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Hearth & Home May 2019

What Are We Eating?

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Today’s food trends impact what people want to grill, and the gear they want to buy.

Home cooking is alive and well! A report from market research firm The NPD Group (NPD) indicates 82% of meals are prepared at home today; that’s even more than a decade ago.

According to supermarket trends monitor “The Lempert Report,” 68% of Americans cook dinner more than four times per week, while only 6% say they don’t cook at all. The greatest percentage of people who cook seven days a week live in Iowa, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. While young Millennials are least likely to cook at home, cooking increases among college-debt-laden, childcare-paying, budget-conscious older Millennials with kids.

That’s the good news. But, with supermarket prepared foods, subscription meal kits, Uber Eats-type delivery services, and trendy InstaPot and sous vide appliances keeping people in the indoor kitchen, there’s a lot of competition for the dinner plate. The challenge for specialty barbecue retailers is how to make sure more of those at-home meals are being prepared on the grill. Staying in the know on the foods, flavors, and techniques consumers are interested in, helps give barbecue retailers a leg up.

Dining Out vs. In

Here’s the first lesson: The definition of cooking is changing. It no longer means 100% from scratch. While 50% of home cooks say they spend more than one hour on meal preparation most nights, 29% say they “cook” prepared foods that just need heating. Today’s “homemade” meals frequently comprise from-scratch dishes combined with components purchased at the supermarket deli counter, prepared-foods section, or salad bar, or picked-up or delivered from a food service establishment.

The ready availability of easy-to-prepare meal kits from grocery stores and subscription services; online grocery ordering and delivery; and pre-chopped and prepped supermarket produce, also help make cooking at home more convenient. Using shortcuts to create semi-homemade meals is expected to increase over the next handful of years, according to Forbes. reports consumers visited restaurants and food service establishments an average of 185 times last year, which sounds like a lot, but in reality it’s down from 216 visits in 2000. According to an NPD study, dining out has been on the decline since peaking in 2000; today, only 18% of meals are eaten out.

For many consumers, it’s the “experience” of dining out that’s the draw. According to restaurant-and-bar trends online newsletter “The Rail,” 61% of adults say they would rather spend money on an experiential activity or restaurant meal, than purchase material items.

When people do opt for restaurant fare, they are often eating those meals in the comfort and convenience of their homes. The NPD Group reports the number of take-home meals grew in 2018. Single adults making $100,000 a year or more are driving the trend, but families make up 31% of all restaurant and food service meals eaten at home. The practice is expected to continue, as more folks binge-watch Netflix, work from home, and seek “hygge,” the Danish word for comfort and coziness.

Since many food trends start in restaurants before making their way to consumers’ dinner tables, it’s important to monitor them. “The Rail” reports local ingredient-sourcing, healthy eating, and authentic ethnic cuisines are expected to be major restaurant trends for the coming years.

According to NPD’s “Eating Patterns in America” study, case shipments of plant-based proteins to food service operators were up 20% last year. Not unexpectedly, West-coast restaurants had the largest increases, but all census regions saw double-digit growth in plant-based products.

Top chefs and culinary experts at the Next Big Bite conference hosted by Les Dames d’Escoffier International, an organization of women leaders in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries, noted Americans are moving away from “too muchery” toward “simple foods that taste delicious and are easy to make.”


Other trends identified include an increase in plant-based proteins and vegan friendly ingredients such as aquafaba (the thick liquid in a can of chickpeas that can substitute for egg whites). Ironically, the group also reported growing interest in cooking with lard, duck fat, and butter, as well as “comfort-food classics with unexpected ingredients to make them pop.”

On the Home Front

According to NPD’s 2018 “Consumer Trends in Nutrition Study,” 70% of people say they cook at home to emphasize healthy and nutritious choices. More people are reading nutrition labels, with sugar and calorie content the top nutrition facts checked, followed by sodium and carbs. The report shows 61% of consumers want more protein in their diets, and accordingly, 30% of adults checked nutrition labels for protein in 2017, up from 19% in 2007.

As a growing body of medical research shows the link between a healthy gut and overall wellness, people are thinking about the functionality of food. In 2017, 40% of consumers sought out gut-healthy, probiotic-rich foods, up from 10% in 2006. According to the Specialty Food Association, retail sales of fermented, probiotic beverages such as kombucha, mushroom brews, drinking vinegars, and kvass, a traditional Slavic fermented rye-grain beverage, have grown 20% in recent years.

