One Year Later: How the Pandemic Changed Home Cooking
One year into the pandemic, home cooks have come away with more than new recipes in their repertoires. The pandemic year has shaped how we plan meals, how we shop for groceries, and even what we cook. Like many other recipe and food sites, Allrecipes saw a rise in pageviews for comfort food, baked goods, vegan and vegetarian recipes, and alcoholic beverages in 2020, but behind the increased interest in these categories were people coping with their new normal — however often it changed over 12 months.
We're recapping how the Allrecipes community and Americans on the whole adapted their eating as the pandemic unfolded. The Allrecipes Allstars (home cooks who serve as brand ambassadors and some of the site's most active recipe creators) tell us how their home-cooking habits and mindsets have evolved from the time of sparse supermarket shelves, restaurant closures, and potential lockdowns till present. Their stories, highlighted here in essays from five of the Allstars, reveal resourcefulness, altruism, and the power of food to bring people together even in unforeseen circumstances.
Shifts in Grocery Shopping
March 2020 marked a turning point in how people in the United States responded to the coronavirus. Schools veered to virtual learning, offices to remote work. Businesses braced for short-term shutdowns; some shuttered and never reopened.
Then, March 19, the first statewide stay-at-home order came out of California. And as more states issued orders to keep people at home, it became clear to Americans that the rest of the nation would soon follow.
Shoppers were grabbing more groceries, toilet paper, cleaning wipes, disinfectants, and hand sanitizer at the beginning of the month, from 6 to 11 percent more than at the same time the year before, according to Nielsen. By March 14, however, people in no small number were filling their carts with an average of 14 percent more items than the same time in 2019.
Mid-March brought 22 percent more grocery runs compared to the year before, Nielsen found. Sales continued to surge for household items like toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, and diapers, while sales for frozen food, meat, meat alternatives, and shelf-stable goods like beans ramped up during the third week of March. While a 14 to 22 percent increase in grocery shopping may not seem dramatic, the results were clear: stockpiling left certain shelves wiped clean, and where items remained, stores put strict limits in place.
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More Frozen Food, Fewer Trips to the Store
Before the pandemic, Allstar Candice Walker of Portland, Ore., planned meals a week in advance. Her attention to detail meant she almost never found herself without an ingredient. This changed when lockdowns began, as she stocked up on pantry goods and root vegetables to have on hand. "I bought in bulk and made sure I froze as much as I could. This helped me make less frequent trips to the grocery store," she says.
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Shoppers opted for frozen food for several reasons, according to a Statista survey of U.S. adults. Most important to them was that frozen food would last longer than fresh food. The majority were concerned about having a well-stocked freezer in case of a food shortage, as well as reducing their trips to the store. Not only that, people considered frozen food more convenient, cost effective, and safer, the survey found.
And when inventories ran low in stores, shoppers like Allstar Pamela Treadwell in Maryland improvised. "Fresh vegetables were available more than frozen, and I started freezing produce like green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and greens like collards and kale," she says. "I managed to get a 10-pound bag of potatoes, some of which I cut into wedges, partially fried in my air fryer, and then froze and vacuum sealed for later."
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Online Orders Pick Up
Trips to the store tapered off during the last week of March as people began to settle at home, Nielsen found. Meanwhile, the uptick in orders from online grocery and food retailers at the start of the pandemic continued to rise. By the first week of April, the amount of pickup orders Americans placed pre-pandemic had doubled, and home delivery saw a 53 percent increase.
Come mid-April, people were shopping in stores drastically less often — about 9 percent less often than the previous April, according to Nielsen. Instacart became the most-visited food retail site, SimilarWeb found. And by May, 10 million people had shopped for groceries online for the first time, including a significant number of adults over 65 and under 25, Nielsen reported.
Though Allstar Linda Crumbaugh ordered the occasional meal kit to her home before the pandemic, the Melbourne, Fla., resident calls the shift to ordering groceries online "the biggest adjustment" she's faced during the pandemic. "Once we went on lockdown, my in-person shopping dropped significantly," she says. "Produce is the hardest, as I am definitely one to look and touch until I find just the right pieces. We do use Misfits Market delivery, and we are really happy with the quality, so this helps."
Farm to Fridge
Others have counted on farmers' markets and CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes for fresh produce as well as animal products. Not long into the pandemic, Allstar Laura Mason of Traverse City, Mich., turned to farms to purchase all produce and meat, including three-fourths of a cow to fill a chest freezer she bought. She considers this one of the most drastic changes that came with 2020.
"Having relationships with our farmers and buying directly from the farmers not only benefits them," Mason says. "It benefits us to have access to high-quality food and enough of it to feed my family."
