2021: Paying attention to our plates
The eating habits of consumers, which have recently come under scrutiny, show an increase on the awareness of the impact of one’s over-industrialized consumption on the environment, as well as on one’s health. In France, people began to pay more attention to the contents of their plates during the several lockdowns this year. They consumed more organic, fair-trade and local products: a return to the essential, familiar and reassuring, in a world where nothing is familiar anymore.
As social interactions reduced this year, people compensated by cooking more as a family, making the most of their time, turning into cooks, bakers, pastry chefs and neighborhood caterers, brandishing the banner of homemade products on social networks.
We spoke to four new kinds of consumers. Each of them exercises control over their food and consumption, more or less deliberately, at their own pace, whether for health, ecological or financial reasons. These new habits are undoubtedly related to the anxiety-provoking atmosphere today, but for the most part, they are likely to endure, as they reveal renewed aspirations for anchoring and transparency.
Charlotte, bulk buying convert
It’s Wednesday, and Charlotte, 43, has just stocked up at the Biocoop store near Rouen, as she does every four months or so. No plastic shopping bags, but a mix of big cloth and paper bags that she reuses every time, containing 5 kilos of sugar, 5 kilos of rice, 10 kilos of flour, as much pasta, cereals, salad seed mixes, and a large quantity of semolina “for couscous.”
In the kitchen, loads of glass jars are ready to be filled, labeled, and piled up in a large glass-door cabinet. The remaining bags are stored in the basement pantry.
Charlotte is among the 36% of French consumers in the “sensible consumers”* category, who watch their plate and their wallet, and try to align their desire to eat well with their circumstances. In the span of a few months, she has even moved towards “deconsumerism.”
“I think it’s so ridiculous to have a package for 500 grams of pasta. It’s pure waste. What’s more, given the health crisis, I clean all the packaged products. With unpackaged groceries and large quantities, I save time. It allows us to plan better, eat better and consume less refined sugars and flour. It’s also a way to have control over what we consume, over the pace of our shopping, and to free ourselves from supermarket circuits.”
Charlotte has always been “resourceful,” a principle that allows her to stay within her budget. “In the end it’s cheaper, better quality and better tasting.”
She is planning to make her own detergent: “8 liters in a big pot bought from Emmaus [a charity shop] and soap flakes. At the moment it’s going really fast with the masks to wash and the rest… I’m saving a fortune. Not counting the barrels of washing powder that we throw away. It’s just crazy when you think about it. Before, I used to open the trash can and it was gone! Now I ask myself the right questions.”
Sandra, batch cook of the month
In her apartment in the Paris region, Sandra, a single mother on “special leave” due to pandemic-related reasons, prepares a 600-gram portion of foie gras, which she offers for sale to her neighbors, who are delighted to buy her homemade foie gras for a bargain price during the holiday season.
The health crisis has turned Sandra into an even more organized and practical person. This year, she has decided to eat better, “to boost her immune system and that of her daughters.” She follows the recommendations of a nutritionist, and gets ideas on the web to optimize her schedule. That’s how she became a fan of “batch cooking,” a method that consists of planning the week’s meals and cooking them on the weekend in advance. “I bought containers, on which I put color codes. I prepare all the week’s meals in advance, freeze them and eat them when the time comes. I save a lot of time and at least I know what’s gone into the food on my plate.”
Sandra is one of the 10% of consumers considered “smart consumers” who have gone into ingenuity mode during the pandemic. She is also among the French consumers, nearly one in five, who have turned to apps to track and optimize their nutrition habits.
Above all, she looks for value for money, and frequently uses the Too Good To Go app, which allows retailers (and previously restaurants) to sell their unsold products, especially fruit and vegetables or products whose expiration date is approaching. Recently, she has picked up some butternut squash and a good amount of fruit “for a song.” She quickly starts making soup, as well as a puree. Sandra also plans on sharing some of her cooking with a neighbor, because “local food networks are also a matter of human relations.”
Gaëtan, in his comfort zone
Organic chips for cocktail hour. “I picked them more because they looked good, homemade,” says Gaëtan. But organic is “trendy,” and the upper-middle-class Parisian often makes eco-friendly choices to avoid being the opprobrium of his circle of friends.
He is one of the 27% of carefree consumers in France, despite the pandemic. His friends, who are more concerned than he is about the environmental cause, asked him to calculate his ecological footprint.
“The verdict is clear, I have a mammoth ecological footprint,” he admits. “I’m not against making an effort to consume better, but I don’t want too many additional constraints. Especially right now, when daily life is particularly restrictive. But when the opportunity arises, I seize it.”
Just before the first confinement, Gaetan went to a farm that offers fruit, vegetable and flower picking.
“I thought it was great, convivial, delicious, and also unsettling to taste a tomato that tasted like a tomato! It makes you question everything,” he says, as he unpacks his supposedly essential groceries, setting on the kitchen table next to the organic chips a cushion, a Berger fragrance lamp and refill, two tea light holders and an organic cotton T-shirt “because it’s the softest.” Gaëtan admits that this search for comfort, which borders on futility, might be “a way to reassure oneself in an anxiety-provoking context.”
Julia, a survival consumer
Julia, 24 years old, has returned to her teenage bedroom at her mother’s house in Normandy. She has just given up the apartment she was renting with a flatmate in Paris. She was obliged to stop her civic service in broadcasting for theater companies, as cultural programs were shut down due to the pandemic. Her mother also works in the field of culture, a sector particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and is no longer able to help her financially.
“It quickly became impossible to pay the rent or the bills. All my plans fell through. I was very disappointed because I was just starting out. But with my mother, we stick together,” says Julia.
For both mother and daughter, controlling what’s on their plates is not a matter of choice but a matter of survival. Discounts are precious, and any form of non-essential purchase for pleasure is a distant memory.
“We are very careful about what we consume. We limit our grocery shopping. Even for Christmas no extras were possible, and for the first time we were careful about quantities. We quickly realized that others are even more in trouble than we are. So we organize collections. There is a solidarity network that has formed.”
Julia worries because she is among the 19% of French consumers (often under 35 years old) who have had to shift into survival mode. An unprecedented figure that includes 11% of people who only survive, thanks to humanitarian associations. That’s a jump of seven points between October and December 2020. JB