According to a recent consumer survey and an accompanying Culinary Visions Panel discussion among culinary professionals conducted by Chicago-based food marketing firm Olson Communications, people in these challenging economic times seem to be yearning for simple, fresh, and authentic meal experiences and are displaying an innovative frugality in their food choices.

This “New Simplicity” revealed by a recent consumer survey shows that people are turning inward—dining out less often—and going back to tradition. In fact, 90 percent of people polled said they are cooking at home at least once a week, with approximately half of those respondents reporting they cook at home every day. Moreover, nearly half (46 percent) of consumers said they cook from scratch at least once a week.

Of those who enjoy cooking at home, the majority in all age groups—65 percent—said they were the cook. Seventeen percent of respondents said that another family member or friend did the cooking, 12 percent indicated that the whole family pitched in to cook, while 4 percent reported that they had a restaurant meal brought in. In an ideal world—and in their notion of an ideal home kitchen—2 percent acknowledged they would love to have an in-house chef make their meals for them.

While three-fourths or more of respondents said they cook from scratch or reheat leftovers for another meal at least once a week, prepared foods still play a key role in eating habits: 57 percent indicated that they buy prepared deli food and 49 percent purchase meal kits at least once a month.

Although people find the simple pleasures of eating home cooking appealing, it doesn’t mean that they want their food to taste dull. Half of the respondents, for example, cited unique spices as important or very important in creating an ideal home dining experience.

When asked what items are important in an “ideal” home cooking experience, the majority of survey respondents cited fresh ingredients, followed by healthy ingredients, local fruits/vegetables, prepared items from the deli, organic fruits and vegetables, and chef-branded items.

Meanwhile, during a recent roundtable discussion among members of Olson Communications’ Culinary Visions Panel—a multidisciplinary group that includes acclaimed executive chefs, a culinary historian, pastry school owner, cooking school instructor, and gourmet caterer—food professionals agreed that consumers appreciate good food with quality ingredients, prepared in an uncomplicated, authentic way whether at home or when they decide to go out to eat.

Panelist Mary McMahon, culinary director of the Evanston, Illinois–based cooking class and demonstration business Now We’re Cookin’, reported to the panel that her clientele shifted in the past year, as people seek to balance budgets by balancing food preparation.

“Family classes have become more popular. People want to learn how to cook and they don’t have time. Our mission is to get families back to the table,” McMahon says.

Consumers also clamor for the good things in life when dining out. “I don’t put anything on the menu I cannot explain to my mother,” says panelist Jimmy Sneed, executive chef of the acclaimed SugarToad restaurant in Naperville, Illinois.

“Less of something better is often more satisfying and simpler ingredients don’t need flavor-masking ingredients,” says Chef Sebastien Canonne, master pastry chef instructor and owner of The French Pastry School in Chicago.

According to Sharon Olson, president of Olson Communications, the findings from both the consumer survey and the Culinary Visions Panel underscore the importance of culinary basics: high quality, simple ingredients, authentic and fresh preparation methods, and time spent with family and friends around the table.

“Our research shows that home and hearth matter to consumers, in ways we haven’t seen or talked about in a while,” Olson says. “Certainly, things like convenience, a memorable dining experience, and price remain influential, but for most people, it really does come down to good food and good times.”

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