Walker also began sourcing produce from local farms to fill the gap of frequent supermarket stops. "I'm less reliant on the grocery store and supporting local business during trying times," she says. "Since the first shutdown, my approach to home cooking has become even more efficient and resourceful."
For many, resourcefulness has come as a product of layoffs and lost income. Home cook Annie Nguyen of Seattle and her boyfriend had to adapt to a single income after Nguyen lost her job in March. They reduced their food budget to under $100 per week, aiming to spend closer to $50 as much as possible.
Nguyen says shopping at Trader Joe's has allowed her to still purchase some organic produce, and she saves splurges for seafood or organic meat and eggs. In addition to freezing leftovers and even halves of bread loaves, Nguyen plans meals around using items already in the pantry.
Among the burdens born out of the pandemic, food insecurity and hunger have been especially pressing for many Americans. In a survey of 2,000 Americans experiencing food insecurity for the first time during the pandemic, 60 percent have struggled to provide food for their families, OnePoll reported. Moreover, 37 percent of survey respondents have skipped meals to feed their children instead.
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Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus
As shopping and food storage habits changed, so did cooking. With more people eating at home, trends emerged around budget-conscious cooking, easiness, and comfort food. Leftovers and canned goods met needs for convenient, cost-effective food. Meanwhile, interest in cooking fried rice, fried chicken, French fries, and lasagna at home spiked on Allrecipes in 2020. Comfort food became a fixture of the pandemic diet, and Americans reported eating it for at least five meals a week in a survey from OnePoll.
Often quarantining with parents, friends, or their own families, millennials and Gen Z helped set these pandemic-driven trends, according to a report from yPulse. Dealing with disrupted routines, many gravitated to dishes requiring minimal time and ingredients, yPulse found. In fact, interest in quick dishes, recipes with five ingredients or less, and 30-minute meals doubled from 2019 to 2020.
Shorter to-do lists allowed Allstar Bri Evans from Huntsville, Ala., to spend more time in the kitchen, teetering from one-pot meals and prepared foods to appetizers with kid appeal. "I imagine the reason I started changing the way I cook was one part boredom, two parts trying to save money, and one part wanting to make copycat recipes from restaurants that weren't safe to attend," Evans says.
Since working from home nixed her three-hour commute, Allstar Danielle Stadelman of Costa Mesa, Calif., has had time to spare, too. "It has given me the freedom to start experimenting more often in the kitchen and realizing it's OK to try new things and fail. That means more home-cooked meals, trying new cuisines, making 10 loaves of banana bread, and trying my hand at bread making."
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From Baking to Burnout
Baking became a popular project in the early days of the pandemic as people adjusted to more time at home. Searches for sourdough, banana bread, brownies, and even pizza dough reached all-time highs in April, according to Google Trends. While the baking craze has been on the decline since April, Google searches reveal that these foods have remained more popular than before the pandemic.
Experimenting in the kitchen took other forms, of course. As a retiree, Allstar David Frank of Murrieta Hot Springs, Calif., busied himself with barbequing and diving into more international recipes. Allstar Sharon Garofalow of Irvine, Calif., made everything from pancake syrup to barbeque sauce from scratch.
But as the enthusiasm for baking waned for many cooks, so did the motivation to make meal after meal at home. "Overall, I have days where I'm focused on spending time bringing happiness to the family meal as well as days where I cannot wait to be done cooking," Evans says.
Allstar Jessaca Smith of Modesto, Calif., entered the pandemic planning her family's meals, spacing out shopping trips, and feeling organized. "This has slowly changed to a search almost every day for what is going to be the lucky recipe for dinner that night," she says. "I have become pretty burnt out from cooking so much. I didn't realize how much I enjoy my cooking breaks by being able to go out to dinner."
Smith has fought cooking fatigue by whipping up sweets for her family. "I have really enjoyed flipping through recipes, and trying so many," she says. "They always bring a little smile to everyone's face."
Indeed, feeding others during the pandemic has given people good reason to cook. Treadwell has delivered meals to loved ones. Walker and her partner have divided up cooking nights to give each other breaks. Friends have swapped recipes to stay connected. Parents have mustered the motivation to put dinner on the table night after night. Garofalow sums it up: "Being able to take care of my family well gave me a sense of purpose and normalcy when the world felt chaotic."
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A Time of Change and New Routines
By Pamela Treadwell, Allrecipes Allstar, Maryland
The pandemic hasn't changed how I feel about cooking. I rarely ate out before the shutdowns and cooked at home several times a week. The significant shifts for me were how I did my shopping and learning to adjust to purchasing what was available in the store due to limited inventory.
