Eating Habits: What People Really Think

A lot has changed in the past year, our eating habits included.

(Getty Images)

The health editors at U.S. News teamed up with the food pros at America’s Test Kitchen to check in on the average American’s eating habits and goals. The results were not only surprising, but also fairly positive. In fact, Jack Bishop, the chief creative officer of America’s Test Kitchen, has noticed that over the last 30 years, there was “more change (in eating habits) in the last two years … than probably any other two years out there.”

And in spite of all of the negative effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the way that the pandemic affected our eating habits isn’t all negative.

The survey conducted by ATK included 1,500 people – mostly women with an average age of 62. ATK sent the survey in December 2021 to their database of 40,000 home cooks. The list is comprised of cooks of all levels.

More Americans Are Cooking at Home

With all of the valid safety concerns that came with dining out at the height of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that people have become far better acquainted with their kitchens. And even though restaurants have reopened and most mask mandates have been lifted, it seems like more and more people are still making their own, healthier meals at home

Healthier eating habits were evident across a variety of key metrics:

  • 45% say they are eating more fruits and vegetables.
  • 29% are eating less meat.
  • 29% are eating less junk food.
  • 27% have reported eating less takeout.
  • 52% of people are eating more home-cooked meals.
  • 39% are eating smaller portions.

Healthy Eating Means Different Things to Different People

Of those surveyed, 78% already consider themselves healthy eaters, which may not be a huge surprise since 87% are subscribers to ATK, but what exactly “healthy eating” means was not as certain:

  • For 84% of people, healthy eating meant eating more fruits and vegetables. 
  • 75% defined it as limiting their sugar intake.
  • 60% said it was eating smaller portions or eating more fresh and less processed foods.

How People Want to Eat Healthier

While 85% of respondents are planning to stick to their healthier eating ways, their goals differ. Two main objectives stuck out: consuming less sugar and eating more veggies.

Tips on Cutting Sugar

That’s an obtainable goal, Bishop says. “Look at where you can make small but important changes. Pretty much everybody eats more sugar than we need.”

He recommends going down from two packages of sugar in your daily coffee to just one. It may not seem like a lot, but that’s 730 servings of sugar you’re having a year, and you’ve just cut that in half.

Another simple way to cut down on sugar is to replace your semi-sweet chocolate with a bar of bittersweet chocolate. You’ll still be getting your chocolate fix, but chocolate that contains more cacao is typically made of 30% sugar rather than 50%.

Tips on Eating More Veggies

Bishop has some recommendations for adding a little more green to your plate.

“Reimagine the plate,” he suggests. “So rather than a big piece of protein, lots of carbs and a small portion of vegetables, think about integrating those into a one-dish meal. Maybe it’s a noodle dish, where the proportions have changed, and so that will get you more vegetables. And probably less meat and then maybe a little less on the carbs.”

“The second thing is to double up on the vegetables and either to cook two vegetables or to cook a side dish that has two vegetables in it,” he adds. And the reason for that is you’re likely to eat more vegetables if you combine two different ones, he says. “You know, there is a limit to how much broccoli most people want to eat. And that if you pair two complementary vegetables together, it often makes them more appealing.”

Some complementary vegetables include:

“From a nutritional perspective, different vegetables – especially different color vegetables – are strong in different nutrients,” Bishop says.

Cost and Time Are Roadblocks to Healthy Eating

For those who reported that they were not eating healthier, there were two specific reasons: time and cost.

  • 35% of people reported that money issues (either food being more expensive or budgets getting tighter) have made eating healthy harder in the past year.
  • 34% have reported that more stress is making it harder to eat healthy. 

Bishop suggests meal planning as a possible solution to both of these issues, since thoughtful meal planning can save you time and money – and a lot of stress.

“I think planning is actually probably the most important skill in order to sort of make your dollars go as far as they can,” Bishop says. But that means really having a plan. “Not just filling up the shopping cart with whatever. Really do menu planning, and think about, ‘Okay, I’m gonna buy this ingredient. But I’m going to use it three times over the next two weeks, and not just going to be taking two tablespoons out of this bottle and then let it sit in the pantry forever.’”

“And it may be that you have favorite recipes that are built around high-priced items,” Bishop adds. “Rather than feeling like it’s a deficit, look at it as an opportunity, right, and let’s try some new things.”

Picking the Right Diet

When it comes to “cheating” on a diet, 76% of respondents reported cheating on their diet at least sometimes, but Bishop thinks that the problem may lie in the mindset here.

“I mean, everyone cheats,” Bishop says. “The most important thing is to look at what you’re doing in the aggregate over the course of the week. And so the fact that you may have had ice cream rather than your healthy dessert one night is not something to obsess about.”

“The pandemic introduced people, or reintroduced people, to their kitchens. Sometimes, you know, maybe begrudgingly, but it really changed people’s relationships to how they think about cooking,” Bishop says. “I think there’s a subset of people who really weren’t cooking all that much, who are now sticking with it because they’ve gained skills and confidence. And what seemed really hard isn’t actually all that hard. You know, there are lots of reasons, but I think we’re seeing from different parts of our dataset that for some people, these are sort of lasting changes going forward.”

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