What are we going to eat today?

The impact of COVID-19 on children’s diets

Fiona Watson, Nutrition Specialist
Dini feeds her son Abdullah, 1, at their home in Paseban village, Central Java province, Indonesia
UNICEF/UNI374572/Ijazah
16 December 2020

The question of what there is to eat today has become even more poignant for families across East Asia and the Pacific over the last year. The pandemic has had a profound effect on people’s lives – on school life, social life, family and home life. It has also had an impact on what, when and how we eat. We know that some children have had less varied foods and may have developed worse eating habits during the pandemic. Staying at home has encouraged more snacking. Schools closing or online schooling has also meant no school lunches. This will no doubt influence their health, growth and development.  

To get more information on the impact on children’s diets, we asked families in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand while they were shopping at fresh food markets how the crisis had affected the way they eat. This is what they told us. 

Temporary shortages of nutritious foods 

Some families said that it was difficult to find certain foods, especially at the start of the pandemic during lock-down. Food shops and markets were closed, people were bulk buying so emptying stores, fishermen were unable to go out to sea and transport delays meant fresh foods could not get to markets in time. Families told us that it was the nutritious, fresh foods that were particularly hard to find during the most severe periods of the pandemic.  

Lower incomes, higher food prices  

In many households, incomes have gone down, but expenses have gone up. Because families have had less money, food vendors and market stall holders have lost business, so there has been a downward spiral with everyone suffering: producers, vendors and customers alike. Mothers said that they had less money to buy essential food and milk for their children.  

At the same time, families said that some foods, like fruit, vegetables, eggs, seafood and meat, have increased in price. These are the foods that contain essential nutrients which children need to grow and thrive but which became more expensive to buy during the worst periods of the pandemic.  

Change in shopping and cooking habits 

Shopping habits have changed. Because some people have been living more hand-to-mouth, they have had to shop more regularly for smaller amounts of food. To avoid exposing themselves to the virus, others have changed the places that they go to shop. For example, using on-line services or shopping in places with shorter queues to avoid contact with too many people – even if this meant buying slightly more expensive food items.  

Whereas before the pandemic, families were able to provide home-cooked food for their children, mothers said that with children at home they had less time to cook and were having to buy more cooked food, which didn’t necessarily have the same nutritional value as home-cooked food. 

Two parents and their child in Thailand
UNICEF/UNI358508/Brown

Adoption of coping strategies 

Families have used a range of strategies to reduce food costs and to ensure that their children had enough to eat. They have been: 

  • Skipping meals, especially breakfast.  

  • Replacing more expensive foods with less expensive foods such as swapping meat for mushrooms or buying cheaper brands.  

  • Buying cooked or ready-made food like instant noodles which are cheap but not of high nutritional quality.  

  • Eating leftover food. 

  • Cooking unsold produce for children.    

Some families said that they have received help in the form of food donations from district authorities, their landlords and through the kindness of strangers. They have been given instant noodles, rice and canned food which they have depended upon week to week. Other families haven’t received any help, so assistance has been uneven. 

Children’s diets during the pandemic 

As highlighted earlier, some children have had a less varied diet during the pandemic and have developed less healthy eating habits. Schools have been closed for long periods with no access to school food. Even as schools are reopening, many are not providing school meals as this is considered a risk for spreading COVID-19. As a result, children have lost an important source of nourishment. Adolescents told us that they have been eating more foods like instant noodles and snacking on foods like biscuits during the pandemic. These foods might be tasty and cheap, but they are full of sugar, salt and fat which is unhealthy.  

On the other hand, COVID-19 has brought some benefits. Some adolescents said that because meat was more expensive, they have been eating more fruit and vegetable. Other children said that the pandemic has made families aware of the importance of eating well. Parents have advised children to eat more nutritious vitamin-containing foods to maintain the body’s immunity. Parents reported that while they were willing to skip a meal themselves, they ensured that their children didn’t go without food, and were careful to cook balanced meals that contained protein, carbohydrates and essential nutrients.  

Hope for the future 

The future can look bleak. Families are worried that if there are further waves of the pandemic, they will really begin to struggle. But there are silver linings. Eating more fruit and vegetable and paying more attention to maintaining a healthy diet are all good for the long-term health and nutrition of children. A return to a ‘new normal’ will unblock food supplies, stabilise prices and allow people to return to work and children to school.   

As hopes for the vaccine grow and the pandemic eventually recedes, let us hope that the ‘new normal’ will build on some of the positive experiences of COVID-19 – that eating healthily is one of the best defences against infection and long-term chronic diseases.