Rapidly shifting routines and habits around meal preparation and eating are helping consumers feel more empowered.

Mother daughter in kitchen

With health and government officials across the country instructing people to stay home and many people furloughed or laid off, Americans are spending significantly more time at home – and in their kitchens –than usual. With life suddenly upended, consumer eating and meal preparation habits are quickly evolving to catch up. Amidst these limitations, consumers are adapting their food preparation strategies to align with goals around comfort, nutrition and food waste.

To understand how the pandemic is impacting consumers’ lives right now, The Hartman Group has been conducting ongoing qualitative and quantitative research around this evolving situation. Our approach to qualitative research is particularly unique in our efforts to contextualize our observations and insights within food culture resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is our interpretive lens that creates the depth and richness of our findings and distinct POV on the near- and long-term implications for business.

Speaking with consumers during recent mobile ethnographies, one thing that really stood out to us is how quickly consumers are finding new avenues to meet both ongoing and emerging needs. Some of these needs existed prior to the COVID-19 crisis and are quite foundational. These needs like parents trying to feed their kids, in general, or just trying to please everyone who's sitting at a meal together, specifically, are taking on an elevated sense of urgency.

New Tension Points in the Kitchen

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.

Snacking and mealtime have shifted to exclusively at-home eating occasions. There is a rapid evolution around how consumers approach food, from convenience and leftovers to perceptions of what is healthy for the individual members of the household.

While consumers are becoming empowered through new skills in the kitchen, as they move out of quarantine, they will likely fall back into more convenient routines — provided their financial status enables them to do so. Still, they will have a deepened appreciation for the physical and mental labor of meal prep that was easier to outsource prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Our qualitative research finds that consumers are navigating an unprecedented shift in American society that will have lasting effects on U.S. food culture, changing consumers’ collective and individual experiences in both broad and targeted ways.

• Consumers are reevaluating the very necessity of shopping trips and turning to larger, less frequent trips and alternative modes of sourcing perceived to be safer, such as online and click and collect.

• The desire for preparation in consumers’ food repertoires will be expressed as maintaining a well-stocked pantry.

• Looking farther ahead, new routines that focus on preparation for the unknown are likely to have lasting impacts.

In an environment where many aspects of traditional convenience are not available (dining out, reliable access to specific foods) and routines and priorities are shifting, consumers are rethinking their approach to food more than ever and finding new solutions that respond to evolving considerations.

COVID-19 has exposed new tensions and amplified existing concerns, leading to shifts in core trends related to personal empowerment, individual and collective resilience, connectivity and systemic change. This, in turn, has impacted consumer values around quality, value, food sourcing, social justice, commensality and waste.

To learn more about how your business can benefit from our unique ethnographic/qualitative research capabilities during the current situation, please contact: shelley@hartman-group.com