Has lockdown changed what we eat?

During the three months of lockdown, we changed the way we think about food. In supermarkets, we got used to queuing just to get inside and staff struggled to keep the shelves stocked. The fear of shortages meant many of us started stockpiling. In March, grocery sales hit an all-time high, amounting to £10.8 billion. That’s higher than at Christmas, and we are still buying more groceries than before – in July, sales were 14.6 percent up on the same time last year.

The way we shop seems to have changed too. Early into lockdown, some three million people either ordered food from a local farm for the first time or joined a scheme to get a fresh vegetable box delivered. And projects have sprung up across communities to serve families who were struggling to get any food at all.

Sue Pritchard, Director of the RSA Food, Farming & Countryside Commission, is leading an independent inquiry set up to help shape a more sustainable future for food and farming. She told BBC Panorama: “People activism has started to mobilise around making sure that everybody has access to fresh nutritious affordable food. And that’s new and I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

Other changes to the way we ate in lockdown are well documented, with more of us shopping locally and online, cooking from scratch, and experimenting with new ingredients. Recognising these shifts, BBC One’s Panorama asks Has Lockdown Changed What We Eat?

Here we look at which changes could be here to stay, and ask home cooks and cookery writers what lockdown food shopping and cooking tips they would like to pass on.

Tom Heap explores how lockdown has changed the way we eat in Panorama.

Shifts towards eating in the home

During the three months of lockdown we ate 352 million fewer meals out than we would normally, according to Nielson. Trips to restaurants and cafes all but disappeared. Many gave what they had in stock to community projects and foodbanks. But because we are no longer eating as many meals out, the hospitality sector is now facing its own crisis.

Since 1st April, more than 1,200 restaurants have shut down and the sector has shed more than 17,000 jobs, according to figures compiled by the Centre for Retail Research. An industry that once was responsible for around 30 percent of food consumption is now cautioning that in city centres it is likely to struggle to get business back to even half of what it was by September, says The Food and Drink Federation. Research done by Kantar just days before the scheme launched suggests only 15 percent of people were happy go to a restaurant for a meal, while a total of 18 percent said they might go in a month and 23 percent said they’d be more willing to eat out later in the year.

How we made shopping online and locally work

When we struggled to get to the supermarket, we found alternative ways to buy our favourite foods.

Kantar’s research indicates that in May 75 percent of people were supportive of local shops (within a 30-mile radius) and agreed they are an important part of the community. Although this figure is declining, it still stands at 65 percent. Reasons for this vary, with 30 percent saying it is to support the local economy, 15 percent wanting to stay closer to home, and 14 percent wanting to support local rather than global brands. More than a quarter of respondents say they now pay more attention to product origin.

2020 has also seen more new online shoppers than the previous five years. Many of us shopped less frequently than before lockdown too, and chef Miguel Barclay says this could help us eat more healthily in the long term. “Shopping less often has made us all think harder about planning ahead, and this is probably the number one weapon in combating food waste and keeping us away from convenience foods – essential when eating on a budget. When we have the food in the fridge and we know what we’re making, there’s much less chance of popping into a shop to get a microwave meal or of ordering a takeaway.”

A number of producers had an up-turn in selling directly to customers too.

Which lockdown ingredients should we keep buying?

During lockdown, we’ve been buying more frozen food, packet foods, and alcohol, according to research. Some retro ingredients returned to our shopping bags too.

Miguel has been writing a book of store-cupboard recipes on a budget during lockdown. “I started to experiment with things like tinned potatoes and really enjoyed them. They are already cooked, so save you loads of time and washing up”. He’s also a fan of frozen peas: “They inject a bit of colour and vibrancy into a meal”. He recommends keeping a few spices, such as curry powder and cumin, too. “They can transform a dish”, he says.

Swapping ready-prepared ingredients for whole has also saved some people money. On Facebook, Miranda Smith told us “Prior to lockdown I was always buying bags of mixed salad and regularly needed to replenish them with trips to the local shop throughout the week. Whilst shielding, I went back to whole lettuces like Romaine or Kos, cutting off a bit at a time, and found they lasted well over a week. I also now use radish and grated carrots more, because they last for ages.”

Nutritionist Sarah Ann Macklin encourages us to keep up the habit of buying tinned beans, as they “add gut-loving fibre and plant-based protein, and one portion of beans counts towards your five a day”. She suggests adding tinned and dried ingredients such as fruits, nuts and wholegrains to dishes, including salads, to bulk them out and add texture and flavour. “To reduce the cost you can swap fresh apricots for dried, fresh corn for tinned and fresh herbs for dried.”

Which lockdown dishes should we keep cooking?

From banana bread to sourdough, we experimented with cooking in lockdown, whether out of necessity, because we were missing an essential ingredient, or just out of interest.

Food writer Sam Gates focused on batch cooking, as she was writing a book. “I make huge vats of tomato sauce. In any week, I’ll probably use it as the base for a soup, a stew and of course a myriad of pasta dishes. Pork mince is a staple too – it’s cheap and freezes well. We’ve been making lots of different flavoured pork meatballs, such as sage and apple, miso and coriander, and even tomato and basil. It’s also great as a base for spicy stir fries.”

Some of us tried cooking our favourite dishes a little differently. When baking bread, Sam “made it with very little salt, and got creative with herbs from the garden for fresh flavours”. She says “it’s definitely the way forward!”.

In a bid to reduce her plastic use, Emily Vickers told us on Facebook “We eat loads of wraps and yoghurt and made both ourselves from scratch during lockdown. Even sour cream is easy to make when you know how. We have also kept our sourdough starter going and even made things with the discard – pizza dough is the best so far.”