Top Ten Food Trends for 2011

The Food Channel predicts its top ten trends for the new year

Our values have changed in recent years. We now value different things than we did before the economy slumped, jobs became a precious commodity, and technology turned out to complicate our lives as much as it gave us shortcuts. Sure, for years we talked about simplicity, sometimes under names like “local” or “social consciousness,” or “green.” But it was like true simplicity was second string—something that we should probably want, but didn’t, not really.

Well, that whole paradigm is quickening thanks to the economy. As we head into 2011, we see people beginning to cherish simplicity. Yes, we have tasted simplicity and have been won over.

Here’s the rub: just as a good writer understands that writing fewer words is harder than a lot of words, removing things from our lives is harder than adding to them.  And, yet, we see that the 2011 Food Trends are about embracing what may be a little more difficult, because it has proven its value.

Farming. Diet and exercise. Venturing out into new tastes and flavors. Finding our food identity in the kitchen, in the halls of government, and in technology. We value things that are, if not exactly close to us, are at least close to the little guy. The new food simplicity is about putting value on the independent grower, on the person who is striving to make a difference—one farm, one person, one business at a time. In 2011, the consumer is all about buying from a business that is dedicated to creating a quality product, dedicated to doing the right thing, regardless of the size of the business or the number of products they produce.

In that spirit, we have taken a look into the future and seen that it is local, it is individual, and it is valuable. Take a look at what we see.


Food preservation has a rejuvenation. They used to call it “putting up,” as in putting up tomatoes or corn for the winter ahead. Maybe your grandmother still refers to it that way. What it means of course is canning, pickling, and preserving—and more and more folks are getting into it for a number of reasons. One major cause is the concern for food safety. The recent scares over contaminated tomatoes, jalapenos, and eggs have driven people to take more control over what they put on the table.

The sluggish economy undoubtedly has something to do with this trend as well. But we think, more than that, it’s about wanting to hang on to that summer-fresh flavor just a bit longer. The ripe tomatoes we’ve grown in our gardens or bought at the farmers market have spoiled us. We’re not ready to give that up with the first cold snap—another ripple effect of the “eat local” movement.

Customization, whether by choice or by need, is another factor in the rejuvenation of food preservation. Home canning lets you control the amount of sodium, sugar, or spice. You can season those fruits and veggies to suit your own taste or dietary needs. You can make salsas or pasta sauces that are as spicy or mild as your family likes them, or as low in sodium as your doctor advises.

Plus, these homemade handmade treats make wonderful, inexpensive gifts—a significant factor when you’ve got more time than money, as many of us do these days.

A gender role reversal is bubbling up in the kitchen. The slumping economy has hit men harder than women, with job losses in traditionally male fields such as finance and construction. Women on the other hand, are employed in fields that are expected to flourish in the years ahead. As Mintel points out, it’s left many couples with a new balance of power: female breadwinner, male bread buyer (and baker). The rise of the Sheconomy, TIME magazine calls it, and it’s expected to last for a while. For every two guys who graduate from college, three women do. The recession is only part of it. Men have been influenced by macho chefs on TV’s cooking shows, where it’s all about culinary competition, achievement and triumph. Plus, what guy doesn’t love a cool new gadget or tool? There are lots of those in the kitchen these days.

Compared to 1970, men have tripled the amount of time they’re spending in the kitchen today, and while most women welcome the help in the kitchen, some have misgivings. Atlantic Monthly columnist Hanna Rosin has written about the Rise of the Kitchen Bitch, the husband who “lords over the kitchen in an all-too-manly way, with his scientific cookbooks and farmers’ market snobbery and gadgets,” critiquing his wife’s food prep based on something he saw Emeril do.

The rise of the male metrosexual in recent years may have something to do with it as well. Those TV chefs with their adoring (mostly female) fans have made it more than permissible for men to don an apron; it’s actually become quite fashionable to do so while chopping vegetables and experimenting with obscure spices and exotic ingredients. As Rosin writes, men cook “to show off for an admiring crowd or simply for the pleasure of it. Women cook because they’re expected to and because the people around them have to eat.”

But as the jobless rate continues to hover near 10 percent, look for more men to cook, not just for fun, but also because their wives will be working late to help fuel the Sheconomy.

