In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has been entrenched in our daily lives for the better part of one year. In the midst of its impact on the health of many and the lives of everyone, the way we’re thinking and acting around food and food safety continues to evolve.
IFIC released two ten-question consumer surveys of COVID-19’s effects on shopping for food, eating habits and perspectives on food safety: one in April and one in May. Since that time, we have been tracking select questions each month to assess changes in perceptions and behaviors over time. We have also asked a few new questions to further help us understand how the pandemic has shifted our actions and our viewpoints. The results of these survey questions can be found at the links below, and we will continue to update this page with new information as time goes on.
Americans are experiencing the holiday season during a pandemic yet again, but IFIC’s 2021 COVID-19 and the Holidays Survey shows that our plans and behaviors aren’t exactly the same as they were one year ago. Nearly three in ten – 29%, say that they plan to attend a gathering with only fully vaccinated friends or family, while 15% say that they plan to attend a gathering with no COVID-related restrictions.
Despite variations in holiday plans, the majority say they are most excited about eating with friends or family (47% ranked in their top two responses) and eating homecooked or traditional meals, reported by 46% of survey respondents. Nearly one-quarter (24%) rank family tradition and/or familiarity as the most important factor in deciding what to eat and drink during the holidays; this factor tied with taste for the top spot and taking priority over other aspects like price, healthfulness and convenience.
For many, the anticipation of the holiday season is accompanied by food-related concerns, the most common of which are eating more unhealthy food than usual (30% selected in their top two responses) and overeating (25%). Pandemic-related concerns fell lower in the list, with only one in five (19%) reporting that they are most concerned about exposure to COVID-19 when eating, grocery shopping or gathering. When exploring concerns beyond the holidays and into the new year, about one-quarter (24%) reported that they were most worried about risk of COVID-19 when food shopping or dining out, but this fell behind other concerns – 36% reported being able to afford enough food for their household and 28% stated being able to find foods that they are looking for.
Diving further into the new year, it’s clear that New Year’s resolutions are not a thing of the past. Over two in 5 (44%) plan to make a resolution specifically related to foods and beverages, which is nearly three times the amount of people who reported this last year in our December 2020 Year-End Survey. The top resolutions for the new year pertain to eating less sugar (45%), losing weight (44%) and improving the healthfulness of their diet (38%).
The growing interest in immune health will also likely continue into next year, with over half (57%) expressing interest in foods or beverages that support immune health. Other key food trends to keep an eye on include sea green-based products, mocktails/alcohol-free versions of beverages, and products advertised as “umami”, all of which were especially interesting to younger people under the age of 45.
With summer plans still in full swing, our July 2021 survey found that over the next few months, nearly three in 10 (29%) say that they will commute to work more often than they currently do; 20% say they will continue to work from home. Of those who will be commuting more often, almost six in 10 (57%) say they might eat more snacks and meals on the go as a result. Nearly four in 10 (39%) say commuting more may increase their snacking frequency; those under age 45 were more likely to report this than those ages 45-64.
Potential changes to food and eating habits are not only limited to commuters. Fifteen percent of survey respondents have children who will be returning to school in-person when they were previously in remote/virtual learning. Similar to the possible changes among those commuting more often, these parents anticipate that their child may eat more meals and snacks on the go (34%), eat healthier overall (31%) and snack more often (29%) as a result. Parents under age 45 were more likely than parents ages 45-64 to say that their child may eat healthier overall. Compared to parents under age 45, parents ages 45-64 were more likely to say that they don’t think their child’s eating habits will be impacted as a result.
Our survey also looked at individual comfort levels with food served in a familiar, communal setting, such as an office or church with people outside of their household. In such a scenario, 66% were comfortable with individually wrapped, pre-packaged foods, whereas comfort was much lower with foods from a self-serve buffet (30%) or shared communal serving bowls or boxes (26%).
With a growing sense of hope towards a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, our June survey found that concerns about food shopping and safety have generally decreased. In December, the health of other shoppers was a top concern when food shopping for 31% of survey respondents. However, our June survey showed that just over one in four (26%) now feel the same.
Similarly, three in 10 (30%) reported being concerned about running out of staple, non-food household items back in December; that number has now dropped to just 17%. Demographically, African Americans, Hispanic/Latinx people and those under age 45 were more likely to say that running out of non-food staples was a concern for them. By contrast, the number of people who were not concerned about food shopping has doubled since December, from 15% to now 34%.
Fifty-three percent say they’re still wearing a mask while grocery shopping, while 48% continue to wash their hands after a trip to the grocery store. However, compared to April 2020, fewer are taking food safety actions such as rinsing fresh produce. Those who are fully vaccinated and those not vaccinated but planning to be in the near future are more likely to wear a mask while shopping. While only 5% reported not making any changes in safety precautions in April 2020, this number has since jumped to 14%. Online grocery shopping continues to be popular, with over one in four (26%) purchasing food online regularly since January 2021.
Although concerns about food shopping and safety have generally dropped, over half (53%) of consumers remain uncomfortable with shopping for groceries in a store without a mask. Fifty-six percent say they’re uncomfortable dining indoors without social distancing protocols or mask requirements in place.
