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Canadians’ quarantine cuisine unveils new habits and opportunities

With many having more time, this renewed focus on social engagement together has prompted a host of new behaviours.

The COVID-19 health pandemic, and associated lockdown, has had a profound impact on consumer behaviour.  Locked away in our homes, unable to visit restaurants to grab a coffee or socialize over dinner, we adopted new habits in response to our new circumstances.

Quarantine consumption priorities

Key themes driving Canadians’ homebound choices include a return to the kitchen, with consumers eating together more often while socializing at the table or watching evening Netflix.  With many having more time, this renewed focus on social engagement together has also prompted a host of new behaviours, including more home cooking and baking. The requirement for options that meet sharing, nurturing and mood bolstering needs is also on the rise.

As consumers continue to balance their needs for emotional well-being with physical and metabolic requirements, they are increasingly prioritizing health and wellness.  Calories and fat concerns, which were on the decline in the pre-COVID environment, re-emerge as top priorities, as does sugar. Increasing concerns over intake management re-focus efforts on weight control (perhaps to thwart the much talked about ‘quarantine-15’ weight gain). 

Finally, uncertain economic headwinds will no doubt continue to factor heavily into future consumption choices. While we may continue to stockpile for a variety of reasons, at-home eating will undoubtedly be the benefactor of a financial downturn, even when dining out returns.

Return to traditional eating regime

We skipped fewer meals in April than at any other time during the past five years.  This renewed focus on a traditional meal regime that includes three squares a day, plus snacks, has had a beneficial impact for many food and beverage manufacturers.

Breakfast traditions surface

Shifting choices at breakfast include rising consumption of toast, cereal and fruit, while orange juice and hot tea are also being consumed more often during our first meal of the day.  Consumers, no longer fraught with daily commutes and the pressures of getting kids off to school, are eating breakfast. Early morning eating between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. (-5% vs. Feb 2020) has given way to eating later on both weekdays and weekends.

Coffee consumption declines when compared to February’s pre-confinement drinking rates (-1.3%). A drop in pod consumption contributes to overall coffee softness, perhaps due to at-home occasions that may be better served by brewing a pot. 

Light lunches together

Lunch has regained the dubious honour of being the most skipped meal of the day. However, consumers are increasingly eating together and sharing options more often while at home. Choices are more likely to be a light gap fill than a gut fill, led by cheese, fruit, vegetable dishes, fresh cut vegetables and dips. Eat rates of both soup and salad increase when it comes to eating lunch at home.

Rise of dinner on the grill

Dinner remains the meal most often consumed with others. However, while we eat together more often, we are increasingly consuming our own options (+4% vs. March 2020), as opposed to sharing.  Scratch cooking has increased at dinner when compared to February 2020 habits (+1.7%) and meal kit usage has also increased (+2.7%).

While the stovetop remains the top appliance used at dinner, the barbeque is the fastest rising appliance, with an increase of 3.7% vs. April 2019.  Given our chilly weather across the country in April, we should expect a monstrous grilling season in 2020 to meet summer flavour, convenience and experience needs.

While the ‘lessetarian’ trend (those committed to eating less meat on a weekly basis), continues at pre-COVID rates, meat choices increased in April, led by rising consumption of chicken, beef and pork.

Canadians pave a pathway to the pantry at snack

Overall snacking has increased on a monthly basis, led by strong growth at both afternoon and evening occasions.  

Food choices at snack are a mix of healthy and indulgent options.  Health needs continue to dominate early day preferences, while more indulgent or treat-oriented options drive our evening choices.  Afternoon snack, the largest snacking daypart, remains the battleground daypart, where neither health nor indulgence trumps options consumed. Fresh fruit, cheese, chocolate, potato chips and cookies top our daily snack food choices. 

The fastest rising needs driving home snacking choices include options that relieve boredom and stress, while supporting the need to graze and treat oneself.  Nostalgia is also a rising driver, which has contributed to the rekindling of relationships with storied brands that provide cheer and happiness.

The increased beverage choice at snack more often includes carbonated soft drinks, hot tea, sparkling water and a host of alcoholic beverages, led by beer and wine.

As consumers prioritize eating and drinking as rituals that define our homebound routines, needs and habits will likely continue to evolve, particularly as we normalize our behaviours with the recognition that we may be at home for some time to come.

With change continuing to abound around us, it will be critical to continue to evaluate consumption habits to determine which shifts will actually stick in our new normal environment. 

Originally published in the July/August issue of Convenience Store News Canada.

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