By Jim Chiavelli
The Boston Globe • Jan. 29, 2013
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.”
“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.
Cohen often cooks with her spouse, Jennifer, and their daughter, Beatrix, 4. They bought Beatrix a set of child-size kitchen tools. “I cook more, but Jennifer can also cook,” Jodi Cohen says. “I probably get more pleasure out of it.” They avoid red meat because their daughter won’t eat it, and use a lot of canned beans, chickpeas, and tomatoes, because “sometimes I haven’t made decisions about what’s for dinner that night,” she says, and canned foods are staples they keep on hand. She admits to a fondness for packets of Lipton rice. “Stick them in the microwave and they’re the easiest side dish,” says Cohen. “It’s a horrible cheat, but they taste pretty good.”
The family buys a half-share in a Lunenburg Community Supported Agriculture program, so “we get things that we may not have picked otherwise,” she says. As a rule, they eat at home rather than in restaurants, not for economic or health concerns but for social ones. “Beatrix . . . she has her days,” says Cohen. They don’t think it’s fair to take her out for dinner and ruin someone else’s evening.
Gordon, who recently moved back to Dorchester from Brockton, cooks most evenings. The shorter commute to her Boston workplace gives her more time to focus on good meals for herself and two teenage daughters. “I used to stop and pick up dinner almost every night, which gave me tremendous guilt,” she says. She tries to start a dish at least a day in advance, whether it’s pizza dough, rice, or sweet potatoes, so “part of the meal is always in the fridge.” She doesn’t buy many prepared foods. “I used to get the rotisserie chicken, the vegetables,” she says, “but as I get older, I’m getting value out of knowing what the ingredients are and making things from scratch.”
Her daughters have yet to see the joys of cooking. “They’ll make the fun stuff, the chocolate chip cookies,” says the mom, “but no one else is peeling and chopping onions.” The one “cheat” she does use is jars of salsa. “I use it as a base, a lot of times,” she says. “It is a whole lot quicker” than homemade. And while she has mostly cut out restaurant food, there’s always room for her favorite takeout. “I really love Chinese food,” says Gordon.
These families stray from the national average because they enjoy cooking. “Nothing will cause you to have an increased desire to cook a lot,” says Balzer.
Except perhaps your own family’s influence. Gordon grew up in a Jamaican-American household where “dinner was a big deal, very elaborate.”
Cohen, who learned to cook from her father and mother, found it “a fun hobby, pretty much enjoyable,” and is pleased to have more access to international ingredients than her parents did.
Brophy, whose emphasis is on organic, low-sodium, low-fat foods, thinks her devotion to making dinner at home is in part a reaction to her own childhood. “We had very specific habits — Friday night we always had pizza, Saturday night we had McDonald’s. My mother made a lot of use of TV dinners and Hamburger Helper.
“That’s probably why I’m more picky,” Brophy says. “My mother thinks I’m crazy now. She always wonders where I came from.”