The eat-at-home trend boosted by the COVID-19 crisis won’t recede anytime soon post-pandemic, according to new research from CPG sales and marketing firm Acosta.
After the pandemic ends, 92% of families plan to continue eating together at home at least as often as — or more often than — they do now, Acosta’s “COVID Dining Journey: Eating at Home and Away From Home” report found. Online surveys of Acosta’s proprietary shopper community, conducted between March and April, showed that eating together as a family will stay the same for 72% of all households, while 20% expect to eat together more frequently.
Almost two-thirds of shoppers polled reported that, since the coronavirus outbreak, they cook at home more and eat “far more” meals at home all the time, Acosta said. That trend spanned all eating occasions during the day. Following the start of the pandemic, 47% of adults ate breakfast at home every day (versus 37% pre-COVID), 40% of adults ate lunch at home every day (26% pre-COVID) and 31% of families ate dinner at home every day (18% pre-COVID).
Children’s eating habits were impacted as well. Since the onset of the pandemic, 53% of kids ate breakfast at home every day (48% pre-COVID), while 48% ate lunch at home every day (33% pre-COVID), Jacksonville, Fla.-based Acosta noted.
“Eating at home became the norm during COVID-19. Our research found 31% of families have eaten dinner at home every day since COVID, compared to only 18% pre-pandemic. These shifts have significantly impacted the restaurant industry, leading to $240 billion in lost revenue and 110,000 restaurant closures, according to the National Restaurant Association,” explained Colin Stewart, executive vice president of business intelligence at Acosta. “Post-COVID, shoppers believe eating together as a family will continue, and 20% even say that it will increase.”
Signs that many Americans will stick with eating at home are welcome news to supermarkets, who over the first year of the pandemic benefited from a surge in sales of food and beverages and related supplies as more consumers opted to prepare meals at home or buy grab-and-go and heat-and-eat items. As grocery retailers begin to cycle the big sales gains from the pandemic’s early weeks, companies are seeing less or no growth — or declines — but report that their sales levels remain high versus the pre-pandemic period. Now, the question for supermarkets is when will the pendulum swing back toward food away from home?
Acosta’s study revealed palpable uncertainty when consumers were asked how long it will be until they start eating inside restaurants again. Of those surveyed 30% expressed misgivings about dining at a restaurant again, including 14% saying it will be over six months before they do so, 16% saying they’re not sure and 3% saying they’ll never go back to restaurants. Twenty-six percent of consumers indicated they will be comfortable dining at a restaurant within the next week, compared with 14% expecting to do so within the next month.
Among other post-pandemic eating trends, 19% of respondents plan to cook more meals at home, while 13% expect to cook fewer meals themselves, Acosta found. The same percentage — 14% — said they aim to increase or decrease the number of meals they prepare daily. Similarly, 15% anticipate increasing the amount of food purchased versus 11% planning to lower food purchases.
When eating out post-pandemic, consumers said they will value lower-priced meal options (51%), promotions and special offers (43%), safety precautions (38%) and healthy options (37%).
And citing National Restaurant Association findings, Acosta said Americans helped restaurants during indoor dining shutdowns by buying food via the drive-thru (63%) and in-store or curbside pickup (49%). Sixty-eight percent of U.S. adults said they’re more likely now to buy food for takeout than before COVID-19, and 80% of fine dining and casual restaurant operators reported adding curbside pickup during the pandemic.
“Consumers supported restaurants during COVID via curbside pickup, drive-thru and delivery options, but now that things are opening back up, timing for the return to indoor restaurant dining still remains to be seen,” according to Stewart. “Thirty percent of those surveyed are not sure or think it will be longer than six months before they dine inside again.”
On the other side of the coin, shoppers eating at home encountered meal planning challenges during the pandemic, Acosta’s research revealed. Fifty-six percent of those polled found planning different meals every day a challenge, and 45% expressed concern about COVID-19 exposure when grocery shopping. Also, 33% were pressed for time in preparing and cleaning up after meals, and 29% said they need to improve their cooking skills.
Still, people ate out far less amid the pandemic. Citing research from Dataessential, Acosta’s report said 44% of consumers eat out at least once weekly since the COVID-19 outbreak versus 53% beforehand. Forty-one percent reported that they “definitely avoided” eating out.