Support a local grower . . . anywhere. Politicians say that all politics is local. It’s becoming more and more evident that the same is true for food.

This trend understands that mindset—that it’s all about eating local, but that local goes beyond a geographical definition. The new local is really about the independent spirit that causes entrepreneurial people to develop new food products, open new restaurants, and bring new food ideas to life. In other words, local has moved, and it didn’t leave a forwarding address.

Instead, local has created a calling card that is imprinted everywhere. This trend is about growing and tending—if someone, somewhere, is personally growing and tending to this product, as opposed to packing and sorting on the assembly line, then it’s local. It means someone is personally committed to it. Someone has made sacrifices to bring it to market.

People have shown they want to support locally-grown, not just for the support of local growers, or even the transportation savings, but because locally-grown often means some new ideas and new flavors. So even if you live in Alaska, your “local” might have been brought back from a trip to Vermont where you picked up local maple syrup. It’s jam you tried at a restaurant and can’t get out of your mind, like the all natural black and red raspberry preserve at the world famous Mother’s Restaurant. Of course, e-commerce and the ability to purchase online contributes to bringing the new “local” to your door.

We also see this trend enacted in pop-up restaurants, where a local person is committed to a restaurant idea and creates a great product, but usually in small quantities. And, they attract people from all over for this “local” experience. So at MVB in New Orleans when all the hamburgers have been cooked on Sunday night, they close their doors. They are more committed to the quality of the product and the quality of their lives than to growing the business by extending its hours. And people support that idea because it resonates with the new independent spirit.

We see it in the Italian grandmothers in Staten Island who make one dish every day, and one dish only, served at the 35-seat Enoteca Maria restaurant. They make the food they know, and they offer no excuses for being small batch, free-spirited, and delicious.

A study a year ago by the Food Marketing Institute said that people think of local in terms of freshness, support for the local economy, and knowing the source of the product. In Local Somewhere, it’s the same three things. An independent producer is creating a fresh product, and we’re supporting that American city’s economy, and we know exactly where it came from—and we appreciate the fact that they tended and cared for it as the ingredients grew and the quantities were mixed.

Sometimes we don’t want to know the nutrition numbers. Politicians on the local, state, and federal government level are stepping up efforts to legislate healthier eating. These well-meaning efforts have led to calorie counts on restaurant menus, bans on trans fats, and a war on sodium. They’ve also brought about a backlash. Let’s face it. Some things we just don’t want to know. We’re okay having pamphlets on nutrition being available, but do we really have to have the calories and fat listed in bold type on the menu right next to our favorite megaburger? For many, it’s just another example of the Nanny State, and the answer is simply “No, thanks.”

Part of the 2,500-page health care legislation passed by Congress earlier this year is a requirement for all large restaurant chains—those with 20 or more outlets—to put calorie information on their menus and drive-through signs.  The law will also require labels on food items in vending machines.

Some are saying the food safety and nutrition bill passed by Congress just this month could limit frequent school bake sales and fundraisers that give kids extra chances to eat brownies and pizza. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has called efforts to limit junk food in schools a “nanny state run amok.”

Believe it or not, there was actually a bill introduced in the Mississippi legislature a while back that would have prohibited restaurants from serving food to a person deemed to be obese, based on criteria prescribed by the state department of health. What, did they have to step on scale when they entered the restaurant? Come on.

When we order the Baconator at Wendy’s, we pretty much know what we’re getting into, don’t we? We just want to take a blissful bite without thinking about nutritional numbers. It’s like that old saying, “if you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it.”

Discount eats add flavor appeal to smart phone food apps. Just as the adorable antics of cats have become the unexpected stars of the Internet, food has become the dominant attraction of smart phones. It seems like there’s a new mobile food app popping up every time you start to feel hungry. You can shake your phone on Urbanspoon to create a slot machine effect that spins neighborhood, cuisine type, and price to help you find a restaurant. VegOut helps you find one with lots of vegetarian choices, and Open Table not only locates restaurant choices using GPS technology, but also lets you know if there are tables currently available.

But it’s the availability of mobile grocery coupons and restaurant deals on smart phones that consumers will really grab onto in the coming year.

With unemployment expected to remain at high levels for many months, if not years, consumers are hungry for bargains, and the new deal-oriented apps let you find them without the need for clipping coupons. It’s the new weapon of choice for the bargain hunter stalking his dinner prey.

