Early 2020, as province after province in Canada has declared public health emergenciesand pandemic restrictions took effect, routine grocery shopping changed dramatically.
This was the start of a series of impacts the pandemic has had on our experiences with food.
To better understand food-related decisions during the pandemic, our research team conducted an online survey with a sample of adults in the province of Quebec. This survey looked at three different times between the initial lockdown in spring 2020 and the curfew period in Quebec in the winter of 2021.
Food purchases: how and why?
Our study showed that people have reduced the frequency of food purchases in stores at the start of the pandemic. This reduction occurred at the same time as increased curbside pickup and delivery. The general rise in popularity of contactless grocery shopping methods was not unique to Canadaand was likely due to people seeking to limit their exposure to the virus.
Our survey suggests that in-store shopping frequency had returned to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2020. However, using contactless grocery shopping methods is expected to persist in a considerable part of the population.
The pandemic has not only changed the way we buy food, but also the motivations behind those purchases. As our upcoming research showsmore than three-quarters of respondents to our survey expressed an increased desire to support local food retailers compared to 2019. Additionally, 68% of them place increased importance on the country of origin of food products.
More homemade dishes
Major societal changes such as restaurant closures, homeschooling and telecommuting have resulted in a increased frequency of cooking at home and improved food-related skills like cooking and meal planning. Many Canadians learned new recipesand the much-publicized rise in the popularity of pastry is corroborated by a drastic increase in online searches for bread recipes in the first weeks of the pandemic (which remained higher than before the pandemic until 2021).
Improved skills related to food have been most pronounced among familieswhich is probably due to a increasing children’s participation in cooking activities during confinement. Additionally, more than a third of survey respondents in our upcoming study identified increased time and motivation to cook, comfort and enjoyment from food, and interest in food as reasons for improving skills in their household.
While better cooking skills and more frequent home cooking can be seen as beneficial, they come with a downside. Some people seemed to grow tired of preparing meals during the pandemic, which resulted in an increase in takeout or delivery orders of prepared foods in early 2021 compared to 2020.
temptation and health
The effect of the pandemic on eating behaviors varied from individual to individual. On the one hand, food appears to have been used as a source of comfort and a way to stave off boredom during pandemic shutdowns. More than a quarter of our respondents reported a increased desire to eat during the pandemic compared to before, because (in their own words) they were home and around food all the time.
In contrast, a small proportion of respondents said their desire to eat had decreased. The main reasons for this change were feelings of stress and anxiety as well as decreased motivation to cook.
Lockdowns have also had mixed effects on the safety of food choices. A study summarizing the data collected around the world found that, overall, people reported consuming more unhealthy foods like snacks and sweets during pandemic shutdowns.
However, some people also seem to have taken advantage of the pandemic shutdowns to make healthier food choices. Unhealthy changes could have been offset by increased consumption of healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, legumes and grains.
The wide variability in diet-related changes can partly be explained by the varied impacts of the pandemic on individuals’ personal circumstances. More changes in eating behaviors were likely seen in those whose regular working conditions were disrupted by the pandemic, such as the loss of a job or the transition to telecommuting.
Additionally, given the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19, most studies had to compare participants’ eating habits during lockdowns with their memories of their pre-pandemic habits. However, these memories do not always correspond perfectly to reality.
More research needed
Vulnerable groups were likely underrepresented in most studies of the dietary impacts of the pandemic. Future research is needed to understand how pandemic-induced changes in dietary habits will evolve over time across age groups, socioeconomic statuses, and household structures.
Time will tell if the changes in our food-related values and skills will be permanent or dissipate as we return to our pre-pandemic lives. The pandemic may have brought positive changes to our relationships and skills with food. Continued support for local food products could help promote healthy eating and the sustainability of our food system.