Did the quarantine affect your food habits?

Has the lock down affected your eating habits?  Eating more and enjoying it less?  Eating better?  No change? Just a few very looonnnnng months ago, our busy lives meant that our food choices were dominated by food prepared by someone else.  Convenience food, restaurant food, fast food, take out, grab and go snacks and processed food.  Who had time to cook?  Not to mention the skills, let alone the kitchen tools.  If you could eat very well by buying food someone else had prepared, why cook?  Added bonus: no kitchen clean up.   

My how things have changed.  In the course of one weekend we went from being too busy to cook, to having nothing but time on our hands. 

Someday scholars will analyze the impact of the lock down on our food behavior.  All we know for sure right now is that eating at home became the new norm.  In fact, it was the only option.  You might be eating restaurant take-out, frozen foods, prepared food from the grocery store or home-cooked meals, but you were definitely eating at home.  

Judging from the empty shelves at the grocery store, we’ve been eating a lot of pasta, rice, beans, canned soup and frozen pizza.  Not much tofu though.  One hilarious photo showed grocery shelves where everything had been stripped away except the tofu, the little packages sitting all alone. Based on the months-long shortage of flour and sugar, we can also assume high consumption of homemade cookies, muffins, cakes and banana bread.  Strangely, fresh produce, fresh meat, yoghurt, cheese, commercial bread and milk have remained plentiful.  Months later, food companies are still struggling to keep up with the demand for canned soup. The flour situation has improved, but if the lock down persists into winter, that could change quickly.  Frankly given the incessant media hysteria and fear mongering, I would not discount that possibility.  Plan your holiday baking accordingly.

Will we become permanent converts to the joys of cooking?  Or will people drift back to their previous food habits if daily life ever gets back to normal?  I don’t see daily home cooking taking root without permanent fundamental changes to how people live. If we’ve learned anything during the lock down it’s this: cooking is very time consuming.  Easy to do when there’s nothing else going on all day.  But if you go back to your long commute, long work day and busy schedule, you probably won’t be cooking dinner from scratch every night.  

Did all this home cooking result in healthier eating?  Maybe, maybe not.  There is a widespread belief that home cooked food is automatically healthier than prepared food.  After all, you can control the ingredients and the portions.  True, but if you want healthy meals, you have to plan healthy meals and purchase healthy ingredients.  All that flour and sugar went somewhere.  Possibly to peoples’ thighs.

According to Grub Hub, the most popular food searches so far this year include spicy chicken sandwiches, red velvet cupcakes, vanilla shakes and cheeseburger sliders.  According to PepsiCo’s recent financial report, people have been scarfing up snack foods like Fritos, significantly boosting the company’s income.  Not exactly the picture of healthy choices.  

I recently surveyed a large group of friends about how the quarantine had affected their food habits.  These were retired women, so it was a rather select group, not representative of everyone’s experience.  They all know how to cook (even if they don’t always enjoy cooking), and they don’t have young children at home.  Nevertheless I was impressed at some of their observations about changed food habits.  Many expressed  actual relief that the lock down prevented them from constantly running to the store, where they were always tempted to impulse buy unnecessary junk food or treats.  They also reported that being stuck at home made them more conscious of what they were eating and when.  Despite all the dire predictions about lives spent gorging on junk food or alcoholic beverages, these women ended up consuming less of those things.

Impulse buying can drive a lot of unhealthy eating.  If you’ve stocked up on Fritos or baked dozens of cookies, it’s easy to pick at them when you’re bored or stressed out, because you’ve been stuck in your home for weeks.  But if your kitchen pantry is cleansed of junk food temptations, you can’t eat them.  If you stopped impulse buying, your new food normal can be more mindful eating. The trick will be to continue that habit when ( IF) life returns to normal.

There’s that old saying: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  Well, life gave us flour and sugar and lots of free time, so we made cookies and banana bread.  On the other hand, you can’t live on cookies alone.  Even cookies get boring at some point.  

Whether you stick with it or not, I hope cooking gave you more appreciation for what and how much you’re eating.  And I hope novice cooks learned that home cooking is not a flashy TV game-show experience.  Fussy exotic ingredients and pricey kitchen equipment are not necessary.  Sometimes I think cooking shows and glitzy cooking magazines are designed to deliberately intimidate home cooks.  Putting healthy and tasty food on the table doesn’t require drama, expense or perfection.  The food doesn’t have to look like a magazine photo. Healthy food is not complicated.  Cooking it can be a fun and rewarding experience, whether you do that every day, once a week or once a year.

Copyright: All content © 2020 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.