The past 18 months of pandemic living have ushered in tremendous change across just about every facet of life as we knew it. Our dining habits and food choices are no exception. 

From where we eat to what we eat, food industry veteran Arlin Wasserman talked with us about some of the most notable adaptations Americans have made since the pandemic began. Wasserman is founder and managing director of food strategy consultancy, Changing Tastes. 

Gary Drenik: Arlin, thanks for talking to us today. Let’s start broadly with a look at how the pandemic experience changed what we eat and how our health influences our food choices. 

Arlin Wasserman: Thanks for the conversation, Gary. I’m glad to start broadly. One of the biggest changes we’re seeing is that it turns out where we eat has been a bigger change than what we eat. At the start of the pandemic, we were mostly at home whether we liked it or not. 

So, Americans took to the kitchen and cooked a lot of recipes they were familiar with, including a lot of comfort foods. Those look different to each of us and are closely linked to our cultural traditions and regional cuisines from where we were raised. However, lots of baking cookies, and cooking dishes like macaroni and cheese, hamburgers and hot dogs were high on the list for many families. As Americans sheltered from Covid-19, many also gained weight. It’s reported that we put on about two-pounds per month as we cooked for ourselves at home, according to JAMA Network Open.

We’ve also become a lot more focused on preventing disease as we’ve taken up wearing masks, frequent handwashing, and wiping down surfaces regularly. For many of us, that carried over to a stronger focus on eating foods that could boost our immune system and keep us healthy, and that’s not more esoteric ingredients or supplements. We’ve increased our consumption of foods like honey, ginger, and oranges as the pandemic has continued. 

Drenik: We just spent over a year cooking at home for one another, in some cases, much to our dismay given Americans’ affinity for dining out. Do you think that will continue?

Wasserman: No, or more accurately, only when we’re required to. This summer, as Covid-19 restrictions began to lift, Americans flocked back to restaurants. In May 2021, restaurants across the U.S. recorded a record month for sales revenues with consumers spending over $60 billion at restaurants. We broke that record in June and then again in July when we collectively spent over $72 billion to eat out, as restaurants also recorded a record month for the number of diners served.

At least some of us even kept spending at restaurants even when we were forced to stay home because of lock-down mandates earlier on in the pandemic. During Covid-19, many Americans showed exceptional determination not to cook for themselves. While many restaurants closed their doors to diners during the middle of 2020, Americans flocked to delivery services or braved standing near others in lines to pick up meals all to avoid having to cook their own meals. 

The substantial increase in eating out we’d seen is not surprising for another reason. After each economic contraction, we’ve seen Americans increase the share of their food spending at restaurants, as eating out is one of the first affordable luxuries we enjoy, and now more of us are returning to work as employment recovers.

 Now, from what we hear, what’s limiting further growth isn’t the lack of diner interest. It’s the challenge of hiring and training enough staff to cook and serve food fast enough to keep up with the increased volume.  

That said, with the arrival of Fall and the Delta variant, we’re seeing more people again become hesitant about eating out. I saw this proven out in a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics survey showing about 1 in 3 Americans still avoiding restaurants because of Covid-19 related concerns.

Drenik: What were some of the most notable changes you saw regarding how American consumers were buying food, and do you think those changes are permanent? 

Wasserman: Two of the biggest changes we saw early on in the pandemic is that that Americans reduced the number of times we shopped for groceries each week and increased the amount of food we had delivered to our homes, whether that was food purchased directly from producers, delivered by grocery stores, or meals from restaurants delivered to our homes. All are rolling back quickly.

Limiting trips to the grocery store was partly a requirement, as stores faced limits on the number of shoppers, times when people could enter, and it took longer to shop including standing in line. We’re still shopping less often, but that’s turning around.

Grocery shops also faced some empty shelves as Americans stocked up for the long quarantine, with shortages of toilet paper and bleach making headlines. One of the categories that experienced a big turnaround was canned food, especially tuna, which experienced substantial increases in sales after years of decline. At Changing Tastes, we conducted a survey of consumers during late Spring 2020 and found that consumers were stockpiling it in case food shortages worsened, and that the more cans of tuna Americans bought, the less likely they were to eat any of it. 

