July 25, 2024


Than a Food Fitter

From slow cookers to quick shortcuts, how we’re eating during the pandemic

4 min read

In normal times, food trends often started in restaurants, with top chefs. Maybe they got written up in food magazines or blogs. After some time, you could find the trending ingredients on grocery store shelves.

These days, the pandemic is determining how and what we eat, from quick shortcuts to slow cookers. There’s lots more home cooking, and many more family meals.

Even when people do eat restaurant food, they’re often looking for familiar dishes, experts say.

In general, “the trend is looking backwards rather than forwards,” says Esmee Williams, who looks at where home cooking is heading for Allrecipes.com, based in Seattle. Recipes from the 1960s and ’70s like chicken Kiev, chicken a la king, cheese fondue and salmon patties have become more popular, she says.

“There’s a lot of disappointment happening in our days, so nobody wants tears at the table. Let’s treat ourselves to something we all will like,” says Williams.

It’s part of a nostalgia wave sweeping many industries, including decor, fashion and beauty.

The pandemic has seen a spike in comfort food cravings, which have led to higher sales volume in products such as ice cream. | stock.adobe.com

The pandemic has seen a spike in comfort food cravings, which have led to higher sales volume in products such as ice cream.

Back to basics

A year ago, Williams says, many foodies were aspirational in their diets. Less so now.

As Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group in Chicago, puts it, consumers aren’t looking to explore new and fancy. Most “are just trying to get by.”

Under all sorts of pressure, people are juggling a desire for comfort food with the need to find a healthy diet and avoid “stress eating,” he says.

“If you are a food and beverage manufacturer, you need to be thinking about convenience and comfort right now,” Seifer says.

That leads to some contradictory trends. Home cooks are doing more with vegetables, particularly seasonal produce, while also hunkering down with indulgent sweets and treats. Seifer cites higher sales of both vegetables and ice cream in May 2020, compared to the previous May.

Taking it easy

Seifer and Williams also see a trend towards shortcut products, like refrigerated dough, frozen pizza crusts and pancake mixes.

Carli Baum of New York City describes a morning routine that echoes this trend; she has been baking refrigerated biscuits or crescent rolls for her young kids, but pairing them with homemade eggs and fresh berries. She is happy to make breakfast, but doesn’t want “to make EVERYTHING from scratch.”

Baum has been going to more farmers’ markets this summer and leaning into the idea of cooking what is available. She says her kids seem to be more open to trying produce they have seen displayed and purchased at the markets.

Stretching those cooking skills

Another trend cited by Williams: more recipe searches than before for authentic ethnic foods, such as Asian, Mexican and soul food.

“People are traveling with their taste buds, recreating dishes they ate out but now have to cook instead,″ she says. “Also, these dishes connect us with relatives we can’t be with right now.”

And don’t forget today’s fascination with what Williams calls “self-reliance” cooking — things like homemade bread, homemade pasta, homemade yogurt and an interest in canning. These more labor-intensive foods provide a way to keep busy, learn something new, save money and eat well, she says.

Family meals

In homes where adults are working from home and kids have shorter school days, the dinner hour may well start an hour earlier this fall, Williams predicts.

“The family meal is back — and it’s happening across all three meals. Home is the epicenter of all activity, and meals are a big part of that,” she says.

Searches for family-friendly recipes on Allrecipes are up 34% from last year. Searches for breakfast recipes are up 35%, and lunch up 45% in page views. “We are making many more meals for `we’ rather than `me,’” Williams says.

There’s been an uptick in slow cooker meals due to the increase in home cooking amid the pandemic.

There’s been an uptick in slow cooker meals due to the increase in home cooking amid the pandemic.

Other trends include simpler recipes, recipes with fewer ingredients, one-pot meals, sheet-pan meals, finger food and pantry-ingredient recipes. Vegan and vegetarian cooking is on the rise, she says. Tofu and tempeh searches, which have declined in recent years, are now increasing; grilled tofu was a popular search on Allrecipes this summer.

Homemade pizza “is going crazy — family pleasing, creative and fun, a good alternative to takeout,’’ says Williams. “People have become more comfortable with yeast, and people are also buying pizza ovens.”

So, which appliances are riding these new waves? Multicooker sales are up, as are recipe searches for Instant Pot recipes (68% higher than this time last year on Allrecipes.com). Air fryers and slow cookers are popular.

And sales of bread makers were up 800 percent in April compared with the previous April, Seifer said.

Ordering in

As for restaurant takeout, digital ordering is growing quickly. Seifer says pre-pandemic digital ordering (online or via apps) made up 6% of orders; now it’s double that. Another trend is QR code menus that you pull up on your phone, as opposed to paper menus. Using a QR code and a phone for payment eliminates the need for handling credit cards and cash.

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