Historically, there has been a rhythm to eating patterns in America; somewhat predictable habits formed by daily routines and needs. The early stages of the pandemic disrupted this rhythm, and just as eating patterns were returning to pre-pandemic normalcy, food inflation set them on end again, reports The NPD Group in its recently released 2022 edition of Eating Patterns in America.
"The rate of change in the US consumer's eating behaviors continues at a dizzying pace," says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. "Anyone hoping to return to normal must understand that there is no normal, only an ongoing evolution as we respond to new realities."
Portalatin points to six macro themes currently shaping the new realities of food and beverage consumption behaviors: economic transition, inflation, income bifurcation, sticky behaviors, total wellness, and the return to convenience.
Economic transition: Consumer spending in 2020 and 2021 experienced a stimulus-fueled surge that extended into the first quarter of 2022. But, the spending spree ended by the second quarter when stimulus money dried up, and inflation and economic uncertainty took hold. The positive and negative disruptions of the past few years may mean year-over-year economic metrics aren't as straightforward as they'd ordinarily be in explaining the consumer's health.
Inflation: Consumers are unlikely to reduce food and beverage consumption in the face of inflationary pressure. But, they will find ways to manage and allocate their food dollars. While inflation is more moderate for food away from home than food-at-home, the typical restaurant eating occasion still costs 3.4 times more than in-home food sourced from retail. To offset rising food costs, consumers are bargain-hunting when grocery shopping, eating more meals at home, and cutting back on restaurant visits.
Income bifurcation: One of the key themes currently shaping the food and beverage landscape is the difference in behaviors among income groups. Trends of upper- and lower-income consumers are starkly divergent. In the food and beverage industry, income bifurcation has profound implications for the total share of stomach trends, retailer and restaurant choice, dealing and promotions, and brands vs. private labels.
Sticky behaviors: Many eating behaviors adopted during the pandemic reflect a rapid acceleration of behaviors established long before the pandemic, like consumers eating most meals at home. Food and beverage behaviors may continue to "normalize," but the consumer landscape has been transformed as consumers created new capacities and restaurant operators expanded capabilities to serve a more home-centric consumer.
Total wellness: Due to the pandemic, consumers are finding a balance between foods that contribute to physical well-being and those that serve more emotional needs. They're increasingly in tune with the functional attributes of various foods and beverages that can contribute to both sides of this equation.
Return to convenience: Back to school and work create time pressures for home cooks and foodservice customers. And while home-centricity remains more prevalent, the return of mobility reintroduced the need for speed and convenience. For some occasions, this means a trip to a quick service restaurant, but for others, we want to retain our new at-home capacity, just with some shortcuts or time-saving techniques.
"America's eating patterns are shifting to adjust to new realities, and food manufacturers, foodservice operators, and retailers will need to adjust their offerings and services accordingly," says Portalatin. "Although the one constant is change, there is a constant to count on, the US consumer will always need to eat, and then it's a matter of figuring out what, how, when, and where."