If 2001 is anything like 2000, the food world will be taking two steps forward and one step back.
We'll be more intrigued than ever by space-age foods that may or may not deliver miracle cures. Our need for grab-and-go meals will only increase. But at the same time, we'll continue to crave those cozy slow-food dishes Mom used to make.
So-called functional foods will continue to tempt health-conscious consumers. These are the products that contain ingredients that are supposed to be good for you, such as soy ice cream and fruit drinks spiked with echinacea. Supermarkets are finding more and more space for these "neutraceuticals," which until recently were relegated to the shelves of health-food stores.
Need food fast? Home-meal replacements are the big news in the food industry these days. "Home-meal replacements" is industry jargon for good-quality takeout dishes from supermarkets and restaurants, more and more important as today's busy consumers spend less and less time in their kitchens.
"We've started prepackaging our bistro meals," says Steven Roberts of Sutton Place Gourmet. "Our customers want high-quality food, but with time pressures they want it fast. It's like a gourmet Combo Meal."
Paradoxically, Americans will continue to look to the past, to crave nostalgic dishes like pot roasts and bread pudding. This is the kind of food that takes hours to create. In 2001, though, those comfort foods will often come with intriguing twists. Sutton Place, for instance, has introduced a roasted duck shepherd's pie with a truffle mashed-potato crust. Macaroni and cheese might be made with interesting cheeses like fontina or feta.
"Comfort food is being redefined in a more upscale way," says Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine. "And if the economy takes a downturn, it will be more important than ever."
So much for low-fat diets. And, in fact, low-fat products could be on the way out - though that may be wishful thinking on the part of those in the industry who love good food.
Butter is back. The waiters in expensive New York restaurants, where many food trends start, aren't as likely to be pouring pools of olive oil for their customers as bringing butter to the table (although it might be goat butter).
The bread that butter goes on might be parkerhouse rolls or a great white bread - a no-no in restaurants until recently - instead of whole-grain or olive loaves.
Cheese, for some the ultimate in comfort food, is in again. High-end restaurants are starting to offer separate cheese courses before, or in place of, dessert. The term artisanal cheeses, fine regional cheeses from small producers, is becoming as much a buzzword as artisanal breads. Cheese consumption in general is rising, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which estimates that by 2009 we'll be eating almost 40 pounds per person a year, up from less than 30 pounds in 1999.
Need more comfort? Regular old-fashioned pies, as opposed to tarts, are turning up on more and more dessert menus.
"Comfort food will never die," says Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. "We thought steakhouses would wane, and they didn't. New chains are thriving. Fish restaurants didn't take off the way we thought they would."
Somehow Americans have no problem squaring their love of homey, high-calorie nostalgia food with their interest in healthful eating. Surely it's significant that Unilever acquired both Slim-Fast and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream in 2000.
Industry watchers see the health-conscious trend continuing. Vegetarian meals are becoming more common in restaurants. In fact, Bon Appetit named meatless entrees the Food Trend of the Year.
Grilling is one of the most popular ways of cooking food these days, both summer and winter, because it's healthful, fast and easy. Witness the dramatic increase in indoor grill sales.
And nowadays you don't have to go to a health-food store to get a range of organic produce; ordinary supermarkets carry an incredible array of organic and exotic fresh fruit and vegetables.
"The interest in organic foods is still growing," says New York-based consultant Dianne Keeler Bruce, who tracks food trends. "It hasn't hit its peak yet."
The older population is interested in healthful foods as an alternative to medicines, she believes, while younger people are more concerned than ever about good nutrition for their kids.
The difference is that these days people want healthful food that looks and tastes wonderful. "People just don't want to give up the good stuff," Bruce says.
Enter the ever-growing interest in ethnic foods - the cuisines that have shown Americans that meatless and low-cholesterol meals can be more flavorful than they ever imagined. Last year it was Nuevo Latino. This year it might be Cuban or Vietnamese.
"I see a direct connection between the influence of food TV and cooking international cuisine at home," says Diane Pfeffer-Neas, a local restaurant consultant. "People simply have more exposure to it."