One year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about grocery shopping and changes in cooking habits continue to persist. When asked about concerns while food shopping in the past month, the health of other shoppers (34%) and grocery store employees (30%) were among the top worries – and have remained so since December 2020. By contrast, concerns about running out of staple, non-food household items have decreased from 30% in December to 21% in March. People over age 65 were more than twice as likely to say they were not concerned about food shopping in the past month (28%) compared to people under 45 (12%). In addition to worries about grocery shopping itself, grocery budgets were another source of concern for many. Two in five said that they have consistently paid more attention to the amount of money spent on groceries since the start of the pandemic.
Many have also modified their cooking habits at home, with the most common changes including cooking more often (44%), cooking more simple, easy-to-prepare foods (32%) and trying new recipes (31%). People under age 45 were more likely to say they cooked less often (15%) than people over age 65 (2%).
Our February survey found that grocery shopping habits and purchasing behaviors remain sharply impacted, nearly one year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-six percent of people reported grocery shopping in person less often and over one in three Americans (35%) reported buying shelf-stable foods more often. These results also highlight the rise in popularity of online grocery shopping: 34% reported shopping for groceries online more often, with people under 45, those who make $80K+ per year and those with a college degree being more likely to do so. Of those who reported grocery shopping online more often, people age 65+ were more likely to say that they will stop doing so once the pandemic subsides (22%), compared to people under age 45 (2%). Snack purchases have also changed since the pandemic began. Twenty-six percent of people have been buying packaged snacks more often, with women, African Americans and people under 45 being more likely to do so.
Despite easing of COVID-19 restrictions in many areas of the country over the past few months, many still have not recently returned to restaurant dining: 59% percent of people said they had not dined at a restaurant in the past month, compared to 36% in November 2020. When asked about their top three criteria for regularly returning to restaurants, the most common answers were “when it is deemed safe to do so by medical authorities” (35%) and “when COVID-19 rates are lower where I live” (31%), followed by vaccination-related responses (“only once a vaccine is widely available” (25%) and “only once I am vaccinated” (25%)). One in 10 said that they didn’t think they’d regularly return to restaurant dining.
Concerns about scarcity and the health of those in close proximity while food shopping continued to be pressing concerns for many through the end of 2020. Thirty-one percent said that the health of other shoppers was one of their top two concerns, while the health of grocery store employees worried 28%. Three in 10 (30%) were concerned about running out of staple, non-food household items. After a year of job losses, an economic downturn and struggles to stay afloat, food insecurity is an immediate concern for one in five survey respondents: 21% said that they were worried about their ability to provide enough food for their family. Compared with data IFIC collected in our 2020 Food and Health Survey (fielded in April 2020), the frequency of online grocery shopping is up drastically in December. Thirty-six percent reported buying groceries online at least once a week, compared with just 11% who said the same in April. In April, 52% said that they never bought groceries online, a number that had shrunk to 29% in December.
Our November survey found that an increasing number of people are paying greater attention to the amount of money that they spend on groceries (46% compared to 43% in August and 38% in May) and the healthfulness of the food they’re buying (35% compared to 31% in August and 26% in May). When asked about the types of foods or meals they have been cooking or preparing since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the most popular responses were comfort foods (38%), nutritious foods (34%) and foods that are quick to prepare (34%). Nearly one-third of respondents said they’d been cooking more animal meat, while only 17% said they’d been preparing more plant-based foods. And it seems that people are increasingly returning to restaurant dining: just 36% said they had not dined at a restaurant in the past month, compared to 52% who said the same in August.
In September, the health of other shoppers remained the top concern related to food shopping, but the fact that just 25% of people stated this indicated a continued reduction in food shopping concerns across the board. Accordingly, the number of people who said they were not concerned about food shopping continued to increase (16% in September compared to 13% in June and 0% in May). Survey takers reported a net increase in the frequency of shopping at large supermarkets, local grocers and corner stores, while fast food/quick service restaurants continued to see a net decrease.
Wearing a mask and washing hands after going to the store continued to be most common safety steps taken while grocery shopping, and the number of people reporting wearing a mask jumped from 52% in June to 60% in August. Rates of other actions, like using sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer, going to the store less, shopping during less busy times and shopping for groceries online remained largely stable compared to June. As had been seen in previous months, people under age 45 were less likely to take many precautionary measures when grocery shopping. Compared with May, more people reported paying attention to how much they were spending on groceries (43% vs. 38% in May) and the healthfulness of their food choices (31% vs. 26% in May). Those making less than $40,000 per year were nearly 1.5 times more likely to be paying more attention to their grocery budgets compared to those making $80,000+ per year.
Nearly 4 in 10 (39%) said they were eating at least somewhat healthier compared to pre-pandemic (15% much healthier, 24% somewhat healthier), down slightly from May, when 43% said they were doing so. Men and those under 45 years old were more likely to say they were eating much healthier, while women and people 65+ were less likely to say so. Among options for acquiring food and beverages, consumers reported the largest net reduction in frequency of visiting fast food/quick service establishments.
In June, wearing a mask while shopping and washing hands after going to the store were the most common actions people were taking to feel comfortable when shopping for groceries, but just 52% of survey takers reported doing either of these actions. Compared to earlier in the spring, the percentage of people following safety measures while shopping was leveling off or declining. The health of other shoppers was the top concern people had about food shopping, but in line with reductions in following safety precautions, worries about food shopping were mainly down compared to May. Eight out of 10 were confident in the ability of food manufacturers to supply enough food to meet consumer needs, an increase from 73% in May.