Before the shutdown, my grocery shopping trips included two or three different stores. I would shop every week or two for fresh produce. But during the shutdown, I limited my shopping to one store and purchased enough to last several weeks. I started freezing fresh produce so it would be available until I made it to the store again. I managed to get a 10-pound bag of potatoes, some of which I cut into wedges, partially fried in my air fryer, then vacuum sealed and froze in FoodSaver bags.
Instead of buying chicken or beef for a couple of weeks of meals, I bought those items in addition to seafood and pork, making do with cuts that were available versus what I would normally buy. This eliminated a trip to the store to pick up those items when I was out or wanted them.
For example, I wanted to buy a chuck roast to make a Mississippi Pot Roast. The store didn't have any, and I asked one of the employees in the meat department when she thought they would get more in. She told me they didn't necessarily receive what they ordered but whatever was available within the inventory chain and was allocated to them. She advised that the best thing to do was purchase what was available. So instead of chuck roast, I bought skirt steak.
I didn't usually buy canned meats other than tuna, but I started buying canned chicken to make chicken salad, white chicken chili, and soups. I also bought canned fruit like pineapple and peaches to add to yogurt and make desserts. I keep a well-stocked pantry, and already had enough rice and pasta to last a while.
As for cooking, the shutdown period forced me to make do with what was available, and being in the house everyday, all day encouraged me to pull out cookbooks to try new recipes with ingredients that I didn't usually buy. I baked, grilled, smoked, steamed, and utilized my countertop appliances to prepare many delicious meals. Sometimes out of hunger, sometimes out of needing something to do.
I'm a baker, and I replenished my supply of flour and yeast before the shutdown, so I was able to bake bread for those who couldn't get any from the store. As the months rolled by, and loved ones passed from COVID-19, cooking for just my household shifted to also putting meals and care packages together for family and friends.
All in all, the pandemic shutdown has been a time of change and new routines, some of which I will continue to do, and some that I look forward to abandoning.
Every Facet of My Life Is Different Now
By Linda Crumbaugh, Allrecipes Allstar, Florida
I have been home for a year now. When I say home, I don't mean that I never venture out, because I do get out. But I'm taking a break on my outside commitments, such as book clubs and art nights, and being home means I feel responsible for providing meals for us. Every facet of my life is different now, and I've modified many habits to find new joy in everyday moments.
I've always loved to shop for food, combining my grocery list with spur-of-the-moment purchases based on sales and tempting displays. I enjoyed coming home and making the most of these items. This leads to the biggest adjustment for me during this past year: learning to grocery shop online for pickup or delivery, and deciding what to prepare for every meal, every day.
Pre-pandemic, I would say I went full-out grocery shopping at least every other week. We had already been receiving the occasional meal kit delivery, such as Home Chef, and those weeks I would not need to go to the store. My husband would stop at the store once a week or so on his way home to pick up milk, bananas, that type of thing.
Once we went on lockdown, my in-person shopping dropped significantly. I may go to a store once every five to six weeks, usually only because I have a freebie coupon that I can only use in person. I will do some regular shopping at that point. Otherwise, I rely on my husband picking up a few more items than he used to on his trips, and I'm now a fan of grocery delivery and curbside pick-up services.
With the delivery and pick-up services, I'm shopping through different stores, not just my go-to store. I find that I'm much better at sticking with my list, so my spending is down, but I really miss seeing the food myself. Produce is the hardest, as I am definitely one to look and touch until I find just the right pieces. We do use Misfits Market delivery, and we are really happy with the quality, so this helps.
I'm so thankful for everything that local and nationwide businesses have done to make this easier, from Target offering six months of free Shipt membership to area restaurants switching to take-and-make meals. I've learned to broaden my home-cooking repertoire, and I'm using kitchen appliances like the air fryer and a cooking blender from Pampered Chef more often to make mealtime fun.
While I look forward to some sort of return to normalcy, I will also appreciate my new home-chef skills and successes.
Cooking Keeps Me Steady
By Jill Trei, Allrecipes Allstar, Minnesota
Cooking in the year since the pandemic began has been a funny thing. In some ways, my cooking has changed completely; in other ways, it has thankfully remained the same, a point on the horizon to keep me steady.
The beginning of the shutdowns first began, it was a time of quiet panic yet a call to action. The combination of stress cooking, working full time, and homeschooling resulted in eating a lot of pancakes (often dinosaur shaped) and constructing edible projects with the kids, from marshmallow towers to spiders made from pretzels and Girl Scouts cookies.
Pantry cooking became king, along with the requisite sourdough starter (we named ours Bubbles). The meal planning I relied on for years, however, came to a screeching halt. Lazy cooking on Sundays was a rare source of comfort and entailed listening to The Splendid Table and Home Cooking podcasts while cooking a huge pot of beans.
