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Home Cooks: How the Pandemic Changed Home Cooking

One year into the pandemic, home cooks have come away with more than new recipes in their repertoires. The pandemic year has shaped how we plan meals, how we shop for groceries, and even what we cook. Like many other recipe and food sites, we saw a rise in pageviews for comfort food, baked goods, and vegan recipes, and alcoholic beverages in 2020, but behind the increased interest in these categories were people coping with their new normal. Americans on the whole adapted their eating as the pandemic unfolded.

  • Americans have made more meals at home, expanded their palates with new flavors, and gravitated toward premium items as an indulgence or healthier option during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Even with the Covid-19 vaccine’s rollout, the global health crisis will likely influence how people grocery shop, cook and eat for years to come.

  • Consumers’ changing habits have shaped retailers' and consumer packaged goods companies’ approach, too, such as inspiring PepsiCo to launch globally-inspired potato chip flavors and a drink to aid sleep.

If I thought food waste was complicated before Covid-19 emerged, now it blows my mind. I started to research a version of this article in January – those carefree days when people worried about supermarkets overstocking, not the disappearance of pasta and flour. Even then, the picture was hazy, but it was much clearer than it is now. Until lockdown, most of us were accustomed to any-time, any-place food shopping. Remember when you could eat in all sorts of places? Food was available everywhere, for those with means – and we ate everywhere, too: leaning against a wall with a box of slow-cooked pork from a street-food market; sharing popcorn at the cinema or chips at the pub. They say you’re never more than 6ft from a rat in Britain’s towns and cities, but we were also never much farther from a snack. Then, in an instant, it was gone.

Most of us shop less often now and use more of what we buy: new data from Wrap, a charity that aims to reduce waste, shows a 34% reduction in wasted potatoes, bread, chicken and milk at home; it also shows that people are actively trying to waste less – making meals with what they have, batching, using leftovers, planning menus before shopping. Many family meals are now driven by what we need to use up: wrinkled peppers roasted or grilled, the potatoes my children reject at night mixed with mayo and chives next day.

Shifts in Grocery Shopping

March 2020 marked a turning point in how people in the United States responded to the coronavirus. Schools veered to virtual learning, offices to remote work. Businesses braced for short-term shutdowns; some shuttered and never reopened.

Then, March 19, the first statewide stay-at-home order came out of California. And as more states issued orders to keep people at home, it became clear to Americans that the rest of the nation would soon follow. Shoppers were grabbing more groceries, toilet paper, cleaning wipes, disinfectants, and hand sanitizer at the beginning of the month, from 6 to 11 percent more than at the same time the year before, according to Nielsen. By March 14, however, people in no small number were filling their carts with an average of 14 percent more items than the same time in 2019.

Mid-March brought 22 percent more grocery runs compared to the year before, Nielsen found. Sales continued to surge for household items like toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, and diapers, while sales for frozen food, meat, meat alternatives, and shelf-stable goods like beans ramped up during the third week of March. While a 14 to 22 percent increase in grocery shopping may not seem dramatic, the results were clear: stockpiling left certain shelves wiped clean, and where items remained, stores put strict limits in place.

More Frozen Food, Fewer Trips to the Store

Before the pandemic, Allstar Candice Walker of Portland, Ore., planned meals a week in advance. Her attention to detail meant she almost never found herself without an ingredient. This changed when lockdowns began, as she stocked up on pantry goods and root vegetables to have on hand. "I bought in bulk and made sure I froze as much as I could. This helped me make less frequent trips to the grocery store," she says.

Shoppers opted for frozen food for several reasons, according to a Statista survey of U.S. adults. Most important to them was that frozen food would last longer than fresh food. The majority were concerned about having a well-stocked freezer in case of a food shortage, as well as reducing their trips to the store. Not only that, people considered frozen food more convenient, cost-effective, and safer, the survey found.

And when inventories ran low in stores, shoppers like Allstar Pamela Treadwell in Maryland improvised. "Fresh vegetables were available more than frozen, and I started freezing produce like green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and greens like collards and kale," she says. "I managed to get a 10-pound bag of potatoes, some of which I cut into wedges, partially fried in my air fryer, and then froze and vacuum sealed for later."

