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Cooking today: Ideal meal aspirations and challenges

The Hartman Group's recent research shows how the pandemic has affected America's approach to meals today, making the ideal meal encompass a broader range of diverse needs and expectations than in years past.

6 min read

Consumer InsightsFood

person cooking ideal meal at home


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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, consumer meal planning, shopping, cooking and eating habits were best characterized as modernized, with the iconic image of traditional families sitting down to an ideal meal with “Mom in charge” now a largely outdated archetype.

Such changes reflect the fact that since the rise of mass consumerism in the mid-20th century, we have witnessed profound shifts in how Americans understand the significance of their meals. While still largely grounded in traditional ideals, American approaches to meals today now account for a broader range of diverse needs and expectations than in years past.

As we find in our most recent research on these topics (At the Dining Table: American Meals and Cooking), both longer-term trends and shorter-term changes driven by the pandemic have shaped how Americans approach the institution of meals significantly.

Specifically, ongoing, long-term changes in demographics, employment situations, food accessibility and food values have shaped how consumers approach meals and what they seek from mealtimes. Compared to previous decades, consumers demand more from meals, from better health and nutrition to elevated taste distinctions, added convenience and further opportunities for customization. 

Shared cultural standards of what a meal should look like and the experience it should deliver, however, continue to shape consumers’ ambitions for meals. This places burdens on consumers to achieve an ideal that is often beyond everyday reach when aspirations meet the busy daily realities of limited time, skills, and budget.

These pressures mean that how consumers plan, procure, prepare and partake in meals is not uniform; rather, they approach this process idiosyncratically, reflecting both individual preferences and daily schedule fluctuations.

The interaction between consumer aspirations to maintain meal routines and rituals, on one hand, and their desires to explore a broadening array of flavors, cuisines, products, services and preparation methods, on the other, often results in a dynamic tension that plays out every day in the kitchen and at the table (or in front of the TV). 

Reflecting the diversity of desires consumers voice when it comes to changes they’d like to make in order to achieve ideal meals, our report, At the Dining Table, finds that:

  • 54% of consumers say they want to have healthier, balanced meals
  • 47% say they’d like to get creative with the meals they cook
  • 47% say they’d like to have meals that are quick to prepare and clean up
  • 46% say they’d like to have meals with unique flavors or different cuisines

Overall, having balanced “square” meals is a principal desire for many in achieving ideal meals more regularly, though convenience and taste considerations are also prominent. Consumers most acutely feel the need to change their meals in the area of healthy eating and exploration/variety. They desire more meals that are healthy and balanced but also creative in offering a variety of tastes. 

They also seek to improve in the process of meal planning and preparation, to achieve easier, better-planned meals and less reliance on outsourcing to foodservice.

By far the most prevalent benefit consumers seek to gain from meals is the chance to enjoy a flavorful, tasty experience, and they see the need for improvement related to discovering different cuisines and flavors and enabling greater creativity with food. 

When inspiration for planning is wanting, outsourcing meals or meal components to restaurants or retailers’ prepared foods aisles is a common tactic, as is consulting a wide range of personal recipes, online resources, or familial connections. Different generations leverage social media platforms for this purpose to varying degrees.

Though scratch cooking is an ideal, this does not necessarily mean that consumers want to spend excessive time and energy cooking. While many consumers enjoy preparing meals and have developed their cooking skills during the pandemic, they often seek solutions that can help alleviate the time, effort, and mental energy, such as frozen pre-prepared items or canned goods, to get closer to scratch-made meals that meet their ideals. 

How retailers, restaurants and CPG brands can help

An ongoing diversification of America’s cultures, households, workforce and socioeconomic situations — combined with consumers’ growing knowledge about and interest in food and sourcing, and their divergent experiences during the pandemic — is fueling an expanded set of traditions, attitudes and habits around food, beverages and the institution of meals. 

Consumers still hold on to the imagined ideal of what a meal should look like: a well-balanced, satiating meal that is planned, sourced, prepared and eaten in an orderly fashion and that brings the family together at the table. 

But today’s consumers also expect their meals to do more for them: they look for a broader range of tastes, quality distinctions, health benefits, dining experiences, convenience, availability on demand and opportunities for personalization.

These added expectations and the practicalities of modern schedules and variable budgets make it hard to achieve the ideal meal. This tension creates opportunities for those in retail, foodservice and CPG to be seen as partners in the kitchen and help consumers throughout the mealtime journey from planning to preparing. 

Consumer approaches to meal planning encompass a range of strategies and considerations, and many are searching for ways to incorporate ideas for more inspired repertoires. While consumers have developed their cooking skills and have access to an array of helpful sources, inspiration is one of the most acute needs on which brands should innovate.

It is critical for retailers, restaurant operators and CPG food and beverage brands to recognize and respond to deliver against these shifts. A busier, more diverse and more engaged population in food, coupled with a widening landscape of accessible food options, leaves open a wide range of potential opportunities for agile brands and companies to meet the emergent meal needs of consumers.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.


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