Online food purchasing also had a spike during Covid-19, but that’s fading quickly today. Online grocery sales went up 43% early on in the pandemic to over $9B a month in May of this year but are already under $7B per month as of June and continuing to decline, according to Bricks Meet Clicks/Mercatus. We’ve become more comfortable buying food online and direct from producers but ultimately, we prefer to go shopping and choose for ourselves.

What’s also been in flux is how much we want meals delivered to our homes. The high cost of meal delivery services is certainly a factor. But so is the very social aspect of dining out and eating with others. “Ghost kitchens,” restaurants that exist only online and cook meals in a central kitchen for online order and delivery but never welcome any diners, are probably already overbuilt as investment flocked there during the pandemic.

Drenik: One of the big health trends before the Covid-19 pandemic was eating less meat. Will we continue to move beyond meat as we move beyond the pandemic, and if so, what will replace the meats that so commonly held stock on our plates?

Wasserman: The long-term trend towards eating less red meat is something we’ve seen each year as we survey consumers about their intentions for the year ahead and then look at what we’re actually buying and eating. About a third of Americans are intentionally trying to eat less red meat, and Covid-19 didn’t affect that. It’s been true before, during the darkest days, and now as we emerge somewhat from the thick of the pandemic. And less really does mean less, not none. The share who eat vegetarian or vegan diets remains consistently small.

What’s changed is how we want to get there. A few years ago, the top choices for eating less meat were to eat smaller portions of meat and to try meat alternatives manufactured from plants, which were just entering the market. A couple years later, and for the last two years, the top choice has been to eat more fish and seafood. My take is this is: Because we’ve substantially reduced the portions of meat we eat, including more chefs recently taking up the plant-forward culinary approach I developed more than a decade ago and are offering up items like the blended burger, which rely on scratch cooking of real food.

Interestingly, and especially during Covid-19, our flirtation with manufactured meat replacements faded after a few months. Their predictable flavors locked in at the factory didn’t compare with the flexibility of real meat, poultry, or fish to take on whatever flavors a chef or home cook can imagine with spices, seasoning and the like. A recent Prosper Insights & Analytics survey found this to be true with just 1 in 20 younger adults buying meat replacements when grocery shopping.

Drenik: What are some of the ingredients people are going to look for as we move into this next chapter, and what makes them rising stars?

Wasserman: We see two different kinds of ingredients that are going to shine in the marketplace.

As consumers become more in-tune with their health and wellbeing, the benefits of ingredients that boost the immune system are compelling. Covid-19 sensitized consumers to the benefits of staying healthy and many are choosing ingredients that boost the immune system such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, green tea, CBD, and citrus.

There is also a new desire to eat a wider variety of ingredients caught or cultivated in our oceans, particularly the waters of the United States, because more Americans are interested in replacing some of the red meat they eat with more fish and seafood. Notably, we eat a larger share of meals containing fish and seafood away than we do at home. There, we’re more open to trying new ingredients. When was the last time you cooked an octopus at home, for example? Yet octopus is becoming increasingly popular on restaurant menus. 

As Covid-19 initially disrupted global supply chains, seafood was hit hard, with the number of flights that could carry fresh fish reduced or interrupted. This put frozen shipments at risk of perishing. Many Americans are more concerned than ever about where our food comes from, what precautions are taken, and who touched it before we did. All of this has shifted our focus, and our tastes, to domestic sources of fish and seafood, among other things. 

Drenik: Very interesting, Arlin. A lot has indeed changed in what, where and how we eat. We can only hope that the increased focus on our own health and wellbeing, and where that merges with the health and wellbeing of our planet, continues. 

There are a lot of implications at play here for the food industry beyond restaurants and delivery services. The ebb and flow in demand for certain products will certainly continue to put pressure on supply chains to scale up or down as consumer habits and preferences change. Food producers and grocers will likely remain on their toes as those changes in preferences seem to happen frequently, and quickly. 

We appreciate your thoughtful insight today.

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