Online Orders Pick Up

Trips to the store tapered off during the last week of March as people began to settle at home, Nielsen found. Meanwhile, the uptick in orders from online grocery and food retailers at the start of the pandemic continued to rise. By the first week of April, the number of pickup orders Americans placed pre-pandemic had doubled, and home delivery saw a 53 percent increase. Come mid-April, people were shopping in stores drastically less often — about 9 percent less often than the previous April, according to Nielsen. Instacart became the most-visited food retail site, SimilarWeb found. And by May, 10 million people had shopped for groceries online for the first time, including a significant number of adults over 65 and under 25, Nielsen reported.

Though Linda Crumbaugh ordered the occasional meal kit to her home before the pandemic, the Melbourne, Fla., resident calls the shift to ordering groceries online "the biggest adjustment" she's faced during the pandemic. "Once we went on lockdown, my in-person shopping dropped significantly," she says. "Produce is the hardest, as I am definitely one to look and touch until I find just the right pieces. We do use Misfits Market delivery, and we are really happy with the quality, so this helps."

Farm to Fridge

Others have counted on farmers' markets and CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes for fresh produce as well as animal products. Not long into the pandemic, Allstar Laura Mason of Traverse City, Mich., turned to farms to purchase all produce and meat, including three-fourths of a cow to fill a chest freezer she bought. She considers this one of the most drastic changes that came with 2020.

"Having relationships with our farmers and buying directly from the farmers not only benefits them," Mason says. "It benefits us to have access to high-quality food and enough of it to feed my family."

Walker also began sourcing produce from local farms to fill the gap of frequent supermarket stops. "I'm less reliant on the grocery store and supporting local business during trying times," she says. "Since the first shutdown, my approach to home cooking has become even more efficient and resourceful."

Food Insecurity

For many, resourcefulness has come as a product of layoffs and lost income. Home cook Annie Nguyen of Seattle and her boyfriend had to adapt to a single income after Nguyen lost her job in March. They reduced their food budget to under $100 per week, aiming to spend closer to $50 as much as possible.

Nguyen says shopping at Trader Joe's has allowed her to still purchase some organic produce, and she saves splurges for seafood or organic meat and eggs. In addition to freezing leftovers and even halves of bread loaves, Nguyen plans meals around using items already in the pantry.

Among the burdens born out of the pandemic, food insecurity and hunger have been especially pressing for many Americans. In a survey of 2,000 Americans experiencing food insecurity for the first time during the pandemic, 60 percent have struggled to provide food for their families, OnePoll reported. Moreover, 37 percent of survey respondents have skipped meals to feed their children instead.

Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus

As shopping and food storage habits changed, so did cooking. With more people eating at home, trends emerged around budget-conscious cooking, easiness, and comfort food. Leftovers and canned goods met needs for convenient, cost-effective food. Meanwhile, interest in cooking fried rice, fried chicken, French fries, and lasagna at home spiked on Allrecipes in 2020. Comfort food became a fixture of the pandemic diet, and Americans reported eating it for at least five meals a week in a survey from OnePoll.

Often quarantining with parents, friends, or their own families, millennials and Gen Z helped set these pandemic-driven trends, according to a report from yPulse. Dealing with disrupted routines, many gravitated to dishes requiring minimal time and ingredients, yPulse found. In fact, interest in quick dishes, recipes with five ingredients or less, and 30-minute meals doubled from 2019 to 2020.

Shorter to-do lists allowed Allstar Bri Evans from Huntsville, Ala., to spend more time in the kitchen, teetering from one-pot meals and prepared foods to appetizers with kid appeal. "I imagine the reason I started changing the way I cook was one part boredom, two parts trying to save money, and one part wanting to make copycat recipes from restaurants that weren't safe to attend," Evans says.

Since working from home nixed her three-hour commute, Allstar Danielle Stadelman of Costa Mesa, Calif., has had time to spare, too. "It has given me the freedom to start experimenting more often in the kitchen and realizing it's OK to try new things and fail. That means more home-cooked meals, trying new cuisines, making 10 loaves of banana bread, and trying my hand at bread making."

From Baking to Burnout

Baking became a popular project in the early days of the pandemic as people adjusted to more time at home. Searches for sourdough, banana bread, brownies, and even pizza dough reached all-time highs in April, according to Google Trends. While the baking craze has been on the decline since April, Google searches reveal that these foods have remained more popular than before the pandemic.

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