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Stomaching the Recession

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The poorest Americans, Wilde stresses, are very poor, and he worries that they will suffer during the recession. Yet compared to much of the rest of the world, "food spending is a small part of our budget," ranging from 37 percent of take-home pay for the poorest families to about 9 percent for those making $70,000 or more.

He fears families will be more affected by other hard choices, like whether to give up a college education, than by their food decisions. "We have a national entitlement program for food, which has an automatic recession response component. But there is no similar program for housing in the United States. And there is not really a transportation entitlement," he notes.

LET'S EAT IN, HONEY

Whether or not it will change what we eat, the recession has already changed where we eat. A survey conducted in February and March by the consulting firm AlixPartners found that 88 percent of respondents had cut back on eating out. As early as May of 2008, Information Resources Inc., a market researcher, reported that 53 percent of consumers said they were cooking from scratch more than they did just six months before.

Stomaching the Recession

Dining in can be good. On average, the foods people eat while away from home are higher in calories, saturated fat and salt but lower in fiber and micronutrients like calcium than the foods they eat at home, according to the Economic Research Service. Note that this is what people choose to eat: To be sure, many restaurants offer healthful options in their menus, but those are not the foods people pick most often.

"You can splurge on your home cooking and still wind up nutritionally better than you do on prepared foods," Wilde says. "Salt is a big one. Few people realize the problem with salt isn't about salt shakers, it's about processed and restaurant foods," which rarely list their sodium contents.

How big an effect could cutting back on dining out have on our waistlines? A substantial one, if you consider how much we eat out. Households with annual incomes of $10,000 to $15,000 spend one in four of their food dollars away from home. As income rises, so does the proportion of restaurant spending, with households that make more than $70,000 a year spending nearly half of their food dollars on non-homemade meals.

All eyes have turned to the golden arches, the emblem of our super-sized eating habits. To be sure, McDonald's posted a better-than-expected third-quarter profit last year, accompanied by a 7 percent jump in global sales.

Wilde is not surprised. "McDonald's has had essentially a good-quality, low-priced economic strategy for decades, and so they've built up a huge amount of consumer awareness on that strategy." McDonald's, it seems, will always survive, but "restaurants as a whole are not going to do well" in the recession, he says. "The overall restaurant sector is going to have hard times."

COOKING IN DECLINE

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver agrees that home cooking can be a good way to save money.

"If you have knowledge about how to cook, you will know how to buy efficiently and cheaply," he recently told the parliamentary committee that oversees the U.K. Department of Health. There's a problem, though. "This is the first time in British history that we have a large number of people who cannot cook," he said. As a result, he predicted, unhealthy eating will probably increase in the recession.

The cooking-skills deficit is not yet well studied, in part because we have little data on the kitchen abilities of yesteryear with which to compare. Yet there is no denying we have far fewer home economics classes, and lots more frozen, microwave-ready pizzas, than we did 50 years ago.

Jeanne Goldberg says a decline of cooking skills has unfortunate implications for American diets. "Knowing how to cook in addition to knowing what to cook is really helpful in getting people to continue to eat healthfully," she says.

Whether or not it will change what we eat, the recession has already changed where we eat.

Some studies have shown that people who are confident in their cooking skills cook more often than those who aren't. They also suggest that knowing how to cook influences food choices. Mothers who improve their cooking skills tend to use a wider variety of foods, and children become more adventurous in what they eat when they take part in cooking.

While convenience foods have their place in the kitchen, Goldberg says, she could see as early as the 1970s that a simple thing like frozen orange juice concentrate was muddling people's understanding of food. "I can vividly remember going to my children's preschool and showing the kids how to make fresh-squeezed orange juice," she says. "They were totally amazed that orange juice indeed came from oranges."

Cooking from scratch doesn't have to be a complicated or time-consuming activity, she says. "It isn't really labor-intensive to cook dried beans," and there is a significant difference in cost over prepared beans, she says. "But people have to have handled a dried bean in their lives."

"There really is an opportunity to reeducate people about how to cook, and how to shop quickly and make it taste good," she says, picturing a show on the Food Network that focuses less on f lash and more on the basics.

But with job losses mounting and investments tanking, will people even have the emotional and mental energy to cook? Or will we seek solace in chocolate and fried food? Some of the only U.S. companies to do consistently well during the Great Depression were the producers of tobacco, candy, and fats and oils.

"It's not just about comfort food," Wilde says. "A lot of food choices are trade-offs between pleasure now and quality of life in our 70s, and you might make those decisions differently if you are basically hopeless about the future."

There is some indication that people are thinking ahead, at least by a day or two. A survey by Information Resources Inc. found that 76 percent of people planned to make their purchase decisions at home or on the way to the store, rather than in the store. In other words, they are using shopping lists, the antidote to nutritionally toxic impulse buys. (continued)

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Story written by Julie Flaherty, Editor, Tufts Nutrition, the magazine of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts

Photos by Vito Aluia

This story ran online on June 22, 2009. It originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Tufts Nutrition.