March, 2010

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Fresh, Healthy And Home Cooked — Reimagining The Ideal Meal

Today’s consumers are eating at home more often, and according to a new on-line survey, fresh and healthy ingredients from the produce department are among the most important characteristics of the ideal home meal.

The study focused on shoppers who frequently dine in casual restaurants to get their perspectives on cooking at home compared to their dining experiences away from home; 221 consumers were surveyed about what inspires and satisfies them when they cook at home.

Consumers are also learning that cooking is not really that difficult, thanks to food television and a growing food culture to demystify the art, techniques and satisfaction of cooking. Value systems are shifting and the experience of a meal at home is winning out more and more over the perceived indulgence of dining out.

The Motivation to Cook At Home

Saving money is the driving force behind much consumer behavior in today’s marketplace and it’s no different when it comes to cooking. The top reason for cooking at home was to save money (81 percent). However, 72 percent said they are cooking at home to get their meals exactly the way they like them. The more frequently respondents cooked at home, the more important they rated characteristics like “getting good ingredients,” and “to get just what you want.”

Consumers talked about how easy it was to have it all when dining at home, and one comment captured it perfectly. Healthful foods and lots of fresh vegetables were a major plus for home meals. Study respondents also reported that they like the nutritional integrity of cooking at home.

Convenience was another positive factor consumers attributed to home cooking. Consumers reported that making home cooked meals often took less time to prepare and cook than restaurant take-out that required driving to a restaurant, waiting and then reheating and serving at home.

The Home Dining Experience

Restaurants have long held the enviable position as the destination for dining experiences, yet consumers are talking about their home-dining experiences with the same passionate vocabulary that was once reserved for special occasion dining out. In this study, consumers talked about wine and candlelight with their home-cooked meals. They also talked about not being rushed and the joy of eating with real silverware instead of disposables.

The majority of respondents in all age groups reported they were cooking more meals at home. Overall, 63 percent reported cooking the meal themselves; 12 percent said cooking was a family experience and only 4 percent admitted to bringing the meal home from a restaurant to reheat and serve. There were far more comments from consumers about the desire for someone else to clean up after the meal than there were requests for others to do the actual cooking.

The joy of sharing the meal with others was a subject of many comments from consumers. Older consumers talked of the re-emergence of childhood traditions, yet all talked of the simple pleasure of a shared dining experience, “eating good food and enjoying each other’s company.”

Fresh Satisfaction

Fresh ingredients were considered important or very important to 94 percent of consumers when asked to describe their ideal dining experience at home. Healthful ingredients were noted by 90 percent, local fruits and/or vegetables were noted by 74 percent. Although organic fruits and vegetables have positive characteristics for consumers, 75 percent of respondents to the survey did not see them as important in creating an ideal home-dining experience.

The desire for a balanced life related directly to opportunities for produce. Consumers identified healthful foods as synonymous with fresh vegetables. Seasonal items were standout ingredients in the ideal meal experience defined by survey respondents. There was a resounding desire for well-balanced and healthful meals.

Luxuries such as home-delivered restaurant meals or an in-home chef preparing a meal were actually chosen by very few respondents (4 percent and 2 percent, respectively). These choices speak to an emergence of consumer preferences for a new simplicity that delivers an authentic experience over a fancy dining experience.

Cooking Styles

When asked about cooking styles, more than three-fourths of respondents reported cooking from scratch and reheating leftovers for another meal at least once a week. Thirty percent of respondents say they are cooking more from scratch then they were a year ago.

Making the Fresh Connection

Consumers in this study had some good advice for their local retailer. They asked for more access to local produce and the convenience of being able to find all the ingredients at one store. “Wow” packaging had no appeal when it came to produce where minimalism and freshness were the keys to desirability. The majority of consumers surveyed did not consider their home cooking fancy — just fresh, satisfying and just the way they like it.

Is Produce Up To The Home Cooking Challenge?

At a time when consumer preferences are in flux due to economic change, there is always opportunity for businesses looking to attract those consumers. Understanding how consumers who eat out frequently at casual dining restaurants perceive eating at home may open a path for retailers to build business from these consumers. In fact, the Olson Communications research points to a more optimistic scenario for retailers than the commonly understood “trading down” phenomenon. It turns out, people like eating at home, and for reasons likely to continue even if the recession abates.

Yes, saving money is still the most common motivation, but it is not precisely clear what that means. Sure, if restaurants were free or cost precisely the same as shopping in grocery stores, they would get more business, but the implications of this research are clearly that even if people can afford to eat out, they have real reasons to want to eat home.

We read the research as speaking powerfully to the influence of health and diet advice on consumer attitudes. The respondents were people who frequently ate at casual dining establishments, but the fact that at least some of the respondents were contrasting the joys of real silverware with plastic utensils indicates that the respondents were also sometimes contrasting home cooking with fast food. Although at both casual and quick-serve restaurants it is possible to eat in a healthful manner, restaurant serving sizes, the temptation of unhealthful alternatives as well as the predominance of processed foods and high fat dressings and sauces can make it difficult.

In other words, at McDonald’s, one can eat a salad, but if one wants to eat a burger, the options are difficult for someone looking to eat healthful. Most diet advice today says that eating processed foods like the white bun on a McDonald’s hamburger should be avoided, and, in fact, on a regular McDonald’s hamburger, the bun has more calories — 150 — than the beef patty, which has just 90, but McDonald’s doesn’t offer a whole grain option. If one wants to do a buffalo burger or a turkey burger to reduce the fat a bit, once again, there are no such options.

Even when restaurants seem to offer more healthful options, they are often not what the health-concerned consumer is really seeking. So Subway, for example, offers a 9-grain wheat bread option, but that bread contains ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup. Even when restaurants tout a healthful menu, they often don’t make nutritional information easy to find. Go to the web site for Applebee’s and one will be presented with its Under 550 Calories menu, but consumers find no other information, such as the percentage of calories from fat or vitamin and mineral content.

Because healthful foods are often lower in fat or sugar, they also often require different seasonings and accoutrements if people are to enjoy them. Combine all this together, and it is easy to see why consumers, who are looking to eat healthfully, may find the restaurant experience frustrating.

This may also explain a really intriguing finding of the research. Industry experts have speculated that as consumers “trade down” to retail from foodservice, they would first head to the supermarket deli. It is a reasonable enough assumption; after all, suddenly deciding to eat at home doesn’t instantly give everyone the skill to cook. Perhaps consumers don’t want to think of what they are doing as “trading down” and instead like to think of it as moving to a more healthful kind of eating filled with fresh ingredients and local fruits and vegetables and spiced just the way they like it.

In other words, people often make the best of things and if money is a little tight, they realize they can pick up in family togetherness and better health what they might lose in ease and convenience by eating out. The produce department is well positioned to capitalize on a switch in the very meaning of quality as it relates to dining.

Whereas once this might have referenced specialty items from Europe in little jars and bottles, now, quality is intrinsically tied up with the idea of fresh. Even the expression of support for local isn’t abstract; when Produce Business has done focus groups in this area, we find that consumers want local, in no small part, because they assume it is fresher.

This exciting research tells a tale: The recession has brought consumers to a point where they are now trying home cooking again, and it is to the fresh produce department that they are turning for the elements to complete meals that are healthful and fresh.

If produce departments rise to the challenge with the variety, the quality and the recipes that consumers need to be satisfied, it could lead to a generational change toward more consumption of fresh produce. Let us hope the departments are up to the challenge.