For Americans, particularly in the cold months, dinnertime mostly means home and hearth. It also means convenience and comfort.
In 2013 we are making family dinner more often than we dine out, a trend that took root before the recession. Mostly, we’re cooking with and eating a narrow range of foods — and relying, to some extent, on prepared, frozen, and canned items to feed our families quickly and economically. “It’s very boring. That’s the sad truth,” says Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group, a national market research company. “For the most part, we’re looking for what’s the easiest way out of this, what’s the cheapest way out of this.”
So even though TV cooking shows and magazines offer consumers all kinds of opportunities to learn about new things, Balzer, who has surveyed American dining habits for 27 years, can pretty much predict what you’re going to make for dinner: “What did you have yesterday? That’s probably what you’re going to have today. It’s so hard to break habits.”
One habit US families have formed is eating at home. Since 2000, Balzer said, the number of restaurant meals an American family eats — dine-in or takeout — has been flat, at just under 200 a year, correlating to plateaus of both women in the workforce and household incomes, he says; women are still primarily responsible for dinner, and food is largely a financial choice. Each household makes 900 meals a year at home, from raw or partially prepared ingredients, and supermarkets are working to keep pace with our habits. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates restaurant dining as close to 300 times a year, but that includes snacks as well as meals.
“We’re always trying to help people solve the problem of what do you want for dinner,” says Suzi Robinson, a Stop & Shop spokeswoman. The 400-supermarket chain is devoting more space to prepared foods — not just rotisserie and fried chicken, but also new microwave-ready meals, featuring main dishes such as stuffed cabbage, eggplant rolls with cheese, salmon, glazed meat loaf, chicken cutlets, and roast turkey. Creating more semi-home-cooking options, Robinson says, comes “in response to customers who are time-challenged.”
Americans spend about 9.4 percent of disposable income on food these days according to the USDA. Relative food costs have been on the rise since 2006, says a January study by the agriculture consulting firm FarmEcon LLC. The study, which linked years of rising prices to the cost of corn, found the average family of four spent $18,017 on food in 2012 — about $2,000 higher than price trends had predicted.
Since restaurant dining is more expensive than supper in your own kitchen, “any sensible working family, really, would be well-advised to cook their meals at home,” writes Tracie McMillan in her 2012 exploration of the US food chain, “The American Way of Eating.”
To the extent we latch onto new foods or preparations, says Balzer, it is because they’re cheaper, or quicker, versions of familiar fare. “We’re looking for new things that make our lives easier that don’t cost as much as a restaurant meal.”
To that end, many home cooks have found go-to dishes that save money and time and, most importantly, that their families will eat. Says Michelle Gordon of Dorchester: “Rice. Almost always rice. And chicken.”
“Chicken, rice, and a vegetable,” says Kerri Brophy of Melrose, “though we’ve been trying to change it up.”
Jodi Cohen of Milton says, “We probably split three ways: meals that are vegetarian, meals that are poultry, and meals that are fish. When we’ve had a really busy day, we’ll stop in [to a supermarket] and grab a chicken.”
Chicken, it will surprise no one who cooks, is the second most common “center plate” item on the American dinner table, after a sandwich, or what Balzer describes as “anything between bread,” including hamburgers and tacos.
At the Brophy house, Kerri and her husband, Donald, share the cooking — “I’m going to say 50-50, and he’s going to say he does more of it than that” — for three children, ages 7 months to 7 years. She’s focused on “pretty healthy habits.” They make dinner at home six nights a week, although “since we had children, we’re probably more apt to eat chicken nuggets.”
Brophy cooks boneless, skinless chicken breasts, prefers organic produce, and mostly avoids red meat. But dinner can sometimes be “pure chaos” because of work schedules and children’s activities, and she has found prepared foods helpful, like a jar of pasta sauce, to which she adds broccoli or chicken. One night a week they might use some frozen ingredients. “And I’ll utilize a can of soup for chicken, broccoli, and ziti, or cook the pasta in some canned broth to add flavor,” she says.Continued...