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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Will we keep making food at home when we're not at home all day...

You don't have to see sales figures for packaged food sales to know that they are way up in the last couple of months. A jaunt down food store center store aisles in particular makes it clear that we are preparing a lot more meals at home. The pasta, bottled water, canned and baking goods sections (among others) have been drawn down because we stockpiled during the first weeks of the pandemic, but we consumers are washing, chopping, slicing, cooking, baking, and grilling more too.

IRI Worldwide, which tracks sales of consumer goods, recently reported that raw potato sales in April were up 50% over last year, and other vegetables used in scratch cooking, like onions and tomatoes, are also way up, as are sales of center-of-the-plate foods like meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood. We're buying more of everything, perishable and not. Is a food revolution afoot? A renaissance of scratch cooking?

McCormick CEO, Lawrence Kurzius, waxes optimistic about the prospects of consumers continuing to buy more of the scratch cooking products his company sells. In a article this week he noted that consumers in China are continuing to buy spices and other meal prep ingredients at a higher rate even as China moves past the worst of the pandemic.

Making your own food can be cheaper than buying food made by someone else. This is always a big benefit and might continue to keep people at the cutting board and stove as long as budgets are strained by a slow recovery from the pandemic, and people have the time to make their own food.

Making your own food for more of your meals can be better for your health too, if you're choosing more whole foods, eating fresh, or even frozen raw ingredients, and measuring the amount of fats, salt, and sugar you're using to prepare your food. According to an IRI webinar entitled, "Produce During COVID-19," Americans are loading up on oranges and berries more than any other fruit. Apparently, we are trying to boost our immune systems in the short term.

Even though it has been a bit taxing to put together a menu every week, and pull together meal after meal, our family has taken even more pleasure in the art and science of cooking and baking. I've heard similar stories from our community and from kitchens all over the country. We're turning to the back pages of our recipe binders to find new ideas. Spending more time discovering new recipes online. Co-creating with the kids, and letting them also explore the contours of the kitchen space on their own. Many of us are making memories we would not have otherwise. "No, you don't use a can opener on a jar..."

I've read that a fair number of adults (likely younger adults) are tackling scratch cooking for the first time. First-timers who might as ask, as Mr. Kurzius noted in his interview, "What is a teaspoon?" Marketers are jumping in to fill the knowledge gap. With enough success and encouragement, those of us learning these new skills might enjoy it enough to make the time to make our own food even when the inside of a restaurant becomes a safe space again.

I'm not sure we're seeing a "make from scratch" renaissance, though. The thing is, we haven't given up on convenience. We're ordering lots of take-out while we're sheltered in. If it's possible, I believe I've seen more pizza delivery ads in the last eight weeks than around our most cherished sporting events. We're having a record number of prepared meals delivered, and buying lots from supermarkets too. The long-term trend is to let others do the meal preparation for us. You can see this in the list of the 10 best-selling new food items in 2018 (IRI 2019 New Products Pacesetters report). Six of the ten were designed for single use and/or on-the-go occasions, like Duncan Hines Perfect Size for 1, Gatorade Flow, Lay's Poppables, and RXBAR.

We might be living through an inflection point in where and how we buy food, but I'm not sure that a significant number of us will continue to make meals from scratch when we are no longer confined to our own four walls.

Online shopping for groceries is up and projected to grow by 40% this year according to Coresight Research. I can believe that the convenience and safety of contactless shopping will grow in its appeal. I can also see how there could be a marked jump in the number of us tapping into local and hyperlocal food sources to minimize the risk of contamination from food traveling thousands of miles, and through many touch points. The food store shopping environment is likely going to feel more hygienic (and perhaps also more sterile emotionally too...).

But will what we eat, and how it's prepared change that much when we go back to working and having to cope with all the demands on our time and effort? The macro trends that have been driving us towards convenience are not likely to relent. If anything, our lives might become even busier and we might feel more stretched as we negotiate a new environment outside our sheltering place; an environment of new public health protocols that lead to longer lines, waiting times, and time-consuming, stress-producing workarounds. I think it will be just as easy, or easier to let someone else worry about getting food on the table away from home AND at home.

Are we going to reap the health benefits of making meals from scratch to stay strong in the face of the next waves of viral threats? The steady growth of functional foods - foods with specific health benefits - makes me think that many of us will continue to gravitate to targeted, and quicker fixes to boost the immune system. A beverage or yogurt, instead of a steady diet of homemade, mostly plant-based meals. Or, a next-generation supplement. A food vaccine of sorts.

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