Annually, we collect a year’s worth of data from our daily tracking of how U.S. consumers eat and compile the topline trend into a report we have called, Eating Patterns in America, for the last 35 years. The operative word in the report title is “patterns.” Having been involved with this report for the last six years, I can say that the patterns typically become readily apparent when sifting through the mountain of data we collect. That is to say, until this year.
In mid-March, the daily rhythms of our lives were suddenly disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak and that includes our eating patterns. All aspects of how we ate were turned upside down. We went into survival mode early in the pandemic and bought anything and everything from the grocery store shelves. With mandated shelter-at-home and restaurant dine-in restrictions across most of the country, we had few options other than to prepare most of our meals at home. Through May, we increased our in-home meal preparation by 7% versus year ago. Working from home, schooling at home, and preparing more meals meant more of our meal times were a departure from the norm, with most describing their meals as “atypical.” Our greatest needs were for lunch and dinner solutions.
It’s an understatement to say that stress was and still is at an all-time high. In the early stages of the pandemic we coped with it by avoiding food waste and utilizing leftovers, while retaining our need for convenience. Many of us found comfort in the form of snack foods, and I won’t get into the increase in alcohol consumption.
Away-from-home dining, aside from drive-thru, carry-out, and delivery, was turned on end by governmental mandates and restrictions. Surging COVID-19 cases and rollbacks of reopening plans have limited restaurants, and the industry is still dealing with a high number of governmental restrictions. Restaurant traffic and transaction declines have improved somewhat since the beginning of the pandemic, but we still have a ways to go.
To sum it up, I couldn’t have imagined when we released last year’s Eating Patterns in America that this year’s report would be telling the story it is, America’s eating patterns abruptly interrupted. What a year it will be moving forward as we evolve our perspective and the effects of a global pandemic that caused unprecedented change in our industries and the world at large. It is my profound hope that next year when we’re compiling the 36th annual Eating Patterns in America, we’re telling the story of recovery. In the meantime, be safe.