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3 Ways the Pandemic Improved Your Eating Habits

There's no doubt pandemic restrictions have affected our eating habits in ways both good and bad. We've all heard enough about the "quarantine 15," so let's take a look at the upsides of pandemic eating.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #611
The Quick And Dirty

Despite all the negatives, the year-long pandemic has brought about some good changes when it comes to food and nutrition. Here are three positives.

  1. Connecting consumers with local growers and suppliers has created a more resilient food system.
  2. Cooking more of our own food at home can reduce the amount of fat, sugar, and salt, in our diets.
  3. Shopping less frequently has improved our meal planning skills, resulting in more balanced meals, fewer impulse purchases, and less food waste.

It’s been quite a year. And now, as Covid-19 vaccines begin to roll out, we’re all starting to look forward to a return to a more normal way of life.

We might want to hang on to some of the changes we've had to make even after the crisis has passed.

Although few of us would have chosen the drastic changes to our lifestyles and habits that the last year has brought, there have been a few collateral benefits. We might want to hang on to some of the changes we've had to make even after the crisis has passed.

Here are three ways that the pandemic may actually have improved our nutrition and eating habits

1. We’re more connected to local food providers

The early months of the shutdown revealed the vulnerabilities of our highly efficient but highly centralized food supply. Early in the pandemic, we heard stories of farmers dumping crops that they couldn’t get to market while consumers stared at empty store shelves. At the same time, growers who usually sell a large portion of their goods to the restaurant industry suddenly found themselves with no outlet.

Programs that forge a more direct connection between consumers and local growers help to create a food distribution system that is more resilient to disruption.

Happily, these two groups have found each other. Participation in consumer-supported agriculture (or CSAs), where consumers pay local growers in exchange for a share of whatever they are harvesting, shot way up. “Misfit produce” subscriptions, where fresh produce that is bound for the landfill due to minor cosmetic flaws is redirected to consumers, are also enjoying a big uptick.

Programs like these, which forge a more direct connection between consumers and local growers, help to create a food distribution system that is more resilient to disruption by events such as pandemics and other natural disasters. They also promote the consumption of fresh foods and reduce food waste. Win-win-win!

2. We’re cooking and growing more of our own food

Prior to the pandemic, the average consumer got almost half their daily calories from somewhere other than their own kitchens. Suddenly, we all had to remember how to cook!  

Being forced to cook more meals at home has had some positive effects on our nutrition.

Cooking, as a basic skill and habit, has been in decline for decades. Being forced to cook more meals at home has had some positive effects on our nutrition. Food we cook ourselves tends to be lower in sugar, salt, oil, and calories than food we get in restaurants.

Although I enjoy cooking, I was not in the habit of having breakfast, lunch, and dinner at home seven days a week. I suddenly found myself preparing all those meals at home, and that was a big adjustment. As the months have dragged on, however, I have definitely gotten into more of a groove with home cooking and it doesn't seem nearly as burdensome.

I’m sure many of us will be glad to be able to eat out in restaurants again. But hopefully cooking at home more often will have become a lasting habit. I think kids also benefited from watching and helping their parents or caregivers cook more. Having a basic level of kitchen competence and confidence is a very useful life skill and one that a lot of kids leave home without. 

One word of caution, though. Judging from my Facebook feed, a lot of people have spent the pandemic baking. While I won’t deny that homemade baked goods can be comforting, all of that extra flour and sugar probably isn’t improving people's nutritional bottom line.

We also often suffer from the delusion that homemade goodies are healthier than other goodies, especially if we find a way to add flaxseed or some oatmeal. While homemade treats may be a bit more wholesome than highly processed treats, they are still treats, which means they should be enjoyed in moderation. 

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There’s also been a big upswing in gardening, to the extent that seed suppliers have had a hard time keeping up with demand. It was a great way to spend time outdoors last year when summer vacations or activities were canceled. And having been cooped up all winter, I can't wait to get back to my garden this spring.

There’s been a big upswing in gardening, to the extent that seed suppliers have had a hard time keeping up with demand.

Fortunately, we grow lettuce and green beans and not granola and sourdough. And because it’s just more fun to eat vegetables you grew yourself, gardeners tend to eat more veggies.

I'm really hoping that a lot of kids who had a chance to try their hand at gardening this year have gotten bitten by the bug. The positive repercussions will extend well into the future.

3. We’re getting better at planning

Going to the grocery store less often has forced us to be more deliberate about planning our meals and grocery shopping trips more intentionally. All that planning usually results in better menus and less food waste. Heading to the store with a carefully planned list also helps reduce the number of impulse purchases—those snacks and treats that somehow find their way into our cart when we're browsing the aisles in a more leisurely and less focused way. Hopefully, sticking to our planned shopping list is a habit we'll hang on to.

A word about food insecurity

For all the silver linings, there’s still a huge storm cloud that needs to be acknowledged—the impact of the pandemic on food insecurity, which has increased by 66% since the beginning of the pandemic.

One in six Americans has experienced some degree of food insecurity in the last year. Food insecure people may be worried about whether they'll be able to get enough food for themselves and their families. They may be delaying or deferring other bills in order to buy food. Or they may literally be going to bed hungry. 

Feeding America is the country's largest hunger-relief organization. Whether you need help or you'd like to help others in need, their website makes it easy to connect to your local food bank. 

How has the pandemic changed your eating patterns? Have you acquired any new habits that you'd like to hold onto long-term? I'd love to hear your thoughts. You can email me at nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a message on the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. 

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.