Mom Baking With Her Little Daughter In Kitchen

Even though it’s likely a little hazy, we can all probably remember the big shifts that occurred in meal planning and cooking at the start of the pandemic: One of the standout memories is the explosion in interest in scratch cooking, notably baking, which in turn served to educate consumers on the fragility of the nation’s food supply chains as baking ingredients like flour and yeast ran out in nearly all retail formats.

Our October 2020 interview with Karen Colberg, Co-CEO of King Arthur Baking, underscores what it was like as a major supplier meeting the needs of newfound consumer engagement with baking:

“Consumers called our Baker’s Hotline and flocked to our website looking for help with recipe substitutions, especially earlier in the pandemic when many staple ingredients were hard to find and people were asked to shelter in place at home, getting by with what was already in the pantry. In fact, how to substitute other types of flour for all-purpose was one of the hottest topics bakers wanted to talk about when calling our Baker’s Hotline, maybe only second to sourdough questions. Along those lines, we believe there was a wave of bakers turning to sourdough due in part to a yeast shortage and the desire to still bake at home.”

And yet, despite such early engagement with scratch cooking, as a by-product of the pandemic, volatility best characterizes the highs and lows associated with cooking, with fatigue being the current operative word. We know from ongoing Hartman Group monitoring of eating and cooking behavior (as tracked in our Compass Eating Occasions Database), consumers’ initial enthusiasm for cooking tapered off as they increasingly procured foods from restaurants in summer 2021.

As noted in our Redefining Normal: Spring 2021 Eating Occasions report (and highlighted in Figure 1 below):

“High levels of cooking engagement witnessed early on in 2020 have since declined. At the beginning of the pandemic, meal preparation increased as more consumers turned to home cooking due to restaurant closures and fears associated with contamination. Yet those high levels of cooking engagement did not last as cooking fatigue quickly set in and consumers became more comfortable sourcing from food service. Today, less than half of eating occasions involve some level of preparation (down significantly from both spring 2020 and spring 2019). Fewer occasions involve stove top, baking, and grilling preparation methods when compared to this point last year.”

Figure 1: Degree of Meal Preparation 2019 to 2021 (Among All Occasions)
Source: Redefining Normal: Spring 2021 Eating Occasions report, The Hartman Group, Inc.

While a general wane in consumer enthusiasm for cooking reflects the ongoing stresses of a pandemic after some 18 months, it is important to recall that there have also been several silver linings stemming from consumers cooking more at home, including:

  • A greater depth and desire for experimentation and improvisation with not only new recipes and ingredients but also kitchen gadgets themselves.
  • Heightened engagement between family members — in particular parents and children, trying out new recipes and methods of cooking together.
  • And as noted in our Health & Wellness: Reimagining Well-being Amid COVID-19 report, frequent home cooking has brought many consumers closer to the individual ingredients in their meals, seeking out less processed options and key nutrients from food: fiber, protein, calcium, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.

Curious to learn more about where cooking and meal behavior are going next? Find out in The Hartman Group’s At the Dining Table 2021: American Meals and Cooking syndicated study, which aims to provide food manufacturers, retailers, distributors and restaurants with an in-depth view of how to best help consumers achieve the meals they desire to have. More information is available here.