Covid-19 has caused many changes in our lives. But there is one major thing it has altered: our daily diet. From enthusiastically consuming packaged and ready-to-eat foods like noodles, chips and pastas to experimenting in the kitchen, people’s eating habits have undergone a drastic transformation
By Reya Mehrotra
Days before the nationwide lockdown was announced by PM Narendra Modi on March 25, Gurugram-based housewife Ritu M had already made preparations and stocked up on essentials, panicked by rumours of a shutdown doing the rounds. Interestingly, the 45-year-old didn’t just stock up on staples like flour, oils, pulses, fruits and vegetables. Keeping her 12-year-old foodie daughter in mind, Ritu also ensured that she had enough packets of noodles, pasta and other ready-to-eat/instant mixes such as puliogare, lemon rice, etc, at home.
She wasn’t alone, as several others hoarded and stocked up on packets of Maggi noodles, chips, ready-to-eat and packaged foods to “get through” the period of the lockdown. Ready-to-eat meals and instant noodles were, in fact, observed to be flying off the shelves in supermarkets, with their sales skyrocketing in the first month of the lockdown.
Globally, too, the case was no different. Shortly before the announcement of the lockdown, panic buying and hoarding led to a sharp spike in the sale of packaged food items. An April 7 report in The New York Times revealed how even healthy eaters in the US were turning to packaged food products during the lockdown, burdened and stressed by household chores and work from home. The report explained how, with the closure of restaurants, the demand for frozen pizzas and other packaged food products had grown significantly, with large packaged food businesses such as Campbell Soup Company, Kraft Heinz, Hamburger Helper, Cheerios, Doritos and Cheetos observing steep growth in sales.
Besides a rise in the consumption of packaged foods, there was another trend of people turning to cooking, trying their hand at new dishes and experimenting with flavours. It wouldn’t perhaps be wrong to say that after the days of keto, paleo, DASH, pescatarian and many other diets, we have now entered the phase of the ‘pandemic diet’—eating what you love!
Ready to devour
On May 19, Nestlé India chairman and managing director Suresh Narayanan during an online media roundtable said the company observed a 10.7% increase in domestic sales amounting to `3,124.2 crore for the March quarter. The January-March quarter, in fact, recorded the best quarterly sales growth in almost five years globally for the company, as consumers stocked up on packaged food products, Narayanan said. He further added that demand for items like Maggi noodles, coffee, Milkmaid condensed milk, KitKat and Munch chocolates surged during this period. “There has been a lot of interest in our brands because in-home consumption has gone up,” he said, adding that pantry-loading would increase in the future with a rise in in-home consumption of foods.
Online giants like Grofers and Flipkart also reported an increase in sales thanks to panic buying, with packaged food items being sold the most. “The demand for ready-to-eat meals has recorded considerable growth. We have seen 170% increase in shoppers for ready-to-eat (items), 31% increase for readymade meals and mixes, and 41% increase for frozen foods. Packaged/ready-to-eat food is easy to consume and store for a long period of time… it is also a quick way to make a meal at a time when people are also doing household chores,” says Saurabh Kumar, founder, Grofers, adding that since the lockdown, the online store witnessed 2x growth, which has now normalised to 60% of pre-Covid levels.
The scenario was the same for Walmart. “From a consumption perspective, there was an immediate spike in hygiene products such as sanitisers, home cleaning products, etc. We also saw higher demand in food categories such as staples and grocery items like tea, biscuits, noodles, pasta and namkeens. The demand for hot beverages has been particularly high and skewed towards smaller packs, indicating higher home consumption,” says Sameer Aggarwal, CEO, Best Price, Walmart India.
Explaining the reason behind this sudden spurt in people buying packaged foods, a Flipkart spokesperson says it’s because consumers have been confined to their homes, which is leading to a shift towards indulging in easy-to-make food items. “It’s one of the reasons why packaged food products have been trending across stores and online grocery platforms. We have seen such products trending higher than the BAU (business-as-usual) levels since April, with demand being higher in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad,” he says. “The top categories that have seen increased interest from consumers are ready-to-eat meals (which have seen a growth of 125%) followed by noodles and pasta (with 40% growth), breakfast cereals, chocolates, ketchups and spreads, etc. We are also working continuously with authorities to ensure that the everyday requirements of consumers are delivered at their doorsteps. We have been boosting our portfolio within this segment with the help of ecosystem partnerships with leading retail stores, FMCG brands and suppliers, so that there is a continuous supply of products while maintaining hygiene,” the spokesperson adds.
Mumbai-based Avenue Supermarts, which owns and operates the DMart supermarket chain, also observed growth in its last quarter ending March. According to data released by the company, the overall revenue grew by 23% during the quarter ending March 2020.
The lockdown also saw an increasing number of people rustling up dishes in their kitchens. From celebrities to common people, everyone took to the kitchen. “In the lockdown, I entered the kitchen for the first time,” actor Vidya Balan was quoted as saying in an interview.
She wasn’t the only one, as many more made their debuts in the kitchen to beat boredom and stress. In April, social media was, in fact, flooded with pictures and videos of people frying samosas and panipuris. Naren S, a Bengaluru-based engineer, says cooking was a constant for him and his wife during the lockdown. “Since both me and my partner are enthusiastic cooks, we would try to trump each other’s recipes, surprise each other with new dishes and compete to see who made better bhaturas, gulab jamuns and sevai. We followed food vlogs for Indian street food and made Indore’s khopra patties, aloo kachori, Rajasthan’s bedmi, papad sabzi and more. We perfected our paranthas, momos, noodles, soups, handmade pastas like Ladakhi skyu, as well as cracked the mint-lime cooler,” says Naren. “We were always cooking, sometimes till 2 am… the lockdown spoilt us as cooks. It was a great opportunity to make do with whatever was available in the grocery store inside our apartment complex,” he adds.
