Food & Cooking

How Covid-19 changed what Ireland eats and cooks

Irish people are cooking more at home, and from scratch with fresh ingredients, since the beginning of Covid19, and how we shop for food, cook and eat has changed significantly, according to an international survey led by Queen’s University Belfast and National University of Ireland Galway.

Lead researcher Dr Fiona Lavelle from the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s says: “Before the pandemic, we were cooking less and less. Research suggests a decline was under way in home cooking, cooking skills and confidence in a number of countries including the UK, US, Canada and Australia. Public health agencies were increasingly promoting cooking from scratch because of its connection to better diets. However, a lack of time restricted people’s ability to use these cooking and food skills.”

The survey in May-June 2020, when many countries were under some form of lockdown, used a sample of 2,360 adults across four regions – the island of Ireland, Great Britain, USA and New Zealand. It shows the pandemic has led to a dramatic shift in food practices, says Lavelle, including freeing up time for food preparation.

Findings for the island of Ireland include a significant reduction in using readymade ingredients for preparing dinner, in favour of more fresh or basic ingredients, in comparison to the other three regions.

Irish people also reduced the frequency of takeaways (Dr Lavelle points out the research was early in the pandemic and possibly due to fewer takeaway options). We’ve also thrown away less food in Ireland since the pandemic compared to the other three regions surveyed, a significant reduction in food waste .

The survey confirms what we know anecdotally, that we are baking more, but interestingly also says that those living in Ireland and Great Britain had significantly greater difficulty finding ingredients compared to the other regions.

The research found many people across the world were guilty of bulk buying, especially early the pandemic, which may leave the most vulnerable short and puts pressure on the food system.

Saturated fat intake

While Irish people have eaten more vegetables since March, there was also an increase in saturated fat intake, which was higher for Ireland than other areas.

Irish respondents increased what are called organisational food practices (things like planning ahead, shopping with a grocery list and keeping basics in the cupboard), which helps to reduce time in supermarkets and stick to food budgets. But both Ireland and New Zealand, perhaps due to tighter restrictions and having time, didn’t increase their management food practices (preparing in advance and batch cooking and freezing), though these may become more relevant as time is reduced again, says Dr Lavelle.

The research was led by the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s in partnership with St Angela’s College, Sligo (part of National University of Ireland Galway). The findings, believed to be the first published research across multiple continents on changing food practices due to Covid-19, were published in the Nutrients journal.

The sample of 2,360 adults on the island of Ireland, Great Britain, US and New Zealand included 538 in the Irish sample (with more females than males in this sample, because of sampling restrictions due to Covid), recruited through social media and network connections.

The survey overall found there were fewer changes in food behaviours in the US compared with the other regions and the most marked differences between regions occurred between the US and elsewhere. For example, there was an increase in vegetable intake in all regions except the US, and an upturn in home-cooking and home-baking frequency in all regions except the US.

Some good news

Parents cooking (and baking) with children had increased in all areas except the USA (interestingly, parents who included their children in the preparation of family meals more frequently had a higher diet quality). On the other hand, an increase in saturated-fat intake was seen everywhere except the US.

Dr Lavelle said: “These findings not only provide crucial data for how our food behaviours and systems have adapted to the pandemic but they have important implications for public health as we continue to try to manage Covid-19 with ongoing lockdowns and restrictions. We wanted to find out what impact the pandemic and lockdowns were having on people’s health but we also wanted to try to find a way of measuring the effect on global food systems.

“Thankfully, there’s some good news in our findings and many people have benefited from cooking more at home and eating a better variety of fresh food. But there are some red flags in there too, such as the rise in saturated fat consumption, which may be down to ‘comfort eating’ during lockdown. It’s very important – especially during a pandemic, for obvious reasons – to maintain a nutritious, balanced diet.

It was interesting, she said, that cooking with children has increased, “which is good for the children – but our study highlighted potential positive benefits for parents’ diet quality too when children were involved. With continued lockdowns and perhaps more people working from home in the future, I believe including children in cooking activities should be a key public health message.”

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