Karen Fewell, founder of Digital Blonde, discusses how we eat, what we eat and what we are really hungry for.
The way we eat now, both in and out of home, has been gradually evolving and changing for some time.
The notion of meal planning, buying the necessary ingredients in one weekly shop and sitting down to a home cooked meal as a family, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. It hasn’t entirely died out; the cult of batch cooking has reinvented meal planning for some, turning it into something worthy of sharing on Instagram.
However, it seems that many households will end up throwing out fresh food each week. Research suggests we’re throwing out 7m tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year in the UK, and more than half of this is food and drink we could have eaten. This costs us on average almost £500 per household a year.
Likewise, eating out is no longer reserved just for special occasions. It seems that feeding the family and deciding what to eat have become a whole lot more complex than they once were. Changes in lifestyle, advances in technology and dining trends all have a role to play in this evolutionary process – but where is it all leading?
Eating in and chowing down
Cooking is less of a life skill these days and more of a passion or area of interest to choose to get engaged in. Just as sewing, DIY or growing our own fruit and veg were all once essential knowledge and skills, modern conveniences have slowly lessened cooking’s fundamental role in our lives.
A recent study commissioned by Co-op found that there has been a 54% decrease in home cooking over the last 30 years. Only 16% of 16-34 year-olds learned to cook at school, with 48% relying on their parents. Whether the decline is down to limited time at home, the ease of delivery apps or the temptation of eating out is hard to say. All we know is that it seems like cooking from scratch is no longer achievable seven nights a week for the average household. You only have to look at the popularity of new companies like HelloFresh and Gousto to see what a challenge cooking from scratch has become for the nation. These brands, which provide recipe cards and precisely measured ingredients to door, prove that while cooking is something the nation needs help with, it’s something we aspire to.
Our viewing habits back up this theory, with cookery programmes continuing to dominate our screens. The nation was gripped by the seventh series of The Great British Bake Off and the public outcry over the switch to Channel 4 demonstrates its important pedestal in society. Cookery videos and food blogs are also eagerly consumed, making their authors into celebrities; cue Madeline Shaw and Deliciously Ella. Consumers certainly seem keen to embrace home cooking but one thing is evident – it must be in keeping with the pace of modern life. The popularity of Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals or instant, simple and shareable recipes like those from Joe Wicks, The Body Coach, are testament to this.
Cooking hasn’t completely fallen out of favour by any means, it’s simply that it must evolve to fit with the way we live now. There have been major advances in the ease and convenience of getting food delivered to the door. From JustEat to Deliveroo and the launch of Amazon Prime Now, the food you want to eat is now an ever tempting few swipes away.
Likewise, convenient fast food doesn’t have to mean greasy food to feel guilty about either. Just look at the success of Itsu, Leon, Pod and Tortilla. It’s clear, if home cooking is to compete with the range of other eating options available, it’s got to be easier than ever and integrate smoothly into our rushed, digitally dominated lives.
Eating out and living a little
A home cooked meal used to mean couples or families sitting around a table together to eat, but this too has somewhat fallen by the wayside for many households. Whether it’s busy family schedules or smartphones at the table to blame, the image of a family eating together, engaged in conversation and great food every night, feels more than a little outdated and unrealistic.
Yet it’s an experience we still crave, and its rarity means eating a meal with loved ones is now more precious than ever. So, if you haven’t got the time or the inclination to cook a delicious meal to enjoy together, how do you get this experience? The answer more often than not is choosing to go out to a restaurant. Unlike a recipe, this can be done with next to no planning and everyone is guaranteed a meal they’ll enjoy.
The rise in restaurants catering for casual dining has made it acceptable to have a meal out on any night of the week with the entire family. A recent Digital Blonde study into family dining found that over a quarter of UK families eat out two to three times a month. Eating out isn’t just for special occasions anymore. In fact, simply having ‘time together as a family’ was cited by UK parents as the most common reason they ate out. All of this firmly points towards eating out being a regular and accepted part of family life.
A great deal of restaurants are beginning to recognise this and have taken steps to promote a child friendly menu and environment. Jamie Oliver is once again a major figure leading the way here, just as he was with 15 Minute Meals in the home cooking arena. Understanding that restaurants are the new domain for quality family time around the table, the Jamie’s Italian chain recently offered free meals for kids during half term.
With quality family time being the number one reason for family dining, it follows that restaurants should be prioritising this experience. It’s not just about ensuring the adults have a good meal and children don’t disturb other diners. A restaurant meal should be a shared family experience, enjoyed by everyone, as a home cooked meal around the table might be. So, while activity sheets for kids at a restaurant table may keep them quiet, they don’t promote family engagement, conversation or interest in the food.
As part of Digital Blonde’s family dining research, children were observed in real-life restaurant settings. Unsurprisingly, children enjoyed themselves more when a restaurant’s activity sheet involved the whole family. Enjoyment levels were also up when they could take an active role in their meal, either by watching chefs or choosing an element of it, such as a help yourself salad bar.
So, what do we want?
It seems that, whether we’re eating in or out of the home, a connected, shared experience is what consumers are hungry for. This longing is bigger than any craving for a particular cuisine or dish. Predicting food trends is one thing - there’s much talk of a growth of Turkish and North African flavours and of meat eaters becoming ‘flexitarians’ for example – but the connected experience has to be at the heart of any new trend.
With digital communication making up such a high proportion of daily interactions, human connections are what really make a meal enjoyable. A family unit or a group of friends all giving each other their undivided attention for an hour or two is the nourishment consumers desire. And it’s harder to come by more than ever in this digital world we aspire to. Restaurants and food brands who can help facilitate this experience and bring people together will stand in good stead for the future, bringing the experience back down to reality.
Karen Fewell is founder of food marketing agency Digital Blonde.
This article was originally published in The Drum Network Does...Food and Drink supplement on 8 December.