Online services like now have mobile editions that allow you to pull up coupons on your phone. Even traditional paper coupon king Valpak now offers mobile couponing that uses your phone’s GPS to find deals in your immediate area.

Savvy restaurants text and tweet about hot specials that not only bring in extra business, but also make customers feel like insiders. It’s a great way to build patron loyalty, and we expect to see this kind of smart marketing to be big business in 2011.

Getting closer to the customer. Go ahead. Look closely at the pizza in the photo above. It’s not food styled. It’s not machine produced. And yet every ingredient on this pizza is real. This is a big business pizza that laid down the gauntlet after listening to its customers.

As anyone who works for a big corporation knows, the bigger your brand, the larger a target you may become. In today’s world, a corporate mindset might be bad for business. If you are in the food business and you are all about getting bigger, well, so is that bull’s eye on your company’s back. This trend is about people’s perception that “if it comes from a big building, it’s probably bad for me.”

We say perception, because it’s obviously not true across the board, but this trend should be a wake up call from consumers to food corporations. Take Domino’s Pizza for example. The pizza in the picture comes from Domino’s. This is a company that, not even two years ago, put everything on the table—their crust, their sauce, their cheese, their toppings—and said, “What do we need to change?” They faced change the way a small entrepreneur does, and they benefitted from the change. They became a big company that acted like a small company.

Mark our words. The more a business grows, the bigger the temptation there is to add layers of enforcement, layers of control, layers that will eventually mess with the flavor, the customer service, and the value. The more a food business grows, the bigger the temptation to do more things and to standardize them for the sake of economy and, even, for your health.

What we see happening in 2011 is that successful food companies will use all the tools of social media to get closer to their customers. They will listen as though it was a one-on-one conversation. We think that means food businesses will choose to do a smaller number of things and do them very, very well. They will be purposely getting “smaller” in how they think, with a customer in mind instead of a bottom line. They will no longer subscribe to the Henry Ford model of food production, but will actually be okay with being less “finished” and with letting the world see a few rough edges.

They’ll be more like you and me, the consumers they serve.

It’s the reason we consumers like local diners, and why we look for places off the beaten path. It’s why we like cafes. We want to spend our money someplace where the owner knows we’ve been there, and where success is based on producing a quality product at a good price.

So, business can be big. It just needs to act small. Succeeding one bite at a time instead of swallowing us whole.

Rediscovering the butcher, baker, and cheese maker. We see American food shoppers going about their marketing a bit more like our European counterparts in the coming year. People will be returning to the neighborhood butcher shop to pick up fresh meats and grabbing their specialty breads and pastries at the corner bakery or bakery-café, and shopping on nearly an everyday basis for the evening meal. Yes, the large supermarkets and everything-under-one-roof big box stores will still get the lion’s share of our grocery dollars, but the year-round availability of farmers markets has whetted our appetite for fresh, locally-sourced foods and one-on-one personal attention. Read more.

We’re rediscovering the pleasure of a steak or roast trimmed to our own specifications and the expertise of the local butcher can provide. Reports of the death of the neighborhood butcher shop in recent years were greatly exaggerated.

The recent cupcake craze spawned a new breed of specialty bake shops, and we expect many of these boutique shops to expand their offerings in 2011, offering full-size cakes, cinnamon rolls, pies, and other pastries.

For many of us, eating honest, fresh and real food has taken on a higher priority in our lives. We’re finding room to grow gardens, even if it’s on the roof of our skyscraper condo. More consumers are willing to take the time to visit specialty shops for foods of a higher quality, even if it does cost a bit more–especially people with the time and money to do it, such as empty nesters and those young singles we used to call yuppies.

Living up to their pledge, chefs join the cafeteria crews. This will be the year we finally get really serious about feeding our children healthier, better quality foods. We’re no longer just talking about childhood obesity, we’re doing something about it. Jamie Oliver came with TV cameras to the “unhealthiest city in America” and showed what a difference one person can make. In 2011 thousands of chefs will be working with school districts to get better, fresher foods on the kids’ trays.

Cities are taking action, too, saying “no more” to new construction of fast food restaurants—and even banning toys from Happy Meals to dampen their kid appeal.

