2021 Food Formulation Trends Point to Home Dining, Comfort and Health

Jan. 4, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked sizeable shifts in what, where and how consumers eat and are likely to linger in 2021.

As we’ve mentioned in previous podcast episodes and articles, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are cooking and eating more meals at home, stocking up their pantries with shelf-stable, center-of-the-store products, embracing e-commerce in their meal and grocery purchases, and seeking food and beverage products with a mix of attributes—comfort, health, indulgence, adventure, etc.—depending on their moods and needs.

The big question is whether these behaviors that dominated 2020 will become a regular part of consumers’ routines or fade in 2021.

Homebound eating

Traditionally, Americans eat about three-fourths of their meals and snacks in the home, according to a Hartman Group report “Covid-19’s Impact on Eating” (based on a study fielded in April 2020). When the pandemic hit last spring with subsequent government urgings to shelter in place, Americans hunkered down in their dwellings and many worked from their residences.

Eating and drinking occasions in the home jumped to 88% while away-from-home consumption dropped in half, notes Hartman. Fewer foodservice meals spurred consumers to cook more meals rather than up their demand for ready-to-eat options.

About 46% of consumers say they are baking more and 54% declare they are cooking more, according to a Hunter April 2020 report “America Gets Cooking: The Impact of COVID-19 on Americans’ Food Habits.” Half of these cooks are more confident in the kitchen and have discovered new brands or products, 44% have found new ingredients to use and 28% have rediscovered ingredients they have not used in a long time.

More than half of Americans claim they will continue cooking more in the future, reports Hunter. Their top three reasons are cost savings, healthier eating and trying new recipes. But consumers are split when it comes to health and indulgence. About 39% of consumers say they are eating healthier, reports Hunter, while 40% declare that they are eating more comfort and indulgent foods.

A July/August 2020 study from Acosta reports the shift to eating more meals at home and fewer at restaurants may become a long-term trend. Post pandemic, about 29% of consumers plan to eat dinner out less often or not at all, 33% plan to eat lunch out less often or not at all and 47% plan to eat breakfast out less often or not at all, according to the Acosta report “COVID-19: Reinventing How America Eats.”

With many Americans working at home, the biggest increases in at-home eating occurred in three dayparts — morning snack, lunch and afternoon snack, says Hartman. Seeking comfort in both savory and sweet snacks, consumers increased their snack food consumption about 8% during the pandemic, according to an NPD study Snack Food Behaviors in Challenging Times.

Except for diet plans like keto and gluten-free, consumers reduced their dieting regimens during the coronavirus pandemic. “Nutrition programs, like keto and gluten-free, offer a clear roadmap that provide consumers a sense of control,” says Darren Seifer, NPD’s food and beverage industry analyst. “On the other hand, indulgent comfort foods provide an escape from increased stress levels and offer a simple splurge that is popular during challenging times. Both paths are coping mechanisms to managing stress and disruption.”

Lunch took on the characteristics of dinner, reports Hartman, with more fresh ingredients and scratch cooking, more moderate preparation such as using a recipe, and a greater emphasis on health. Dinner involved more heavy preparation, such as cutting and chopping meat and produce. And more dinners were sourced from ingredients purchased for stocking the pantry.

But cooking dinner at home more often has brought a repetitiveness in the meals being prepared and served. This boredom or meal fatigue has led some consumers, especially Millennials, to move beyond the usual flavors and recipes at dinner, observes Hartman. And Acosta reports 25% of consumers are sick and tired of having to cook more.

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E-commerce and meal delivery

E-commerce emerged as a savior for several food companies during the pandemic – and most believe at least some of the consumer activity is here to stay.

"The FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] market was pushed 3-4 years ahead in terms of digitalization by the current COVID-19 crisis," says software firm Data Impact. "Omnichannel is becoming the new normal."

NPD reports about 40% of shoppers purchased edible groceries online in May 2020 versus 28% in May 2019. About 58% of shoppers say they are comfortable using digital/online tools to assist with grocery shopping, up from 35% in 2015 and 42% in 2017, reports Acosta.

