As qualitative researchers —Donna with an anthropological lens, and Laurie with an innovation lens— we often work on behalf of clients to understand perspectives and opinions related to specific brands or communications. As foodies, we enjoy working on projects related to the food industry. So, as we spoke this summer about how COVID-19 was affecting our personal lives, we decided to collaborate on a passion project to explore the nature of dinner in the age of COVID-19.
Our video interviews with folks from diverse backgrounds, life-stages, and household compositions revealed much about habits and practices around food planning, prepping, grocery shopping, cooking, and eating. We uncovered exciting insights that suggest implications for food retailers, marketers, manufacturers, meal delivery services, and others.
A central theme running across the research was the concept of taking stock, both literally and figuratively. The pandemic demanded us to take inventory as we looked through the pantry, fridge, and freezer. More broadly, it triggered us to take stock of our lives mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as we grappled with challenging issues that have become a part of our collective experience.
We learned that the question: “What shall I/we do for dinner tonight?” was on everyone’s minds and had become a central focus for the day’s events. In response to that question, we found a larger construct in the dichotomy of dinner, which we have identified as Romance vs. Reality. Although not a new construct, for many, this duality has been exacerbated by life under COVID-19.
The Romantic Dinner
First, let’s begin by toasting to the romantic side of this equation! Without the grind of the daily commute or hectic shuttling of children back and forth to school and events, many people found more time in their lives as they hunkered down at home.
The Romantic notion of dinner is described as an ideal time when household members sit down together, relax, and talk as a family. Dinner becomes a shared social experience as well as a form of entertainment. Under COVID-19, dinner becomes something to look forward to and even the highlight of the day.
Romantic dinners take preparation. People told us they turned to recipes found in books or the internet, while some took Zoom classes and learned how to bake challah or pizza. Some discovered their inner chef and experimented with new cuisines and cooking methods, such as the Instant Pot or air fryer. A few set the table with the good china and stemware. An older couple dresses up for dinner, with attire suited to the cuisine.
Half of our respondents regularly or frequently experience these romantic dinners. In many ways, these meals are a throwback to an earlier time, the idea of Sunday dinner with emphasis on wholesome, home-made foods, lovingly prepared and savored over the evening.
With few reasons to rush away from the dinner table, spouses deepen intimate relationships, parents and children spend precious time together and exchange ideas. Dinner in the age of COVID-19 for them is intimate, social, creative, and soul-satisfying. The Romantic Dinner has helped people emotionally get through the lockdown and restrictions on their freedom.
While most Romantic dinners are shared with immediate family and others in the extended COVID-19 social pod who safely dine together, some also extend this reach to far-flung family and friends virtually. Several respondents discussed sharing snacks, wine, and even holiday meals like Passover and Easter with distant friends and family via Zoom so they could keep relationships and traditions vibrant, even though people can’t come together physically.
As a form of entertainment, the Romantic dinner was described as an outlet for creativity and experimentation. People feel a sense of self-confidence in trying something new and home-made and even home-baked.
Several spoke with pride of pulling together an appealing and delicious scavenger meal from what they could find in the pantry, fridge, and freezer. Others found the pandemic a perfect time to experiment with foods from different cultures, which in some ways, was a stand-in for the travel they missed.
For many, the Romantic dinner is an opportunity to show off in the age of COVID-19. With recipe postings and stylized photos on social media, people relish their bragging rights. And all this ties in with the plethora of cooking shows and food porn.
The Harsh Reality Dinner
Not everyone answered the “What shall I/we do for dinner tonight?” question with positivity and creativity. Unfortunately, for some, dinner in the age of COVID-19 is a Harsh Reality.
The Harsh Reality dinner is a grueling, time-consuming chore, marred by stress, strain, and guilt, and simply a means to an end. Day in and day out, people grow bored with their cooking routine and the increased demands COVID-19 has placed on them.
These sentiments are felt acutely by parents of young children, especially those who work at home. These folks have many balls in the air—so food shopping, cooking, cleaning, maintaining safe/sanitary practices, and cooking a meal become the ultimate stressor.
Those who live alone and a few older empty-nesters were in this camp as well. They described dinner as a basic need or “fuel.” There’s nothing romantic about it, and “Netflix is my dinner guest.” For older couples who eat differently due to health issues, cooking is not enjoyable. As one retiree said, “I just wish someone would come and cook for me.”
And to a Gen X mom with two daughters and a husband, each of whom is on a different diet, it’s a veritable nightmare to figure out what to do at dinnertime to keep everyone at least somewhat happy.
Some people who experience dinner as a Harsh Reality feel guilt and shame at not doing more, not keeping up with others who enjoy cooking or seem to cook effortlessly. They feel the strain of not meeting the ideal, and self-judge as less competent mothers or spouses.
Glimmers of Light
Fortunately, for those experiencing dinner during the pandemic as a Harsh Reality, there are glimmers of light on the horizon. As some communities are taking control of their COVID-19 infections, many are once again easing the stress of the “what’s for dinner?” question by turning to take-out, curbside, and restaurant dining (alfresco predominantly).
The romantics are a bit sad to see these changes; but the hassled, harried parents who are juggling work, parenting, and homeschooling demands are welcoming the help that restaurant dining affords them.
For the Romantics…
- Brands and companies can provide ongoing ideas for menu planning, new recipes, ingredients, and cooking tools
- Offer simple, low-cost, and creative ways to beautify table and ambiance
- Consider bundling opportunities: e.g., spices or ingredients coupled with music (and video) representative of an international cuisine
- Design tools/services to enhance smartphone food photos styled perfectly for social media
- Advertising and communications can play up the multi-sensory, pleasurable aspects of cooking and dining at home
For those living in the Harsh Reality…
- Make it easy for the cook! Easy-to-find recipes, short cuts, and speed scratch cooking ideas
- Tools that simplify and make cooking faster and easier
- Break down recipes into individual portions for the solo householder or for households where each person has their own dietary preferences or needs
- And most importantly, food advertising needs to get real! Communicate in ways that acknowledge all types of diversity, and strive to de-stress, de-shame, and de-guilt the less-than-ideal cook.
About the Authors:
Dr. Donna Maria Romeo, Founding Principal, Romeo Anthropological Consulting, LLC
Donna is a business anthropologist and customer experience expert with a PhD in applied anthropology. For over 25 years, she has helped global organizations across a range of industries see the world of the consumer through fresh eyes. Her work has contributed to innovations in customer experience, marketing, service design, and product development
Laurie Tema-Lyn, Founder, Practical Imagination Enterprises®
Laurie Tema-Lyn is a qualitative research consultant and creative catalyst with 25+ years experience. She is former member of the QRCA Board of Directors. Laurie is the author of Stir It Up! Recipes for Robust Insights & Red Hot Ideas, and numerous articles which have appeared in VIEWS, Quirk’s Media and LinkedIn.