Eating Our Feelings: The 2020 Food Trends Report

Eating Our Feelings: The 2020 Food Trends Report

October 1, 2020

By Jasmine Dadlani, Director of Strategy, McKinney NY

While editing this article late one night, I found myself sipping on a kale/Swiss chard/spinach smoothie…and chowing down extra toasty Cheez-Its straight from the box like they were immunity vitamins. That’s 2020 in a nutshell — doing whatever it takes to feel better, in life and in what we eat. 

In studying food trends for the past decade, we’ve always known that what people seek in life they also seek in food. And we don’t define our trends just by what’s “in” or “out” — our real focus is determining why something is trending and what it means at a deeper level. Because our plates are a mirror for what’s happening in society, even brands and companies outside the industry can learn by watching what happens in the food world.   

We wrapped up our 2020 version of food trends in February and uncovered more than a dozen overall trends, along with nearly 90 interesting and sometimes eyebrow-raising innovations (DNA-based ice cream and sustainable food packaging modeled after condoms, to name a couple). Of course, the world then made a massive pivot a month later and the food world went right along with it.   

Our plates — and our lives — look very different than they did in February. From COVID-19 to the Black Lives Matter movement to economic disruption, big changes in our culture have triggered big changes in what and how we eat.  

Here are four food trends that have developed in light of these disruptive events — one each in technology, wellness, social responsibility, and culture. While these can be discussed as discrete trends, they overlap in many ways. That’s because trends don’t live in isolation. Rather, they’re driven by a larger force happening in our world. 

And right now, the force that’s driving those trends could be called “The Great Acceleration.” Things that were on their way out are being pushed out for good. Things that were emerging are being rapidly brought into the mainstream. It’s easy to assume the events of this year changed everything, but, in reality, they only accelerated what was already in motion.

1. Safety > Cool 

Tech has been growing in the food space for decades, but the pandemic kicked innovation into high gear. However, the role tech plays has shifted from cool factor to be all about prioritizing safety.  

Take Coca-Cola’s Freestyle soda dispenser: Their latest innovation allows thirsty customers to control contactless pouring from a smartphone app. And in Japan, the chain Mos Burgers is testing robots that employees can operate from home — that includes employees who find themselves at home sick but still want to work.

2. Wanted: transportive experiences

Looking at culture, the 2009 recession found people substituting going out to eat for experiences they could no longer afford, like vacations and more expensive recreational activities. This time around, even a night out at a favorite restaurant is unavailable in many cases. But the food world has some ideas to help us re-create the experiences we love.  

Snapchat and DoorDash partnered to create AR filters of favorite chain restaurants, like The Cheesecake Factory and Chili’s, to help people remember how it feels to eat in a restaurant. For those who miss a nice dinner with their friends and family, food delivery services in Malaysia are allowing people to send each other home-cooked meals. 

And because the true test of a trend is if it has a counter-trend, restaurants are also adapting their dining in experiences to fit today’s protocols. The Inn at Little Washington added mannequin “diners” to their dining room — even instructing servers to pour them wine to make the dining room feel like a normal bustling evening.  

3. Have your kale and eat cake, too 

As my late-night snacking demonstrated, the existing tension between health and comfort peaked during the pandemic. On one hand, people are seeking out more “emotional support foods,” with snacking behavior increasing by 8% according to NPD (as compared to a 1% increase during the last big economic downturn). Brands are tapping into this need for comfort by tapping into childhood nostalgia, even through new innovations.  For example, Cheetos launched Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese Flamin’ Hot Flavor and General Mills is bringing back Dunkaroos. 

On the other hand, COVID-19 put an increased focus on overall health, leading myriad meat and milk alternatives (microbes and pea milk, anyone?) to take off. But it’s not just substitutions. Consumers want their food and beverages to work harder for them, as we see functional beverages like kombucha-infused seltzers and adaptogen-spiked euphorics are flying off the shelves. 

4. Put your money where your values are 

Social responsibility has always played a role in the food world, but the pandemic plus the discourse around racial inequality created an environment where brands can no longer silently wait out the storm. Or rather, they can — they just risk being canceled. 

Companies are rethinking their policies (Zomato, a global food delivery company based in India, is offering paid leave…for periods), re-evaluating their brand image (Uncle Ben’s controversial evolution to Ben’s Original), and taking a stand for the environment (New Belgium’s Fat Tire hiked the price of its six-pack to $100 to show what would happen if we don’t take action on climate change).

Looking at these shifts, it’s important to keep something in mind: Consumers don’t experience the world in trends. As such, we marketers have to fight the urge to look at these trends individually. It can be tempting to cherry pick one that aligns with our needs, but we need to step back and understand how they work together and what’s ultimately driving them. Because whether you operate in the food world or another industry, our collective plate is a great place to start looking for your next consumer insight and brand story. Just make sure to have plenty of Cheez-Its on hand for the brainstorm…and yeah, maybe the kale smoothie, too.

Download a preview of McKinney’s 2020 Food Trends Report.