Many things have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the most impactful and immediate changes involved our eating habits.

Changes in Eating Habits

The International Food Information Council Foundation 2020 survey on eating habits went out just weeks into most COVID-19 lockdowns. They conducted a second survey in March 2021 and found that:

About 25% of people with a body mass index (BMI) in the “normal” range put on weight in 2020, as well as one-third of people whose BMI was in the “overweight” or “obese” range. Another study found that 46% of women and close to 41% of men gained weight during the lockdown.

The stress of the pandemic and other factors—like limited access to fitness facilities and work-from-home arrangements that put people near their pantry all day—also contributed to weight gain.

Even with a rapid shift to cooking more at home, a significant number of people did not eat a healthier diet.

The Return to Restaurants

Before the pandemic, eating out was very common. Household spending on food away from home was at an all-time high in 2019 at $3,526 per year (about $300 a month). As vaccines increase and infections decrease, Americans are reportedly ready to get back out. By June 2021, 70% of people said they are comfortable dining out again, which never went above 40% last year.

Recognizing Unhealthy Eating Habits

As we return to restaurants, the challenge for many people will be understanding how to go back to eating out without exacerbating weight gain and unhealthy eating habits from the past year.

When comparing restaurant food to home-cooked meals, restaurants almost always have:

Other lifestyle factors could also put people at risk of more weight gain as they go back out to eat. People who are still working from home, for example, might snack more on weekdays and then eat more calories in restaurant meals for dinner or on weekends.

Healthy Eating at Restaurants After COVID-19

Restaurants provide ambiance, connection and can be an important part of your social life. Rather than avoid restaurants entirely, implement these healthy habits when you go out:

  • Share a meal with someone or take half home as leftovers.
  • Order from the appetizers menu for smaller portions.
  • Ask about alterations that can make a meal healthier—for example, grilled chicken instead of fried.
  • Don’t be tricked into eating more because it’s cheap to upsize. Stick to a small fries or small drink (ideally water!).
  • Replace fried or fatty sides with “whole” foods like fiber-filled beans, sweet potatoes, greens, and whole grains. 

Try New Restaurants with Healthier Options

One positive trend in 2021 is the number of restaurants catering to a healthier lifestyle. Along with other changes in our diets, 41% of people started eating more protein from plant-based sources in 2020.

Today there are more plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian restaurant options available. Even some of the most popular restaurants, from fast food joints to a restaurant dubbed the “best in the world,” offer plant-based alternatives or switch entirely to plant-based menus.

Eating a plant-based meal doesn’t guarantee it will be healthy, though. So still pay attention to portion sizes and how food is prepared to get the most out of your healthy restaurant meals.