Sure, there's been a marked rise in bread baking in 2020, but an increasing reliance on the freezer aisle seems to overshadow all other pandemic food trends.
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In some ways, we can mark the passage of this year's pandemic by the food trends that have emerged over the course of 2020. There was sourdough, dalgona coffee, and so much banana bread... each resulting in store shelves empty of flour, yeast and bananas. However, the most widespread and lasting trend could very well be the inclination to reach for frozen over fresh. Reliable, convenient, and in some cases more nutrient-rich than fresh, it's no wonder that frozen is become a defining trend of the pandemic.

The Why

According to Fabio Parasecoli, professor of food studies at NYU Steinhardt, stocking up on frozen foods is a natural reaction to the moment's uncertainties. People are making buying choices in response to a multitude of anxieties. Frozen is convenient, affordable and crucially predictable; one thing we can count on when seemingly nothing else is the same. Unlike fresh, frozen can be stored for months without degrading, insurance that sustenance of some kind will be available, no matter what comes. And with so many changes arriving in the past few months, it's no wonder our freezers are overloaded. According to the Frozen Food Institute of America, there has been a 94% growth in frozen goods since March.

The Health Benefits

When supply chains began breaking in March, many individuals were scrambling at grocery stores, encountering empty aisles for the first time in their lives and searching for alternatives just to get a meal together. With the past few months of adjustment, it seems we haven't forgotten that initial panic. As Parasecoli notes, many have begun freezing their produce in place of opting for local and fresh. Certainly, frozen fruits and vegetables are a healthy option, as a 2017 study found no significant difference between the antioxidants and nutrients in fresh and frozen produce. In some cases, frozen is better than fresh (unless you're growing and picking the produce); in one study, finding that green peas lose 51% of their vitamin C within 1-2 days of harvest.

The Convenience

Brands have noticed the trend, including that of Cauliflower pizza company CAULIPOWER. Researching the subject, the brand found that freezer sales have increased by 45% since last year, as 77% of their customers want a freezer the same size, or larger, than their fridge. In response, CAULIPOWER created a contest earlier this month, asking for individuals to draw up ideas for what they call a "freezerator," turning the refrigerator on its head and instead focusing the real estate in the appliance's frozen section. Founder Gail Becker noted that the idea came from her own family's needs. "When COVID-19 hit, my two boys were home from school and I was having to cook not one, but three meals a day for everyone. As a busy, working mom, I have always relied on my freezer. But I had so little space, I was playing 'freezer Tetris' every time I opened the freezer door," she says. "And I wasn't alone, people in my (social) feeds were complaining about the same problem. I knew I had to buy another freezer but discovered I would have to wait at least four months!"

The Options

Perhaps most surprising is that the often-derided frozen dinner is making a comeback, at least according to the latest data from the American Frozen Food Institute. Adrienne Seiling, Vice President of Strategic Communications notes, "Our most recent sales data shows frozen meals remain the largest sales category, representing about 34 percent of total frozen food sales." It could be because the TV dinners of the 50s and 60s (which elicit cringes from Boomers and a confused stares from Millennials) are no longer the only option on store shelves. Instead, companies have created frozen meals that can meet every palate, preference, and budget. For example, the humble frozen pizza. From a $3 frozen pizza to one boasting artisanal ingredients (or a Paleo, gluten-free and Keto version) charging 4x the cost. According to Seiling, frozen food manufacturers have been launching several new products during the pandemic; this, at a time when we've seen other brands pull back from their selections.

The Affordability

Cost is high on many Americans' minds these days, as the economic downturn has reprioritized budgets. According to a recent USDA Economic Research Service study, frozen is often more affordable than fresh, such as broccoli per pound, frozen costing only $1.82 compared to $2.36 for fresh. While this isn't always the case, another study by the same government institute suggested that those on a budget can still satisfy dietary guidelines and enjoy a diverse range of options by purchasing lower cost and frozen to "free up room" their budget higher cost produce.

Whatever the reason, Americans are opting for frozen these days, and unlike other temporarily new and noteworthy trends, this one will last (at least when properly stored).