Dairy alternatives such as almond, cashew, and oat milks are trending, as are reinvented dairy-free ice creams made from coconut, almond, or soy milks. Move over chocolate chips; ice creams are also now incorporating cauliflower, beets, spinach, zucchini, carrots, and other vegetables.

Interest in avoiding artificial colors, preservatives, sweeteners, and other artificial ingredients continues to increase. Likewise, consumers are avoiding “low-cal,” “lite,” “fat-free,” and otherwise “altered” foods, in favor of all-natural, minimally processed, “real” foods.

Five of the top ten Google food searches last year were related to the Keto diet, including Keto pancakes, cheesecake, cookies, chili, and brownies. (Unicorn Cake – whatever that is – was the number-one food search on the site.) The very-low carb, high-fat Keto diet, sheds pounds by depriving the body of carbohydrates so it burns fat for energy.

The diet is heavy on meat, poultry, fish, eggs, full-fat dairy products, and even bacon, sausages, and hot dogs. Shape magazine deemed it the most popular diet of 2018, and says, “it shows no signs of slowing down for 2019.” Whether you’re a believer, or think it's a crazy fad, meat-centric Keto diets are smack in the grilling-barbecuing-smoking wheelhouse. It’s a target group worth befriending.

Almond Milk
Almond milk.
Hot Chicken Sandwich
Hot chicken sandwich.
Almond Milk

The 2,800-store grocery chain Kroger says iconic foods and flavors of America’s regional culinary heritage will be big in 2019. It expects to see more regional barbecue sauces such as Alabama-style white and East Carolina-style vinegar-based sauces, and dishes such as Nashville Hot Chicken and Southern Pimento Cheese.

The Specialty Food Association (SFA) says travel-adventurous and experience-seeking Millennials, many of whom have been exposed to global cultures and cuisines since childhood, are driving interest in authentic ethnic foods and cooking techniques. Particularly hot today are the cuisines of Africa, South Asia, Mexico, and Central and South America. Whole Foods expects to see growth in tropical ingredients and dishes from the Pacific Rim, such as guava, passion fruit, mango, shrimp paste, cuttlefish, and longganisa, a Filipino pork sausage.

Whole Foods also reports consumers are redefining “snacking” and seeking higher-quality, better-for-you snack foods to eat in place of, or between meals. As more states legalize cannabis, some of those snacks will likely be infused with CBD. The growing edibles segment now includes CBD-infused cooking oils, beverages, baked goods, snack foods, candies, and more.

The problem of food waste is moving to the forefront of consumer consciousness. As the issue gains awareness, root-to-stem ingredients, “ugly” produce, and products made from leftover pulp, spent grains, and other food discards are growing in popularity and acceptance.

Celebrity chefs are working with organizations such as the World Food Programme to teach people about food waste and how to cook more sustainably. The group has suggested making more one-pot meals such as soups and stews to reduce the amount of water and energy used for cooking and cleaning.

Cooking the entire meal on the grill also achieves that goal. Grilling vegetables, side dishes, and salad ingredients – or even a second meal for heat-and-eat convenience later in the week – maximizes the fuel used to grill the main entrée, and reduces water and energy use, since there are no pots or pans to wash.

Pinterest reports 2018 searches of its 23 billion food-related posts were way up for ginger water (353%); oat milk (186%); bread baking (413%); eating “pegan” – a combination of paleo and vegan diets (337%); homemade jams (829%); and foil-pack dinners (759%).

Grilling and Barbecuing Trends

We’re seeing evidence of many of these trends infiltrating the barbecue industry. When Charlie McKenna, champion pitmaster and owner of Lillie’s Q restaurants, noticed more people asking about sugar content in sauces, he developed Zero Sugar Carolina Sauce, the latest offering in the extensive line of Lillie’s Q Barbecue Sauces available on the restaurant’s website and through specialty barbecue dealers.

“More people are reducing or eliminating sugar because they want to eat healthier or because of diabetes, but most barbecue sauces have a decent amount of sugar,” he says. “We’ve seen a great response. In just the first three months, sales surpassed our goal for all of 2019.”