The summer months felt like a big, stressful breath held with the added political and social tension. More ambitious kitchen projects and a bit of alcohol provided some relief. I learned to make homemade tortillas and croissants, found even more ways to use up sourdough discard, and developed an appreciation for mezcal. Our backyard garden provided a welcome sense of continuity, as the seeds grew into plants and the kids gobbled up fresh-picked raspberries and cherry tomatoes, just as in summers before.
Fall came, and the holiday season was a time of stress buying increasingly ambitious cookbooks and baking with a vengeance to get through the tough remaining days of the year.
With 2020 in the rearview mirror but "back to normal" still so far away, somehow, I feel like I'm finally settling into a new normal. I am finally back to meal planning again, which I think has helped, and my cooking reflects an easier rhythm — a small sigh of relief.
I have held onto some of what 2020 brought, though. Bubbles is still going strong and providing a constant stream of garlic bread and pizza dough. I continue to find calm in the long process of making croissants. Beans are always on the menu. I have recently discovered that I rock at making fun, tasty lunch combos in my cast-iron skillet using random leftovers from the fridge, and I really enjoy my new ritual of slowing down to make a skillet lunch. "We can do this" is on my mind more and more, and my cooking is beginning to reflect that hope.
We're Still Having Fun Cooking
By Amy Shen, Allrecipes Allstar, Washington
This past year has changed my perspective on food. It has been a year of cooking and baking outside of my usual comfort zone. I have found myself getting creative and coming up with different ways to use pantry staples and repurposing leftovers into some delicious dishes. Not everything has been a success, but learning has been part of the fun.
When the pandemic began, we happened to have a lot of turkey pieces in the freezer — we bought a few whole turkeys at the end of 2019 because they were super cheap. To get through them we roasted some and ate what we could, but we always had leftovers. My fiancé loves any type of curry, so I made curry using curry paste, coconut milk, turkey, and whatever vegetables we had on hand. And because we didn't have chicken, I used the leftover turkey in a curry chicken salad I make, as well. I also started using the turkey bones to make my own stock for soups.
Yeast bread is not something that I felt comfortable baking, but now I have come to appreciate it and love the different kinds of bread I have experimented with. Now, my fiancé has a kind he likes to make, and I have a kind I like to make. It's satisfying to know what's in it, and we always keep the ingredients on hand.
I've also noticed that we waste less food. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were limiting our trips to the store, so I decided to start growing green onions on our deck. I cut off the green parts of store-bought green onions then put the remainder in a cup of water to grow. I loved that I could just cut what we needed and not have to worry about the rest going bad in the fridge. I also decided to try growing romaine, basil, rosemary, and mint (a cutting from a friends plant). We're currently in the process of moving, so I'm hoping to have a larger garden to grow more fruits and vegetables.
Overall, we're more aware of what we're eating and are trying to consume less processed foods. Not only is it more economical in most cases, but it also tastes better. I can't say for sure how long these changes will last, but we're still having fun cooking.
We Have Adapted
By Paula Roten, Allrecipes Allstar, Mississippi
Before the pandemic, I thought nothing of running into the grocery store for just one item, eating out because I forgot to thaw the roast, or entertaining friends for dinner. This year of isolation has caused me to be much more intentional and careful about planning meals.
I've always made menus and grocery lists, but now I check my list twice to make sure I have everything I need. In the past, if I forgot an ingredient or just changed my mind about what to cook that day, I'd hop in my car and go to the grocery store. I don't do that now. I still shop about as often as before, but I place pickup orders with Kroger rather than going inside the store. I also find myself checking my pantry first thing each morning to make sure I have all the ingredients for what I'm planning to make for dinner.
I used to go out to eat at least twice a week. Now, I cook almost every day. I do prepare a few meals that will last an extra day, so sometimes I'm just reheating leftovers. I also started buying frozen pizza for those nights I just don't want to cook.
Entertaining and socializing even look different now. Our little church prayer group of six couples who used to meet bi-weekly for a meal can no longer meet in person, so we text — a lot. My husband even made each couple a pecan pie on his smoker and then delivered each one, adhering to social distancing and mask wearing, of course. While the pandemic has brought about changes in our life, we have adapted and found ways to still enjoy food and friends.
Editors: Kimberly Holland and Mary Claire Lagroue
Visuals: Lindsey Hayes and Tyrel Stendahl
Writers: Mary Claire Lagroue, Pamela Treadwell, Linda Crumbaugh, Jill Trei, Amy Shen, Paula Roten
Special Thanks: Candice Walker, Laura Mason, Annie Nguyen, Bri Evans, Danielle Stadelman, David Frank, Sharon Garofalow, Jessaca Smith, Ansley Emmet, Susan Hall, Gema Scott, Diana Moutsopoulos