Jun 21, 2022 - Economy & Business

Inflation is forcing home cooks to get creative

Illustration of a can of tomatoes wearing a chef's hat.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Despite the high cost of groceries, people are eating at home to save money, using a combination of doctored takeout cuisine, new plant-based products (a category that's exploding) and lower-priced supermarket staples.

Why it matters: What's bad news for restaurants and some fast-food chains is good news for stores that sell prepared foods, new and exotic ingredients, and rock-bottom-cheap pantry items.

Driving the news: While the pandemic got us accustomed to cooking from scratch (out of boredom) and ordering in from restaurants (fun!), the latest iteration is a mashup of those trends: concocting meals that blend budget ingredients with containers of mildly indulgent prepared foods.

  • Sales of pasta and pizza sauces are expected to grow briskly, in part because they're cheap and tasty, the Specialty Food Association (SFA) predicts.
  • Another hot category emerging from the SFA's recent trade show is "alternative comfort food" — familiar products like pancake mix, chips and pasta made from plant-based ingredients like breadfruit, mushrooms and chickpeas.
  • Sweet and savory products from around the world — with an emphasis on countries whose foods are foreign to many Americans — are entering the spotlight. Expect to see Salvadoran pupusas, Indian salsas and Greek honey slipping into people's shopping carts.

"People got really a lot more into home cooking during the pandemic, and that's pretty much sticking — but with a twist," Denise Purcell, trends expert at the SFA, tells Axios.

  • "I think people are looking to bring takeout food home and dress it up in their own particular way with ingredients from home — particularly as food prices and restaurant prices do rise."
  • At home, she said, "they might treat themselves to an $8 jar of pasta sauce that jazzes up a meal."

Between the lines: A confluence of signs point to what the post-pandemic, inflation-pinched kitchen looks like: A place where takeout cartons, single-serve grocery products and low-priced bulk staples coexist, for the convenience of household members who may be whipping up meals to fit their hybrid work schedules.

  • Land O'Lakes just introduced "pre-portioned" half-tablespoon servings of butter aimed at cooks who picked up their culinary skills during lockdown.
  • Food industry trend reports lean heavily on terms like "affordable indulgences" and "virus-fighting superfoods."
  • A DoorDash survey of 1,504 consumers found that 86% order takeout or pickup as much or more than they did last year, while 83% order delivery as much or more than they did last year. 

"In the coming years, brands have an opportunity to make sure meals, drinks and snacks are not boring" as people continue to view food and drink as an outlet for comfort and creativity, according to Mintel, a market research firm, and its "Global Food and Drink Trends 2022" report.

Of note: Sales of food storage and preservation products are skyrocketing, as people use leftovers to stretch their food dollars, per The NPD Group, a consumer trends research firm.

The bottom line: "There is a pandemic-caused meaningful shift toward in-home preparation" and experimentation that will linger for the foreseeable future, David Portalatin, NPD's food industry expert, tells Axios.

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