A recent study by Boston-headquartered online visibility management platform SEMrush focused on finding which recipes Indians searched for the most online between February and May. The results included cake, samosa, jalebi, momos, dhokla, panipuri, breakfast, bread, paneer and pasta recipes. The study also found that a significant number of searches were on how to cook things like brown rice, quinoa, broccoli and so on. Recipes of snacks were also found to be trending.
Interestingly, the study found that the country’s favourite non-Indian dish was pasta, with online searches for its recipe rising by 50% compared to pre-Covid times, or before February. As per the report, panipuris, momos and other fast food dishes were the most cooked during the lockdown, as family members craved street food at home.
Mumbai-based chef and restaurant consultant Mitesh Rangras feels the pandemic diet had many stages. The first was when people made basic dishes like khichdi, sambhar, vegetable dishes, basic curries and dal-chawal, as most of them were caught unawares and without many ingredients at home. “After that, people were making a lot of street food, as markets were closed and cravings were peaking. Then there was an upward curve towards slightly more exotic recipes. Dishes like truffle and parmesan risotto were being made. Then came the fatigue phase when people got bored of cooking and sitting at home, so the cooking as per convenience came in… and healthy eating stepped in. People realised that it’s important to improve one’s immunity, so consumption of ingredients like amla, fresh turmeric, jaggery, black salt and giloy (Ayurvedic herb) increased,” says Rangras, adding that he received many requests for fast food recipes like chaat, shawarma, pizza, momos, and “desi Chinese”.
Elaborating on the reason why many became “quarantine chefs”, he says it was because cooking is both a therapeutic, as well as creative exercise. “You learn something new each time even with the same ingredients, so it never gets boring. During the lockdown, I experimented with a new chicken laksa recipe, made fresh dough pizzas in the home oven, a gooey chocolate cake and a French vanilla and lemon cake. It’s been interesting,” Rangras says.
Celebrity chef Ranveer Brar has also been posting easy quarantine recipes to try at home on his Instagram handle ever since the lockdown began. His quarantine cooking mantra is ‘less ingredients high nutrition’. “The most commonly cooked dishes during the lockdown were in extremes. People were, what I call, flirtatious with the palate, as they were either cooking street foods like panipuri, pav bhaji or comfort foods like khichdi. I got a lot of requests from people to post fast food recipes like pizzas and burgers. In fact, I got two million views for my pizza recipe video. The idea behind posting quarantine cooking videos was to cook recipes with less ingredients, but high in nutrition. The lockdown cookbook on my Instagram has more than 60 recipes. And even I tried cooking something new during the lockdown. I experimented with a combination of raw and ripe mangoes cooked with tomatoes and potatoes, and tempered with fenugreek. It turned out to be a beautiful recipe,” says Brar.
As per the study by SEMrush, Indians also searched online instructions on how to bake. “Baking is a very therapeutic activity. A lot of people are baking to spend time together as a family and to satisfy all their cravings. It is also helping them stay calm,” says Mumbai-based chef Aditi Handa, co-founder and chief baker at The Baker’s Dozen, which shared on Instagram recipes of easy-to-make cakes like vanilla pound cake, breads like banana bread and sour dough bread, and cookies, which can be easily made at home.
Eating at home
It’s clear that even when in the future dining out picks up, the ‘hygiene question’ would stop many from doing so. Bengaluru-based research firm Feedback Insights released a report titled ‘The New Normal: A Case of Diffusion of Innovation’ in May. A survey was conducted with more than 1,200 respondents across all age groups from different parts of the country to assess how Covid-19 is impacting consumer behaviour. The survey found that many were unwilling to eat at restaurants. After July, though, there would be an increase in hotel/restaurant diners, it said.
A March 2020 Nielsen article titled ‘Asian consumers are re-thinking how they eat post Covid-19’ also suggested that the trend of eating homecooked food would continue for a long time. The SEMrush study reported similar findings. “We believe many of the practices Indians are adopting will be carried forward,” says a SEMrush spokesperson. “Many who have learned how to make bread at home, for instance, may continue to do so. Our study also suggests that India is still overwhelmingly a vegetarian society. The only non-vegetarian recipe searched for was chicken. To restaurants, this signals that chicken is the most palatable of non-vegetarian food in India,” he says.
Eating at home has no doubt triggered healthy eating habits amongst many, especially as there’s a need to boost immunity in these times. The Feedback Insights report, in fact, found that 55% of the survey respondents started eating healthy post the news of the pandemic. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) also recently released guidelines under the ambit of its Eat Right India movement. In light of this, the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), the country’s leading animal protection body, has endorsed plant-based food as an immunity builder. “Green foods are vital against novel coronavirus as they improve immunity of all age groups… hence, they should be promoted by the FSSAI. It is also pertinent that all the slaughterhouses and meat shops follow the rules notified by the FSSAI under ‘food hygiene and safety guidelines for food businesses during Covid-19’ or they should be banned,” says Varda Mehrotra, executive director, FIAPO.
Various Ayurvedic immunity boosters are already selling fast in the market keeping pace with evolving consumer behaviour. FMCG company Dabur has seen a 400% surge in demand for its flagship immunity booster Dabur Chyawanprash and 80% traction for Dabur Honey. Growing Ayurvedic brand Upakarma Ayurveda is witnessing a 35% surge in its immunity boosting products, while the startup Oziva—which pioneers clean, plant-based nutrition—is seeing 40% increase in queries since mid-May, especially in categories related to immunity and fitness.
For the love of food
Here are some dishes that were cooked the most during lockdown
- Chicken recipes
- NoodlesSource: A SEMrush study