Charlie McKenna, a champion pitmaster.

McKenna says more barbecue restaurants, cookbooks, and home grillers are fusing global flavors and incorporating techniques from other cuisines into their cookouts. “You might have an Asian-flavored brisket, for instance,” he says. “People are getting past the idea that barbecue can only be one way.”

Grilling and barbecuing authority Steven Raichlen says the top-clicked recipes on his blog site in 2018 included: Bourbon Brown Sugar Smoked Pork Loin; Cold-Smoked Salmon; Made-from-Scratch Bacon; First Timer’s Ribs; Beef Tenderloin with Ember-Roasted Peppers; Barbecued Pork Belly; and Memphis-Style Ribs. Chances are, your barbecue- and grill-enthusiast customers are reading Raichlen’s blog and making what he’s making, so spotlight the gear to help them do it.

Raichlen says “meatless grilling (has) street cred” today, and he expects to see more of it in the coming year. He points to more grilled and smoked vegetarian and vegan dishes in restaurants across the country, such as Homegrown Smoker in Portland, Oregon, which offers a “vegan barbecue and comfort food” menu with smoked tofu, tempeh, or seitan-based renditions of classic barbecued ribs, chicken, burgers, bacon, and sides.

Other restaurants serving plant-based grilled and barbecued fare: J. Selby’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, offering pulled barbecue “chickin’” sandwiches, and Beyond Burgers with seitan “bacun;” Vedge in Philadelphia serving smoked eggplant braciola; and Kindred in San Diego featuring Memphis-style pulled barbecued jackfruit.

Last barbecue season MorningStar Farms teamed up with television celebrities and experienced grill masters to encourage consumers to grill more veggie burgers and plant-based foods. The company also expanded its veggie burger offerings with two new quarter-pound burgers, including a plant-based burger that tastes like meat. Other plant-based products that look, grill, and taste like their real-meat counterparts are the Impossible Burger, Beyond Burger, and Beyond Sausage brats and Italian sausage.

“People are eating more vegetables and plant-based foods for day-to-day meals, so that will transfer to the grill,” says McKenna, who suggests retailers demonstrate how to cook fruits and vegetables on the grill in interesting ways. “You can grill sweet potatoes right in the ashes,” he says. “The pores in the skin allow smoke flavors to penetrate while the flesh steams inside.”

Bourbon Barrel Sauce.

Raichlen predicts brisket will take its turn in the spotlight in 2019. Whether his new book, “The Brisket Chronicles,” is in response to or the instigator of this trend is a chicken-and-the-egg debate. But either way, interest in smoking and barbecuing brisket is sure to take off, so be prepared to talk about it with customers, offer the right gear, and host classes on the topic.

Interest in live-fire grilling continues its explosive growth as home cooks fall in love with the smoky flavors and romance of food cooked over a wood or charcoal fire. “Often people first experience live-fire cooking over 100% real wood in restaurants like ours. They realize the flavor profile is so much better,” explains McKenna. “Foodies love to cook at home and want to take up the challenge.” Be ready with a selection of wood-fire, charcoal, and/or hybrid grills, kamados, and smokers, as well as charcoal-insert accessories for gas grills.

Interest in pellet grills shows no signs of waning. Consumers – especially those new to wood-fired cooking and traditional low-and-slow smoking and barbecuing – are sold on the set-it-and-forget-it-convenience and foolproof way to achieve smoky flavors and consistent cooking results.

Grilling is increasingly being combined with sous vide cooking, a technique in which seasoned meat is placed in a sealed bag and cooked in a bath of temperature-controlled, circulating water. After it reaches the perfect internal temperature, meat is seared quickly on the grill.

Proponents say this process achieves consistent doneness, eliminates overcooking, and retains maximum moisture and tenderness. Since more grilling enthusiasts are experimenting with the tandem techniques, retailers might want to consider offering sous vide immersion heaters on the floor, and classes on combining sous vide cooking with grilling.

A survey by Sara Lee Bread shows 67% of Americans turn to comfort food to keep them calm in times of stress. Considering barbecue is nostalgic, hearty, homey, and for many, the ultimate comfort food, it could be the perfect antidote for the craziness on the nightly news.

Tapping into this and other key food and cooking trends will help smart barbecue retailers better compete for their share of customers’ dinner plates.

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