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What’s Cooking in 2021

It’s really more about the WHO and the HOW. #trends

What the world is facing has changed many things, including our relationship with cooking and dining. (I really didn’t want to type “pandemic” again.) It’s actually an awesome opportunity to reimagine self-care through proactive, delicious, and nutritious foods choices.

Instead of looking at what may be on our plates, let’s take a look at who is making whatever it is.

Right now, the “getting it to the table” part of farm to table is super important. My take is that moving forward, there are three kinds of people in kitchens across the country (and probably the globe) with specific points of view based on their interests, personal needs, and skill levels. It’s important to note that some people within each of these groups choose what they do because they have to, not because they want to. For everyone, budget, location, medical history, family status, and so many other important factors play a role in meal time decision making. Keep that percolating in your mind as you read this, because the action steps included are meant to work regardless of how a person came to be in one of these buckets. Here we go. Let me lay it out for you the way I see it:

Back (or still) in the kitchen and here to stay. This confidently curious group knows enough about cooking to plan and prepare meals every day. Improved access through online shopping, curbside pickup and home delivery became new pathways to food shopping which in some respects, made it easier to access whatever was needed. Questions like: What can we cook today? What do we want to eat today? What do we have on hand/can we afford/do we like? These people (myself included) will continue to cook and enjoy the process even when they don’t “have” to. Meal planning with intent, choosing ingredients mindfully, from a taste and/or health perspective is par for the course. For anyone in this group, restaurants do have a place. Eating away from home (or takeout at home) is more for special occasions, celebrations and/or flavor exploration.

Think of this as a culinarily creative place to be for recipes and inspiration. Here are a few specific points to consider for this cooking crew:

  • New dishes from far off places can be enticing as we stay home more. Pair a favorite dish that is easy to make with a new side dish. Consider ingredient swaps that align with seasons and/or sales, too.
  • Standard regulars (oh hey, pot roast! What’s up chili!) are appreciated and in rotation. They are there when needed and tucked away when new dishes find their way onto the menu.
  • New spices, flavor combinations and cuts of meat or exotic fruits and veggies are enticing. Clear explanations aromas, flavors, and usage suggestions are important so expectations for these new items are set and met.
  • Well written recipes also help ensure success with new ideas and flavors. Don’t settle for a pretty picture alone when choosing a recipe source. Look for detailed ingredient lists and clear directions.
  • You will want additional recipes and ideas for ingredients that may be left over to avoid waste and keep the meal planning humming along on a budget. For every recipe chosen, have at least one more that uses some of the main ingredients. This way, you’ve pre-planned for the next meal. #winning
  • In addition to reheating and enjoying the same thing, what else can you do with leftovers of that yummy dish? Recipes and meal planning blogs should have ideas to use what you have in more than one way.

New to the kitchen and loving it…mostly. Previously, eating out was an everyday – or nearly every day – experience. Where should we go next? What culinary treat that I want to eat (but never even thought about making myself) will I order this time? Enter the question, “what do we do when restaurants are closed?” Get some groceries, maybe a few new pots and pans and small appliances, and figure this out. A few new reliable recipe sources and off we go! Oh wait…the restaurants are open again? How nice to have that option! On days where we want a break from the usual routine, won’t it be nice to order something great that someone else made for us.

Action steps for this group include many from the first group. The difference is, the details REALLY matter. Don’t stop at the “what to do” – you need to know how to do the “what to do” part. Here are a few other things to consider:

  • Pay close attention to those helpful how-to’s. Step by step videos, for example, are great – as long as the steps and images are for the user, not the writer. In other words, do the pictures help a person actually make the thing, or is the goal more braggadocious, focusing simply on how glamorous the kitchen and food look? The story needs to be about the outcome, not the process.
  • Culinary terms need to be explained, either through a pop-up feature or a side bar. Extra work looking things up is a bummer. Good recipes for the eager, yet exhausted, home cook need to be thorough and thoughtful.
  • Additional details matter. How long can you store the dish in fridge or freezer? What are the reheating directions? How do you prep that fruit or veggie? Did the first step say to wash hands? Does it mention the need to check temperatures for both deliciousness and safety? What temperature are we looking for? These things make the meal process easier, which means more fun – and more likely to be made again.
  • Consider meal ideas that incorporate restaurant leftovers, either as a side or used as an ingredient. Can you make a casserole with leftover stir fry? How about using that extra piece of chicken in soup? Reimagining food helps keep taste buds interested and budgets in mind. Nice.
  • If your grocery store has an in-house chef, pairings for some of their pre-made dishes with some easy semi-homemade ideas to round out the meal. What veggies go great with that grab and go dish? What can you make fast to pair with the already cooked item from the deli? Is there a canned or frozen option to microwave while the main dish is reheating in the oven? It doesn’t all have to be from scratch, and it doesn’t all have to be from a chef. Compromise.
  • Small appliances to make favorite dishes can be handy. Ideally, these will be located for purchase near the items that are prepared easily in them. I love a good cross promotion either in store or online. That’s smart, efficient, and thoughtful. Win-Win-Win.

Get me out of here! This group may or may not know how to cook and they choose not to whenever possible. The closing of favorite restaurants sent a bit of what must have felt like a shock wave through some of these bellies and brains. Out of necessity, trudging back into the kitchen, this group is likely the most excited about meal solutions so many grocery stores have been offering for years. Heat and eat, already cooked, one meal in one dish – really anything that gets on the table without too many steps. Think of it like the kitchen equivalent of a bed in a bag. Everything you need to create an experience is neatly packaged so you don’t have to think too hard for a great result. Aaaaaah. That’s good stuff.

Action steps for this group really focus on solutions and communication. Change how you talk about meal time and make it easy to get it done.

  • “Meal solutions” versus “recipes”.
  • Snacking your way to better health.
  • Meal bundles with a special price when you buy things that go together.
  • Grab and go items conveniently located right inside the entry near the checkouts.
  • Online features at the top of a website or a callout next to a sale item highlighting ready-to-eat items.
  • Remembering (and celebrating) simple, perhaps old-school, complete meals and snacks. Cereal with milk and juice or fruit, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, string cheese and an apple. Popcorn sprinkled with parmesan cheese and served with a bagged salad. Yes – all of these things are balanced, nutritious, and about as simple as it gets. Boom.
  • Ghost restaurants and grocery-based restaurant quality foods are great sources for simple meals with interesting ingredients and flavors.
  • One last, important thought: Restaurant foods paired with a simple fruit, vegetable, or other side dish missing from the “main event” from that favorite place is a nice way to help with balance. It doesn’t have to come from one place or the other.

Where do you see yourself in these three buckets? It may just be that a little of all of these is in each of us. The most important thing to remember is we want to appeal to what we like, meet nutrition needs on whatever budget, time, and interest level we’re looking at, and help make sure each meal and snack isn’t seen as an ordeal, but instead, as a fun respite from the other responsibilities of the day with the bonus of caring for ourselves.

Wishing every cook and every food establishment a healthy, happy future.

What are you going to make and eat next?

By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.