We expect to see more parents visiting school have lunch with their child and see what’s being dished out in the cafeteria line. And they’ll be thinking a little harder about what they’re putting on the table at home, too.

Last summer, more than 400 chefs gathered on the south lawn at the White House at the request of First Lady Michelle Obama. The white-coated culinary artists pledged to work with local schools to improve what’s being served in the cafeterias and to commit to her initiative’s lofty goal: ending childhood obesity within a generation.

In the coming year, we’ll see schools following the lead of the Berkeley, Calif., school district, now that a study has shown its groundbreaking “Edible Schoolyard” program has data to prove it works. A food-centric curriculum including schoolyard gardens and nutritional lesson plans has upped kids’ food knowledge and improved their diets. We’re guessing some of this learning will rub off on parents, too.

Eating your way out of your comfort zone. In some ways, we’ve grown accustomed to a topsy-turvy world and are embracing food that accentuates that. However, at other times, we find the situation just a little bit unnerving. This trend is about consciously trying new things that stretch our food vocabulary and experience.

Comfort food, in the traditional sense, is a destination. You deliberately choose it because you need a reminder of home, but it’s not a part of your regular diet. Comfort food is a personal choice.

Discomfort Food, a term used by TIME Magazine when summarizing research conducted by Stacy Wood of the Moore School of Business, is a reflection of personal choice as well. We have come to grips with change, and have realized that trying new foods and flavors brings its own set of comforts. So we are willing to try calamari salad without battering the rings. We even venture into sea urchin or skate, instead of tilapia. We dare to check out the Moroccan restaurant, and not just the Mexican. We are intrigued by molecular gastronomy on our forks and by broiled kale on our plates.

Once change starts to happen and people get over their initial fear, it is inevitable that more change follows. The economy drove us to change, and it’s as though we discovered some much-needed discomfort to shake up our taste buds. In 2011, we think what’s comforting will be less about mashed potatoes and more about roasted root vegetables. In other words, looking for something we haven’t tried before, and taking comfort from our new willingness to expand our horizons.

Discomfort Food is about pushing yourself to try something new, even in small doses. So for some it may be about some new toppings on frozen yogurt. For others, it may be one of the new holistic diets like the Daniel Fast, that explores the health connection between body, mind, and spirit. The point is that our food choices will be made deliberately, because we aren’t afraid anymore.

It’s getting out of our comfort zone, and finding that reality can be comforting, after all.

Looking for foods that keep us young, strong and active. It’s no secret that Americans are reaching retirement age in record numbers, now that the Baby Boomers are starting to hit their mid-sixties. And, as they have since they first began to walk, boomers will influence nearly everything in 2011, including foods. As Mintel reports, many boomers will continue to work—and they’ll demand foods that provide the energy and vitality to power them through the day. As sales for Viagra prove, boomers want to stay in shape for nighttime activities, too. Look for more food products to make bedroom performance claims in the years ahead. Nutmeg, for one, has gained a lot of press coverage recently for its reputation as a female aphrodisiac.

Perhaps it’s age denial, but today you often hear the phrase “60 is the new 50,” or “50 is the new 40,” usually spoken by someone who just celebrated a milestone birthday. The fact is, we are living longer, and boomers want to live stronger, too. They’ll lead the search for the “next superfood”—anything that promises to delay the effects of aging. We’ve seen what they’ve done for the pomegranate, açai berry, and goji berry. Look for mangosteen to go mainstream, and perhaps chia, too, thanks to the boomers.

As we all know, added pounds get harder to avoid as we age, and products designed to help us stay slim will earn fat profits. Obesity has been called “the new tobacco” by Richard Cope of Mintel. It will continue to be hyped in the media and singled out by wellness experts. In response, more older adults than ever are joining gyms and health clubs, and they’re trying to eat smarter for reasons of both health and vanity.

On the restaurant scene, the aging boomers are looking way beyond the Early Bird discount. Because of their sheer numbers, they’ll expect to be catered to, with healthier menu options—even if they often ignore them. Balance is still the magic word with boomers; they want healthy choices, but they like to indulge, as well, especially when dining out. They want their cake, but they want to eat healthy, too. For boomers, it’s still about overall quality of life.

And yes, they’ll be looking for special offers, too, when they do retire and start living on a fixed income. But they’re more likely to look for deals on their smart phones than they are to clip coupons.

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