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Friday, May 28, 2021

And the World Was Baking . . .

2020 was a year without precedent. I wanted to record, here, some of the issues that we all confronted concerning our eating patterns during the pandemic. 

Lockdowns, school closures, work-from-home, and restaurant restrictions changed how the world ate during 2020. For those who previously habitually grabbed a coffee to-go or fast food lunch, forced stay-at-home periods meant making our own cup of joe and quick lunch. With children home all day, typical cafeteria ingredients went unsold while canned soup and SpaghettiOs flew off supermarket shelves. Easy cooking was definitely a high priority for many.

Working from home meant more free time for hobbies for some folks. One hobby was bread-baking. People who had never baked a loaf of bread in their lives bought up the world's supply of packaged yeast. Of course, this led to the next big hobby, making your own sourdough starter to bake sourdough bread. This of course was premised on being able to buy flour. I stalked online retailers for both whole wheat and white bread flour on a daily basis for close to a month. King Arthur's website had a waiting list/pre-purchase for flour at one point, with limits on how many bags each customer could purchase. For yeast, if one was truly desperate, or wildly wealthy, bags of yeast could be bought on Amazon at a triple or quadruple mark-up. Amazon promised to curtail price gouging. They must've missed the yeast department.

Institutional food purchases sunk while supermarket shelves were cleared as fast as they could be restocked. One afternoon in mid-March, my sister phoned to tell me her son just called. What was his big news? He scored the last loaf of bread for the day at his local grocery store. Meanwhile, here in Washington state, my restaurant supply store had a surplus of bulk butter, the type of butter that is sold in 1-lb blocks, not handy sticks. I was able to "score" a 30-lb case of bulk butter for about $1.50 per pound.

Fears of virus contagion also changed how many of us shopped and ate. In the early weeks, fearful of catching or spreading coronavirus, I made my grocery purchases online, most of the time to be shipped to my home. Foods that are easy to ship are non-perishable. My family ate a lot of canned vegetables, canned tuna, canned chicken, powdered milk, dry Parmesan cheese, jarred applesauce, raisins, and peanut butter in spring of 2020. 

By late spring/early summer I was getting curbside pick-ups, which opened culinary possibilities to fresh produce, fresh eggs, fresh dairy, and fresh meat. Possibility is the key word, as some of these items were often sold out at my local grocery store. All of the inexpensive brands of eggs were quickly snatched up, leaving me with organic brown eggs for several weeks -- not a bad thing, but more expensive. I wondered, why eggs? My thinking is that for many who normally would buy take-out for meals, now had to cook for themselves and eggs are an easy to prepare main course.

For a while, there were limits on how many gallons of milk I could buy at a time. This was such a contrast to what I saw on the news where farmers were having to dump their excess milk. It seems without institutional users of milk, these farmers had no way to repackage dairy products for home consumption.

Grocery store scarcity was not only a result of folks eating at home significantly more. There were poultry and beef shortages due to virus clusters in meat packaging plants. I am normally somewhat selective about the meat that I buy. I like to see it in person and choose for myself. (This means I don't send my husband to the market to buy meat for me.) I have specific brands of chicken that I prefer. In late spring of last year, chicken was in short supply at my local market, even with strict purchasing limits imposed. When placing my curbside pick-up order, the store was sold out of a brand that I would find acceptable. I took my chances on an unknown brand. That was a mistake. My whole family agreed that this was perhaps the worst chicken we'd ever eaten. It was tough and had a heavy chlorine taste.  I didn't even know that this was a "thing." Here's a shocker -- the USDA allows poultry plants to use chlorine as a rinse to reduce bacteria. Luckily for us the consumer, only about 10% of poultry processors use chlorine. My family got unlucky. After dinner that night, I went online to discover that many other folks had similar poor experiences with this brand.

Another interesting bit I noticed was how much my family ate when at home all day, every day. They must have been picking up snacks while out and about before the pandemic, as they were gobbling everything I baked or set out as quickly as I produced. And yet, no one but me gained any extra weight. A side note, I spent more of my day in the kitchen in spring and summer of 2020 than I had for many years prior. Not only did our eating change, but my daily activities changed, too. Speaking of my family's eating habits, one of my daughters was frustrated by the Cheetos shortage. Yep, Cheetos. Salty snacks must've been popular with people working from home or laid off young adults (like my daughter). While I stalked retailers for flour and yeast, my daughter was stalking online sources for her beloved Cheetos.

A side effect of the pandemic was the rise in homeowners building up their own emergency pantries, more after the fact of the other food shortages (count me as one of those folks). At one point, I went online to find dehydrated potatoes and there were none to be found for many weeks. Ditto with powdered milk. When I finally got a notice that instant mashed were now in stock online, I bought 9 boxes. I think panic buying became a real thing for grocery shoppers like me. And we're still eating instant mashed potatoes. 

This may be something to which you can relate -- our dinnertime practices changed, too. We not only began eating dinner at an earlier hour, but we were all home every single night to eat together. No late stragglers or missing members because of work, classes, meetings, or other relationships. We had actual conversations as a family and lingered at the table longer after eating. This is one aspect of pandemic dining which has already begun to shift back toward previous patterns.