A July/August 2020 Hartman report “Food Sourcing in America” asserts 56% of U.S. shoppers purchased groceries online in the past 30 days, 27% have increased their online grocery purchases during the pandemic, and 14% purchased groceries online for the first time during COVID-19.

Last May, PepsiCo launched two direct-to-consumer shopping websites, and With, consumers can purchase specialized bundles of brands such as Quaker, Gatorade, SunChips, and Tropicana. More than 100 Frito-Lay products are available on In November, PepsiCo opened a highly automated microfulfillment center in Joliet, Ill., to help the company meet growing demand from consumers shopping online.

With glum prospects for trick-or-treating, the usual Halloween sales bump looked doubtful for Hershey Co. But ongoing investments in online sales capacity helped save the candy holiday. Hershey’s e-commerce sales grew 80% in the third quarter, and helped the company to a stronger-than-expected third quarter.

While large food manufacturers have been ramping up their e-commerce business for several years, the biggest beneficiary of online food shopping may be specialty food makers. Small food manufacturers face a huge challenge of getting their products on the shelves of national and regional chain retailers, but the virtual shelf is unlimited and may help level the playing field.

For both large and small food manufacturers, the growth of e-commerce offers greater opportunities to connect and talk directly with their consumers and gain insights on their wants and needs. These learnings can be used to optimize new product development as well as packaging functionality and graphics.

Freshly launched a new menu line called Takeout Twists to meet the demand for takeout-inspired restaurant foods during the pandemic. The rotating menu includes Indian, Mexican, Chinese, and other ethnic dishes.

With meal preparation becoming a chore for some Americans, frustrated cooks are looking for quick and convenient mealtime options. Consequently, some have turned to meal delivery companies like Freshly, which saw its orders jump 20% in March when the pandemic prompted stay-at-home directives and restaurant closures.

Freshly is currently selling more than one million meals per week, compared to about 600,000 per week in 2019, reports Emily Buckley, vice president of Freshly's meals portfolio. Sales in 2020 were forecasted to reach $430 million.

Freshly sells better-for-you, single-serve chilled meals that consumers can heat in a microwave for about three minutes. Based on a weekly subscription model, shoppers can select 4, 6, 10 or 12 meals, which are priced about $8.50 to $11.50 per meal and contain about 500 calories and 30g of protein.

Nestle, which secured a 16% stake in Freshly in 2017, fully acquired the prepared meal service last October. At the time, Nestle USA CEO Steve Presley said, “Consumers are embracing e-commerce and eating at home like never before. It's an evolution brought on by the pandemic but taking hold for the long term.”

“Our business had been growing but the pandemic accelerated it,” says Buckley. “Consumers are embracing eating at home and e-commerce more than ever. The pandemic has heightened the need for direct-to-home food purchases.”

When the coronavirus hit last spring, Freshly’s biggest challenge was ramping up production to meet demand. “Some of our supply chains were impacted so we had to rely on secondary suppliers in some instances,” says Buckley. Due to a shortage of diced pork, Freshly switched to a sausage product for a couple of its entrees. “This actually turned out to be a positive thing. Our customers preferred the switch and we kept it going forward,” reveals Buckley.

Freshly saw two trends emerge during the pandemic. “About half of our customers claimed to be eating more comfort and indulgent foods while an almost equally sized subset of our customers said they were eating healthier, essentially using food as medicine to stay healthy and ward off disease,” says Buckley. Although the company had been making meals to appeal to these customers, “we leaned further into these concepts,” notes Buckley.

For 2021, Freshly plans to introduce a menu line with keto, paleo and plant-based inspired meals for health and fitness enthusiasts. Consumer research has shown a 34% increase in customers using the meals for lunch, says Buckley.

Health and immunity

About one-third of all eating and drinking occasions are about basic health and well-being, reports Hartman. Consumers have placed an increased emphasis on food as medicine and upped their demand for functional foods and beverages that support immunity.

