How We Eat During a Pandemic: Turns Out, None of Us Are Experts

Americans—and people across the world—are dealing with a new normal. What does healthy eating mean to us now and how are we feeding ourselves and our families? Here’s how our food habits have changed since we've all started dealing with COVID-19, and why it’s OK to give yourself permission to eat what makes you feel good.
Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D
May 11, 2020

Food is always essential—it always has been and it always will be. We can survive for a few weeks, at most, without it. But it somehow feels extra essential right now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Even in places with the strictest lockdown measures, grocery stores remained open.

But food does more than keep us alive. Up until a few weeks ago, it was something that brought us together. We shared birthday cakes and hosted dinner parties. We had brunch and lunch out on the town with friends and family. We tried new restaurants for date nights. Now, those food memories may feel like a distant dream.

By Alex Loh

COVID-19 has changed the way most of us live. We’re spending more time at home, and in our kitchens. What are we all making? The cooking and baking trends we’ve seen range from simple meal ideas to time-consuming baking projects. People are looking to turn affordable pantry staples into delicious, healthy meals.

Meredith Digital Design

How have we been feeding ourselves?

And yet, food is in the spotlight like never before. As most of us stay home, we’ve turned to baking banana bread, sourdough and pancakes. With most restaurants closed (or only open for takeout), we’ve all been cooking more. Pre-COVID-19, Americans ate an estimated 50% of food that was prepared away from home, like at restaurants and school cafeterias. Now, it feels like almost all of our meals are prepared and eaten at home (with the exception of takeout, safely sprinkled in here and there). Some people are learning to cook for the first time (or at least make more than boxed macaroni and cheese). Others have turned time in the kitchen into a form of therapy and are baking and cooking to relieve stress.

But even for the most experienced home cooks, there have been plenty of challenges. The grocery store has become a place of anxiety for many of us, employees included. People worry about picking up COVID-19 as they shop for food, as well as not being able to find what they need on the shelves. Where can you track down meat? Or flour? Or the ever-elusive roll of toilet paper? How do you shop for your household for two weeks and make sure there’s enough to eat? How do you get through the food you bought without letting it go bad? (Hint: the freezer, hearty produce and canned goods are your friends.) Will the food you bring home make you sick? (Answer: highly unlikely.) How do you make an online grocery order? An estimated 72% of us are online grocery shopping more, according to a recent survey from Suzy and New Hope Network. For people who are out of work, there are new anxieties around putting food on the table and trying to figure out how to get help. A recent poll found that 50% of Americans have been personally economically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

By Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.

From going to the grocery store to getting takeout and keeping your kitchen clean—here is what the experts advise to stay safe when it comes to food and COVID-19.

Meredith Digital Design

Food in the news

The news can feel overwhelming. Millions of people have lost their jobs in the United States. There’s been a surge in demand at food banks as food insecurity rises. Many people planned to spend their government stimulus checks on food. There are kids out of school who rely on school meals to get fed. Restaurants have closed their doors and many are unsure if they’ll be able to ever reopen. It all feels so heavy. 

But it’s not all bad news. There is hope. The USDA is taking action to help kids get school meals remotely. Feeding America is working on a plan to access food that would have gone to restaurants and cruise ships and get it to people in need. SNAP benefits have increased by 40%, so there is more food purchasing money in the hands of those who need it. Some restaurants have pivoted to serve health care workers on the front lines or people who are now food insecure.

By Kiera Carter

It sounds strange, but the same thing that stresses us out on busy weeknights, perhaps with picky kids to feed and evenings spent working late, is the exact thing we're turning to for zen during this extended period of anxiety.

Meredith Digital Design

Should we be worried about food shortages?

Experts tell us we don’t need to worry about food shortages, despite the somewhat ransacked shelves you see at the grocery store. People have changed their shopping habits, and the increased demand is impacting availability in stores more than supply issues. But, the food supply chain is not completely immune to COVID-19. Recent reports of meat-processing plants shutting down have people worried about meat availability (a new executive order deeming them “critical” may keep them open, but employee safety is still a big concern). 

Farmers who typically send produce and dairy to large food-service buyers can’t immediately pivot to send those products to a grocery store (the USDA recently announced a $3 billion plan to help harvest and donate this food, along with a $16 billion grant to directly support farmers). None of us have a crystal ball to see exactly what will happen with our food system during this pandemic. We may not have the same selection of food we’re used to, but the USDA and other agencies and nonprofit organizations are working with farmers on solutions, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see a food shortage. 

Pre-COVID-19, most of us were able to remain blissfully unaware about much of our food supply chain, as we always had easy access to food. The people who put food on America’s table every day have been undervalued for a long time—from the person who picks your strawberries to the trucker who drives them across the country to the grocery store employee who stocks them on the shelf for you.

By Victoria Seaver M.S., R.D.

How you eat when you're stressed is nothing to, well, stress about. Learn why, plus get some simple ideas for working produce back in to your diet.

Meredith Digital Design

What can you do now, if you’re in a place where you can help? 

Our food system is far from perfect, pandemic or not. EatingWell has always shared stories of farmers, ranchers, chefs and companies who have worked to make a difference when it comes to the food on our plates. What can you do now, if you’re in a place where you can help? Support local farms by shopping locally or signing up for a CSA. Donate to organizations making a difference now, like Feeding America and World Central Kitchen. Learn more about where your food comes from. 

By Christine Byrne

As long as you follow health expert guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19, a food shortage is highly unlikely.

Meredith Digital Design

Moving forward

We’re all dealing with a new normal. Nutrition may take a bit of a back seat in a global pandemic. It’s hard to be completely concerned with your vitamin intake if you’re worried about—well, a lot of other things. Nutrition is important but, along with everything else, it probably looks different right now. Fewer people are following specific diets. We’re eating comfort foods and drinking quarantine cocktails. We’re adjusting to fewer salads and more frozen and canned vegetables. That’s not to say people don’t care about the foods they eat and staying healthy. Immunity, and how to improve it with food, is top of mind (which, by the way, is possible, but not a magic bullet). People are turning to food for more than just nourishment, they’re feeding their souls and recapturing some sense of normalcy. Food can be comforting and familiar. It’s less about restriction and more about self-care.

As the country makes plans to open back up, I’m hopeful. We’re all in this together, figuring it out. The huge shift caused by COVID-19 happened in a matter of days and will have a lasting impact across the world, in our homes and on our plates. It won’t be tuna fish sandwiches at home and anxiety-ridden trips to the grocery store forever, though. One day, we’ll be sharing meals together again—in person—and appreciating that gift like never before.