Restaurant lunch visits experienced steep declines early in the COVID-19 pandemic when 78 percent 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, according to The NPD Group.

Online and physical restaurant visits during lunch increased by 4 percent in the year ending September 2021 compared to a year ago when visits were down by -11 percent based on NPD’s continual tracking of the US foodservice industry. While lunch traffic hasn’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, down 8 percent from September 2019, the increase in visits is a significant improvement over last year.

“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.”

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 percent below pre-pandemic levels.