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.