Soup-to-Nuts podcast: The opportunities & challenges of consumers' return to home kitchens

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Despite continued pressure from the on-the-go lifestyles that dominate today’s culture and have fueled the rise of convenience foods, packaged snacks and quick service restaurants, new research shows many consumers are beginning to shun these options and instead are favoring more home-cooked meals.

The Benenson Strategy Group’s 2017 Food Attitudes and Behaviors report found 77% of consumers strongly agree that they “almost always prefer a home-cooked meal to a restaurant meal.” In addition, the survey of 1,500 adults nationwide found nearly twice as many consumers eat home-cooked meals than restaurant meals on a regular basis.

Notably, this even holds true for lunch with 82% of respondents eating home-cooked lunch at least weekly, while only 44% ate at quick service restaurants and 31% grabbed pre-made food from a grocery store, according to the survey.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-to-Nuts podcast, BSG Managing Partner Danny Franklin explains what is behind this shift and what it means for food and beverage manufacturers.

He attributes the change to consumers’ failing trust in so-called big food and a desire to eat fresh, wholesome food and ingredients that they can both pronounce and customize to fit their unique dietary needs.

“We are living in an age of very low trust. People are more skeptical of big institutions and large food companies. Part of what we are seeing, you know, is a slow erosion in the trust and favorability to large food companies across the board – including CPG companies as well as restaurant chains,” Franklin said.

“Where that leads people is this desire for greater control, greater transparency, greater perception of authenticity. We are seeing an increased interest in foods that have advertised themselves as no sugar added, and certainly the trend towards aversion of artificial ingredients, preservatives – that is continuing and picking up steam,” he added.

One way people are meeting these concerns is by cooking at home, he said, noting, “there are lots advantages that eating at home provides. Aside from the emotional satisfaction of feeling like you are eating with your family and spending time at home, there is something bigger than that … you have a greater sense of authorship, of control over the food that you are eating.”

Notably, the cost of food is not an influencing reason that people are returning to their own kitchens.

“We asked if cost were not a factor, which would you prefer: a home cooked meal, dinner at a restaurant or takeout, and more people picked a home cooked meal than anything else,” Franklin said. “So, there is something beyond money that is bringing people into the home.”

And that is a desire for control, freshness and clean eating, he said.

This of course begs the multi-million dollar question: What do consumers mean by clean? According to the study, it means ticking the obvious free-from claims, such as free of pesticides, which 63% of respondents said was an important food attribute. Likewise, 49% said it was important to them their food was free of added hormones and 47% said they wanted food that was 100% natural.

No-added sugar is another interesting attribute that 38% of respondents said was important to them, and which they are lumping in with the clean food movement.

Franklin explained, “People are comfortable with the natural amount of sugar in a food, but what they are worried about is having companies manipulate or change the natural state of the food for the sake of making it more appealing or super delicious, that kind of thing. So people are not averse to specific natural food ingredients or natural food aspects. But they don’t want to see them manipulated artificially.”

Moving beyond just free-from

As such, Franklin added that free-from claims related to ‘natural’ ingredients are much less important to consumers. For example, according to the survey, only 24% of consumer said fat-free claims were important to them, followed by just 20% who listed gluten-free and a mere 12% who said dairy-free was important.

Likewise, the study shows that consumers’ understanding of clean eating has evolved beyond just free-from claims to the point that now shoppers are looking for added functional benefits in the ingredients and products they buy.

For support, Franklin says last year’s survey showed the top diets of interest were counting-calories, lower-carb and low-fat. But now, he said the data shows a interest in high protein diets and the Mediterranean diet.

“So what can we take from that? People are looking for the presence of a positive rather than the elimination of a negative. And so, again, that speaks to how marketers can talk about the foods that they are producing and selling. It is less about positioning them as not having the bad and more about positioning them as having the kind of good that people want to include in their lives.”

The rising consumer interest in the Mediterranean diet, which 24% of survey respondents said they wanted to try, also reveals an important take away from the research for CPG marketers and that is consumers choose products not just for physical sustenance, but also to fulfill emotional needs.

“The appeal of something like a Mediterranean diet is you are aligning with a certain lifestyle that is healthy and positive and sunny and you can get really excited about that. It doesn’t evoke sacrifice,” Franklin said.

Reflecting on the study’s findings as a whole, Franklin says there are three main takeaways for CPG marketers:

“The first is think big. You really are trying to connect with people’s overall desire for a certain lifestyle and that you are one ingredient to that, but you need to understand how you fit into the total picture of the life they are trying to live,” he said.

Second is companies need to “really lean into clean and lean in to fresh,” he said.

And finally, he said, “don’t fall into the trap that this all about health and healthy life. Now and probably forever, the number one food attribute that people are looking for, their top priority is that food be delicious.”

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