Disruption in Our Food Habits

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly reshaped our lives in numerous ways. One of the most severe is the way in which we interact with food. Restaurants around the world have shifted to meet consumers where they are: at home. This has meant taking leaps that are interesting for some restaurants—creating meal kits, selling freezer inventory, figuring out curbside delivery, and more.

Some of those innovations have been to prevent food waste in an era when the supply chain has been unreliable. It’s more than that, though—the national crisis is giving us an opportunity to step back and take a good look at food waste and sustainability. Just as the  pandemic has forced people into a more digital environment, it is forcing the issue of paying attention to our food. While social and physical distancing has required that restaurants close or drastically change their business models, an interesting sidelight is that there has been a huge surge in the popularity of finding new ways to reduce, reuse, recycle and create a waste-free methodology, both in commercial and private kitchens.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to not just see waste-free cooking as a way to create a more sustainable world, but now, to see it as a matter of survival. Pre-coronavirus, for example, an estimated 1/3 of bread was thrown out before it was used. This is starting to shift as people find new ways to repurpose old ingredients into exciting, new concoctions. Think how easy it can be to just turn old bread into croutons, when that bread may have been thrown away in the past.

As people have been doing more meal prep more at home, there is also a new importance on pantry optimization and finding as many uses for what’s on hand. Taking multiple trips to the grocery store in a week is no longer a smart option.  As many are adapting to cooking, they are also adapting to a zero, or near zero, waste method to create the most bang for their buck.

Supply chains are also being disrupted. Even QSR giant McDonald’s has been forced to rethink the way it supplies its restaurants.  As slaughterhouses close, even temporarily, and constrict the supply of meats such as pork and beef, the company has moved to a top-down approach to determining demand and needed supply for individual restaurants. The move is hoped to not only better address meat shortages, but ensure that less food is wasted.

It’s not just celebrities who are taking up the mantle of sustainable cooking. Thousands of restaurants around the country remain closed, and chefs such as Ian Thurwatcher of Intero in Austin, TX, are using this time away from the restaurant to bring his zero-waste philosophy to home cooks. Through Zoom online meetings, class attendees can learn tips and tricks for stretching meals and cutting food waste.

Pantry management has become more important, particularly as we watched supplies dry up while panic-stricken shoppers attacked grocery aisles. As grocery stores became a little barren, it created an opportunity for some restaurants. Rather than risk loss of their own inventory, some restaurants have turned to a convenience store model. Instead of relying solely on kitchen-cooked foods, they’ve begun selling what ingredients and grocery items they have on hand. Casual dining chain Panera has even taken to selling boxed and canned items.

One positive possible outcome of the pandemic is the opportunity to change behaviors in a positive way to create a more sustainable world. The world is slowing down for the first time in modern history, giving a rare opportunity to assess what is important.

As dining rooms re-open and trips to the grocery store become less problematic, there is a risk of losing this emphasis on sustainability. On the other hand, finding that there is a way to save money by reducing, reusing, and careful planning could prove to be effective motivators to continue waste-free cooking as the world slowly returns to normal.

 The world of food will likely never be quite the same in many ways, but perhaps we can count this one as a positive: Consumers are seeing new value in saving more and wasting less. The pandemic caused this shift out of necessity, but even as the pandemic ends, this paradigm shift will remain.