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11 Ways Coronavirus Could Change the Way We Eat

Sheltering-in-place for weeks on end and along with current on-going restrictions on grocery shopping will affect big changes to how we buy and consume food.

Eating during and after a pandemic

Though we’re only about two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve already seen it impact how and where we eat in a major way.  Nearly half (44.7 percent) of 6,157 respondents in the United States say that they are still finding it difficult or very difficult to find the foods and other goods they want, according to a new survey from Premise Data. The most hard-to-find items include fresh produce, fresh meat, cleaning supplies, and over-the-counter medicines or medical supplies. As some states begin the process of reopening, they are figuring out how—and whether—restaurants can safely serve customers. Even when we get to the point when the pandemic is considered “over,” we won’t be able to resume our pre-COVID lives when it comes to food. These are the 14 things everyone is going to buy now that quarantine is over.

Home cooking and baking will likely continue to be popular

Being stuck at home has inspired many people to get really into cooking and baking as photos of banana bread and sourdough starters have become social media badges of honor. Even people who never enjoyed cooking before are giving it a try. This is something that Tara-Ann Dugan, director of research and insights at the National Pork Board, says will not stop after the virus. “Before the pandemic, food marketers were worried about steady declines in at-home cooking trends,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “Now, consumers are finding their time in the kitchen has stretched their dollars, palettes, and recipe repertoire, in a good way.” She predicts the trend will stick. This could especially be true if the virus has a resurgence; here’s what the second wave of coronavirus could look like.

Canned, frozen, and shelf-stable foods may become more popular

While there has been a definite move in the direction of only buying and eating fresh, local foods over the past few years, the pandemic has given us a new appreciation of the value of canned, frozen, and shelf-stable products. The switch to frozen and canned food over fresh was an important one during sheltering-in-place measures as it allowed people to make fewer trips to the grocery store. Even those who would have previously scoffed at the idea of storing any type of food may have started doing so in the past few weeks, Hannah Skaggs, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital tells Reader’s Digest. “Across the United States, we have a new appreciation for canned goods and storable items and have learned to incorporate them into our daily meals and played with new recipes,” she says. When you do head to the market, follow these steps to avoid germs when grocery shopping.

Meat consumption may decrease

Between beef shortages and closures of several processing facilities, one of the many side effects of the pandemic has impacted meat production, something that could potentially continue after the outbreak is over. “As the meatpacking facilities have been limited to a historic degree, we are already witnessing restrictions on meat purchasing,” Skaggs says. “It is difficult to say, even if all the processing plants opened today, how long it will take for the supply to catch up to the demand for meat.” As a result, Skaggs says that many will soon be looking at other options to meet their protein needs, like seafood and non-meat protein sources. “These changes may stick around well beyond the span of this pandemic,” she adds. You can still get your protein fix at these 18 places to buy meat that aren’t the supermarket.

Our shopping habits could change

Even if you live somewhere that hasn’t been severely impacted by COVID-19, you are still probably going grocery shopping less frequently than you did a few months ago. In fact, a new survey found that online grocery shopping in the United States is set to increase by 40 percent in 2020, thanks in part to the pandemic (also because people simply like the convenience of it). But, as Skaggs points out, online retailers usually offer fewer fresh options due to the logistical issues in shipping, as well as storing those types of foods. “This has led to an increase in the consumption of processed foods,” she says.

On top of that, curbside pickup options from both grocery stores and restaurants will likely continue to be popular, Dugan notes, adding that “smart restaurant owners will turn their establishments into ‘meal solution destinations,’ offering more than just the next meal, but also options for breakfast or lunch the next day.” Along the same lines, there may continue to be an increased use of meal kit services. For example, HelloFresh saw a 68.4 percent increase in active customers in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period last year. Given the trends of cooking at home more and shopping less, services that deliver all the ingredients you’ll need to prepare a meal maybe even more appealing. But what about buying non-food items? Here’s what to consider about the ethics of non-essential shopping right now.

There may be a focus on eating for immune system health

Though the science is murky about the whole concept of “boosting” your immune system, given that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, it makes sense that this is something we’re talking about. So regardless of whether foods really can “boost” your immune system, some people want to try everything in their power to stay well, and, besides, eating healthy foods is always a good idea. A well-balanced diet filled with fresh fruits and veggies, lean protein choices, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats may help to support the immune system and potentially prevent the risk of certain diseases, Meghan Sedivy, a registered dietitian and the health and wellness strategy manager for Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, tells Reader’s Digest.

