The Ups and Downs of Food Shopping

.A girl’s gotta eat.
The economy might be slowing, but not our appetites.
We’re not eating any less, but we have made budget-driven adjustments to what we eat, how we shop, and where we are having our meals. We have rediscovered inexpensive root vegetables and made hanger steak the new ribeye.

Even though we’re eating out less, we still hunger for variety in our food choices. We’ve been using some of those restaurant savings to buy unusual grocery items and specialty prepared foods that give a bigger bang for the buck. But now, with rising fuel prices, we have to take a closer look at those specialty items. For all the steps forward taken by America’s food culture, we still count on a lot of imported goods; especially on the high end of our shopping lists. It might be time to re-evaluate our affinity for prosciutto di parma and Basque cheeses, and reconsider some home-grown country hams and domestic farmstead cheddars.

Taking the “Fancy” out of Fancy Foods.
Specialty foods used to be synonymous with gourmet. It meant exotic and pricey, preferably imported from France: think escargots, truffles, and Roquefort.
Today’s luxury food purchase is likely to be more quotidian: organic butter, heirloom tomatoes, or hand-rolled pasta. We’re choosing to pay a premium for the quality associated with the care and attention of small batch production of even the most humble of ingredients. Cheeses are artisanal rather than imported. Pastured chuck roast commands a higher price than conventionally-farmed tenderloin..

Drinking Up; Drinking Down
We’re making similar choices when we drink. Wine consumption continues to rise, as it has for fifteen straight years, but sales have been dropping precipitously as we trade down to more domestic wines and lower-priced imports.  Modest indulgences like specialty sodas and teas, where the price at the upper end represents a fairly small jump from their conventional counterparts, are faring well in the current economic environment. And while beer sales are slumping overall, the craft beer category from micro-producers is soaring.

Rolling Past the Perimeter
While we are allowing ourselves some small indulgences, the recession has given new life to grocers’ most basic offerings; those unsexy canned, jarred, and packaged staples found in the middle aisles of the supermarket that form the basis of inexpensive family meals. We’ve rediscovered the bulk foods aisle, coupons, and most of all, private label store brands.

What the Kids are Up To
The Gen Y 20-somethings are entering the workforce and becoming consumers in their own right and doing it their own way. They have grown up with global influences that have broadened their palates and blurred distinctions between mainstream and specialty foods. And unlike their elders, this first “Starbucks generation,” doesn’t flinch at paying four dollars for a specialty coffee drink. Small luxuries like lattés are to them an everyday experience. They seem unfazed by current economic woes as they continue to be the top consumers of premium chocolates, fancy chips and crackers, and quick-cook items that require limited cooking skills.

The Chocolate Cure
There can be unhealthy side effects to this economic downturn. People drop their health club memberships to economize and eat cheap, filling, but less healthy foods. Chips, donuts ,and peanut butter have all seen sales spikes in recent months. Fast food chains have seen their sales buoyed by the recession. A new phrase, recession obesity, was recently coined to describe this phenomenon.

The best antidote to all the turmoil is to buy chocolate— the finest most outrageously expensive chocolate you can find. It costs too much to do too much harm, but you’ll still feel completely indulged.

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