The quarantine diet
Now that we're all sheltering in place, convenient childhood food favorites — like hot dogs, soup, and macaroni and cheese — are trumping the healthy options that prevailed pre-coronavirus.
Why it matters: A lot of food trends from the beginning of the year — the popularity of plant-based meat substitutes, low-alcohol/no-alcohol drinks, and products billed as organic or sustainable — have been tossed out the window.
Driving the news: Frozen foods (vegetables, pizzas, entrees) have seen historic sales increases, while canned goods and processed foods (soups, beans, tomato sauce) have been flying off of supermarket shelves.
- Among people who can afford it, meal kits are enjoying a renaissance (reviving the fortunes of companies like Blue Apron).
- Restaurant chains like Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A are even introducing meal kits of their own, so people can get the ingredients needed to make their favorite dishes delivered — and the stores can recoup some lost sales.
- Companies trying this include Denny's, Panera Bread and Just Salad, per the WSJ.
- Denny's Complete Breakfast Meal Kit, for example, "serves four to six and contains bacon strips, eggs, milk, biscuits or English muffins, grapes, strawberries, assorted jelly packets, and Signature Diner Blend Coffee with a variety of sweeteners," per Progressive Grocer.
On the beverage side, the "sober curious" consumers who made "Dry January" such a big thing this year have been drowned out by the bored and anxious, who are driving up booze sales, quaffing "quarantinis" and hoisting Corona beer during Zoom happy hours.
- The rise in drinking — beer, wine and cocktails included — stems from the same instincts as the ones driving us to childhood favorites like cookies, French fries and pancakes.
- "It goes back to what I can control and what will calm me down," Suzy Badaracco, CEO of the food industry consultancy Culinary Tides, tells Axios.
- By the same token, dairy — once villainized — is making a comeback. "It's a complete protein, and it's calming to the senses," Badaracco says. "Whether it's ice cream or cheese or butter — it's comfort food."
What to watch: Faux meats — plant-based foods that are eaten primarily by non-vegetarians — may wane in popularity, Badaracco says.
- Even with a national meat shortage, she thinks people will seek out alternative sources of protein, like legumes, rather than imitation burgers.
- "COVID-19 will push meat eaters back to animal protein at an accelerated pace, while vegetarians will celebrate plants being plants," she says.
- And "sustainability sales," which include organic foods, will continue to decelerate "due to cost, not desire," Badaracco says.
The intrigue: A Facebook group called Quarantine Meals, where people from around the world share pictures of food they're eating or cooking, has drawn 41,000 members in less than a month.
- People are showing off homemade focaccia and sourdough bread (if they can get hold of yeast and flour), sushi, hand-cut pasta, regional dishes like shakshuka (a Middle Eastern tomato-egg casserole) and elaborate charcuterie boards.
- Despite reports of beef shortages at Wendy's and elsewhere, group members are uploading pictures of meats they've grilled or cured in backyard smokehouses.
- "The trending method seems to be the reverse sear, where they cook a steak in the oven and then sear it at the end," Todd Rubin, the Chicago restaurateur who founded the Facebook group, tells Axios.
The bottom line: Amid sad news stories about farmers having to discard their harvests and food pantries running out of groceries for people down on their luck, the joy that quarantine eating can still bring us is a hopeful sign.
- Of the meal-sharing Facebook group he founded, Rubin told me: "People have said, 'This is helping me get through this — it keeps my mind off the negativity out there.'"