I do wonder, how many of these changes in eating habits will remain with us as we go forward into the post-pandemic world of gastronomy. Will I continue to keep my emergency pantry super well-stocked in future years? Will I buy instant mashed potatoes on a regular basis? This quick and easy side dish was a first for my family this last year. While we never ate in restaurants a whole lot before, I'm now even less inclined to dine out. It's not just Covid fears, but I've discovered that I simply like my own cooking. In addition, I'm now more aware of all kinds of infections that can be passed on to diners in public settings (norovirus, hepatitis). Plus, I've adopted healthier eating habits this past year. I don't want to slide back into eating foods that may taste great but be bad for heart-health. So, for those reasons, my family may not dine out much at all going forward, maybe for special occasions or when traveling. 

Some of our changes likely won't be permanent. While I loved the flavor and texture of my homemade sourdough bread, it really was a lot of work to make. I'm not eager to bake more any time soon.

So tell me, how did the pandemic change your food habits? What changes do you think you'll keep for the future and what do you never want to try again? Please add your own stories, struggles and observations about eating and shopping practices during the pandemic.


  1. What a great summary of 2020. I'm not sure my habits have changed a lot. I always have kept a pantry in the basement and while I was buying perhaps another month or two more than I had been, pre-pandemic, to keep some in stock, it wasn't a significant change for me. I have reverted back to my pre-pandemic purchasing patterns (well, ok, I DO keep more toilet paper on hand than before). I am concerned about food getting lost on my shelves and not using it up in the appropriate amount of time. Oh, and we do use dried beans and lentils more than we did in the past. Kind of a funny change--during the pandemic I discovered a cream biscuit recipe that calls for whole cream. It's SO easy and tasty and doesn't involve cutting butter into the dough (which I dislike doing) that now I keep whole cream on hand all the time. Using cream also makes superb scones, something which I have struggled to make to my taste standards in the past. We have eaten dinner at 5:00 p.m. for years--it seems to be the best time frame for all of us to sit down together for a meal before people are rushing off to go to activities (and my husband and I were typically home by then from our jobs). It was nice not to have to be out and about in 2020 and, while we had always made a point of eating together if possible, being able to linger over conversation was a benefit that we hadn't always had before.

    My hope is that, going forward, we all treasure our relationships more. The hardest part for me, hands down, was not being able to easily see friends and family--especially when my mom was under hospice care in her assisted living facility. As we are slowly edging our way back to a more normal world, I have a newfound appreciation for how precious and fleeting relationships are.

    1. Hi Kris,
      I hope we all treasure time spent with friends and family more, too. That could be one of the best things to come of this virus. Deeper spirituality would be another of those "best things".

  2. I don’t think much changed for us. I continued going into stores, just much less frequently. I always have a lot of food on hand, which came in very handy in 2020. I had to learn to be more patient and flexible though because the shortages were frustrating. If I couldn’t find an item for weeks and then suddenly could buy it, I seemed to buy double what I needed. The whole experience taught me just how fragile our supply chain really is. I am not, nor will I ever be, a prepper. But I will continue to keep a well stocked pantry because 2020 showed us all we really don’t know what will happen next week.

    1. Hi Diane,
      Yes, great point -- this past year has taught us that the supply chain on so many essentials is fragile and vulnerable, not just food and paper goods, but even fuel and electricity. I feel now like I don't want to even come close to running out f yeast, even though I know we could do just fine/we did just fine.

    2. Oh yes, yeast. I didn’t run out, nor do I bake a lot of bread, but I did come very close to running out. I was at Costco and they had the 2 lb bags in stock so I bought one. I had stopped buying the bags for years, and switched to the small jars, but decided since the bags were available and the small jars had vanished I better just buy what I could. My daughters were both into making the no knead bread so they bought a bag to split. Looking back, we probably should have split the bag 3 ways lol.

  3. We didn't eat out for many months this last year which was a change for us. My husband missed that more than I did. We didn't stockpile a lot, but did have a separate place with two weeks of food in case we had to quarantine. We had that much food anyway, but we made sure we had a well-rounded collection there. We continued to go into the stores although very cautiously, so we didn't change how we got our groceries. When did try a grocery delivery, but no one wanted to come to our house. It was easier for the drivers to stay closer to the stores. We also did a pick up which worked well at Walmart, but that was more for practice to help my father-in-law learn how to do it. We had some not so successful pickups at Lowes.

    My son had foresight early on to buy sanitizer, so we never had a lack of that. We sanitized all of our groceries for months until they said that transmission from touching things was rare to non-existent. I got caught up in the idea of baking and had to wait for a few weeks before we could find any flour to buy. However, we didn't bake that much. We don't have good self control with most baked goods, so it was best not to have them around.

    For various reasons, we haven't done much vegetable gardening in the past. However, early on, we built two raised beds and we enjoyed produce from them well into the fall. We are enjoying them again this year.

    We are slowly going back to our old ways as far as most of our eating is concerned. Things that are changing are not so much from being in a pandemic this past year, but more for the wish for better health.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      I hope that you enjoy the vegetable gardening. It is a great way to get oneself to eat more veggies, if that's ever a concern. I relate to a wish for good health. For me, I think the virus made me more aware of where my health's weak points are. So in that sense, for me a healthier approach to life was related to the pandemic.


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