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Cooking up some savings More people are preparing meals at home to save on restaurant tabs

When she was single, Mary Curtis was content to sit down with a bowl of cereal for dinner. As a career gal, grabbing a bite on the run was all time would allow. She never had a chance -- or reason -- to hone her culinary skills.

But now, retired and remarried, Curtis is facing doubly high restaurant prices and a rocky economic outlook.

"The economy definitely makes you think twice," she said. "We still go out to eat, but we obviously have to put a limit on it."

So, at 63 years old, the Alden resident is making up for lost time. She is about to embark on her fourth Wegmans cooking class after having tucked pan searing, slicing and dicing and grilling skills under her belt.

Curtis' cooking ventures are in line with a national trend of eating at home to save money, according to market research firms. About 45 percent of Americans are eating out less this year to save money, a nearly 12 percent increase from 2007, according to BIGResearch, an Ohio-based consumer research firm.

But after years of eating out, many people find they don't have a pot to cook in or a cookbook to guide them once they make the switch.

"I see people in my classes who say, 'I used to store sweaters in my oven,' " said Debbie Clark, owner of cooking school and bakery Delish! on Elmwood Avenue.

The sudden rush to buy basic cooking necessities has driven up sales of cookbooks, inexpensive cookware and the basic foods needed to concoct a meal.

Cookware sales have declined in the past year, but items priced at less than $100 are doing well, according to California-based cookware distributor Meyer Corp.

Curtis herself invested in a good frying pan, a garlic press, a meat thermometer and a chef's knife.

Inexpensive cast iron cookware has recorded a 19 percent sales increase over a year ago, the most popular being those with celebrity chef name tags.

Wegmans has started carrying more of its own brand of starter kitchen cookware, a heavier gauge of pots and pans sold at entry-level prices.

"They're less expensive and a lower risk for people just getting started who might not be sure if they're going to enjoy [cooking]," said Denise Pearson, who manages Wegmans' cooking school.

Clark concentrates on using simple kitchen tools in her classes, many of which she sells for less than $5, such as a wooden citrus reamer.

"I could use a $400 juicer for demonstrations, but what good is that going to do people?

"This is all stuff they can come down and buy cheap that is going to help them in the kitchen," she said. "It's really not that much of an investment."

Cooking magazines and Web sites are booming, too, even as magazine sales overall have suffered.

Bon Appetit, a magazine carrying recipes for everything from gourmet meals to fast and easy dinners, said newsstand sales in May 2008 were up 39 percent from a year ago.

Borders Group said cookbook sales were up in the second quarter of this year over the first quarter. Amazon.com has seen double-digit growth in book sales in the food, cooking and wine category during this past year, said spokeswoman Tammy Hovey.

Mary Davis, a Borders corporate affairs manager, said sales of "comfort food cookbooks," covering baking, cookies and desserts, have seen double-digit sales increases in the past year.

"These are dishes that require a time commitment to prepare and bake, suggesting people are staying at home," she said.

More evidence of a return to the hearth is a rise in supermarket sales of pasta, canned goods, baking goods and spices, up by 3.4 percent in recent months, according to Chicago-based firm IRI Consulting and Innovation. Local grocers have confirmed the national trend of rising grocery, frozen and dairy sales.

Consumers are reportedly sticking close to home, not just for family dinners, but for parties and entertaining friends as well.

Both Clark and Pearson said their appetizer classes are wildly popular.

"Eating at home is the new entertainment," said Clark. "People used to book dinner reservations or go out to a club, but that costs three times what it used to. Now they're getting together at home."

Pearson agreed, saying the lost pastimes of potlucks and dinner parties are coming back into vogue.

"People don't just want to learn a technique or a recipe. They want to learn the principles of entertaining, and how to greet their guests at the door with a glass of sparkling wine," said Pearson.

And unlike a meal that is bought, eaten and forgotten, investing in kitchenware and learning to cook have meaningful staying power, she said.
Cooking memories and recipes can be shared and passed down from generation to generation.

"This is a major life skill. You can build a real passion," Pearson said. "Once I learned how to pan sear, it changed my life."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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