When the pandemic began disrupting Americans’ lives last March, about 36% of “clean label enthusiasts” (CLE consumers) began making changes to their diets to boost their immune systems and keep themselves healthy, according to research from InsightsNow. Nearly two-thirds of these consumers increased their consumption of vitamins or supplements, 34% ate more fruits (specifically citrus) and vegetables and 9% increased their use of spices. Top supplements include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, probiotics and elderberry.

“Immunity-boosting ingredients will play a significant role in the coming year, while research and interest in the role of the microbiome and personalized nutrition as ways to strengthen immunity will accelerate,” declares Innova.

In September, Bolthouse Farms rolled out Superfood Immunity Boost fruit juice blend with elderberries, cranberries, echinacea, zinc, and vitamins C and D. 

Several food companies have jumped on the immunity bandwagon with new product launches. In September, Bolthouse Farms rolled out Superfood Immunity Boost, a fruit juice blend with elderberries, cranberries, echinacea, zinc and vitamins C and D. In October, PepsiCo debuted Propel Immune Support, an electrolyte water with added vitamin C and zinc.

That same month, Uncle Matt’s Organic launched Ultimate Immune Orange Juice Beverage with elderberry, vitamins C and D and zinc. In November, Ocean Spray introduced B1U functional infused waters, including I need immunity variety with 22mg of zinc and 128mg of vitamin C.

Trading up

Although the pandemic resulted in a deep recession with staggering unemployment levels, consumers did not exhibit the usual price sensitivity toward food purchases that typically happens during an economic downturn. Instead, many consumers are trading up to more premium and indulgent foods and beverages.

Grocery shoppers — with both high and low incomes — are buying premium/superpremium food & beverage products at the expense of value lines and private label, according to an IRI report Discovering Pockets of Demand: The Premium Opportunity. Recessions typically see increased consumer spending on private label and value brands as well as shopper shifts to value merchandisers. This behavior has not occurred, says IRI. In fact, the market shares of premium and superpremium brands are up while mainstream, value and private label are down.

Consumers are buying more premium wine/beer/liquor and premium/specialty coffee to re-create their favorite experiences at home, more meal kits to cook predefined recipes at home and more premium or specialty food items to prepare restaurant-style meals at home, says IRI.

In the pasta sauce category, IRI reports that premium and superpremium products increased their market share from 21.3% pre-pandemic to 26.1% during the pandemic, benefiting such brands as Rao’s Homemade, Michaels of Brooklyn, and Primal Kitchen. 

In the pasta sauce category, premium and superpremium products increased their market share from 21.3% pre-pandemic to 26.1% during the pandemic, benefiting such brands as Rao’s Homemade, Michaels of Brooklyn and Primal Kitchen, reports IRI. In the frozen dinners category, indulgent, convenient and better-for-you products witnessed accelerated share growth, boosting sales of brands such as Amy’s, Smucker Uncrustables and Saffron Road, says IRI.

No meat? Eat plants

The combination of consumer panic buying and COVID-19 outbreaks at several meat processing facilities put strains on meat and poultry supply chains, resulting in meat shortages on the grocery shelf last spring.

This prompted some consumers to try meat alternatives, such as plant-based meats. ADM reports 18% of alternative protein buyers purchased their first plant-based protein during COVID-19, and 92% of those first-time consumers say they are likely to continue buying meat alternatives.

Based on Nielsen data, the Good Food Institute reports plant-based "meat" dollar sales jumped 265% over the eight-week period ending April 18, 2020, outpacing conventional meat sales growth by six times during this period. Meat alternative sales (including fresh and frozen) advanced 50-60% for the months of April, May and June compared to a year earlier, 40-50% in July and August, and 30-40% in September and October, according to IRI and The Shelby Report.

While the pandemic has accelerated the growth of plant-based meats, the category has been gaining steam for several years. From 2015 through 2019, plant-based claims on new food and beverage products globally exhibited a 57% compounded annual growth rate, reports Innova Market Insights.

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