Spending on food is divided into two main categories in the government statistics: “food at home” and “food away from home.” Unsurprisingly, the pandemic caused “food at home” to rise and “food away from home” to fall. But at least to me, the shift was less dramatic than I might have expected, and “food away from home” remains quite high. Eliana Zeballos and Wilson Sinclair of the US Department of Agriculture discuss the patterns in “Food Spending by U.S. Consumers Fell Almost 8 Percent in 2020” (Amber Waves, October 4, 2021).
Here’s the split between food at home and food away from home over time. The sharp pandemic-related movements in 2020 are obvious. But I remember being surprised when the food away from home share began to exceed the food at home share in 2020.
Here’s the spending in terms of dollars. The drop in total food spending of 8% in 2020 shows that the rise in the dollar value of food at home was smaller than the dollar value of the drop in food away from home.
Of course, the food away from home category is actually a bundle of goods and service: that is, it’s combines food with shopping, preparation, service and clean-up. A shift to food at home is also a shift to providing many of those complementary services yourself.
For my own family, we became more likely during the worst of the pandemic to prepare meals at home that used more costly ingredients, like cooking the steak or making the cocktails at home, given that we weren’t going out to eat. We ate our share of spaghetti during the pandemic, but we have also have added to our repertoire of high-end meals that required unique ingredients, shopping, and prep time. Also, the pandemic strengthened our incentives to identify the local restaurants with especially good take-out options. I suspect that some of those changes will be persistent.