It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot about the way we live. It closed businesses, made home offices and homeschool the norm, halted travel, and drastically altered or eliminated most of our leisure activities.

Another area where it had a tremendous impact was our diet — what, where, and how often we eat. A survey conducted in April 2020 found that more than 85% of Americans changed their eating habits in the early days of lockdowns. A follow-up survey in March 2021 revealed that 44% of people are still cooking at home more often. As we continue to turn the corner on COVID-19, we can carry forward some important takeaways for better nutrition.

How eating habits changed in 2020

While there was a lot of media focus on the “quarantine 15” (the average number of pounds you might gain in quarantine), some eating habits changed for the better.

  • 60% of people ate more home-cooked meals
  • 22% ate healthier than they usually do

Most meals cooked at home are healthier than restaurants because they contain less sodium, saturated fat, and fewer total calories. Plus, you can track calories easier, which is much harder to do at chains or independent restaurants that don’t post nutrition and serving information.

However, not all of our quarantine eating habits have been good. The same survey found:

  • 32% of people reported snacking more often
  • 20% ate more food or more often than usual
  • 15% reported eating less healthy food

As gyms and other workout facilities closed down, many people’s unhealthy eating habits were compounded by less exercise. That has led to significant weight gain for some.

Continue these positive quarantine eating habits

Eating at home is a healthy habit to continue and can have several other benefits beyond just a healthier diet:

  • Cooking and eating with friends or family members at your dinner table is a great way to connect socially.
  • Eating at home generally costs a lot less than takeout or restaurant meals.
  • Cooking can be a psychologically beneficial activity, stimulating your brain and helping you to unwind at the end of the day.

Other beneficial habits that many people adopted during quarantine and should continue include:

  • Reducing food waste. When food was hard to find, people were less likely to waste it. Wasted food takes up more space than any other waste in U.S. landfills. We throw away more than 80 billion pounds of food every year. As people became more aware of food costs and scarcity, they were less likely to throw it away unnecessarily.
  • Buying local. Disrupted supply chains and worries about shopping in crowded grocery stores led more people to locally-grown foods. Shopping and eating more locally reduces other forms of waste, like transportation costs, and supports local businesses.

How to start or continue healthier habits

As the pandemic fades, we have an opportunity to improve our overall health and eating habits. You don’t have to overhaul your entire diet, but it does mean starting (or continuing) to build healthy eating habits.

  • Prep healthy meals in advance so they are always ready to eat.
  • Adjust some of your favorite “comfort food” recipes by substituting delicious and healthy alternatives for high-fat, high-calorie, or high-sugar ingredients.
  • Be more mindful of what you put into your body and focus on energy-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Keep things simple. It’s been a stressful year, so don’t try to do too much at once. Making small changes like eating smaller portions or swapping out processed foods for whole foods can add up to better health.

A lot has changed since the beginning of 2020. But one thing that remains important is focusing on your overall health and wellbeing.