Before the pandemic, grabbing lunch from a restaurant or prepared foods from a grocery store was frequent because consumers were at work, school, or out and about. Restaurant lunch visits experienced steep declines early in the pandemic when 78% of lunches were prepared and eaten at home, but with more consumers returning to worksites, schools, and regular midday routines, restaurant and other convenient lunches are recovering, reports The NPD Group.

Online and physical restaurant visits during lunch increased by 4% in the year ending September 2021 compared to a year ago when visits were down by -11% based on NPD’s continual tracking of the U.S. foodservice industry. Although lunch traffic hasn’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, down 8% from September 2019, the increase in visits is a significant improvement over the double-digit declines experienced last year. According to NPD’s recently released Future of Lunch study, restaurant lunch visits are forecast to grow by double-digits from 2021 through 2024, but the gain will be 2.4% below pre-pandemic levels.

In addition to returning to restaurants for lunch, consumers have also returned to convenient ways to prepare or source lunch. During the height of the pandemic, when many consumers were home, they had more time to heat their lunches, driving categories like soup and warm sandwiches. Now, with workplaces starting to open, kids at school, consumers working from home, and travelers returning to the road, easily transported categories, like packaged lunch and snack kits, are positioned to do well through 2024, finds the NPD study. Consumers will also look to retail ready-to-eat foods for convenient lunches.

 “Consumers are on-the-go now, and the lunch rush is coming back, which means consumers are looking for convenience, whether they prepare it or a restaurant or retailer does,” says Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “Food manufacturers, restaurant operators, and retailers all have opportunities to fulfill consumers’ lunch needs whether they’re commuting, staying at home, or a hybrid of the two.”

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