Our shopping and eating habits are always evolving. Ordinarily the process is slow - but in 2020, things changed really fast. Here’s a snapshot of how the global coronavirus outbreak has affected the way we eat, shop for groceries, and think about food today.
Have you noticed any changes to your eating patterns lately? If you’ve been snacking more, and wasting less; worrying about how to nourish your immune system, and seeking out food to lift your mood: you’re not alone. Thanks to two recent pieces of market research, we’ve gathered some insights into how the global pandemic is influencing our relationship with food.
Health and environmental anxieties
In a worldwide survey carried out by UK-based market researchers FMCG Gurus, 59% of respondents said they were more worried about their health, and 57% were specifically concerned about their immune systems. A huge majority - 73% - said that recent events had inspired them to eat and drink healthier. When researchers asked what steps they would take to do this, 45% planned to reduce their sugar intake and 58% of them said they would eat more fruit.
The same survey found that the ‘circuit breaker’ effect of local shelter in place/quarantine guidelines has made many people more conscious of the environmental impacts of modern life. Noticing - and enjoying - a major drop in air and noise pollution may have made us more optimistic that environmental damage can be repaired. At any rate, 55% of people surveyed said they had become more engaged in environmental issues, with 35% paying closer attention to companies’ sustainability claims.
In these anxious times, it’s natural to turn to food as a reliable source of comfort and pleasure. 55% said they had sought out food to improve their mood in recent months.
Changing daily habits
Here in the US, the 15th Annual Food & Health Survey was conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in April, in the midst of the pandemic’s first wave. The results suggest that 85% of us have changed our food habits as a result; the biggest change is that 60% of us are cooking at home more. Other common changes include snacking more (32% overall), greater attention to washing fresh produce (30%), and thinking about food more than usual (27%).
Parents with kids living and learning at home may be unsurprised to hear they are top of the snack charts: 41% of us are snacking more than usual, compared to just 29% of our child-free peers; we’re also more likely to report eating when we’re emotional.
Compared to last year, we’re all shopping online a little more, and in person a little less - one third of us buy groceries online at least once a month (up 5%), and only 20% of us make multiple trips to the grocery store each week (down 8%). This means that access to fresh produce is reduced for many of us, leaving us more reliant on frozen and store cupboard alternatives for our vitamin and fiber requirements.
Managing food waste
One glimmer of light is that we seem to be wasting less food at home: with less frequent trips to the store we’re having to do more and better meal planning, and without the easy lure of fast food we’re actually using up the produce in the crisper drawer. Unfortunately, pre-consumer food waste is up substantially. Produce destined for bulk sales to the catering and restaurant trade is hard to repurpose for individual consumer purchase; farmers are having to dump milk and plough over crops because demand from restaurants, universities and schools has plummeted.
Moving from anxiety, to action
So what does this mean for individuals? We can’t change the external circumstances that are forcing us to embrace a “new normal”. But it’s always empowering to find small actions that make life easier. Here are some suggestions you might like to try.
1. Focus on 5-a-day
The people in the survey who planned to reduce sugar and increase fruit have the right idea: this sort of simple, back-to-basics approach to nutrition is a tried-and-tested strategy for improving overall health. Unlike diets that involve restricting certain foods, committing to ‘5 a day’ (at least five cup-sized servings of fruits and veggies, every day) is a positive way to prioritize nutrition and actually enjoy the process of getting healthier.
2. Take a flexible approach to “fresh”
If you’re struggling to access fresh fruits and vegetables, don’t panic. Frozen, freeze-dried and canned alternatives can provide most of the nutritional benefits of fresh: and we wrote all about it on our blog. Open up to store cupboard standbys and you won’t miss the produce aisle nearly so much.
3. Embrace the opportunity to cut waste
Are you the kind of person who likes to feel in control? No doubt these are challenging times for Type A types, but one thing you can get a grip on is your pantry. Planning meals to get maximum value from your budget and minimize food waste can be so rewarding. You can find lots of resources online to help you, including free tips and worksheets from MyPlate.
4. Think local and lateral about grocery shopping
Maybe online orders are your only option right now - but if you do have the time and capacity, your local food suppliers could really use your support. Many local restaurants and artisan producers have pivoted to online sales, so check if your favorite delicacies are still available. Farmers’ markets in many areas of the country have adapted to COVID-safe operations - don’t let great locally-grown produce go to waste.
5. Don’t knock “comfort food”
Scientists have studied the effect of high, prolonged levels of stress on the immune system - it’s not great. Food can play an important part in soothing anxiety: it’s no accident that the nervous system state that balances the “fight or flight” response is known as “rest and digest”. We’ve got some helpful tips about good mood food on the blog - but over and above the science, we’re big believers in treating yourself to something delicious every day, and enjoying every single bite.