How Americans are taking back their kitchens

chopped vegetables
© K Martinko

Restaurant sales are slumping, while grocery stores are doing better than ever. Americans are speaking with their dollars and it seems they're back at the kitchen table.

Kitchens in the United States have been underutilized for years, as people ditch home cooking and opt for quicker ways to fuel their bodies. Fast-food restaurants, takeout, and pre-packaged meals that require minimal assembly or reheating have been standard, go-to options for countless Americans.

We’ve written about this on TreeHugger for a long time, urging people to embrace their pots, spoons, and knives in an effort to save money, improve health, and take a stance against corporate food production. Now it appears the tide has finally shifted.

The New York Times reports that restaurant sales are slumping — the “biggest gap in 10 years,” says the former president of McDonald’s — and that Americans spent more on groceries in both January and June of this year than they did on eating out during those same months, a deviation from the norm. So what’s driving this change?

1. Grocery store prices have fallen.

It’s now cheaper than ever to buy groceries, which makes eating in a definite money-saver. Says the Times, “Egg prices hit a 10-year low this summer, and beef prices are lower than they have been in more than three years” (the latter not necessarily being a good thing, as I wrote earlier this week).

2. Restaurant prices have risen.

In order to cover the gap, many restaurants have increased their prices, despite the cheaper cost of groceries. The Times reports:

“Zoe’s Kitchen, a Mediterranean-inspired chain of more than 150 stores, said its sales in restaurants open at least one year had grown 4 percent. But more than 3 percent of that gain came from price increases. Slightly less than 1 percent of its sales growth came from what the industry calls ‘traffic’ — or more customers.”

3. There are more options available.

No longer is dinner a black-and-white choice between eating out or eating in. There are interesting new services available, such as meal kit companies, delivery services, prepared foods in supermarkets, cottage industry producers, etc. Some friends do regular food swaps.

4. People have more specific diets.

With the number of vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, and dairy-free diets on the rise, many people are choosing to prepare food at home because it’s easier than navigating restaurant menus, many of which are not easily modifiable.

Overall, there’s a general shift toward healthier eating that is not consistent with standard restaurant fare. As one commenter wrote, “New York restaurants are expensive, way too salty, and make me wake up 4 times a night with excessive thirst and having to go to the bathroom. Who needs it?”

5. There is growing interest in cooking in general.

Younger generations are more suspicious of food prepared by corporations than their parents were, which has lead to a resurgence of interest in homemade cooking. It’s seen as safer and more wholesome. Jake Bishop, chief creative officer at America's Test Kitchen, told The Times that this suspicion is unsurprising:

"After all, most of the worst trends in that diet over the last 20 years coincided with people eating less at home."

This interest is fueled by hugely popular cooking shows on TV, celebrity food bloggers, luscious Instagram feeds, culinary magazines and cookbooks filled with glossy photos. I'd even argue that there is greater appreciation for really good food, for high-quality meals that are prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients. People seem more willing to fork out money for occasional excellent meals, than for numerous substandard ones.

Will restaurant sales boom once grocery store prices rise?

I doubt it, because as soon as you’re cooking for more than one person, it’s hard to beat grocery store prices, no matter how high they may be. My family of five eats out only once or twice a month because the bill for a single meal is inevitably a quarter of what we spend in a month on groceries.

As people realize how straightforward home cooking can be, they’ll be less inclined to return to costlier, unhealthier habits down the road.

Tags: Cooking | Diet | United States

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