A Silver Lining for Parents and Kids: Quarantined and Bonding in the Kitchen
A Cultural Tale of Scallion Cutters, Blow Torches and Tortilla Presses: Exhausted Parents and Kids Discover Cooking, the Kitchen and New Culinary Tools
Are kids headed back to school? It’s likely a major topic at the kitchen table as hope, in the form of rising availability of COVID-19 vaccines, is influencing the CDC, states and countless municipalities to grapple with the complexity of opening schools again for in-person learning.
Of course, for parents, it’s yet one more stressful decision to work through and underscores the fact that perhaps no one (aside from the elderly and communities of color) has been left in the lurch by the pandemic as much as families, regardless of their children’s ages.
We’ve all personally experienced or seen the effects of the pandemic on households with children of all ages: parents of young children have had to step in as full-time caregivers, sometimes sacrificing their ability to work and provide for their families. Parents of older children have had to become homeschool teachers overnight, grappling with new technologies and unfamiliar school assignments while still doing their own day jobs.
All parents have had to deal with round-the-clock chaos and the pent-up energy of quarantined kids without much opportunity for mental breaks as they juggle work, school and the other stresses and anxieties of the times. And, of course, it’s not just keeping the kids going, and work, but there are also the significant daily requirements of procuring, preparing and cleaning up from all the cooking, meals and snacks within households that rarely seem to cease operations.
And yet within these tiresome circumstances, one silver lining during pandemic times has been the opportunity for parents and children to bond in the kitchen and in so doing experiment with cooking, have a little fun and make discoveries with not only culinary techniques but new kitchen tools as well.
Drawing on ethnographic work conducted by The Hartman Group early on in the pandemic, we made note of this trend, observing:
“The kitchen has long been the vibrant hub of home life. Yet in many homes today, the kitchen has become a multipurpose space: part-time office, part-time kitchen, part-time school. Through it all, the kitchen remains the space where meal prep, cooking and eating take place. Some consumers with limited home-cooking skills are motivated to learn more as a form of recreation and less as a necessary chore, while others are relying more on canned and frozen items. Parents are bringing their kids into the kitchen as a way to keep them entertained and occupied, teaching them fundamental cooking skills in the process.”
Gen Z in the Kitchen — one interesting side note: While parents and younger kids have been busy bonding in the kitchen during the pandemic, we know from earlier Hartman Group research on Gen Z (notably teens) that even before the pandemic, Gen Z, often home alone (while parents worked) saw cooking as an accessible life skill available to anyone with an internet connection — so maybe they’re teaching their parents a thing or two? While certainly they’ve been home alone a lot less during the pandemic, what’s different for today’s teens is the amount of information, entertainment and instruction available about food and cooking, much of it geared specifically to teens (look no further than the TikTok feta pasta phenomenon). This abundance of information means that teens — even those who don’t cook currently — feel like they “could cook if they wanted to.
We updated and expanded our insights on this trend in a subsequent Hartman Group podcast (From Gadgets to Cleanup: Pandemic-Driven Changes in Cooking and the Kitchen) featuring Hartman Group Ethnographic Analyst Elizabeth Aparicio and Consumer Insights Consultant Hannah Kim, who described how consumers (notably households with young children) with no access to travel or dining out have begun experimenting with new appliances and cooking tools, not just out of boredom but also as means to improve their cooking skills.
Such culinary experimentation has led to a pandemic-driven explosion in the purchase of kitchen appliances, gadgets and culinary tools that are seen as fun and engaging and include items like tortilla presses, woks, blowtorches and even scallion cutters, all purchased with the intent of exploring and discovering new aspects of cooking and food. Underscoring the explosive growth in culinary tools sales: retailer Big Lots, in its March 2021 earnings call noted, “Hard Home comps were up nearly 20% to last year with all departments delivering double-digit increases. Key areas such as kitchen appliances, cookware, dinnerware and drinkware delivered over 30% comps in part due to the cook and dine at home trend.”
While our eating research shows that cooking had a momentary explosion of interest early on in the pandemic, our most recent updates on eating and cooking behavior discussed in the just mentioned podcast and our Eating Occasions 2020 white paper show that cooking fatigue began to set in during the summer of 2020: “Cooking fatigue and perceptions of busyness quickly set in and the dinner-like characteristics of lunch and high levels of cooking engagement at dinner witnessed in the spring all but disappeared. While dining at restaurants increased, it had not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels; however, restaurant sourcing (including takeout and delivery) had resumed its routine presence in American eating.”
The pandemic has brought about a slew of changes to the everyday lives of Americans, many of whom continue to work from home and adhere to municipal regulations and self-imposed rules of physical distancing. While it is likely that some changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will fall away as short-term anomalies, we expect the consumer experience of the pandemic to similarly shape long-term cultural trends in the food and beverage snacking space in the future: one key example is young children’s newfound interest in culinary tools, techniques and the art of cooking.
When it comes to parents (especially Millennial and Gen-X parents of young children), while still cognizant of culinary discovery in the kitchen, it is important to acknowledge that they are seeking an intersection of value, food quality and convenience as they navigate the process of creating meals in the pandemic.
Families are busy, focused on managing time and more price-conscious than ever and yet intent on eating healthy: these are needs that retailers and manufacturers can tap into as families seek to put easy meals on the table.
Outside of the kitchen, even kids, parents and grocery shopping have had to endure massive change: our Food Sourcing in America report notes that households with children are particularly sensitive to safety concerns, and while all households worry about exposure to the virus — particularly through dining out at restaurants — households with kids under 18 worry far more across all food procurement strategies. In fact, if a store feels crowded or unsafe, parents are three times more likely than others to go to a different store.
As a result, parents have stopped bringing children into the store to reduce the child’s exposure. Not participating in grocery trips, children lose out not only on an opportunity to learn about food and food shopping but also on treats and other impulse buys that parents otherwise might submit to purchasing during a trip.
These shifts in cooking and shopping present opportunities for retailers and manufacturers to modify their approach to targeting children, focusing increasingly on branding, marketing and merchandising that will appeal to parents on behalf of their children rather than directly to kids.
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