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Trying to save? Now you're cooking

Cost of dining out is turning patrons into chefs at home

A class at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Enrollment has spiked, and revenue is up 15 percent from a year ago. A class at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Enrollment has spiked, and revenue is up 15 percent from a year ago. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)
Associated Press / April 1, 2009
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Americans have some catching up to do in the kitchen.

Take Eric Bonetti. The public relations worker from Fairfax, Va., spent the past few years working up to a four-night-a-week dining out habit. Now, like many Americans, he's trying to save money on food. The problem is, he lost touch with his inner chef.

So, he recently bartered his way into private cooking lessons, and now he's making sumptuous meals of turkey pot pie and chocolate souffle for half the cost of dining out.

"With the changing economy, it just seemed smarter to make dinner myself," says Bonetti, who traded writing and editing services for one series of classes and paid $80 for another.

Across the country, the recession is giving extra sizzle to cooking at home. But this isn't Mom's meatloaf or mac and cheese. People who grew accustomed to dining out every night still want to eat in style. Besides cooking lessons, they are poring over food magazines, snatching up cookbooks, and replacing their dingy pots and pans in hopes of creating gourmet meals on the cheap.

Interest in cooking had already been growing, thanks in part to the appeal of reality cooking programs and the proliferation of celebrity chefs. An average of 2.9 million people watched the fifth season of Bravo's "Top Chef," up from 1.1 million when the show debuted in 2006, according to Nielsen Ratings.

Several major grocery stores say they've seen sales increase because people like Bonetti are cooking more and eating out less. And enrollment has spiked at New York's Institute of Culinary Education, which offers some 1,700 courses a year. Revenue is up 15 percent from a year ago.

The courses can cost hundreds of dollars - seemingly a tough sell at a time when so many people are cutting back. But the school's president, Rick Smilow, says the investment pays off in the long run.

"Some of the classes are the same price as going to a nice restaurant. Plus, they have take-home value," he says.

Bonetti resorted to private tutoring because all the classes in his area were sold out, and he wanted to learn how to make Indian and French food.

He's hardly alone in cutting back on eating out. Restaurant visits by parties including kids fell 3 percent in 2008 from the previous year, according to market researcher NPD Group. Visits by those ages 18 to 24 - the most lucrative restaurant market - dropped 8 percent.

There's much greater interest in cookbooks, too, particularly those about slow cookers, value meals, canning, and preserving, says Mary Davis, a spokeswoman for book retailer Borders Group Inc. The number of cookbooks sold in the past year rose 9 percent, according to Nielsen BookScan.

Money saved by eating at home has given some the means and justification to invest in kitchen tools.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says sales of housewares, including cooking and dining items and small appliances, were strong in February.

High-end kitchen retailer Sur La Table says sales at its established stores have risen 4.9 percent this year. The company recently sent an e-mail ad for a set of three Chicago Metallic pans priced at $24.99, down from the usual $55, and sold almost 600 sets in one day, spokeswoman Susanna Linse says.

Food websites - which offer tens of thousands of recipes, most of them free - also are seeing more traffic.

At Conde Nast's culinary site, Epicurious.com, traffic in January was up 10 percent over a year ago to 4.4 million from 4 million visitors.

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