KANSAS CITY, MO. — While more than half of Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, the Delta variant continues to spread across large portions of the country, pointing to a prolonged and uneven recovery from the pandemic.

“With back-to-school this year, we’re starting to see things like apparel, footwear and office supplies start to rebound,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at The NPD Group Inc., during a presentation at the virtual Trends and Innovations webinar hosted by MEAT+POULTRY’s sister publication, Food Business News. “It’s evidence that we’re starting to emerge, and that has an impact on what we eat and where we eat. We might be going to some quick-service restaurants a little bit more often. We’re not all holed up in our homes as much as we used to be.”

That doesn’t mean a dramatic decrease in at-home consumption is on the horizon. Consumers already were adopting more home-centric lives before the pandemic, and NPD expects the trend will continue into the future.

Pre-COVID, around 80% of eating occasions were sourced from the home. That gap widened to nearly 90% last spring and remains elevated today, with around 82% of meals coming from the home in recent weeks.

Accompanying this ongoing trend is an increase in grocery spend. For the week ended May 22, 2021, Nielsen’s measured channel spending on grocery and perishable food was 16% above the same week two years ago.

“That’s not all just buying more from grocery stores,” Seifer said. “We’ve also noticed that there’s this premiumization happening. Consumers are realizing they’re not going to restaurants as often, where the cost of a meal can be three times as much as making a meal at home. They’re taking that budget and spending a little bit more on some higher-end items in the grocery store, because they’re still saving money by eating that meal at home.”

Growth in small kitchen appliances is another sign that consumers are investing in increased capacity for meal preparation at home.

For the 52 weeks ended May 22, 2021, sales of small kitchen appliances like electric grills, toaster ovens, air fryers and rice cookers were up 26% year-over-year.

“That new installed base of appliances that consumers have, they aren’t going to disappear as we emerge from the pandemic,” Seifer said. “Consumers are going to use them to make sure they can continue to handle the influx of foods and beverages in their homes.”

Restaurant softness

NPD expects restaurant softness will continue even as consumer mobility increases.

“When we look at restaurant transactions, they’re down about 10% every week compared to pre-pandemic levels,” Seifer said. “We see a little bit of a shift toward the quick-service restaurant side, while full-service is still suffering. Those restaurants that were able to sustain better were the ones that already were able to handle off-premises orders, whether it’s delivery or takeout.”

The foodservice sector will continue to be challenged by long-term trends and demographic shifts that were taking place before the pandemic, he added.

“The millennial generation and the baby boomer generation will be in the life stages where we typically have more meals in the home,” Seifer said. “This is going to be another headwind for restaurants … and these consumers are going to be looking for shortcuts to manage all these extra in-home occasions.”

One way they’re handling this is through digital ordering, which represents a bright spot for foodservice operators. Digital orders at restaurants surged 134% in 2020 and now account for 17% of all orders, up from 7% prior to the pandemic.

“There's evidence that this will remain elevated,” Seifer said. “We’ve looked at people who are using online ordering now, and about 80% of them are retained users from the prior quarter.”  

Focus on wellness

Another trend accelerated by the pandemic that NPD expects to linger is the increased focus on health and wellness.

Consumers increasingly are seeking products that support mental health and immunity. Among the fastest-growing ingredients consumers have tried during the pandemic are CBD for stress and anxiety and elderberry for immunity.

“This notion of food as medicine isn’t new, but the pandemic really highlighted it,” Seifer said. “I think some of that focus on mental health and immunity is going to remain, but as we go forward, we’re going to see things like gut health and heart health take off.”

Trending ingredients include kombucha, jackfruit and manuka honey for gut health and moringa, bone broth and turmeric for hearth health, he said.