Eating local may become even more important

Though eating local and knowing where your food comes from is not a new trend, it is becoming more important than ever during these challenging times, Sedivy explains. Consumers are looking for food that supports their community and local agriculture, and that desire has increased 430 percent during the pandemic, according to the Yelp Coronavirus Impact Report. “Eating local benefits the local community and its economy,” Sedivy says. “It also reduces transit of the food, which in turn reduces its carbon footprint, and provides nutrient-dense foods that are at their peak of ripeness just ready to eat.” Similarly, Steven Salm, the CEO of Chase Hospitality Group, says that restaurants will likely evolve to begin serving food that is traceable to farmers, fishermen, and other purveyors who practice sustainable and safe methods. This allows diners the peace of mind of knowing that their food is coming from the best conditions. “Restaurants will need to take the responsibility to repurpose our supply chain, so we focus our buying power towards purveyors who are currently being forgotten—those who put a mission forward of caring about people’s wellness, safety, and immunity,” he tells Reader’s Digest.

Existing supply chains may be reexamined

One of the earliest signs of the COVID-19 outbreak was the toilet paper shortage—or rather, the panic-buying of toilet paper that resulted in stores selling out of it before its next shipments arrived. An outbreak like this is bound to cause changes in the aftermath, according to Corey Giasson, CEO of MustGrow Biologics, an agri-tech company. “It will make consumers increasingly aware of the fragility of the food supply chain, making the general public realize how important it is to keep it stable,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “Supply chains will be reexamined and the importance of stabilizing the global food supply will be a top priority.” Here’s how past epidemics have changed everyday life in America.

The economy could impact our diet

Though there’s been a heavy focus on people eating healthier now that they’re cooking more at home, this trend doesn’t apply to everyone. A new survey conducted by myWorth and Alpha found that as unemployment rises and people look for ways to cut back on their spending that while groceries might be one of the last things to get cut, 39 percent of people are still reducing what they spend on food. “For lower-income individuals and families, this can lead to unhealthier diets since processed foods tend to be cheaper than some whole, unprocessed foods,” Ande Frazier, CEO and editor-in-chief of myWorth, tells Reader’s Digest. “In the long-term, we expect this gap to widen as many financially stable people maintain the healthy habits they pick up during quarantine and those who are out of work continue to have to spend less on food while they’re working to get out of debt.”

How we eat at work may change

One of the most enticing parts of the start-up office culture was free food. Whether it’s a fridge full of seltzer or an assortment of snacks, more and more offices were offering some sort of food perks to employees—that is, before the pandemic. In-office catering and food perks will likely need to be reimagined to comply with heightened health and safety measures—like moving away from bulk snacks and buffet-style meals to more hygienic, prepackaged, single-serve solutions, according to Michael Wystrach, CEO and founder of Freshly. “Additionally, there will be a heightened effort to provide employees with lunch at work to keep them from going out and potentially bringing outside germs back into the office,” he says. That said, a social lunch hour may be a thing of the past as employees may be required to eat at their desks instead of convening in group settings. “Kitchen and break area setups will also need to change, including things like spacing out microwaves and seating, creating touch-free appliances and beverage options, etc.” And, of course, this is if you even go back to your office at all as more and more people will likely be working from home, which is one of the potential changes in a post-coronavirus world.

We may continue to eat together more at home

One of the positive side effects of the pandemic is that people are taking the time to eat meals together—both in-person, and virtually. “I’ve also seen families who normally eat together become more relaxed around the where, and are eating in front of the TV at times, bringing back TV dinners and filling that niche of ‘dinner and a movie,'” Becky Mehr, director of outpatient nutrition services of The Renfrew Center, tells Reader’s Digest. But at a time of physical distancing, eating with your friends and family in-person isn’t always an option, which is why more folks are enjoying virtual meals with their friends and family to celebrate birthdays, holidays, and other significant life milestones. “There is real creativity out there to maintain the connection normally associated with sharing a meal with someone,” she says. Here are 13 other everyday habits that could (and should) change forever after coronavirus.

Name brands may become less important

Given the disruption of the food supply chain during the pandemic, people have been ditching their usual brands in favor of trying something new. One survey of more than 24,000 Americans conducted by shopping rewards app, Shopkick, found that 85 percent of people don’t care about brand names as they shop during this time, and are willing to try new or different items, perhaps because their usual go-to is sold out. “Shoppers are getting more creative about how to put food on the table by going outside their traditional buying behaviors to meet their family’s nutritional needs,” Dave Fisch, a retail expert and general manager at Shopkick, tells Reader’s Digest. “This could mean swapping out sold-out eggs for other protein-rich foods like beans, grabbing cases of seltzer water when bottled water is unavailable, or picking generic brands over pricier items. These new brands and items could likely remain in shoppers’ regular rotation moving forward.”

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel, and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine, and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.

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