their way of demonstrating their support for restaurants that were struggling to remain open. In addition, although cooking fatigue quickly set in toward the latter part of 2020, consumers, when they chose to cook, seemed to use higher levels of preparation in 2021 than in 2019. On the other hand, consumption of ready-to-eat foods remained relatively stable during these times, while consumers engaging in little or moderate preparation of food (e.g., stove-top cooking or microwaving) declined. But the food-away-from-home index rose 6.9% over the year ending March 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, causing a concern that eating away-from-home eating rates might stall or even decline.
When consumers sourced their food partially or totally from restaurants, it seemed that they intentionally planned to have leftovers. In 2021, about 66% of eating occasions involved all or some leftovers sourced from a restaurant, a number significantly higher than those in 2019 and 2020. For all generations except the Boomers, the number of eating occasions that involved leftovers significantly increased from 2019. From 2019 to 2021, there was a significant decline, from 51% to 34%, in the total number of leftover occasions that did not involve food sourced from a restaurant. It could be that, for consumers, having leftover food sourced from a restaurant (takeout or delivery) has developed into a norm. Besides, consumption of leftovers was a way for them to save and to reduce food waste.
Due to limited spending opportunities during the pandemic, Millennials, parents, and higher-income households were willing to pay more for food and beverages with higher quality products, more unique flavor, higher integrity in sourcing and processing, and other authentic characteristics that elevated their eating experiences. During those times, many declared that “money is no object” when choosing healthful foods to sustain them during the pandemic.
By mid-2021, food spending was almost equally split between retail and food service, just as it was pre-pandemic. Consumers increased food and beverage consumption more for late night meals/snacks and early morning snacks, perhaps due to their resumption of evening social activities. Although consumers reduced their participation in the other eating occasions, there was a significant increase in the average number of categories of food and beverages consumed in late 2021 as compared with 2019. At-home eating significantly declined and eating at work and at restaurants significantly increased, although not to pre-pandemic levels.
After two years of drastically altering their daily lives to survive the pandemic, consumers began to show signs of an eager return to pre-pandemic living conditions in 2022. But the consumer price indices of all items, especially at-home and away-from-home foods started to increase in 2020. To transition back sensibly to the lives they had led before the pandemic, approximately 86% of consumers began to change the behaviors they had developed during the pandemic, according to the FMI survey. They searched for grocery deals (59%), bought store brands (35%), substituted or changed their products of choice (58%), and changed where and how they bought groceries (48%).
According to the Expert Panel of the Forbes Business Council, consumers today are or will be better informed and more participatory, make purchase decisions “on-the-go,” use text messages via social media, demand consistent quality and volume of products, and prefer businesses that address ESG mandates (environmental, social and governance practices). They will also require businesses to be more customer-centric providing personalized and high-quality customer service. These characteristics will allow them to wade comfortably through the pandemic.
Food Habits in Other Countries
There do not seem to be studies on the eating behavior of consumers in other countries that report the same categories as those included by The Hartman Group and FMI, but there is a systematic review of longitudinal studies conducted by Gonzalez-Monroy and colleagues and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health to compare eating behavior changes pre- and post-pandemic. Of the 826 studies these researchers initially gathered, 23 longitudinal studies passed their planned screening process. There were five studies from Italy, four from China, two each from Australia, Spain, United Kingdom, and Japan, and one each from the United States, India, Brazil, France, Poland, and Canada. Only adults older than 18 with no comorbidities were chosen, but they found specific subgroups of people with diabetes mellitus, young obese people, and others in vulnerable situations. The group was relatively young, with a mean age of 24.2 years.
The researchers confirmed the existence of changes in eating behavior during the pandemic. Because people stayed mostly at home during these times, the researchers reported that consumers cooked more and “showed a more frequent intake of food, an increased consumption of ultra-processed food and a higher caloric intake due to a more frequent alcohol consumption.” People in the specific subgroups also “appeared to increase the daily amount of food eaten” with a reported “significant increase in the amount and frequency of unhealthy food products.” Younger people showed “a lower adherence to healthy diets such as the Mediterranean Diet” “due to an increased intake of food, a preference for snacks and a lack of fruit and vegetables intake.” The researchers concluded that their systematic review showed “changes in eating behavior, which may have become less healthy during the pandemic.” They advocated the use of government-supported preventive interventions and social actions to promote healthy eating habits with a focus not only on food intake but also on alcohol consumption.
Will There Be More Changes in Food Habits?
Consumers worldwide changed their eating behavior during the pandemic. Some changed to strengthen themselves to ward off the coronavirus by eating what they considered healthful foods. Others changed the frequency of eating at different eating occasions. And others, probably due to anxiety and uncertainty, changed by overeating and increasing their alcohol consumption. Will these changes significantly and permanently alter our daily lifestyles? And, how will consumers consequently react?
Dr. Saulo is principal/owner of Food Science Interests, LLC, and is based in Hawaii. Reach her at [email protected].