In North Andover, Massachusetts, a suburb north of Boston, the administrator of a community facebook weight loss support group posed the question: “Looking to avoid the quarantine fifteen?” One respondent jested in retort, “It’s the COVID 19.”  This hit home for me. As a wife and mother of two, I have worked hard to try to instill healthy eating habits for my family, but the pandemic disrupted our routines and caused emotional strain on many levels.  Would those healthy behaviors now be in jeopardy?  Like others, I struggled acquiring some of my favorite dietary staples and worried about having to rely on processed foods if fresh meat and produce became too difficult or expensive to obtain.  Rather than feel defeated, I embraced the opportunity to break out of my dietary comfort zones and cook more with my children. Without question, this crisis fundamentally changed what, when, and how my family eats, and for the most part, I would say these changes have been for the better.

As a food studies historian, I sought to learn about how my community’s food practices have been affected by the present crisis. I reached out to my town’s most active facebook community, “North Andover Moms,” with its 9.2K members, and the responses I received surprised and heartened me.

While I expected stories of panic buying and stress eating, their responses opened my eyes to what is perhaps a silver lining to this horrific pandemic. These unprecedented times might instruct us in unexpected ways, influencing our behaviors even post-COVID-19.  To caveat, these findings are far from definitive, limited by a sample of about fifty families who chose to respond.  Personal circumstances are hard to generalize.  Many families in town endure varying levels of food insecurity and those in “essential” employments lack the privilege of staying home.

The responses I received yield insights into how food can soothe the soul, especially in trying times.  Many respondents shared that their families are eating together more frequently and for longer duration.  One mom of teenage children summed up their experience as “Enjoyment!”: “We have been cooking together and lingering at the table with conversation or a board game.” Another mother of four stated, “LOVE that we all eat together at the table, not rushed at all… and we usually light candles!”  One family even broke out their fine dining tableware, to give mealtimes a special flair.  What is more, spouses as well as parents and children are cooking together – some learning to cook for the first time.  Mother Edi Roshi incorporated homeschooling into her kitchen, cooking meals from around the world with her children and having them research the cultures they explore.  She reports that her family discovered a new love for French cuisine.

On a sadder note, many miss not sharing meals with extended family and friends due to social distancing guidelines.  Some have become resourceful, organizing “zoom” family happy hours or virtual mealtimes.  Many families found virtual ways to stay connected for the Passover and Easter holidays, but these rituals may not have felt the same.  One mother, Laura Moscato Spedaliere, typically cooks for her cousin Eddie every week. Because he is unable to visit and loves her meatloaf, she prepared a to-go bag for him for pick up on her doorstep. While the situation isn’t ideal, these stories show the power of food as a social glue, not easily undone even under tough circumstances.

Many respondents talked about more consciously eating “real” food. There may be a true public health benefit in limiting access to fast food coupled with reduced pressure on scheduling, allowing more time for cooking and eating. “We are definitely able to eat cleaner,” Camille Jaber wrote, since “I am at home more than driving and at work and activities.”  Less commuting = more cooking.  Many families, however, have felt constrained by less access to fresh produce, perhaps because of limiting supermarket trips.  Consequently, frozen fruit is selling out across town. To solve this problem, stay-at-home mom Laura Uchuck Howell began growing sprouts and herbs in a home Aerogarden and is pickling vegetables to preserve them longer.  Families are learning to adapt: “My five-year-old daughter said last week, ‘I didn’t know fruit comes in a can!’” claimed local mom, Thao Nguyen.

According to Ryan Nutton, a bakery employee in the town’s Stop & Shop, the store has seen high sales of meats, pastas, ice cream, frozen goods, eggs, and flour.  Cooking more, respondents talked about making creative substitutions and seeking out new recipes to use what was available.  More care is being taken for meal prepping, to minimize grocery trips. Many described dusting off idle kitchen appliances, like electric griddles, mixers, pizza stones, blenders, and instant pots.  As I write this, bread is baking in my bread machine. Truth be told, I haven’t used it to bake bread in decades!  Because white and wheat flour have been flying off the shelves, one mom said her family has experimented with different kinds of flours for their baked goods.  Mother Diana Pell has not let the lack of ingredients prevent her from cooking her favorite dishes, leading her to create what she calls “ghost recipes,” which may only hint at the true taste of the dish.  She described “the ghost of chimichurri sauce” she prepared, missing a few key ingredients but still reminiscent. For others this experience has inspired long-term dietary changes, including one respondent who claimed that the challenges in acquiring meat finally gave her the impetus to become vegan.  Out of crisis comes innovation, reflection, and even transformation.

Not surprisingly, these dietary practices are impacting family budgets. Many report that they are spending more money on groceries than before, in order to stock up and because they are unable to shop for sales or patronize multiple stores. The economic realities of this pandemic will have lasting impacts. Some families have begun rationing certain food items. One mother of two utilizing the town’s free breakfast/lunch for public school children expressed gratitude for the program, claiming it has helped to “round out meals” for her family, even if they can’t choose what they receive.  Of course, local food producers have been hard-hit.  Many expressed great concern for these establishments, making a point to purchase takeout regularly to keep them afloat. Support for local restaurateurs, butchers, farms, and dairies has been extraordinary.

Another striking theme in many responses is more conscientiousness about limiting food waste.  Diana Pell wrote about the new rule in her household: “wasting leftovers is now unacceptable. I never liked wasting them and so I’d eat leftovers, but now EVERYBODY must eat leftovers if we have any.” Carolyn Desmarais conceded that her family has experienced some stress eating, but a conservationist mindset has kept that in check: “So less binge eating than I would have expected,” she observed.  Given the potential for food shortages and the expenses families have to bear, there is a palpable drive to maximize food resources.

Mother Patti Massey concluded, “In general I have found this experience to make me much more appreciative of our food resources and more creative with what I make.” These are scary and uncertain times, but there may be lessons to heed as we move forward: let this redouble our commitment to eating and cooking together, practicing mindfulness, supporting local producers, and enjoying every last bite.

 

Teaser photo credit: By NAThroughTheLens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0