The Dual Challenge of Healthy and Comfort

Lee Smith

Within the last two years, life has gotten more difficult for many families. Covid has had a significant impact on family dynamics; many families went from two working parents to one. Inflation has been the highest in 30 years. In one year, beef prices have increased 20 percent, gasoline has increased 40 percent, and overall food prices over 8 percent. Items families do not purchase frequently, but are considered necessities rather than luxuries, have gone even higher. The price of furniture, appliances, automobiles and building materials have skyrocketed. In some cases, they are close to double what they cost a couple of years ago.

Food is one of the more variable costs for a typical family. It is also one of the easier budget items to cut. As many people found out during Covid restrictions, minimizing eating out resulted in huge savings. Cooking at home and cooking from scratch are also budget savers. In some cases, especially for middle income families, it is not enough of a savings to make up for overall inflation.

“Healthy” eating has become a national trend – organics are up as well as wholegrain, all natural, and no additives and preservatives designations. Consumers are also looking to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

On the other hand, there is a renewed interest in comfort foods. Typically, these meals remind people of their childhoods when there wasn’t the plethora of choices available today, and meals were family affairs, usually eaten at home. Usually, they also were budget friendly.

Trends include entrees such as macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and casseroles. With beef prices very high, consumers are looking for recipes made with ground beef and less expensive cuts. It’s chicken thighs rather than chicken breasts, thin cut pork chops rather than thick cut. It’s more potatoes, pasta, salads and vegetables.

Are comfort and healthy competing trends? No, they are not. The definition of healthy is changing. Healthy meant fresh, without additives and preservatives, and low calorie. Comfort meant filling, heavy, loaded with fat and high in calories. Fortunately, healthy and comfort foods can be both. Potato salads, along with macaroni and cole slaw can be inexpensive additions to the family meal, loved by all and healthy.

The question is how deli departments will address the current needs of consumers? The conditions that are arising from new consumer needs may well be here for a while — at least long enough to cause a change in behavior. It is time for a complete product review. While some areas may have the demographics to support bacon wrapped scallops, whole muscle meat sandwich meats, and grilled asparagus, many areas will not.

Delis need to revive lunchmeat selections. It’s not just whole muscle meats, but bologna and loaves. In some areas it may be chipped chopped ham and turkey roll, although I’d leave out the head cheese.

Salads need to be expanded, commodities need to be refreshed. Additional salads, like three-bean, pickled items, fresh fruit salad can be added. If they can be made and advertised as made-in-store, all the better.

Side dishes are big items. Depending on the area, it may be falafel or scalloped potatoes. Fresh vegetables, such as corn, green beans and tomato preparations will be welcome. And, of course, entrees are an important part of any deli department. It may mean switching to chicken thighs, a selection of meatballs, meatloaf and pasta dishes.

Rotisserie chicken should be front and center. It has almost become a forgotten item. Once the mainstay of prepared foods, it has become an afterthought for many departments. The same holds true for fried chicken.

Marketing should become more of a priority. Recipes are very important to new home cooks. Sandwich recipes; pizza recipes for pre-made pizza crusts; and simple recipes for cheese, such as grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and potatoes au gratin will be welcome. It is still true that many consumers do not know how to cook, although they may be willing to learn. Convenience foods are still necessary.

Today, restaurants may not be the biggest competitor, it may well be the center store because customers may see the deli department as a luxury to avoid and not the place to find solutions to contemporary problems.


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