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How COVID-19 has changed consumer food trends

Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images People shop for dairy products at a supermarket
CONVENIENCE FOODS: Consumers will continue to buy and eat convenience foods. “But now, consumers want to make their convenience foods healthier and tastier,” says Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity.
The kitchen has become the place where a majority of meals are prepared. Will that trend continue?

Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity and president of Look East, spoke June 3 as part of the Professional Dairy Producers’ Dairy Signal webinar series about consumer food trends during COVID-19. Arnot noted that consumer buying habits have shifted during these uncharted times, and he discussed what future trends could look like.

“It is a fascinating time to be working in food and agriculture,” Arnot said. “Things are changing fast. Back in March, during the early days of the pandemic, things were changing hourly and then daily. Now they are changing weekly.”


“Consumers have a greater focus on health and immunity,” Arnot added. “They also have a desire to exhibit more control.”

Finding control

Arnot said the consumer psyche was shocked to learn that it can’t control its environment. As a result, consumers are developing a greater focus on nutrition and health. One of the things consumers can control is their food choices, he explained.

“This is an opportunity for dairy to engage in that conversation and talk about dairy’s nutritional package,” he said.

He cited a study of 414,716 people who are middle- and upper middle-class women and middle-class couples with children.

“This demographic has resources and can provide a good diet for their family. These consumers see cooking as key to a happy family,” Arnot said. “They do it to fulfill their role as a good spouse and parent, and they are being a good provider. It’s all tied into this emotional need to keep their family well. They perceive that cooking helps them keep their family happy and healthy.”

Headshot of Charlie ArnotFOOD TRENDS: Charlie Arnot is CEO of The Center for Food Integrity and president of Look East.

Prior to the pandemic, consumers were eating 52% of their meals away from home. That suddenly changed. When the pandemic started, consumers were buying lunchmeat and beer.

“They thought, so I’m going to make a sandwich and have a beer,” Arnot explained. “There was also a spike in the purchase of ice cream makers and making homemade bread and cookies from scratch.”

After a couple of weeks, Arnot said, consumers moved on to making traditional foods like baked potatoes and ham and grilling steak or burgers.

“Now, they are eating more international foods and testing new ingredients and adding new flavors,” he said. “They are eating more healthy foods with less sugar. They believe they are improving their diet and breaking out of the routine. Today, they are eating more chicken breasts, legumes and salmon.

“They are cooking at home because they can control portion sizes. They are pushing more vegetables to the center of the plate and are eating more super-vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. They are roasting and steaming their vegetables more and breaking out of their routine.”

Trends after COVID-19

Arnot said there are a couple of trends that will continue after COVID-19 is over. First, consumers will continue to buy and eat convenience foods.

“But now, consumers want to make their convenience foods healthier and tastier,” Arnot noted. “They are putting frozen veggies and shrimp in with their ramen noodles. They are making it at home, which gives them permission to enjoy it. This is an opportunity for the dairy industry to lean into that conversation and help consumers choose to doctor up convenience foods with dairy.”

Secondly, Arnot believes people will continue to shop online and have groceries delivered, or “click and pick,” where they shop online and pick it up at the store. “Those stores that had a good e-commerce platform before COVID-19 are doing well, and those that didn’t are struggling to catch up,” he said.

“Point of sale is no longer in front of the dairy case at the store, it’s in front of their computer,” Arnot added. “Traditional marketing dollars need to change. People make these buying decisions from a whole new place now.”

Since March, demand for food at Feeding America food bank locations across the nation has increased by 70%.

“If Feeding America was a food retailer, it would be the 13th largest food retailer in the country right now,” Arnot said. “When you have record unemployment, people want to be sensitive about how they are spending those dollars. But consumers are not cutting back on what they are cooking. They are cutting back on things other than food — but people anticipate that is coming.”

TAGS: Dairy COVID-19
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